Edward Willett

TARDIS: Time and Relative Dimensions in Stories

On May 6 I was the speaker at the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild’s Write After Lunch series, and entitled my talk “TARDIS: Time and Relative Dimensions in Stories.” This is more or less the text I spoke from, although as you’ll see if you watch the archived video below and follow along, I didn’t exactly deliver it word for word…

 
In the long-running British science fiction program Doctor Who, The Doctor, a centuries-old Time Lord, travels in the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space). Powered by a collapsing star, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and can journey anywhere in time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end, to any planet or civilization the universe holds or ever will.

As a storytelling device, it’s brilliant. And it seems to me that as a metaphor for writing science fiction and fantasy, it’s even better.

After all, like the TARDIS, a science fiction or fantasy tale is bigger on the inside than on the outside. On the outside, it’s nothing but a few pages, or a small digital file. On the inside…it can hold all of time and space. In fact, science fiction or fantasy tales are even more impressive than the TARDIS, because they can not only take you to everything that has ever existed or ever will, but to everything that has never existed and never will! The only limitation is your own imagination.

In a long poem called “Mythopiea,” J.R.R. Tolkien described the writing of fantastic tales as a process of “sub-creation.” You should search up and read the whole thing, but for me, this is the heart of it:

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

For Tolkien, human creativity was a reflection of divine creativity: because God is the great Creator, we who are made in His image likewise seek to create.

Even if you reject the existence of a Creator, you cannot deny that there is something within humans that drives us to create: and the ultimate act of creation is, of course, the creation of a whole new world—or universe. You may not believe in God, but as a writer, you are one.

And, as god of the worlds of your imagination, you are free to travel to any time in the past, the present or the distant future and to any place in this universe or any other. Creatures both human and non-human are at your beck and call to serve as characters. There is nothing of which you can conceive that is so outré you cannot craft a science fiction or fantasy story about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I write science fiction and fantasy. For me, the question is nonsensical: what I can’t understand is why some people don’t, or refuse to read either.

(As an aside, now that I’ve established that I’m a sort of god, please note that offerings of large sums of cash are my preferred form of worship, and my divine favor is definitely available to be curried.)

Before I go on and talk about some of the challenges of writing science fiction and fantasy, I’d like to back up and establish a couple of definitions.

There are purists among the SF/fantasy community who would object to my lumping together of science fiction and fantasy as if they were one and the same thing. They aren’t, although you can make the argument that ALL fiction is fantasy—even the most mundane story set in small-town Saskatchewan isn’t taking place in the real world, it’s taking place in a sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s term) that is simply trying to mimic the real world. Looked at that way, literary fiction, mysteries, romances, and science fiction are all subsets of fantasy.

But that’s not how most people use the terms. So, to begin with, “ I collected a few definitions:

  1. SF is what SF editors buy (Norman Spinrad). That’s the hard-headed publishing definition.
  2. SF is what I’m pointing to when I point at something and say “That’s Science Fiction.” Can’t argue with that!
  3. When science is so integral to the plot that the story falls apart without it, it’s a SF story (Theodore Sturgeon).
  4. That sort of fiction in which the author shows awareness of the nature and importance of the…scientific method,…of the great body of human knowledge already collected…, and takes into account…the future effects on human beings of scientific method and scientific fact (Reginald Bretnor, paraphrased by Robert Heinlein).
  5. And then there’s Robert J. Sawyer’s definition: he likes to call science fiction the mainstream literature of the future. You can, of course, turn that around: today’s mainstream literature, if it deals honestly with the world we live in—the world of iPhones and iPads and the Web and genetic engineering and robotic weapons and space travel for tourists—is the science fiction of the past.

In the best SF, the reader is very nearly forced (by the author’s skill and self-consistency) to engage the brain, to pick out the background assumptions which are behind the plot, to see the connections between a strange new world (even if that world is called Earth) and our own, and to keep thinking about what will happen next, even after the story is done.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is not constrained, even to the extent far-future science fiction is, by how the universe really works. In fantasy, magic and monsters are real, horses can have wings, dragons may descend at any moment, ghosts can be major characters, and an entire school for wizards can exist unnoticed in northern Scotland.

Some science fiction writers claim to despise fantasy because it’s “writing with the net down,” as if there were something morally superior about constraining your imagination to the physical laws of the universe as we know it. This is odd to me, because it’s pretty much the same attitude some literary writers use to put down science fiction—as in Margaret Atwood’s infamous phrase, “talking squids in outer space.” (And as someone whose first adult SF novel, Lost in Translation, really did feature a multi-tentacled water-breathing alien in outer space, I took that rather personally.) Some literary writers seem to believe that the imagination should be constrained to the here and now, or at least the knowable past—never the unknowable future.

Both of those attitudes imply that exercising your imagination more freely, “thinking outside the box,” as the cliché puts it, somehow means that “anything goes,” when in fact even the most far-out fantasy operates according to rules: they’re just rules created by the god-writer rather than the ones that constrain us in the here and now.

