The Art of Ignoring Reality

No, no, not getting into politics! (Much)

I was just wondering . . . Do Science Fiction and Fantasy writers ignore reality?

Well, yes and no.

We can ignore the fact that there are no intelligent Martian lizards. But we’d best get the Martian day and year the right lengths. We can posit FTL, but the rest of the science has to be as close to accurate as possible.

Magic? No problemo. But you need to get the sword fighting right. And the escaped Princess should never lean her cheek on her heroic mount’s heaving flank. No matter how tired the horse is. Especially if she doesn’t dismount first. I mean it. Go look up where a horseโ€™s flank is located.

We write a weird tangle of Real and Imaginary. We can have a covert war between vampires and werewolves in Cincinnati, and get criticized if we get the names of the city streets wrong. Alternate History? Yeah, Hitler can turn out to be an undercover British Agent, but you’d better get the right insignia on the sleeves of the soldiers that arrest him. They’d better be carrying the right guns, the vehicle they tote him off to the firing squad in has to be in use at that date and . . .

Then there’s romance. Yes, in SF/F. Totally unbelievable. ๐Ÿ˜‰ But no worse than romance in any other genre. Well, Okay, Green alien slave girls, and werewolves. Just, never mind.

Other unrealistic things include multi-world empires with a single language/culture/religion or whatever. Everyone the same. But even communism can’t achieve that in a single country, so don’t try it in fiction.

But it’s more than just the writing.

How about living? Can a writer say she lives in reality when her mind is half a second behind, editing the conversation for a scene in the book? Noticing the romantic spots for the characters to stop for a kiss? Making note of lines of sight and bullet proof barricades when strolling around the park? Snapping a picture of some modern art abomination, because it’s a perfect alien starship?

And politics. I mean, can you really watch politicians and not wonder about alien lizards wearing people disguises? Wonder what the real reason is, behind the current near-world-wide house arrest?

And then there’s marketing. Dorothy and Peter Grant just flat swiped at least a dozen writers’ contacts-with-reality where marketing is concerned. It’s their fault the rest of us are so squirrely about it.

And our steadfast belief that it is possible to earn a living writing. That alone proves we live in a world that exists in our minds.

So how about you? When you write or read, what do you feel has to stay real, and how much license with reality do you think we can take?

And, of course, my latest and greatest:


  1. I pick a level of reality along several axes for each project.

    Water memory may be a real thing, weaponized by the mad science, but the organizational dynamics of mixed gender military organizations are taken seriously. There may be Japanese Dixiecratic Party, whose leader is written in English as having a Southern accent and wears a seersucker kimono, and the mechanics of forming a government are abused, but a technology which can make a microwave based mind machine interface work can also be used for military applications. WWII may have resulted in the US taking a Japanese colony in South America, whose origin I deliberately do not explain, and there is a magical underworld, but I will at least spend some time imagining what the cultural influences might result in. I may be writing a reincarnation isekai onto a magical alien world, but I will spend some time on getting the psychology of someone with my MC’s backstory correct.

    Sometimes I build the full list of US presidents for my absurd AUs with an America, and sometimes I do not. Forex, in #3 above Wallace won. So US politics went down a different track, and there is a CVN named after LeMay. (One of the examples may well have the RL presidents, and another does not, but I do not want to specify beyond Perot in 1992 and Trump in 2016, and those will not be shared with the reader.)

    As I have a certain mad logic in everything else I do, I work something out for the stories I am compelled to write. The seeds of inspiration for my projects often explicitly conflict with something I know or could learn the realistic workings of. I also find that things snowball, that u, v, w, are necessary, x and y are similar and compatible, and then I have to add z because it fits the same flavor of crazy thinking.

    Unity of theme, and unity of, I think, action are literary theories that can be applied to creation. It appears I strongly believe in unity of insanity.

  2. “Other unrealistic things include multi-world empires with a single language/culture/religion or whatever.”

