Unexpected Explanations


One of the most powerful ways to generate delight for your reader while writing SF/F, or maybe just writing period, is the device of the unexpected explanation.

To do this, begin with an expected, ordinary line, followed by an explanation rooted in your SFnal milieu.

In M. John Harrison’s brilliant Nova Swing, a character enters a bathroom:

There was a smell of urine, but that was artificial.

Or look at this bit from The Space Merchants [Frederik Pohl & Cyril M Kornbluth] when the POV character looks at an object in the distance:

There probably wasn’t another sight like it in North America.  It troubled my eyes.  Not for years had I focused them more than a few yards.

Less SFnally, you can create jokes by creating unexpected explanations and glosses for ordinary terms. Check out Dostoevsky in The Idiot [Pevear & Volokhonsky, trans]:

Afasany Ivanovich never concealed that he was somewhat cowardly, or, more precisely, in the highest degree conservative.

The flip-side of this technique is to start out with a bizarre idea, and then follow it up with a surprisingly reasonable explanation.

As used by H.G. Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau, this can be a device for selling the impossible:

A pig may be educated.  The mental structure is even less determinate than the bodily.  In our growing science of hypnotism we find the promise of a possibility of replacing old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafted upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas…

(Educating pigs, that’s nuts! the reader thinks. And then the unexpected analogy to the familiar:)

…Very much of what we call moral education is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion.

Naturally, this technique isn’t always devoted to selling bizarre SF concepts. Tolstoy uses it for simple characterization in Anna Karenina, where Stiva chooses to dine at the Anglia hotel…

…because he owed more in the Anglia than in the Hermitage.  He therefore considered it not nice to avoid that hotel.

(photo: Greta Garbo as Anna)

And this nifty technique is also a hallmark of Gu Long’s intense & snappy wuxia style. Here are some examples of unexpected explanations from Bordertown Wanderer

The dirt and sand on the floor was burning hot, Fu HongXue bent down and scooped a handful into his hands. Snow could be burning hot as well — snow that was soaked in hot blood. He squeezed down hard as the particles of sand dug deep into his skin.

Only the words of the dead are always honest … because they no longer have any reason to lie to you.

“Besides, corpses often reveal many secrets. It’s just that the manner in which they convey their message is usually hidden.”

Finally, the unexpected explanation is a way to “grab the reader back” after an extravagant & extended metaphor, showing that we weren’t just fucking around, there was a point to what we were saying there.

(This insecurity lurks in the heart of every SF writer…)

In another scene from The Etched City, a character begins reflecting on the mythological figure of the Sphinx:

By speaking to its victims it appeared to seek relief from solitude – for solitary it had to be, having no equals – a trait which suggested that if the monster possessed the same self-knowledge that it offered as a prize for answering its riddles, such knowledge wasn’t enough to keep ennui away…

Gee, that’s kind cool, but…. so what? The reader might think. Fortunately, K.J. Bishop rolls in with a real-world reason to care:

…It could perhaps be considered the heraldic totem of the chattering classes.


Anybody else fond of unexpected explanations?

Monday’s post: “An Observer Might Think…”

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