Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Theory Versus Reality

Theoretical possibilities are a writer's best friend.

Let me expound on that: something does not have to actually exist for you to use it in your story. It merely has to be theoretically possible.

For example, as I said yesterday, there's no reason for anyone to build a working steam cannon. Why? Because gunpowder-based cannons do a perfectly serviceable job already. However, the fact a steam cannon is theoretically possible is cause for celebration because that means it can be used with a minimum of fuss.

Similarly, knowing that Leonardo da Vinci theorized about many different inventions during his lifetime means that we can postulate what Renaissance Europe would've looked like if someone had the presence of mind to build his inventions instead of them merely languishing on paper for 500 years. Interesting concept, yes?

Steam technology was first theorized by Hero of Alexandria in the first century A.D. His invention, the aeolipile, was the first steam engine. Consider this then ... what if the Industrial Revolution happened in 1st Century Greece instead of 18th/19th Century Great Britain and the United States? Great fodder for a steampunk tale, isn't it?

This all of course leads back to the fact no one's expecting your fictional technology to actually work. Just that it has the potential to work. So long as the tech abides by rules you lay down, then you're fine.


Rick Daley said...

So should I stop trying to perfect my lightsaber design?

Matthew Delman said...

I never said that.

And I want first dibs if you figure it out, btw. ;)

P.S. Sending you an email sometime today or tomorrow about Fate's Guardian.

L. T. Host said...

Haven't the Mythbusters built a steam cannon? If they haven't, you should totally write in and suggest it. They've been on a cannon kick lately.

I know you're a science guy in general, but I just want to add that in fantasy, magic takes all else out the window. Theoretical doesn't really need to be there because magic can make it happen anyway.

Doesn't mean you can't have logic; but if you write a steampunk world with magic, the possibilities are practically endless! You know, theoretically.

Susan R. Mills said...

This is so true. I think of all the things I've read in books that weren't real, but were theoretically possible, so they worked. I agree with L.T.; if magic is involved, anything is possible.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

True, but magic still needs to operate based on logical rules. i.e. if the Sacred Gem of Thrag only does its thing when it's soaked in the blood of a virgin, then you can't have it work a single time without being soaked in virgin blood. Ever.

Compromise your story's internal logic like that and you will lose readers faster than a pizza disappears at a Weight Watchers convention.

P.S. Bonus points if you know which stand-up comedian I stole the Weight Watchers joke from.

Joshua McCune said...

I'm still working on my death ray... made from legos, of course.

Davin Malasarn said...

This is so true. This is basically what makes fiction so powerful, I think. You can explore personal, scientific, or any other possibilities.

Gary Corby said...

I'd love to read some steampunk set in 1st century Alexandria. But if you did it, the technology would have to work.

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

Yeah, I knew that would be right up your alley. I have considered it, believe me, but I'd probably set it in the 2nd Century instead of the 1st, simply because that gives enough time for the tech to be adopted (I figure 50 to 100 years is suitable).

Natalie said...

The book I finished a few months ago is all about a theoretically possible situation. Nothing like it has ever happened (that I know of), but it could.

Adam Heine said...

Good post. And I especially like the follow-up comment about magic. Magic doesn't throw the rules out the window, it just changes them. Once you establish what the rules are in your world, you have to stick by them no matter what.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ohlala! Steampunk in Egypt! That would be so awesome! Talk about alternate history- the battle of Actium with steam canons and steam ships?

Wow! Someone needs to write that!

Gary Corby said...

I like the idea too Stephanie. Actium might be tough though because Hero, who worked out the steam engine, was mid 1st century AD.

Unless you moved Hero's inventions back to Archimedes, in which case absolutely the Roman Civil War could have been fought with steampunk.

The critical issue is advancing materials engineering to the point people can build something airtight enough to contain the pressure.