    Well, if it’s a particularly strict empire, there would be some effort to ensure there’s one dominant language, if only to make trade and politics simpler. And if it’s a theocracy, every world will at least pretend to follow the state religion. To use the Roman example, Latin and Greek were widely spoken and while people were allowed to worship their own deities, they had to acknowledge that the Roman gods were supreme.

    1. Also, you’re almost guaranteed to have a “TradeTongue” or some language used for commercial activities. See English as the worldwide “language” for air traffic control.

    2. Also, unless language and communication are a central focus of your story (CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series, anything by Suzette Haden Elgin), it’s often best for story flow to have it “just work” so that characters can communicate at need. That’s why so many sf stories posit some kind of handwavium translator so that everyone is able to communicate with one another casually and colloquially.

      1. Nod.

        One author who has Empires containing Multiple Species have several “languages” since some of the species may be unable to “speak” the language of the Supreme Alien Species.

        While there are translation devices, the devices translate from one of the Imperial Languages to another Imperial Language.

        All members of these Empires are required to learn at least one of the Imperial Languages.

        1. Glynn Stewart has a new series where Humans and aliens recently overthrew an oppressive Empire.

          The only language they all speak is the Empire’s. Most of their technology is the Empire’s. None of them have anything in common except hating the Empire.

          Realistic, I think. A bit depressing because it seems as if somebody has to be the Empire or nobody can work together.

    3. Given my folks are telepaths (always to some degree, even when they think not) ….language is literally contagious, along with basic literacy. Though back when interstellar travel was slow, regional languages did develop, but mostly died out (other than placenames and epithets, and local accents) following one of their more enthusiastic galactic boogaloos.

      1. I suspect that even “your people” would have back-water areas where the “common language” is spoken differently. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        1. Yep, mine do — mainly pockets of the “old language” and drift due to isolation. Sometimes to the point of being near-unintelligible.

    4. Eh, the Romans were pretty syncretistic. They’d offer sacrifice to your gods just to avoid trouble.

  3. Hard work is still hard work. If a character is a salt-miner, he’s doing to do physically hard, dangerous labor, and knows it. he also knows how valuable that labor is. If a wizard has to gather X amount of things for a spell, and has to do a lot of other work to earn the money for X, he’s doing to be tight with his funds and very conservative (in the sense of not wasting) with his magic. You have to keep relative value, however you define.

    1. I ignore it as hard as I can all the time. Some [okay most] people say this makes me difficult, others find it enjoyable.

      What can’t be ignored gets included in stories.

  4. In my writing in which there is a lot of alternate history worlds I often spend far more time looking at google maps aerial and street views – on Wikipedia studying some obscure royal family from a country that no longer exists here – looking into the names of places that now have different names and so on – than I spend actually writing the stories….
    I often finish up with like 30 or 40 tabs open on the Imperial German Royal family or the Stadtshcloss in Berlin plus maps plus old maps and drawings – plus historical accounts…… All for maybe half a chapter of writing!
    So I appreciate much of the points raised in the first few paragraphs above!

  5. In order to get readers to swallow the big lies, and get them to trust you – people in a colony planet somewhere in future space – the little truths have to be realistic. Because readers will forgive space wizards, but they won’t forgive you riding a horse for 50 miles in a day, and then expecting to ride the same horse bright and early the next morning (at least not if they’re horse people.)

    Although, there are some genre conventions on what can be easily and safely ignored. Space Opera takes father-than-light travel as a given, no need to explain it. Romance supposes that the world revolves around the heroine and the hero, and is terribly forgiving of plot holes and worldbuilding holes as long as the emotional arc is spot on. Same with thrillers, where accuracy and probability (and ability to absorb damage and keep going) can be stretched or sacrificed in service of keeping the pacing tight and tension high. Mystery… how many bodies can turn up in a peaceful small town and it just keep on being a quaint little normal village?

