Explaining Without Really Explaining


What if every speculative invention & gimmick you wrote, also came packaged with a reasonable explanation as to why it was possible?

If you’re a hard science fiction writer, this probably sounds like an immense blessing. Say goodbye to worrying how you can make the physics work out. It’s now easy to think up second-order effects; they also flow naturally out of this conceit we’re taking. From now on, say goodbye to searching for ways to make things seem credible to the Reality Police. That’s all covered, and like a picnic basket stuffed with goodies that appears in your kitchen, you’ve got no shortage of concepts and extrapolations to build from. Everything you write automatically locks into place, forming an elegant system based on just a few deviations or extrapolations from the real world. Your O’Neill colony, cyberpunk dystopia, or generation ship will accrete effortlessly from a combination of cool ideas, each setting up the next…

But if you’re a weird writer, this situation might sound more like a curse!

If you don’t believe me, imagine what Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” would be like if it also included an explanation that the heart was audibly beating under the floorboards because the dead old man had previously eaten a rare species of mushroom that just happens to cause heart palpitations in corpses on an audio wavelength only audible to people of a certain age, thus explaining why the narrator hears it and the policemen don’t.


Or imagine how enjoyable “The Metamorphosis” would become if it included a plotline about Gregor Samsa figuring out that he was transformed into an insect-like vermin because he was accidentally injected with tainted DNA by an insane Professor from the Imperial Evil University of Prague, who had just happened to pass Gregor on the street yesterday and took exception to his shabby jacket.

kakfa was surprisingly a hottie

You see the problem?

Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s true that I didn’t try very hard to come up with these explanations.

But don’t think for an instant that if my explanations were of a higher quality, the tales would be improved.

When I’m reading Kafka or Poe, I usually don’t even want to know why the weird events are occurring. I’m far more interested in the emotional situation at hand — and in the affect that this instance of the weird produces in me — than I’m interested in some BS explanation which in twenty years will likely be disproven. In many weird tales, mechanics and rules are no longer the point.

Because no possible explanation could ever measure up to the immense, weird, psychological, fraught, bizarre explanations that the reader herself will naturally project onto the tale in lieu of an authorial explanation.

TL;DR, if you’re writing this kind of weird story — or, for that matter, if you’re writing soft SF where the tech isn’t the point — you may find it helpful to use today’s literary device, which I call “explaining without really explaining.”

It’s a device you can use when your sentence rhythm or story structure seems to call for something that feels like an explanation, but you’d rather avoid committing to one. Here’s a good one from David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus.

chromasnake drifter

Maskull then obtained his first near view of the mysterious light, which, by counteracting the forces of Nature, acted indirectly not only as elevator but as motive force.

Note now the phrase “by counteracting the forces of Nature” feels like an explanation, but in fact is only a restatement of the wonder being described. The rules of the gimmick are clear, the explanation is not.

It’s possible to ‘explain without really explaining’ in the psychological sphere too. Check out how Eric Jourdan used it in the gay classic Les mauvais anges [Wicked Angels]:

We were alone, almost as if we were living alone together, two boys without any feminine complications between us. It was possible, not so much because of the weakness borne of dark feelings, but from a virile attachment forged of camaraderie and love.

Let’s try to parse this: we were two boys with no feminine complications. Why? Because we had a virile [read: masculine] attachment. In other words, we were A because we were not B. As for why we weren’t B, well, let’s not go there…

In terms of logic, this beautiful sleight-of-hand is not so far away from Monsieur Purgon, the doctor in Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” who chalks up his patient’s maladies “to your bad constitution, to the imtemperament of your intestines, to the corruption of your blood, to the acrimony of your bile, and to the feculence of your humours.”  ….. But Eric Jourdan makes it work for the most part, though he can sometimes stray into a kind of literary autopilot where he overuses it.

Sometimes, the feeling of an explanation is sometimes all you need to represent how we think. Lately I was reading an Ann Beattie story called “The Big Outside World” [collected in Where You’ll Find Me] where I noticed this line:

The clothes were pretty, and when he began tossing them and draping them around his body she blinked at the flashes of color and could remember places she had worn them, whole days and nights that seemed to be explained by what she had worn.

Cool line, right? Yet if Beattie had gone to the point of spelling out that explanation, she might’ve broken the psychological credibility of this moment.

