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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.

 

TimeMachine_Classics

This comic book ver­sion of The Time Ma­chine from Clas­sics Il­lus­trated was a faithful adap­ta­tion of the novel. It cost 15¢ in 1956, a pretty penny in­deed for a fun­ny­book!

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).

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_comicbook2

This comic book ver­sion of The Time Ma­chine 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.

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.

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.

 

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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