Magneto and Two Rules for SciFi

So, here is some more unsolicited advice to potential entrants in ACM’s annual novel contest which is now accepting submissions through September 1st . Of course, the advice can be useful for writing any kind of fiction and for any contest or purpose, and also, of course, you as the author has every right to ignore it just as I, as a reader/contest judge have every right to think the product is flawed if you do :).

As I sat in my rocking chair, and enjoyed a little Wild Turkey bourbon (101 proof…) I stumbled upon a tragic realization, Magneto should have died in the latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class. He should have been shot, just like that at the end. Shot dead.

You see, we all know where Magneto’s ability comes from, magnetism. Wikipedia states this (based, no doubt on observation.): ‘The primary application of his power is control over magnetism and the manipulation of metal – ferrous and nonferrous.’  This makes a sum total of no sense at all. Magneto is not telekinetic, he uses magnetic fields. So how does he manipulate the non-ferrous metals such as… bullets?

That said, I am not really here to complain about Magneto, I am sure there is some ultra-complicated and dumb sounding rationalization of why he can manipulate non-ferrous metals. (Oh, there it is… in Wikipedia again… something about manipulating a unified field both gravitational/magnetic…. Which I guess begs the question why isn’t he telekinetic.) The important thing here is that this brings up a rule that is super-ultra-mega important for the science fiction genre. This rule is that everything must be self-consistent, and make sense for the world you (if you are an author) have created. If magneto uses magnetic fields, he cannot make bullets swerve (although he probably can move the guns themselves). However, if he manipulates a SciFi style unified field, he should be telekinetic and be able to manipulate plastic, wood, water and so forth. Since he cannot, his powers do not play by ‘the rules’. By all means, make the rules whatever you want them to be, but do not break them once made. If you need to change a rule for one scene, make sure it is changed for all scenes.

This discussion leads rather naturally into a slightly more nuanced rule. Think of it as a practical application of Occam’s Razor. So, Occam made the case that all evidence being equal the most simple explanation was probably the best one. Since in fiction you can make all the evidence equal, you should try to give the simplest explanations. For instance, back to the Magneto conundrum. You could say that Magneto’s power is the ability to manipulate a sort of unified field, but he psychologically cannot move anything other than metal, because of this that or the other reason. However, this explanation is very complicated, with the better thing to do is make Magneto’s power to be manipulation of the electromagnetic field and no more. Hence, he would conceivably be able to move the gun, not the bullet. This is a simpler, better, and more masterful solution so it is more difficult to write this way. It is much easier to give crazy complicated explanations and write like an amateur. It is much more difficult to give simple explanations since they constrain the plot, you cannot do just anything and then wave your hand over it with an explanation.  However, constraining your plot devices to a bare minimum is like constraining your characters to always act in their own personality it makes the novel more alive and less like a Frankenstein’s monster.

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One response to “Magneto and Two Rules for SciFi

  1. I am left to wonder how many writers know that magnetism does not apply to the “Non-Ferrous” metals–nickel, lead, copper just to name a few. I guess a primary point would also be that the writer should understand the science behind the story.

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