Moving from character analysis back to exposition, one delightful variant on this device is to present an obviously faulty explanation of the gimmick in question. Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination takes place in a world where everyone can ‘jaunte’, or teleport at will. But Bester doesn’t exactly fall over himself to provide good reasons why. In fact, he delights in doing just the opposite…

gully foyle, what a character

How, exactly, did man teleport? One of the most unsatisfactory explanations was provided by Spencer Thompson, publicity representative of the Jaunte Schools, in a press interview.

THOMPSON: Jaunting is like seeing; it is a natural aptitude of almost every human organism, but it can only be developed by training and experience.

REPORTER: You mean we couldn’t see without practice?

THOMPSON: Obviously you’re either unmarried or have no children — preferably both.


REPORTER: I don’t understand.

THOMPSON: Anyone who’s observed an infant learning to use its eyes, would.

REPORTER: But what is teleportation?

THOMPSON: The transportation of oneself from one locality to another by an effort of the mind alone.

REPORTER: You mean we can think ourselves from.. say… New York to Chicago?

THOMPSON: Precisely; provided one thing is clearly understood. In jaunting from New York to Chicago it is necessary for the person teleporting himself to know exactly where he is when he starts and where he’s going.

REPORTER: How’s that?

THOMPSON: If you were in a dark room and unaware of where you were, it would be impossible to jaunte anywhere with safety. And if you knew where you were but intended to jaunte to a place you had never seen, you would never arrive alive. One cannot jaunte from an unknown departure point to an unknown destination. Both must be known, memorized and visualized.

REPORTER: But if we know where we are and where we’re going…

THOMPSON: We can be pretty sure we’ll jaunte and arrive.

REPORTER: Would we arrive naked?

THOMPSON: If you started naked. (Laughter)

REPORTER: I mean, would our clothes teleport with us?

THOMPSON: When people teleport, they also teleport the clothes they wear and whatever they are strong enough to carry. I hate to disappoint you, but even ladies’ clothes would arrive with them.(Laughter)

REPORTER: But how do we do it?

THOMPSON: How do we think?

REPORTER: With our minds.

THOMPSON: And how does the mind think? What is the thinking process? Exactly how do we remember, imagine, deduce, create? Exactly how do the brain cells operate?

REPORTER: I don’t know. Nobody knows.

THOMPSON: And nobody knows exactly how we teleport either, but we know we can do it — just as we know that we can think. Have you ever heard of Descartes? He said: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. We say: Cogito argo jaunteo. I think, therefore I jaunte.

If it is thought that Thompson’s explanation is exasperating, inspect this report of Sir John Kelvin to the Royal Society on the mechanism of jaunting:

We have established that the teleportative ability is associated with the Nissl bodies, or Tigroid Substance in nerve cells. The Tigroid Substance is easiest demonstrated by Nissl’s method using 3.75 g. of methylen blue and 1.75 g. of Venetian soap dissolved in 1,000 CC. of water.

Where the Tigroid Substance does not appear, jaunting is impossible. Teleportation is a Tigroid Function.


Notice how Bester’s wickedly fake explanation clearly conveys the rules of teleportation without actually addressing the science. And think about it, would you rather read this, or read a straight, labored explanation where quack science is taken to a nauseating level of detail?

The last thing I’ll say about “explaining without really explaining” is that while it might be okay in fiction, it should be called out when spotted in reality; it’s a sure sign that some asshat is trying to con the public. Check out this gem of logical argument from Reflections on the Revolutions in France [1790] — I spotted it the day I decided to buckle down and read Edmund Burke, which not coincidentally was the day I finally lost all sympathy for classic conservatism.

Emphasis of course is mine:

We know that the British House of Commons, without shutting its doors to any merit in any class, is, by the sure operation of adequate causes, filled with everything illustrious in rank, in descent, in hereditary and in acquired opulence, in cultivated talents, in military, civil, naval, and politic distinction that the country can afford.

See u next time #nerds, when the topic will be “Secondary Worlds, Secondary Sources.”

8 Responses to “Explaining Without Really Explaining”

  1. This goes well with your last entry and I think you sum it up pretty well: this is a logical sleight of hand. Question, though: how is this not handwaving? Is the difference here that it’s done purposefully, from the outset? Or is handwaving just the hard-SF jargon for the same thing.

