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I’ve noticed something worth avoiding in writing anything approaching good speculative fiction: never explain too much, be economic with any explanation you do, and only explain, by showing, not telling, what actually needs explaining.
I notice a failure to do that in some of my earlier fiction of even a few months ago, much less from years back, not consistently, but often enough to cause concern. Mostly it happens with a piece that I spend only a couple of hours on, in total writing, editing, and proofreading time; almost always a hastily written piece or two when a deadline looms. That’s bad form when it occurs.
But what sort of things ought not to be explained?
For example, there are the Heisenberg compensators of Star Trek used by transporter technology, that offer a nod to the quantum mechanical problems of teleportation without being explained as to how they work, which is good use of rubber science technobabble that adds to, not subtracts from, the feel of the story.
It’s good to acknowledge real science even when not strictly conforming to it. It’s one of the hallmarks of any good SF franchise.
Another would be the Holzmann effect of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, using variations of that phenomenon’s name in different books of the series. It’s cleverly never explained in any detail, but serves the background and feel of realism of the setting very well. Again, a nod to science without spoiling the fun with an explanation which would likely backfire as seeming contrived and even less consistent with real-world science. As a plot device permitting rapid space travel and personal force-screens, enabling the plot by fostering willing suspension of disbelief, it works well for that reason.
From my own writing, like my Gods of Terra setting, both old timeline and the current reboot, there’s the Kurtz-Dunar effect, named for scientists Raoul Kurtz of Terra and Ranan Dunar of Sirug, permitting cheap, safe, and efficient surface-to-orbit and interstellar travel, and personal teleportation via short-range warps in space-time, among other things.
It’s annoying when I see something over-explained elsewhere and annoying when I do it myself as well, especially the latter.
After all, if I really knew how the Kurtz-Dunar effect, or ancient relic technology like hypershards, actually worked, I wouldn’t be using them as plot devices in my fiction, but instead building and testing working prototypes under contract from DARPA! and I am quite obviously not doing that . . .
So, the more shone, not told, and the more economic that is, only what furthers the story, the better.
That’ll do for me, one story at a time, no matter what region of space-time, and which space-time continuum, is involved.
As a science fiction fan who’s written fiction of my own, and this blog and elsewhere, I like to design my own aliens. Recently I got a comment on an older post of mine, and since I don’t normally respond to comments on posts more than two weeks old, I thought I’d instead respond here.
Here’s the comment:
I searched this topic to try to find a site that would tell me not what to do as I write my first alien contact book.
I have never been on this site before, and don’t know if replying is possible, but if so, can you reply and tell me what not to do? Or someone, anyone. I’m trying to create an interesting diverse alien culture for my already created human hybrid race to interact with positively, but with some difficulties. My main character is a language communication expert.
So, what not to do when designing aliens (plausible, however fictional)? Here are some quick tips:
- Don’t succumb to humans-in-funny-suits syndrome: Aliens in looks should be aliens in mentality. At the very least, especially with obvious nonhumans, give them some sort of outstanding but plausible psychological or cultural distinctions from other species that will not only set them apart, but make them memorable to the readers of whatever fiction you’re writing. Remember: aliens will have evolved in a different set of selective pressures than humans, and this will be true of variant humans as well. This fact will shape their minds and societies as it shapes their bodies. Build them accordingly, but try to avoid stereotyping them (My, I wonder whose first mate and engineer that Wookie is?). This hold even if the aliens have a hive-mind, as there will probably be a functional division of labor in the species.
- Unless for historical or other good reasons, like prior contact with humans in the setting, avoid having the aliens automatically know human languages. I highly recommend inventing the alien’s own language, at least a few useful phrases at start. It’s not only a good exercise, but fun as well. I’m currently designing the language of my own alien humans, the Kai’Siri, and it’s a blast!
- Don’t give them too much in the way of weird powers. Not only is this bad from a role-playing perspective, as it unbalances the species in play and relegates them to mostly non-player character status, and without limits it’s boring to readers. the alien tech should not be too rubber-sciencey and not over-explained — Remember: A good explanation is better than no explanation, but none at all is better than a contrived and implausible explanation. The Holtzman effect in Dune is a good example of a rubber-science plot device that was not over-explained nor implausibly so.
- Aside from weird powers, avoid an otherwise implausible biology for your species, unless you are writing Weird Tale fiction where impossible Things That Must Not Be Named™ have good reason to exist in the story (It’s horror, after all.). Even in Lovecraft’s own fiction, like At The Mountains of Madness, the Old Ones were given reasonably plausible (using the known science of the time) traits and were relatively well thought out. They did, after all, make it into Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials! [an update] Also bear in mind that most alien species will not be able to breed with humans unless human variants themselves, and even that will be iffy with extreme deviations from the norm.
Conclusion: These are a few key things to bear in mind in creating aliens, and their use ought to take some of the headache out of the process. I hope this answers your questions, and if not, I can always write follow-up posts on this, one of my favorite topics.
Damning evidence, with some good justification of his argument to consider…