Sunday, January 12, 2014

Verisimilitude (or, Building a convincing universe on the cheap)

Verisimilitude. That's a big word, ain't it? According to The Almighty Google, the exact meaning is 'the appearance of being true or real' (as in 'Piers Morgan tries for human, but lacks verisimilitude'), and when people talk about realism in books, or movies, or whatever, what they usually mean is verisimilitude. Take Jimmy McGovern's work, for instance; people often talk about his gritty realism, where 'gritty' basically means 'all life is misery and pain', but that has verisimilitude 'cos, in many ways, life is misery and pain.

But how do you achieve that same effect in science fiction, where you may very well be writing about people who aren't human? They might even be sentient five-limbed vampire squids, and when one has no frame of reference for what a sentient five-limbed vampire squid is like in the real world (because none of them return my calls, or even send me a postcard), how does one give them 'the appearance of being true or real'? Well, this is where the 'science' and the 'fiction' get down and dirty with each other...

The first step is research, although in fairness, you're not likely to find much concrete info online about sentient five-limbed vampire squids, other than on my website. What you will find, though, is lots of nice, juicy info about how evolution works; and once you've worked out what the squids' homeworld looks like, you can start to develop what they look like, based on how they might have evolved. Wallop in a good dollop of evolutionary psychology to flesh out their personalities, and the end result may well be a sentient five-limbed vampire squid that's ridiculously hard to kill, and thus, whose evolution gave them a general thrill-seeking outlook on life and a predilection to call everyone, male or female, 'dude' (which itself comes from the fact that each yowason is hermaphroditic; they're both male and female, and there's no sexual dimorphism going on, so to them, everyone is basically the same).

Those same principles go into designing, well, everything about the Cynos Union, from planets to technologies.

Take weapons tech, for example; I wanted something a bit different to the standard fare in science fiction, all lasers and plasma bolts and suchlike. So, I sat and thought about it for a minute, and realised that I'd given myself an answer already, when I said that the majority of the Cynos Union's technological advancements came about through precise control of gravity. Cue guns that launch projectiles using micro-sized, bi-directional gravity wells. Well, except in the case of the vossarulls, of course (who all use sonic weapons), and the yowason (who have squidly limbs that can't lift a gravity-actuated rifle).

Just don't ask how they generate those micro gravity wells. Verisimilitude only goes so far, and I'm not a quantum physicist (although my hair's getting increasingly Einstein-y as I get older)...

The thing is, y'see, that a lot of people think science fiction just goes wild, and abandons all the rules, but that is, in a very definite way, not true. It's especially not true in 'hard' sci-fi by the likes of the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, but it's still not true even in 'soft' sci-fi and space opera, like what I write.

It's just that the rules might be slightly (or very, very, very) different to the real world, in science fiction, but that doesn't mean there are no rules. That is where the idea of verisimilitude comes in, because when your universe runs on different rules to the real world, that ever-so-slightly knackers the idea of realism. Get the rules right, though, and you get something even better: a fantastical universe that feels real.

But why go to the trouble of building such a real-feeling universe? Well, there's the obvious answer, in that it makes the story better, but there's a little bit more to it than that; once you've got that universe, you can then hold it up to our own, ostensibly real universe to see what it tells us about, well, us.

That, though, is a story for another day...

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