August 11th, 2009

writing everywhere

Good handwavium vs. bad fake science

I was talking to a friend about the TV show Eureka (which I really like, by the way, especially in the first part of S3), and I was saying that they mostly stayed on the side of "good handwavium" for me rather than "bad fake science." She, quite reasonably, asked how I drew that line. I think one of the main points for me is that if the science fictional element is not particularly plausible with what we currently know, vagueness about the technical details is a feature, not a bug. Writing books and classes on writing often teach us to be more specific in our writing so that it's more vivid, but sometimes you don't want it to be vivid, because you don't want the reader (or viewer) to have a vivid picture of why exactly this will not work and is in fact ridiculous to even contemplate.

There are, of course, things that cannot be vague enough to be anything but bad science. "The electromagnetic force doesn't work any more!" Well, if the electroweak force suddenly stopped working, we would all die more or less immediately. How do you think your neurons work? How do you think ionic bonds work, for heaven's sake? So you need to actually do the research and find out that building a Faraday cage is what you want rather than the destruction of the universe as we know it--simply saying, "I dunno, it just works that way," is not enough there.

Also, if you have something with problems, listing the problems in character conversation can sometimes get you through. "It took us years to figure out how to deal with the momentum problem," a scientist can say casually, shaking her head at the amount of effort required, or, "The toxicity of the byproduct nearly had us beat," and there you go, you have acknowledged that this is a problem, you have not had to become a Nobel-prize-winning scientist to write your story, on you go. (I mean, if you feel like becoming a Nobel-prize-winning scientist, that's totally fine, and don't let me stop you. I just feel that it shouldn't be a requirement.)

Anybody else have some ideas about writing good handwavium vs. bad fake science? Striking examples in either direction?