Science Fiction, Steam Punk and the suspension of disbelieve

Warning: Pet peeve ahead!

I like to read science fiction novels every once in a while and I also like the somewhat newer genre of steam punk. Both have their tropes and both have very talented authors telling engaging stories.

If you do not know what steam punk is, let me try to summarize it for you.
It is, in my opinion, a fascination with a future that might have been. It is nostalgic for the 19th century and asks, what if we had focussed on steam power instead of gas driven motors? What if we had zeppelins and other dirigibles instead of airplanes? What if we kept working in metals and woods, instead of turning almost everything into plastic?
Steam punk is focussed very much on gadgets and style. The fashion surrounding it puts women in corsets and men in three piece suits. Both genders are heavy on the top hats and the goggles.

Science fiction focusses more on the future, based on our current present. Many science fiction writers of the past correctly predicted inventions and customs we are using today, by extrapolating from the facts they saw in their time and place. The majority of science fiction authors are fascinated with space travel, inhabitation of distant planets and living in an artificial environment.

Both steam punk and science fiction rely heavily on technology and mechanics.

Now my problem with reading some of those works arises when the technology and the mechanics are described in a sloppy way, turn out to be utterly unbelievable, or are not mentioned at all.

For example, when describing a steam engine, it is important not to leave out the boiler part where someone has to shovel coal in to heat up the water to make the steam. A steam engine is not a self contained thing that works like a perpetuum mobile. You have to put some fuel in to get some energy out.

Also, you can’t just fold up a zeppelin after use, because it is a rigid airship. Neither can you go light speed with it, because it is propelled by wind.

Mistakes like these pull me right out of my reading experience, because they destroy my suspension of disbelieve in a major way.

“Why is this so important?” You might ask. “It’s all made up anyway.”

Because when I read these genres, I want to enter a fictitious universe that still somehow makes sense within the laws of physics.
I want to see that the authors have thought the eventualities through and that they put some effort into their research. I don’t want to be pulled through illogical happenstances just to move the story forward.

I find this especially important for these two genres, because there is so much emphasis on technology and mechanics on the whole, that I really wonder why someone would write in them, if they aren’t at least a little bit interested in the practical side of things.

On the other hand, I revel in those novels, where authors have paid attention to detail. Where they do not have air bubbles on the moon and where an arc welder is only done welding after he or she removed the slag.

These things make novels much more enjoyable to me. I might be a little picky there, but these are my standards.

How about you? Do you care if the science and or mechanics are right when you read a book in these genres? Or do you focus more on the story and ignore the gadgets and surroundings?

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About scratchingcat

Writer, mother, friend.
This entry was posted in Fiction, Rants and such, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Science Fiction, Steam Punk and the suspension of disbelieve

  1. Suspension Of Disbelief
    I’m a fan of science fiction and need the future I’m reading about to be at the very least feasible. Near future science fiction has to be thoroughly rooted in physics as we understand it. Far future, or alien technology can be surprising and hopefully thought provoking, but still needs possible. Not wizards and demons, that’s a whole different genre! I get really annoyed at the sloppy lets make shit up occasionally used by the likes of Star trek and Doctor Who. You know the “lets reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, and connect it to the hyperspace flanger” kind of thing! Good science fiction expands my imagination, bad science fiction just annoys. Same is true of all genres I guess.

  2. ChelseaIRL says:

    if a story’s really good, then I can forgive a few scientific impossibilities, but I always appreciate it when an author does their homework. it feels like they really care and makes me care more about their story.

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