Concerning Suspension of Disbelief in Steam / Dieselpunk

by Brayden

Question: The manuscript I'm writing is a blend of certain tropes from Low Fantasy, Diesel and Steam punks and oddly enough, SciFi. It essentially concerns itself with a vestigial empire which holds on to tradition and feudalism in face of the more advanced Commonwealth which opposes it, and the events which result in the dismantling of this empire into various tributaries and vassal states. However, I'm having trouble with Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Diesel and Steam punks as well as SciFi have always stretch the borders of suspension of disbelief, however, the issue arises as I'm trying to make this as grounded as possible, as you might guess from the complicated politics that make up the plot. But how far can I stretch it?

For example, part of the setting is the rise of the combat zeppelin as a weapon of war. However, this is nonsensical,as light aircraft also exist and it's impossible to mount a howitzer on an airship.

So, essentially what I'm asking is a guide to handling Suspension of Disbelief.

Answer: The most important requirement is that your story world be internally consistent.

At some point, you will reach a departure from reality, where your world stops being 100% consistent with the world we know and the laws of physics and requires the reader to suspend disbelief.

Hard core science fiction is the only fantasy sub-genre that tries not to do this, by insisting that its depictions of future technology be based on established scientific facts, though even then the application is speculative. Most soft science fiction requires the reader to accept premises that are very thinly based on known science or even magic (for instance, warp drive, time travel, anti-gravity, telepathy, etc.) Steampunk technology is often really magic disguised as science.

As an example of departures from physics, the Harry Potter series requires the reader to accept that the laws of physics can be broken by magic which is based on the user's intent, Latin phrases, and wands made of the body parts of mythological creatures. Also that there are many species of flora and fauna with magical properties which most of the world is unaware of.

However, apart from these premises, the author goes to great lengths to make everything else in her fantasy world logically consistent - particularly in respect to the characters. And it is that consistency that makes the reader willing to accept the few departures for the sake of the story.

You have to decide what your false premises are going to be, where your departure point is. If you want the authenticity of military technology, but at the same time you want to have something that is impossible (like mounting howitzers on dirigibles), then you may need to resort to some violation of physics to account for it, or postulate the existence of an impossible technology. Maybe it means replacing the howitzer with a fictional weapon that looks something like a howitzer but has no recoil.

The important thing is that, once you have established where and how you will depart from reality, you must stay consistent with that departure. The story world can't keep changing or contradict itself or it will "stop making sense." You have to be able to satisfy the reader's questions, his attempts to resolve any apparent inconsistencies.

Sometimes, it's best just to be vague about how your departures work. For instance, many fans of Star Wars were happy to accept the idea of a mystic Force that gave the Jedi supernatural powers. When George Lucas introduced the idea that the Force was mediated by a symbiotic life form in people's cells called midi-chlorians - a poor attempt to make the Force more scientifically plausible - many fans thought it "ruined" the concept.

It also helps if you limit your departures to as small a number as possible. The more you have, the less logical and realistic your world becomes, and the harder it is for the reader to suspend disbelief. Also, it becomes more complex, leading to too many possibilities that make things too easy for the heroes.

For example, Star Wars would never be considered serious science fiction because it asks us to accept too many departures. The Force is too much like magic, for starters. Then we have to accept the light sabres (which make no sense), hyperdrive, faster than light radio, giant space worms that live in a vacuum with no apparent food supply, etc. Fortunately, Lucas stopped at a certain point.

The flip side to limiting the number of departures is that you have to ground your story in enough authenticity for the reader to believe in the story world. I mentioned that Rowling does this with believable characters, relationships, and a contemporary setting. Steampunk often grounds itself in historical facts of the Victorian world, dieselpunk in the world of World War II.

But most important are the characters. Their actions and choices must make sense given their situation and desires.

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