Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Wells Rules

While Star Trek took its technology seriously, it did not allow technology to be its master, or the master of its future. Apart from what this said about the future, it was essential to dramatic television . “Drama is people,” GR said. “Too much of science fiction is about gadgets and not about people…. I’m going to try to make it as scientifically accurate as possible and write [these scripts] the way we wrote the old Playhouse 90.”

But this is also a description of the best science fiction, using rules described by H.G. Wells in a preface to his collected science fiction novels in 1934. First, there was the new fantastic element the story introduces, like a time machine, or invaders from Mars. Wells called it “the magic trick.” The trick itself has to be at least plausible, and science provided the rationale. Wells called it “an ingenuous use of scientific patter…as near actual theory as possible.”

It also helped if this element could be “explained in commonplace terms.” So Wells could suggest that the time machine moves you through time like a railroad train moves you through space, or a balloon moves against gravitation and takes you into the air. He could describe what it looked like in familiar terms---nickel bars, quartz rods, ivory and brass--without needing to really say how a time machine would actually work.

But in addition to some intrinsic plausibility, the trick worked best if it is surrounded by other elements of the ordinary---by the familiar. You must “domesticate the impossible hypothesis,” Wells wrote. It was also important to limit the number of magic tricks, Wells warned, or the whole reality would be called into question. “Nothing remains interesting when anything may happen.”

Part of creating a credible world was also a key to science fiction’s function: integrating the human into the science and the fiction by placing believable people in plausible if unprecedented circumstances. “Then it becomes human,” Wells wrote. “’How would you feel and what might not happen to you’ is the typical question, if for instance…you became invisible?”

The intent finally is “to keep everything human and real…the whole interest becomes the interest of looking at human feelings and human ways, from the new angle that has been acquired.”

The fantastic would at times be the magic trick, and at other times part of the reality. Although not as well known a name as Wells, another British science fiction author (and Wells devotee) was Olaf Stapledon. While Wells originated most of the basic ideas sci-fi authors would use forever after, Stapledon contributed one powerful and lasting one: the galactic history, following species and civilizations across eons of time. Most sci-fi writers have read Stapledon with awe, and that includes Roddenberry, who specifically read his work while he prepared Star Trek, and then again as he was preparing Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what Stapledon wrote about the place of the fantastic in tales of space and time:

“Had I chosen matter in which there was nothing whatever of the fantastic, its very plausibility would have rendered it implausible,” Stapledon wrote in his preface to Last and First Men (one of the novels Roddenberry read). “For one thing at least is almost certain about the future, namely, that very much of it will be such as we should call incredible.”

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