This is really part two of a two part post that I started over on my blog with discussing the insertion of the alien into the mundane, something that was heavy on my mind after the hellish commute home I, and many other, Washingtonians experienced after last Wednesday’s snowfall. This is the opposite of that. This is a reminder that to your characters even the most alien of settings might be mundane.
How are you reading this post? On a computer? An iPad? Fed to your Kindle? There are any number of devices that we surround ourselves with on a daily basis that have become part and parcel with the daily experience of middle-class life within an economic super power. Were you to write a story about a character much like yourself, you’d have no problem using a sentence like “he read the blog post on his computer.” But what the hell does that sentence mean thirty years ago? We have created a world of technology almost impossible to recognize from the 1950s, but to us it’s the every day. It’s mundane.
When it comes to characters within speculative fiction, the world that they start out with is mundane to them. It may not end up as such, but whether they live in a Victorian England powered by steam technology or in the year 2412 on the human colonies of the Crab Nebula, that’s normal to them. And just as it wouldn’t occur to us to consider describing how a computer works, it wouldn’t occur to them to explain how a difference engine works or how a quantum nutronian teleportation matrix is formed. Of course, there is a difference between the character and the narrator, and that’s where the issue of narrative voice, mode, and tone come into play. The tighter you are on a character, the more his or her sense of the mundane has to dictate what is and isn’t described in more depth, and the more has to be left up to contextual devices. Which, in my book, are probably the better tools for a writer to use anyway.
Yes, yes. I realize the irony of me making a “show, don’t tell” argument.
In the end, however, it’s going to be fully to the advantage of the writer to rely on the mundane. Instead of going through a full explanation about how the cams and gears of the Difference Engine ran through the program punched onto the cards fed into it, instead it can just reveal itself sentient by telling our main character “I love you.” And instead of having to sit down for several paragraphs explaining how advances in quantum mechanics allowed the breakthrough by which paired matter and antimatter particles, long known to be in sync no matter what distance divides them, could be manipulated to produce exact copies of any physical object over any distance given the presence of an assembly mechanism at the far end, our hero can instead cross the interstellar distance just to discover that the destination terminal is being attacked by a thirty-two foot land squid. And really, what’s more interesting about either of those stories, the how or the what?
So keep in mind that there’s a lot of technology that your main character either can’t explain, doesn’t want to explain, or doesn’t see the point in explaining, and that the closer into his or her head you are, the more of a difference that makes to your narrative. And of course, remember that much like the magnet, knowing how something does or doesn’t work doesn’t make it any less mundane, or any more of a miracle.
Also on my blog this week: my monthly State of the Writer report.