Blog: SF/F, Food, and Other Weighty Topics

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Dollhouse: Realism v. Believability

*Spoilers for the TV show Dollhouse below*

A few years ago, my roommate (a computer science major) and I were watching Dollhouse, which is about a group that uses advanced technology to erase people’s personalities and replace them with new ones. At one point during the show, one of the characters opines that “Topher was able to break their RSA encryption”, at which point my roommate almost fell out of his chair, jammed the keyboard to pause the show, and said:

“That’s SO UNREALISTIC! You can’t break RSA encryption!”

Again: we were watching a TV show that involves a group that uses advanced technology to erase people’s personalities and replace them with new ones, and he was concerned about a throwaway line about cryptography. Yet his outburst helped teach me a really important principle: the difference between realism (whether something is true to life) and believability (whether someone will question whether it is true to life).

Believability is much more important than realism in fiction, because believability will break the suspension of disbelief for an audience, and therefore get them to check out of a work. Believability and realism also aren’t necessarily correlated, because reality is much weirder than fiction (Charles Stross has a delightful set of examples, including a gentleman who was a “Jewish, Presbyterian, Buddhist, spy, British MP, Nazi, propagandist, and would-be Balkan oil cartel mogul…[and] claimed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and Japanese-backed candidate for the Emperor of China.”)

What each individual audience member will find believable or not is ultimately up to them, but one thing that almost universally helps to make a SF/F work believable is consistency. Magical technology, world-spanning changes, and car chases with suspiciously low amounts of traffic in urban centers can all be accepted by an audience if you consistently apply the effects. One of the dangers of SF/F specifically is that it is easy to invent something that creates or solves a plot problem, but then doesn’t ever show up again.

The reason for this is pretty simple: each time you make a change to the world (like a dangerous new technology), it has rippling implications and secondary effects. Consider, for just one example, how the availability of high-speed Internet is slowly killing physical media and places that sell or rent it (RIP, Blockbuster). It’s important to explore, or at least be aware of, these secondary implications.

Ludicrous late-stage plotting aside, Dollhouse did a decent job of this: over the course of several seasons, we saw numerous (and highly icky) different ways that personality-erasure/replacement could play out. The Dollhouse’s technology is used to create custom sex slaves (again, ick), unquestioningly loyal soldiers, bodyguards, etc. So far, so good- all things that cloning and mind control stories have done before. Where things got interesting was in using the Dollhouse technology to replicate minds, as “backup” bodies for prominent people in power, leading to all kinds of interesting and surprisingly deep questions about nature v. nurture, agency, and the mind/body divide. (To be fair, it did also have a couple of “magic technology appears once to solve the plot and then never is used again” moments)

The bar for believability is different depending on how much detail you write into your work. In genres with a high degree of detail like hard SF and mystery, the bar for believability is Olympic pole-vault level; in genres that are more minimalist or surreal, you can get away with occasional contrivances and logical holes.

Oh, and one last tip: whatever the bar is for believability in your work goes triple for guns. Get one minor detail about guns wrong and a horde of angry Internet commenters will be on your tail.