There’s a particular TV show that I like, but don’t watch often. There are certain lazy tendencies in the writing that rub me the wrong way, such as treating technology as magic whenever convenient for the plot. There are other aspects of the show I really enjoy, so I tend to let episodes accumulate on the TiVo, saving them for times when I’m in the mood for some mindless action and adventure.
There’s another show which also uses technology in improbable and impossible ways that I watch faithfully each time a new episode comes out. One of the diffences between the shows is that the second one states its premise upfront, and then tries to stay consistent with that. Yes, what they’re doing is impossible, but it’s the same impossible everytime, and the stories revolve around the question of how people might behave if computers happened to work this way. The first show just plays fast and loose without any thought about whether they’re contradicting something they did in a previous episode.
Neither show is packaged as science fiction. The first one definitely isn’t sci fi. It’s a cop/action show whose writers don’t understand or care about what computers and crime labs really can do and what they can’t.
I have seen discussions on science fictions forums where some fans have objected to the inclusion of the second in a list of sci fi shows currently airing, primarily because the show doesn’t claim to be set in the future, and acts as if all the things they’re doing are possible with our current technology. But the show postulates the existence of a computer that can do things currently impossible, and then it explores what might happen if that were so. That’s the epitome of science fiction.
I can only enjoy the first show if I’m in the right head space. I have to be in the kind of mood where I can give my inner critics the night off, kick back, and just watch a group of interesting characters run from one dangerous situation to another. I have to be in a “I don’t care if it’s wrong” head space.
The second show puts me into its head space. Regardless of whether this is wrong, what might things be like if it were?
That’s not just good science fiction. That’s good fiction. The goal of a story teller should be to draw people into the story. Make this imaginary situation or world so enticing that the reader has to step inside to see what it’s like.
The other kind of story is like mass produced snack food. If it’s there where we happen to be and when we’re hungry (or bored or at least not feeling too full to eat), we’ll pick it up and munch away. But later we may not even remember what it was we ate.
The other kind doesn’t just pull us away from whatever we were doing to check it out, but it leaves us thinking afterward. Like an extremely good meal, we want to linger in the head space of the story after it’s ended.
And that’s the best kind of head space.