Space Ships and The Suspension of Disbelief

Who would win in a space battle; the Millennium Falcon or the U.S.S. Enterprise?

I know, I know, that’s basically asking if a smuggler can best an explorer when the guns are drawn. Not to mention it dives headlong into the rift of animosity between Star Wars and Star Trek fans. (Personally I enjoy both, but whatever.)

Whichever space ship you believe would win they both bring to mind a particular structure, a particular image that has become iconic in the science fiction industry. And one of the unique challenges of writing science fiction (space travel science fiction, anyway) is making sure that you don’t copy what has already been done.

Plus … you know … maintaining some form of realism within the book.

This requires answering a list of questions from “how does your ship have gravity” (if it has it, of course) to “where’s the restroom” and “what powers the ship” and … The list goes on.

In the movies we don’t really get those questions answered. Not in specifics anyway.

Does the Millennium Falcon have gravity? Well, they’re walking normal and there are no floating Wookies so … yeah, it does.

In books we aren’t given quite as much freedom. While there are some assumptions that can be made, relying on those assumptions too heavily can be seen as lazy writing. Now there are arguments to be made between “soft” and “hard” science fiction, but no matter how “soft” your novel is you still have to walk the tightrope between fiction and reality here.

There’s only so much a Reader can take before their “suspension of disbelief” is irrevocably lost. Don’t insult their intelligence. They know people can’t breathe in the vacuum of space without some help. They know another planet is going to have a difference in gravity. And they know a space ship has to be uniquely designed for space travel.

When beginning work on Deviation I knew I was going to have to build a space ship. A ship capable of flight both in the atmosphere and out of it. Thus was born the Lothogy. I do all sorts of things wrong with it and I know it. (I even take the silly thing under water, though in my defense I do address how wrong it is for the ship to go there.)

I will confess to cheating. My two main characters (Reesa and Kate) are not scientists and are fairly thrown into the world against their will. Most scenes dealing with how the ship functions are done through their point of view because they are really clueless.

And when things got really tough and my research was making me twitch and I didn’t know how to explain it all, I went back to Kate’s core motivation — getting home to her son alive — which meant she really didn’t care how it worked so long as it didn’t explode around her.

(Writer’s Cheat #1 — when all else fails, focus on your character instead.)


2 thoughts on “Space Ships and The Suspension of Disbelief

  1. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to “cheat”. Unless you’re going for hard SF, it’s no different than a modern day story which doesn’t go into detail on how 747’s can fly. Unless your character is actually an aircraft mechanic/engineer, and for some reason it is the focus of the story, you would probably never need to explain it.

    Take a look at Firefly. It’s never explained how there is gravity in Serenity. Even in Out of Gas, where they’ve lost power, they still have gravity.

    PS. Obviously, the Enterprise would win in a straight out space battle. But Han would probably run away or pull some other crazy stunt.

    1. I agree that it’s acceptable to cheat in soft science fiction. At the same time, I did stop reading a book after the second chapter because the author had not bothered to name his weapons (they were just called lasers) and as I looked all of his technology had such general titles that … well … it felt like lazy writing to me. If he didn’t care enough about his “world” to explore it then why should I?

      P.S. Ha! I second that opinion. Han’s good at running when he needs to.

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