modern science fiction and the gimme part 2 – on the rule of the gimme

ALL FANTASTICAL LITERATURE depends on a state of being known as the ‘willful suspension of disbelief.’ That is, the reader enters the story prepared to toss all skepticism aside for the sake of the story! This term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 in his Biographia literaria (or ‘biographical sketches of my literary life’) and opinions he wrote:

“In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

The meaning of the term has changed since then: “The phrase suspension of disbelief came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the burden was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. This might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises.” (Wikipedia)

Today it essentially means that once the author has the reader’s tacit agreement to stop not believingin something—that he will accept the improbable as probable—he can tell his tale regardless of its flights of fancy.

The unwritten law of the gimme

In science fiction, once that agreement has been made, a few rules unique to science fiction come into play. And these are not the ‘laws’ previously discussed. One of the rules—at least one that I remember—was that a writer was allowed one gimme per story. And a novel is one story, regardless of the number of sub-plots.

Basically, a gimme (from “gimme a break”) is a literary device in the story in which the writer requires that the reader willingly suspend his disbelief. A science fiction story’s plot usually hangs on the gimme.

The gimme is usually something that does not exist in contemporary consensual reality (that reality that average humans seem to agree that they share). The gimme’s existence may be theoretical or otherwise conceivable.

The reason for this unstated law of only one per story is to keep the narrative grounded so that we do not lose ourselves in the author’s fantasies. Stories which do NOT adhere to this rule tend to become convoluted or silly or unbelievable despite our willingly suspending our disbelief. It is almost always unsatisfying to those intelligent, articulate readers that science fiction had gathered about itself.

Among the more common gimmes in science fiction are the existence of technologically advanced species from other worlds, time travel, mental telepathy and telekinesis, and physically traveling faster than the speed of light.

As an example, if the writer uses time travel as his gimme, that is the only break he gets: everything else in the story must conform to a reasonable facsimile of consensual reality and be at least probable. For example, if the protagonist travels backwards in time, then everything about the period he travels to in the past must be historically accurate (although not necessarily factual).

Regarding characters in the past

The personalities and behavior of well documented, historical characters should remain true to history. Julius Caesar, Ben Franklin, and Madame Curie must act in a manner consistent with what the historical records indicate their manner was.

On the other hand, historical figures for which we know little may be used (or abused) as the writer sees fit. The same applies to fictional characters of the past.


TimeMachine_Classics

The comic book above was a faithful adaptation of the novel into a literate comic book, part of the Classics Illustrated line that seemed to last forever. It cost 15¢ in 1956, a pretty penny indeed for a funnybook! The comic book below was a reasonable adaptation of George Pal’s movie, itself a reasonable adaptation of the novel. It sold for the usual 10¢, standard fare for a 36-page comic of the time. (Refer to HEADER IMAGE below.)


TimeMachine_comicbook2

Traveling into the future

The one gimme per story rule may be set aside when the protagonist travels far into the future. While it may be prudent of the author to keep things as realistic as possible, who is to say that a time traveler (the primary gimme) moving 1,000 years into the future would discover that the ability to travel faster than the speed of light or tap into mental abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis could not be possible?

So that is how I remember the concept of the gimme. Searching the internet I found little of substance on “science fiction gimme rule”—regardless of how I worded my search. (Oddly, there are lots of listings for a band called Me First & The Gimme Gimmes who have a single called Science Fiction!)

I did find a few other sites where it was mentioned, but none dwelled on it like I am doing here. They just took for granted that their readers knew and understood the concept.

In the next two parts of this essay I will return to the concept of the gimme in regards to several sub-genres of fantastic literature.


TimeMachine_header

HEADER IMAGE: For “Modern Science Fiction and the Gimme Part 2” I selected a picture of one of the most famous models in cinematic history: the time machine used by George (Rod Taylor) in the George Pal movie The Time Machine (1960). Time travel is one of the dearest of science fiction gimmes and both the novel and the movie do a good job of leaving other gimmes alone.

 
 
 

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