You might think of it in poetic terms. Literary fiction is, say, a sonnet: a specific number of lines, a certain number of beats per line, a defined rhyme scheme. Science fiction is blank verse: still operating under constraints, but a bit freer. And fantasy is free verse: the only constraints are those imposed by the author.

Not all writers are comfortable operating with fewer restraints on their imagination. Nor, it seems, are all readers. One challenge faced by all writers of science fiction and fantasy is that when you don’t set stories in the here and now, you have to explain how things work—you can’t just have a character get in a car and drive off. How much detail you go into depends on what kind of story you’re writing. Many science fiction stories have been written whose entire raison d’être is the explication of some imagined piece of technology. Growing up, I learned a lot of science from those kinds of stories

Another challenge in writing SF and fantasy is avoiding the infodump, one classic example of which is sometimes called, “As you know, Bob,” in which one character explains to another character something they both know and thus would not ordinarily spend time describing to each other. “As you know, Bob, our wonderful planet was first settled five hundred years ago by the intrepid explorers Adam and Eve…”

(I confess I’ve done a variation of this, although I disguised it as a student reciting facts she had to know for a test to her teacher. At least one reviewer called me out on it, though.)

On the other hand, if you’re too subtle about slipping in the necessary information, you risk losing readers, especially readers new to the genre, who just can’t get their heads around what’s going on. For experienced SF and fantasy readers, figuring out the rules of the world as the story progresses is part of the fun; for newer readers, it can be daunting, and they prefer to fall back to stories set in the here and now. They’re simply more comfortable there. So how you approach the problem may depend in part on which readership you’re aiming at.

Among the best stories to ease readers into SFnal worlds are the novels of Robert J. Sawyer. They deal with current scientific developments, extrapolated into a future that’s several decades down the road but still recognizable. Rollback, Mindscan, Calculating God… he writes SF for people who don’t necessarily read SF.

Finally, I want to talk about the question writers are asked more than any other (aside from, at school readings, anyway, “How much money to do you make?”): “Where do you get your ideas?”

For me, at least, the answer is simply, “anywhere and everywhere.” My latest novel (written as E.C. Blake), Masks, was inspired by a masquerade mask I had around the house. I looked at it and asked the question that inspires all fantasy (and, really, all fiction): “What if?” Specifically, “What if there were a society in which everyone had to wear a mask at all time?”

Then I just asked myself more questions, like the journalist I used to be. I had the “what,” I just needed the “who, where, when and why.’ I could have written any number of different stories by answering those questions differently, each answer opening up a whole new universe of possibilities. Like the TARDIS, the “what if?” question is much, much bigger on the inside than the outside.

For science fiction, your “what if” is constrained by what we know of the universe’s physical laws (and how much you’re willing to bend them). But the possibilities are still endless. “What if computers can be fully integrated with the human nervous system so we can control them with our thoughts?”

Follow up the “what if” with “if that, what else?” If we can control computers with our thoughts, could they, in turn, control us?  If we could buy anything we wanted just by thinking about it, and have it delivered to us, would people be crushed by kegs of beer dropped from flying beer-delivery drones?

Part of that “what else?” question is realizing that change doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  If you change one thing, you change many things; everything is related. Which is why another SF-story-generation technique is called, “If this goes on…”

One change leads to another.  The automobile changed society in ways no one expected.  So did TV, and the computer. Comptuers, in turn, are now changing automobiles and TV. Everything feeds into everything else.  If you’ve got a great idea, don’t stop with that idea—think about how that idea effect other things.

One key part of writing fantasy or SF is to throw in “wild cards,” things that mess up your carefully planned world.  You’ve got computer hard-wired to the human nervous system—what if a virus infects the computer?  Everyone has to wear a magical Mask or face execution. What if someone’s Mask fails? What if that someone has unexpected magical abilities?

The “who” of the classic “W5” of journalism is very important. You can’t tell a good story without characters.  Who would be helped and who would be harmed by your central idea? Who would support it and who would fight it? That gives you your protagonists and antagonists.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the crew of the Enterprise journeys back in time to 20th-century San Francisco, a woman asks Captain Kirk if he’s from outer space.  He says, “No, I’m from Iowa.  I just work in outer space.”

An SF writer could say, “I’m from the present.  I just work in the future.” A fantasy writer might say, “My mind lives in a far off magical kingdom. It’s just my body that is stuck here.”

Our flesh and blood bodies may be stuck in the real world. But our minds are not only free to imagine, and roam, all of space of time, but to create whole new worlds and universes that never have existed, and never can.

As Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Like the TARDIS, we are all bigger on the inside than on the outside. And by creating and sharing stories of other worlds and other universes, by writing tales that indeed fill all the crannies of the world with elves and goblins, build gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sow the seeds of dragons, we exercise our imagination to its greatest extent.

By doing so, by so fully engaging our creative powers, we display our most unique human trait—the ability to play make-believe—and in the process we become most like God…whether we believe in Him or not.

True, some literary types still look at science fiction and fantasy as more the dark side of fiction than the light. To which I can only say, “Come to the dark side. We have cookies.”

And also, a heck of a lot of fun. After all, when all of space and time—and then some!—is your playground, how can you not have fun?

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