The Rules of SciFi. Yes, there are rules, people!
But isn’t that the point of SciFi!? You can bend whatever rules you like, right? It’s Earth! It’s not Earth! You just thought it was Earth, silly you.
While the general thought process in SciFi is that all bets are off, the fact is just the opposite is true. Not only are there rules, there are countless rules. And that’s what makes SciFi so good.
Think on this: how much would an episode of the old Nimoy/Shatner Star Trek suck if the red-shirt didn’t bite it? What if you made it to the end of the hour and no one saved the day with a new chemical/machine/debate that they pulled out of thin air? There’s no fun in that. We watch because we know that the crew of the Enterprise will sacrifice one of their own – we don’t know his name, and frankly, neither do they – to save the day. There’s less variation here than in romance novel plots, but we keep coming back – because Star Trek was one of the best when it came to the rules.
One of my favorite rule-followers is Orson Scott Card. No matter where he sets his story (space – Ender’s Game, Earth/time travel – Enchantment,) it’s his deep and abiding commitment to the code that makes him just so good. Okay, he’s a great writer and the stories are pretty interesting, but you wouldn’t pick up the second book if he didn’t follow the rules.
Sometimes it seems rules are made to be broken. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, anyone? But Joss Whedon staked his claim in the opening scene and followed the whole thing through. What’s ironic about Whedon (and oh-so-fun) is that ‘break the rules’ was his major rule. He kept us on the edge of our seats for seven years by breaking everyone else’s, but never his own.
And that’s the point. Good SciFi does have a strict code. It’s a fantastic genre exactly because the author gets to determine that code, but he has to follow it. (I’m going to set a rule here and use ‘he’ instead of the obnoxious ‘s/he’. Don’t be offended, ladies. I think of ‘he’ as it exists in many languages: as the gender non-specific. Sorry guys, only chicks get a pronoun just for them.) He can insert new rules into the gaps as he goes, (like my inserting ‘he’ just above) but he cannot violate the rules he has already set in motion. (Notice there were no previous s/he’s here.)
So that’s Rule #1 – do not violate your own rules.
This may be the only real rule to SciFi. And that may be the secret to all its beauty. We can fly. We can live underwater. We can see the future and distant stars. We can hail over our oppressors and we can make them as horrid as we wish before we squash them like bugs. We can even make them actual bugs. We can eliminate gravity, food, and anyone wearing the color red. But we cannot break our own rules.
Though Whedon lived and breathed by breaking the rules, he only broke history’s. In his world, it was the blonde cheerleader who was the menace and demons could be less than a foot tall. Buffy was a teenager and acted like one. Though the world was bent, it was still our world, and it was always seamlessly right below the surface of wherever-you-were. Xander never took flight and Willow sang only passably well. All these rules, and their creator’s devotion to them is why there are terms like ‘the Whedonverse’. The laws there are as strong as gravity.
Break the laws and pay – fines are usually leveled in the loss of fans. Fringe had a larger following at the beginning of its run, nearly ten million viewers, and was down much closer to a seven million average at the end of season two. Season three is bringing in numbers in the fours and fives. Though the show is often brilliant, is the loss of viewers due to incidents like the following?
With a newly discovered monster tranquilized it the backseat, Peter and Olivia decide to have a little conversation in the front seat . . . while no one watches the monster! My question is: who was watching the writers? Though it was well within the show’s boundaries to have a tranquilizer gun on hand and to put the creature in the back seat of a sedan and drive him down the streets of Boston, the episode violated a major premise – i.e. the intelligence of both super-agent Olivia Dunham and super-brain Peter Bishop. Through everything else we have learned about the two, it has been clearly established from day one that these are two of the smartest people out there. And not of the brainy-but-without-common-sense variety either. So what are they doing with a creature in the backseat that they know nothing about except that it’s deadly? Though a bite to the neck was a well deserved lesson (I was cheering for the monster at this point), the episode never accounted for the two being stupid beyond measure or why.
It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that repeated foibles like this (both big and small) have cost the show. It’s just not acceptable. Imagine an alternate Ender’s Game where a young Valentine dons a breastplate and wields a broadsword while riding a dragon. Or an episode of Angel where vampires sparkle in the sunlight and teleport to other planets. It doesn’t happen because, for all the possibilities, these are forbidden.
So it’s okay that Crichton can pit kids against velociraptors and have the kids win. It’s fine for Fringe to have that alternate universe populated by taxicabs with ads for that “hit Broadway Musical – Dogs”. Boys can find eggs and hatch their own dragons, even in eras of great oppression (from Dragon’s Blood by Yolen to Eragon by Paolini). Each of these ideas fits within the created realm.
In SciFi, these rules pertain not just to the laws in the story, but to the laws of storytelling as well. Fringe will always tell us just where our characters are by the red and green of the intro and three dimensional letters each time we change cities. Ender’s Game kept strict point of view, never sliding from one character’s thoughts into another without a story break. Though all good authors have those strict codes, not all can tell you what they are. I sat down and thought about them when I started writing, and I recommend that to new writers. That way you won’t mess it up, or get surprised that you’ve sewn yourself into a method that doesn’t really work. My guidelines are based on what irritates me as a reader. So in my book Resonance, I made sure I had strict POV, introduced all the characters whose heads you’d be inside very early in the game (no pop-up characters two-thirds of the way through the book), and that my scientists didn’t explain basic concepts to each other for the benefit of the reader (I believe there are betters ways!)
The rules get even better when they are tight and intertwined. This is what makes the great masters great. Buffy’s brief death led to the implementation of another slayer, a fantastic tie back to the mythology that was at the heart of the story from the beginning. Card’s Enchantment understands that time travel is not without its ramifications, yet manages to create a world where exactly this problem is at the root of the old Baba Yaga stories.
Though the rules of SciFi are limitless and contradictory, sub-genre based and infinitely flexible, they are only so until the story starts. Once on the road, the rules morph from suggestion to law and shall be broken only at great peril.
In the end, though there will be thousands of rules, the most important and only universal law is: Follow your rules. The rest are up to you.
AJ Scudiere is the author of the sci-fi novel Resonance and the thriller Vengeance. She has lived in Los Angeles for the past ten years and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from New College and a Master’s Degree from UCLA. A seasoned educator, AJ has taught math, science, and writing at every level from junior high through graduate level. Her books are available in a wide array of formats, and AJ is proud to have her books available in not just paperback and ebooks, but also in the new AudioMovie format. AudioMovies are enhanced audiobooks with a full cast, sound track, and sound effects. Resonance won “Best Audio Fiction of 2009.” Recently AJ completed the manuscript for her third book God’s Eye, which will be released this summer. Early e-copies will be available only to fans who meet AJ at cons and book festivals! These days AJ can be found in front of the computer at work on the next novel, Phoenix. To learn more about AJ, visit http://www.ajscudiere.com, and writers should follow Phoenix from start to finish at www.PHOENIXtheBook.com.