Thursday, November 15, 2012

Curmudgeon's Corner: Worldbuilding consistency: SF vs. fantasy

The Passage (The Passage, #1)Christina's post last week made me think more about worldbuilding--and in particular the consistency of worldbuilding. If your book is set in this world, it needs to obey the laws of physics and biology, not to mention what I know about psychology, sociology, economics, and so on. I mean, I don't know much social science, so I'm not too picky on that score. But if you postulate that in your near-future US society, people are going to be A-OK with sacrificing sixteen-year-old kids, like Neal Shusterman does in Unwind, I'm going to be a little cranky even if your book is otherwise pretty decent. And I'm really picky about physics and math, because that happens to be my thing. If your plot ignores basic mathematics, like basically every vampire book ever, I'm going to get really cranky. I'm going to pick on The Passage(Cronin) because it's the one I read most recently, but look: if vampires have to turn people into vampires every couple nights or so to survive themselves, this is an exponential function with a rapid doubling time. Mathematically, this basically means that everyone is gonna be vampires really soon, and then they'll all starve. This is why I can't read vampire books any longer.

If your book is set in another world, I suddenly become much less picky. I'd like it to be consistent -- no breaking rules that were previously set forth in the book. But that's a pretty low bar, and I don't even insist on that. The Harry Potter books, for instance -- have you ever tried to figure out rules or laws underlying the magic system in the Harry Potter books? Or figured out how the economy works? It'll give you a headache, because it really isn't set up consistently. And yet I totally love these books. 

I think I have much more stringent requirements for science fiction than for fantasy because I was brought up on all kinds of whimsical fantasies like Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, that kind of thing -- where fantastical aspects were piled on top of one another without worrying too much about consistency. My SF upbringing, on the other hand, involved the hard-science masters like Asimov and Clarke: people who tried to make their science as correct and consistent as possible. And I guess I retained that even as I got older.

I know people, though, who are just as picky about their fantasy as their SF, and some who are more picky. How about you? Do you care about consistency? If so, are there particular genres, or topics, that you really care about, the way I do about science and math?

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  1. There are so many things to care in a book, not just the plot, but the consequences of what the characters will do and if it's logically or it'll break the line between real life and fiction. When I read a book, such as vampires, like you, almost all the characters become vampires and it's crazy, because it isn't just them but thousand of people they will convert. I'm very picky and a bit maniac, I just want everything to be perfect in the book I'm writing.


    1. HEE! I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets crazy about vampires!

  2. Thank you for another interesting post. I was most interested by your thoughts on this, although as someone who is not into Physics nor Mathematics i do not usually notice or detect (or even think about) any of the above! As long as the narrative is written well so that the new world is made belivable as possible to the reader, then i am quite happy to concider it as so when reading the story and loosing myself within the authors world. I suppose that being used to reading a lot of fantasy fiction means that i take the weird, wonderful and bizzar as commonplace (for an example look at Terry Pratchett and his Discworld!!).I find that even in fantasy as long as it has an underlying reference to us and our 'real' lives then i am able to connect to it and belive - such as human emotions are consistant regardless of the creature (ie. a shade or Wizard), and how they must survive.

    1. Oh, I love Discworld!

      But yes, it's most important to be consistent with respect to human emotions, I quite agree!

  3. I think the biggest issue as to whether I will overlook an inconsistency is if it pulls me out of the story and makes me question the author's credibility or if it makes me think and wonder about unexplored possibilities and draws me deeper into the story. I actually like it when what might be an inconsistency in our world pops up in a SF or fantasy story and it makes me question what is taken for granted in the real world. What I hate though is the use of an inconsistency to solve a plot problem. Plots must unfold in a natural way and you can't cheat and bend rules when it's convenient just to get out of a corner. For me, the best bending of the rules are subtle and almost easily missed in a story. They chew at your subconscious in a way that makes you dream about them at night.

  4. For me it's not world inconsistencies so much as character inconsistencies. Maybe it's because I like to analyze and study people, but if a character does something left-field that hasn't held true for the way they've been acting it really bothers me. Or if the character claims to be one thing (independent/free thinking) but shows that they're the opposite; I won't be able to finish reading the book.