On not caring about how things work

Between a bad stomach and too much Diet Coke yesterday (I was mindlessly guzzling it as I read that Sayers book--I'm sure Dorothy is getting tired of being blamed for all my problems), I didn't fall asleep until the not-so-wee hours of the morn. In fact, since I am looking after the kids tomorrow, I fell asleep this morning at roughly the same time I'm going to be expected to be up-and-at-them tomorrow morning. Won't that be fun.

This is obviously the sort of day where, if I am really lucky, I might be able to read through half a chapter of Trust before nodding off. So I'm going to prattle on here about a writing topic, namely the divide among science fiction readers between those who care how stuff works, and those who don't.

Not surprisingly, I'm in the latter group. In fact, I was a little surprised to discover the first group existed. I found that out when got very involved in the Firefly fandom. One day Joss Whedon mentioned in an interview that he didn't care how the ship's engine worked, and people were shocked--absolutely shocked. How can he not care? they asked. How is that possible? (And yet, they clearly liked a story written by a man who said, "If you start asking me science questions, I’m going to cry.")

I realized then that these people are mostly engineers, and are therefore rather out of touch with the fact that the vast majority of humanity doesn't care how any engine works, including the engines that they use every day. Seriously, what percentage of the population actually understands how the internal-combustion engine in their car works? And that's, you know, a real engine that causes real people real problems if it doesn't work.

Me, I read science fiction because it's fiction--there are some interesting stories there. I was an English major, I worked in publishing, and I read all kinds of fiction, all the time. But there are people out there who pretty much just read engineering manuals, and what they are looking for in their science fiction is a really interesting engineering manual.

I consider the books that read like engineering manuals to be an incredible waste of my time, in no small part because the science--the engineering, the physics, whatever--isn't real. So, for example, when the exciting chase at the thrilling conclusion of the otherwise fine On Basilisk Station is interrupted for page after page of explanation of that book's fake physics, I get very annoyed. This book is fiction, yes? The physics are also fiction, yes? Ergo, the fictional physics should serve the fictional story, not stop it dead in its tracks because someone is operating under the delusion that the reader actually needs to learn this stuff. (Because fake physics has so many useful applications in real life? Seriously, not since the dragon attack at the end of Beowulf was interrupted to give the reader the genealogy of Beowulf's assistant has a story gotten so far off track at so inopportune a moment.)

I think it's very important that speculative fiction has rules, otherwise everything just falls into mush. But it's also easy to get caught up in explaining and explaining stuff that is simply bullshit, like faster-than-light drives or wormholes. Even the way real phenomenon, like time dilation, are used in fiction doesn't make much sense if you think about it--if you travel at, say, 90% of the speed of light, the time-dilation effects are way less than if you travel at 99% of the speed of light, so what's the rush? Plus, how do you speed up and slow down a ship that much without turning the people in it into goo? (I will just say for the record that the creators of the Alpha Drive really had to work really hard to solve that problem. No, I do not know how they did it. And unless it's important to my story, I don't care.)