How Much Plausibility Would You Like With That?

I recently saw The Martian at the cinema, after having thoroughly enjoyed the book. For me, the film didn’t disappoint, and afterwards I was eager to discuss it with friends. And of course, amidst the discussions of what was and wasn’t the same as in the book, and what we liked and didn’t like, came a topic that always arises when discussing a science fiction book or film these days: plausibility. 

Science fiction authors know how important it is that the science behind their fictional worlds checks out, because if it doesn’t, they can be sure readers and audiences will complain about it. Every book I’ve read about writing sci-fi has stressed the importance of plausibility (books about writing fantasy have too, but never to the same extent).

The Martian, as a book, would have to be the most convincing and plausible science fiction story I’ve ever encountered. I was impressed and mesmerised, as I’m sure many others were, by the research Andy Weir put into it, and by the level of detail with which he conveyed this suspenseful survival story.

However, all the talk of plausibility drew my attention to something about my reactions as a reader that I’ve noticed many times before:

When it comes to the level of scientific plausibility in a story, I’m very easy to please.

As long as a story seems vaguely plausible to me (with my admittedly limited knowledge of science and space travel) I place far more importance on the emotions and wonder and suspense it provides.

I first noticed this when discussing the film Gravity with friends, and then later, the film Interstellar [warning: this post contains a few spoilers about both, if you haven’t seen them]. I loved those films, and was on a high when I emerged from the cinema after each one – how amazing, thrilling, and mind-boggling they’d been!

I soon found out not everyone was of the same opinion. Multiple friends complained to me, some going so far as to call the films terrible… these epic sci-fi blockbusters that I’d had trouble imagining anyone would not be awed by!

At the heart of all their complains was always this: plausibility.

“It’s so ridiculous, why would they all be reliant on corn? If they have the technology to send astronauts to colonise planets, surely they can solve their blight problem? Not to mention that crazy space station at the end and all the trippy stuff with the black hole…” 

“Why would Sandra’s character even be up there? And Clooney would never be soaring around like that wasting all his fuel. And why on earth did Clooney have to martyr himself and drift off into space? There’s no gravity! And none of that flying from space station to space station stuff was even remotely plausible…”

And yes, I agreed with all these things. Even with my limited understandings of zero gravity, I remember thinking the Clooney martyrdom didn’t make sense, and the whole “we’ve only got corn left and it’s all dying” thing never came across to me as an end of the world scenario that might actually occur.

The point is, however, that none of it mattered to me. Even when friends pointed out gaping holes in the plots that I hadn’t noticed before… I simply didn’t care.

For me, the important thing was that each of those films was packed with amazing moments and situations I’d never seen on screen before… ones that filled me with awe and wonder and excitement. The wave planet, the time loss near the black hole, the traitorous would-be colonist on the ice planet, the space debris hitting the station, the terrifying tumbling through space and struggle to reach the various stations, Sandra Bullock’s feet touching the earth. I found these fascinating and gripping and moving. The moral and emotional struggles the characters faced had me thinking about them for hours afterwards.

Evidently, the amount of plausibility required to make a sci-fi story enjoyable differs from person to person. For me, it’s simply not that important… if it’s a good story, I’m willing to go with the flow. (Provided it’s not too ridiculous.)

I think the plausibility issues in fiction that usually annoy me are when characters make stupid or illogical decisions, or have illogical emotional reactions. I stop respecting the characters, and start to see the hand of the author using them as puppets to do whatever works for the plot. But scientific plausibility? Not so fussed.

The release of The Martian film has been quite a different experience to that of Gravity and Interstellar, with many readers, astronauts, and commentators worldwide praising the thoroughly researched story and its plausibility. However, if it turned out that all of it was completely implausible, unbelievable, and based on bad science? Yes, I’d definitely be disappointed, and I’d lose a lot of the respect I have for it. It is, after all, a story that places a lot of focus on the details and plausibility of a manned mission to Mars… but I’d still love it. Because it was for me, first and foremost, a great story.

But that’s just me.

How much plausibility do you like in your sci-fi?

Some interesting related links:
Adam Savage Interviews ‘The Martian’ Author Andy Weir (this interview is great!)
An Astronaut Fact-Checks Gravity

10 thoughts on “How Much Plausibility Would You Like With That?

  1. I don’t require 100% plausibility, but what I do accept does depend on how seriously the writers took themselves while putting it together. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy can get away with any sort of science gizmo or physical law they want where as Interstellar came close to ruining itself for me with that ending. It created too big of a paradox to be believed. As the movie ended I was stuck thinking how the ending couldn’t have been possible rather than thinking how much I enjoyed the story / visual effects.


    • Yes, the paradox at the end of Interstellar was also my biggest problem with it (if the super-advanced humans from the future have to save their ancestors from extinction, how do the super-advanced future humans exist at all?) but I found the parts that came before it so impressive that I kind of blocked it out and tried to stop thinking about it… which I guess you shouldn’t have to do for a film to be enjoyable! That paradox must have been glaringly obvious to anyone who read the script. I guess they just didn’t care, or had some way of explaining it. I’d like to think it’s the latter… but it’s probably the former.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Allie P.,

      Agreed! Each story creates its own world. With Galaxy, you know you’re watching a pretend story that could never happen. So what? It creates interesting and sympathetic characters making brave, resourceful choices. As long as the writer is true to the world and characters he creates, the story works for me.


  2. Honestly, I feel like the demand for plausibility is one of the main reasons why I prefer fantasy- in fantasy there’s less of a demand for plausibility and (in my opinion) saying *it’s magic* is a perfectly acceptable way of explaining things away (I know that’s not such a popular opinion, but whatever) Great post- and for the record I do love the Martian!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great topic.

    How much plausibility I require depends on the story. Some stories, by their very nature, need to feel like non-fiction accounts. I even remember one story that was completely ruined for me when I found out it was fiction.

    I think that both The Martian and Gravity fall into this category. A big part of the point of each story is the actual dangers of space and how people might – or might not – survive them.

    But if the point of the story is a sweeping adventure, I am willing to suspend disbelief about what is physically possible. Example: the gazillions of stories that rely on man’s having discovered, and learned how to harness, light-speed travel. If you want people to be able to colonize the universe, you’re gonna need that, or an equivalent (such as tessering). Because this is so far out at the edges of our experience, plausibility is not really an issue. Although I will say I prefer stories where hyperspace travel comes at a cost to the those traveling (losing the years they are in transit, getting caught in space/time loops, temporary insanity, etc.).

    Similarly, I am more forgiving about what might be possible in the very distant future, or what conditions might have been like in the very distant past, since we know so little about either.

    I agree with you that emotional plausibility is also important. One thing we DO know really well is people, so we are quick to pick up on when characters ring false. That could be a whole post in itself, but I’ll stop there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes true, some stories by their nature do seem to require more plausibility – especially if they’re all about a realistic near-future “what would happen if” scenario. The Martian is a good example – I certainly care more about plausibility in that story than I do when watching something like Star Trek.

      I feel similarly about the sweeping adventures, light-speed travel, and distant future stories – they’re so far from our current understanding it’s hard to try to fit our standards onto it, and the point is also not really to present something 100% plausible and realistic anyway.

      And true, there could definitely be a whole post just on emotional plausibility!!


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