Why “What If” Matters

This a guest post from Grant Barnes of nerdcoretheology.com. Enjoy!

Why “What If” Matters

I am, like my esteemed colleague here at Silly Robots, a fan of science fiction. So much so, I created a blog trying to connect the dots between theology and culture, nerd culture specifically (the results of which may vary from post to post.) Part of my own quest on my blog is to ask the big questions, and see where they fit in our world. The reason I love theology in many ways is that it asks a simple question—a question that Science Fiction is based upon: What if?

“What if” is perhaps one of the most entertaining and enlightening questions that can be asked, and it’s a question that I have no doubt every science fiction –nay, any writer—asks of themselves to establish a premise for their story. Almost any good story can be boiled down to a premise starting with “What if”:

  • What if humanity got its act together, and with a number of other cooperative alien species, decided to go and explore the rest of the universe? (Star Trek)
  • What if a bunch of humans stumble upon a distress beacon on a distant planet and pick up some unexpected, horrifying cargo? (Alien)
  • What if the police started using psychics to predict crimes? (Minority Report)
  • What if someone actually invented a machine that can travel through time, and it wound up in the hands of an idiot teenager? (Back to the Future)
  • What if Dracula came to New England instead of London? (‘Salem’s Lot)
  • What if Moses came from Outer Space? (Superman)

The list could go on and on, but you are beginning to see the gist of the argument. Figuring out a good premise is often the seed of an idea that could grow into something beautiful, something profound, something exciting or something that questions the very nature of reality. It’s the first step to writing a good story, and that’s what this whole endeavor of Silly Robots is all about.

So how do you go about asking this daunting question?

1. Go big or go home? Not necessarily.

A good “What if” doesn’t have to start with anything outlandish, lest you become intimidated by the task of writing a story. Garrison Keillor, writer and radio personality, once said “A good story will never start with something like “The cat sat on the mat. However, a good story might start with something like “The cat sat on the dog’s mat.” All it really takes to get someone interested is to put something out there that is just a little different from the ordinary. One thing out of place, one thing just different enough to make large scale changes to the world.

One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of a small idea that made a large scale change was in Greg Bear’s Blood Music. It’s about a scientist who works on and creates a kind of intelligent microorganism, something like nanotechnology, but organic. In essence, the organism gets loose, and the scientist himself becomes a host to it. The microorganism then multiplies, mutates, and learns as much as it can—and in effect, shapes the world in its strange, incomprehensible image. Simple idea, huge ramifications.

2. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

I’m sure Will has probably gone over this before, but it bears repeating. Writing is an art—and like any art, it is built on the shoulders of those giants that came before us. Everything we write as authors is done now in a world where books and information are far more available than ever before, and because of that, lots of ideas have already been thrown out there. This, believe it or not, is not a bad thing.

Let’s branch out for a minute and talk about the Fantasy genre (gasp!) This sister genre has much to teach us. For example: Lord of the Rings has already been written. Does this stop the countless fantasy writers who have written innumerable tales using the foundation that Tolkien laid down as a basis for their work? Absolutely not. And it’s shouldn’t stop you from putting your own mark on the genre of Science Fiction.

Again, I’ll turn my eye to pop culture, to the biggest Science Fiction property out there—Star Wars. Star Wars is far from an original work.

There. I said it.

Star Wars, as fantastic and as powerful as it is in our cultural imagination, is an amalgamation of several different kinds of properties. George Lucas makes no secret of the fact that he was inspired by the old space opera serials of his youth, namely Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the like. He adds into that existing pool of creativity ideas he got from Japanese film and philosophy, as well as European archetypes and Roman history. Mix it all together, and you have Star Wars.

George Lucas, in making Star Wars, did not re-invent the wheel, but took existing parts from culture, philosophy, and history, and put them together to make something not unlike the Millenium Falcon—hobbled together from bits and pieces of other starships, but somehow faster and more effective than anything else. Granted, his “What-if” of space wizards meets WWII-style dogfights is a bit more complex than most, but it all comes together quite nicely.

And finally,

3. Don’t be afraid to mess up.

Not all ideas are created equal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. I’ve had to learn the hard way of not scrapping everything completely when I feel like I haven’t gone the way I wanted to go in my writing. When you ask “What-if”, you are daring to look into the face of creativity itself. Sometimes, you might produce something amazing. Other times, in fact most often, you might wind up with a dud. This should not be a discouragement but an empowerment. The only way to write something better than what you’ve already written is to keep writing anyway. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

Daring to ask “What if” is incredibly risky, but even more rewarding. If you keep on writing, and keep on dreaming, you may wind up being the shoulders that someone else stands on some day. I think that’s something we can all aspire to.

Grant is a Science Fiction writer, blogger, and pastor currently residing in Canton, TX. He has authored stories such as ‘The Samaritan Gambit’. He blogs weekly, daily during Lent, at nerdcoretheology.com

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One thought on “Why “What If” Matters

  1. Pingback: Secrets to Writing Good Sci Fi part 3: Tech | Silly Robots

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