Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cause and Effect

Waiting on the Hyperspace Pizza Nexus
Science fiction isn't about causes. Cause is a "how," and ultimately, "how" is not as important as you might think. Do we need to know exactly how the warp drive works? No. We just need to know what happens when it does. We need to know the effect: How will we react when the universe is open to us? Will we be humbled by the majesty of creation and become more enlightened beings? Will we push our edge in interstellar travel to build the Terran Empire? Will we use it to make faster pizza deliveries to Glornak 7?

Or telepathy. Does it really matter just how humanity develops this mental power? What's interesting is how the "normals" react to the espers...or whether the entire race becomes telepathic. Then what happens? Well, for one thing, speech pathology is no longer the go-to career for former actresses.

The importance of effects over causes is one of the big reasons to be wary of the "info dump" - the deep-seated urge to explain your entire world to the reader in one or two bloated, digressive paragraphs. Pay more attention to what happens next than what happened before.

Of course, even though causes aren't sufficient, they are necessary. They determine the limits of the effects we describe. If our spaceships can reach other star systems, but only have Bussard ramjets, and not hyperdrives, the empire we create would be much, much different from one based on faster-than-light travel. If our telepathy comes in over-the-counter pill form, the effects will be radically different from a future of rare genetic telepaths.

Causes define our stories; effects are the reasons we write them.


  1. I'm still learning as I go and am guilty of info-overload. Will have to haul out the tweezers to dissect this concept more thoroughly. Nice post, Ted, and BTW, I'd like double cheese.


    C.K. Garner

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  3. Huh, I never thought of it that way. Weird then how much fantasy focuses on cause rather than effect (what is the deep dark secret of so-and-so's past that destines them to blah, blah, blah). Even good fantasy spends a lot of time on causes (e.g., Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber). I wonder if your book's focus on effects is part of what gives it so much more forward momentum than a lot of modern fantasy dreck...