    …But even in genres where the convention plays fast and loose with reality, egregariously violating it still gets a violent reader rejection.
    (This lead to me nearly throwing my cell phone across the room recently, when an Amazon recommendation proved to be “a former soldier medically discharged due to ‘hearing loss’ tasked with bodyguarding a musician.” Interesting concept, no? Wait, medically discharged for hearing loss, and he doesn’t have hearing aids? And can carry on a normal conversation with buddies over poker? WTF? Sample deleted on all devices and from the cloud!)

  6. *gesturing vaguely* There’s wrong, and then there’s different.

    Vampires fighting werewolves on the street in front of the White House: different.
    The street out front of the White House being 1776 Main Street N, wrong.
    Well, unless justified, but you gotta show your workat least a little to justify stuff. Robin McKinley in Sunshine is great at working in this kind of stuff in without doing those “well, as you know, George-” speeches.

    1. A famous Chinese painter said that the hardest things to paint are horses and dogs, and the easiest ghosts, because no one knows what ghosts look like, and everyone knows what horses and dogs do.

  7. Apparently there’s a nominee of the Award Which Shall Remain Nameless wherein the “heroine” drugs her household with valerian and skullcap, then kills them all by cutting their throats. (Of COURSE it was nominated!)

    Where Reality intrudes is that valerian and skullcap don’t work that way. They will help with sleep, they won’t -put- you to sleep.

    So the household would wake up when the first victim started screaming and kicking the would-be killer’s @ss.

    If you wanted to murder a houseful of rich people in the 1860s you would use laudanum, which was easily available to the wealthy in those days. That stuff would knock them out, and a sufficient dose would be fatal. Because its a decoction of opium in alcohol.

    Use of the specific names of herbs means you’d better get it right.

    1. Valerian smells like a cat used your cup for a litterbox. The taste is not great. It is impossible to miss.

      So how on earth did she dose her household without them figuring it out?

      Also, why do fantasy drugs and special herbs never have side effects, when real life stuff does?

      (A lot of people can’t use linden to sleep, because it gives them heart palpitations and they don’t sleep at all. A lot of people who get sneezy from grass will get sneezy from certain herb teas. Etc.)

      1. The Sleepy Time Plus (I think that’s the name) type of tea from Celestial Seasonings is large amounts of mint to cover the valerian they use so I’ve never noticed.

        That said, I way over-steep, and have yet to see an improvement in falling asleep over drinking straight mint tea.

        I suppose some kind of a distillation process might get a stronger effect–but if it’s got an, uh, aromatic compound, that’d come right out, too.

        1. Which is why the side effects tend to be “put to sleep until true love’s kiss” rather than breaking out in a rash.

          If the setting is fantasy allows for a whole different level of side effects. It’s when you try and use real life herbs magically that the inconsistencies pile up. One reason I liked Kimbriel’s “Night Calls” trilogy is that she kept that balance well.

        2. Actually it was an effort to use “authentic” Southern America folk medicine as a weapon, to show that “the poor and downtrodden” are smart too.

          Which just makes it all the more ridiculous that the author got it wrong. It seemed to me from the review (I didn’t read it) that the author looked up “folk medicine sleep aid” and took the first hit on Google. Laziness.

          Which only goes to show that Mr./Ms./Whatever Author has a better grasp on what’s important in a story, because beeotch not only got dead-tree Big Five published but also got Nameless Award Nomination. Meanwhile my carefully researched book did not.

      2. “So how on earth did she dose her household without them figuring it out?”

        Yes, just one of the impossible issues that leaped out at me. It tastes A) horrible and B) unique in its horrible-bility (totally a word) so “slipping it to someone in their tea” isn’t going to be a thing.

        If you’re going to have a murder, at least make it accurate or obscure. Like the leaves of the Unobtainable Bush plucked by moonlight, I can go with that.

        1. I had the opposite problem in A Diabolical Bargain, where I needed a plague.

          So I invented white sickness to ensure that it would have EXACTLY the symptoms and stuff that I wanted.

          And then I put the cherry on top by giving it a magical origin.

      3. I’ve met at least one person who some allergy (forget exactly what) that discovered that chamomile (in tea form) tripped some of the same receptors or such and it was decidedly NOT relaxing.

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