Writing Advice #?: Do NOT over-explain your sci fi nonsense.
The whole recent discussion about The Rules of Morphing got me thinking about how one of Animorphs’ great strengths is that is explains morphing juuuuust enough. We can follow its internal logic, but it doesn’t get so detailed that we run into the nitty-gritty of all the ways humans cannot turn into dolphins. We know that your base form “passes through a singularity... into z-space” (#45) and that the DNA of another animal “in your cells” comes to replace your base form (#49). And that’s about all the detail we get.
I think sometimes writers think more is more when it comes to explaining your fake science, because it’s tempting to go “look at all this research I did!” But you can have sci-fi mechanics informed by real science without ever explaining the real science. For example, flip to the back of some editions of Jurassic Park and you get a Works Cited with dozens of scientific papers Crichton used while writing it. HOWEVER, the actual science is introduced in-text as “bird-like blood cells contain DNA, and you can get traces of blood that mosquitoes ate, and if these are Cretaceous-era mosquitoes preserved in amber, then [mumble mumble] dinosaur clones!” Of course, that [mumble mumble] contains like 40 different reasons you can’t get enough DNA from degraded traces of blood to make an entire genome, but there’s just enough logic in the explanation to make it feel scientific.
By contrast, Starship Troopers spends entire walls of text explaining the mechanics of the characters’ armor. It’s mildly interesting, but it slows down the plot and doesn’t come up later. If it’s going to be a crucial plot device that the Jurassic Park dinos have DNA transcription errors spliced with frog genes, then include that explanation. If it’s just a cool fact you read in Stephen Hawking’s essays that will never be plot fuel, leave it in your notes.
You also risk doing more than boring your audience; you risk breaking their suspended disbelief. For example, the Twilight series has more sci-fi-esque vampires, which mostly works most of the time. EXCEPT in Breaking Dawn there’s a scene where Carlisle tells Jacob that he’s trying to figure out how to abort the vampire-human hybrid that’s growing inside Bella because it’s eating her from the inside out. That’s fine — I love reproductive horror – but then Carlisle goes on to say that humans have 46 chromosomes, vampires have 50, werewolves have 48, and the monster-fetus has 48. And the whole sci-fi reality breaks.
With a B- in high school Biology, I know that humans with 47 or 48 chromosomes exist, and that 48 chromosomes doesn’t mean “werewolf” it means “human with some congenital disabilities.” I also know that there are diseases that can fuck with epigenetics, but that altering the chromosomal structure of every cell in a person’s body is both nonsensical and unable to produce the changes (diamond skin, venom, immortality) ascribed to the vampire pathogen. I stop enjoying the scene, I stop suspending my disbelief in vampirism-as-pathogen, and I have a little voice screeching “but that doesn’t work!” for the rest of the book.
Ya know what would be a better explanation? Carlisle saying “vampires are different on a cellular level from humans. Werewolves are similar to humans, but still different. I think this fetus is physiologically vampire-like, and that’s why it’s currently ripping through Bella like she’s a wet paper sack.” How are vampires cellularly different from humans? [mumble mumble mosquitoes in amber] All you need to know is that they are, and that that’s why Carlisle is so scared of this thing.
Angel the Series has a similar plot: vampire-human hybrid fetus starts eating its host mother from the inside out, when it shouldn’t even exist. And during that whole sequence the characters don’t know where the fetus came from and never figure it out. No explanation at all is BETTER than an overly-detailed one that breaks the series’ reality. (Not to pretend Angel is perfect, given that unlike Twilight it’s quite misogynistic in its relative prioritization of mother and fetus, but “nobody can figure out how the hybrid happened” is still great plot fuel for the rest of said hybrid’s life.)
Anyway, just like it’s nigh-impossible to write a character who is smarter than you, it’s nigh-impossible to invent an impossible wheel that doesn’t already exist. So don’t get too into the mechanics of your sci-fi type of wheel, just say “it runs on singularities.” Tell us just barely enough that we’ll know what it means if one of those wheels slips an axis 100 pages from now.
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