    And you need not go so far, there are plenty of hard-SF and especially Space-Opera examples. Pretty much every faster-than-light engine EVER is explaining without really explaining: “how do we get there, captain?” “with your hyperdrive engine. Engage!” Or a worm-hole. We saw this in that Thor movie: How we get to Asgard? Practice, practice, practice… and a Bose-Einstein Bridge. Never mind that we’ve never seen such a thing, it’s short hand these days for concepts that years ago only physicists dreamt about: FLT travel.

    Heinlein did it with his Shipstones (batteries that never ran out… and that some dude invented in his garage). Varley did it with Null-suits.Niven did it with just about every invention he ever made up: Ringworlds, Slavers, General Ships, Kzin.

    My point is that this is totally an art form, and it’s everywhere, especially in the harder-SF stuff, only because you don’t want your book to turn into a dissertation on FTL engines… well, some people do, actually. I think the most important thing to remember is that this technique can help to remind you that you don’t have to get bogged down in the details, in explaining everything. Just look at M. John Harrison. That dude barely explains a fucking thing. And yet, it works. That’s what you really have to keep track of: does this work.

    Good entry.

    • 2 nicktramdack

      I wouldn’t say there’s a totally clear distinction between this technique and handwaving. But I do think it’s a little bit broader. I think of “handwaving” as a fake explanation for technical/science/magic/wondrous/procedural stuff only.

      But this technique has a psychological element not contained in that. Like in the Ann Beattie example, where the clothes “seem to explain everything,” or the Eric Jourdan line? These explanations don’t logically refer to anything; they’re empty statements. Yet they’re NOT a cop-out because we think this way all the time. So on the characterization front, writing this way is actually strict psychological realism rather than “handwaving.” Does that make sense?

  2. 3 Guy Immega

    This blog has little to do with hard sf. Larry Niven said that magic must have clear limits and rules. Science fantasy allows handwaving. Good…

    Hard sf is an entirely different discipline. Kafka and Poe could not write hard sf. Teleporting is not hard sf. Hard sf demands an implicit contract with the reader that is based on trust. Why should the reader spend time with this author? Most of the audience for traditional sf abandoned the genre because that trust was broken. Remember, Analog (science based sf) still has the largest readership…

    • 4 nicktramdack

      I think several of Poe’s stories actually did use scientific extrapolation from the science of the time. Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Maelzel’s Chess-Player, & The Balloon-Hoax come to mind. The extrapolations just weren’t very accurate or believable 😀

      Since Analog’s circulation curve over the years looks almost identical to that of F&SF and Asimov’s (namely a drastic decline) I’m not sure I believe that the SF magazine market failed because of a failure to write truly hard science fiction stories. Right now Analog does beat Asimov’s in circulation, but the difference is like 1000 or 2000 subscribers.

      • 5 max

        “Descent into the Maelstrom” is another hard SF story by Poe.

    • Hard SF has never been celebrated as the mainstream voice of science fiction. Certainly hard sf elements, yes, but not hard SF per se. And please, I’ve read plenty of science fantasy in Analog over the years. So, the audience of traditional SF (which mind you means the golden age and silver age of SF [30’s and 40’s, into the 60s], which is known as genre pulp NOT Hard SF at all. Hard SF [1957] came out as a reaction to all the poor science in SF, to distinguish stories that had scientific rigor).

      And what do you mean teleporting is not hard sf? Niven (knownspace), Pournelle (CoDominion), Heinlein (Tunnel in the Sky), plus Charles Stross, Chris Moriarty (she had a bibliography on teleportation in back of her book), and just about ANYBODY who’s ever written about a portal, instantaneous jump drive, or some kind of wormhole-gateway (Vinge, Banks, Bear, Brin, Benford). That’s the point of Hard SF is to take a hard scientific look at theoretical/outlandish/borderline impossible ideas.

      And what’s this hoopla about breaking trust? Yes, magazines are down, but content and sales industry wide are up (concentrated in YA for now, gag, but still: more people are reading and buying science fiction, fantasay, and genre more now than ever before).

      I’m not really sure what your point is. This is about explanations and where to apply them and when not to. It’s an art. I don’t see how this doesn’t occur in Hard SF, and if you read it you find it happens all the time in hard sf. I agree there’s more of a negative connotation to handwaving. To me that sounds like code for ‘Bullshitting’. Question though

      • Drats! I hit send too early!

        Doesn’t matter, I suppose. Point has been made.

  1. 1 SF Tidbits for 3/7/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

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