Being a Better Writer: Clarke’s Three Laws

Hello readers! Yes, I know I must apologize for the lateness of this post in coming online. But I had a really good reason, one that I think many of you will sympathize with: I was up extremely late last night reading a book. Which I then finished this afternoon as soon as I could.

Relatable, yes, but there’s a catch to this one. It wasn’t just any old book. In fact, it was quite new. So new that what I was reading these past two days was the print proof.

That’s right, readers, I stayed up late last night reading the first official paperback copy of Axtara – Banking and Finance and loving every minute of it. It really is a fantastic story with some very lively characters, and I almost can’t wait to start work on a sequel.

But I can. Because Starforge. Which … well, that’s for another news post. Back on topic, my having finished the print proof of Axtara is fantastic news because that means it’s readable. And as soon as this post is done? I’ll be making the final few tweaks to the master file … and the paperback will go live (EDIT: And it’s ticking. Amazon is reviewing it).

You read that correctly. Axtara – Banking and Finance will be available in paperback very soon. Look for a post tomorrow and be ready to start watching that shipping tracker!

All right! That’s it for news at the moment (I’ll save the other stuff for the now bi-weekly news post), so let’s get talking about today’s Being a Better Writer topic: Clarke’s Three Laws.

To be honest, I’m kind of shocked at myself that I didn’t get to this topic years ago. After all, my break-down of Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic has been one of the most perused posts on the site (and if I may toot my own horn a bit, is also the source of Wikipedia’s summary as well as Google’s), so discussing three laws that have been influencing Science-Fiction for decades should have been as straightforwardly obvious as “Science-Fiction has science.”

But for whatever reason, I didn’t make that connection. Not until a month or two ago when I was discussing one of the laws with someone on a writing chat and realized, to my shock and embarrassment, that I’d never actually written about them.

It went on the list right then and there. Because it’s just wrong to have talked about one author’s rules for Fantasy Magic system but completely passed on Arthur C. Clarke’s rules for writing about the future. So no more! Today, we talk about Clarke’s Laws! So hit that jump, and let’s get started!

So, as usual, we’re going to start at the beginning. What are “Clarke’s Three Laws?” Well, like Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, Clarke’s Laws are a series of adages penned by famed Science-Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke over the course of his career regarding the act of writing about the future. None of the three occurred, or at least were penned at the same time, the actual voicing of them spanning over a decade, the last appearing in 1973, of which Clarke himself said upon presentation of the final (and most well known) “As three laws were good enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop here.”

Stop there he may have, but Clarke’s Three Laws, or more commonly “Clarke’s Laws” have echoed through the annals of Science-Fiction in the decades since, being quoted in movies, books, video games, graphic novels, and more while being almost instantly recognizable to most readers and followers of anything Science-Fiction related.

With good reason, I might add. They’re well known because they’re good, solid foundational approaches to Science-Fiction writing. While they won’t teach you everything you need to know about Sci-Fi, understanding Clarke’s Laws will certainly be of great benefit to anyone trying to understand the genre. Or, even more appropriately, looking to write in it themselves.

So then, what are these three laws? Well, from first to last, they are as follows:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I imagine that number three on that list was when many of you sat up and exclaimed “Oh, I know this one!” Yes, Clarke’s Third Law has become the most oft-repeated of the three, as well as the most parodied. Variations of all kinds exist of it, and it’s firmly cemented itself in the mind of many pop-culture aficionados, even if in a slightly altered fashion.

But okay, so these are Clarke’s Three Laws … but now what? What are they for? How does one apply them to whatever they’re working on?

Well, I believe it’s important to remember that these all share a common trait between them: They are laws to remember when writing about the future. That isn’t to say you couldn’t quite easily make use of these writing about the past, or a fantasy setting (after all, to an ambitious engineer working at creating a steam engine, the laws Clarke outlined still apply, what is steam-power but the Science-Fiction of 500 years ago?), but they’re rules to make you think about what’s ahead in a proper context.

So, that said, let’s dive into each one of these laws and break them down, take a look at what they mean, and how you can use them with your writing. Starting with law #1.

Law #1: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Okay, so I’ll be blunt here: This law is almost an attack on the “hardcore hard-science Sci-Fi” crowd. If you’ve never run into these folks before, they’re readers of “Sci-Fi” that live by the creed of “unless you can prove it with real math right now, it’s fantasy make-believe.” These are the people that eschew artificial gravity, faster-than-light-travel, hard-light, or anything that can’t be done “right here, right now” as “trash” (and that’s putting it kindly). If the author cannot present a scientific paper explaining how it’s done right then and there, then “it” (whatever it is) is “impossible,” and therefore garbage.

Which is an incredibly close-minded view to take, as this law reminds us. I don’t know if the “hardcore hard Sci-Fi” crowd was as numerous in Clarke’s day as it is now, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’d found a few of them, as this law is a direct rebuttal of their ethos and creed.

Law #1 reminds us that we don’t know everything, that much of what we now know and take for granted was once thought to be impossible. Flying for instance, was thought to be a flight of fancy (haha) for centuries. In fact, the famed Lord Kelvin proved Clarke right almost a century before by being an extremely distinguished elderly scientist and stating publicly and to the world on no uncertain terms that, and I quote, “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

He was proven wrong eight years later.

In fact, science has been continuously proving Clarke’s first law correct for centuries now. Evidence is found in histories everywhere of scientists arguing against, among other things, flight, space travel, analyzing stars, television … In each case, such things we now regard as commonplace were seen as impossible flights of fancy that only those not serious about their craft would even consider working on. And yet … Sands, even my own grandparents expressed to me a distaste one day for Science-Fiction, arguing that there was no point in “thinking of things that could never happen.” My rebuttal that they had lived through the invention of the jet engine, the shattering of the sound barrier, man walking on the moon, the internet, and the portable cell phone, all things that during their lives had been considered “impossible science-fiction,” left them dumbfounded and unable to reply.

Okay, point hammered home. Clarke’s first law is obviously correct. But to the more on-topic question, why should we as writers acknowledge it, and how can we apply it to our work?

Well it’s quite simple really: We look at what science says is possible and impossible, and then ask ourselves the question “But what if they’re wrong about it being impossible?”

Because it’s simply truth that what a scientist may swear is “impossible” today … may not be tomorrow, and we should seek to represent this in our writing when writing about tomorrow.

Sure, we may guess wrong. For example, I’ve always enjoyed bringing up the example of a Niven book where the opening has a 200+ year old protagonist (immortality drugs) tell his android butler (intelligent, if not sapient, but skilled robot) to go manually flip the tape over playing the music at his party … because the tech doesn’t exist in-universe for automatic tape-flipping or a better storage medium for music (a lot of old Sci-Fi makes this mistake, especially with computers). But there’s nothing wrong with guessing “incorrectly.” Supposition is supposition.

But what’s the “wrong” of that example? Sure, we don’t have immortality treatments yet … but we’re closer than we’ve ever been, and they’re far from impossible as we once might have thought. Robot butler? Go look at the lastest Boston Dynamics video. That might only be a decade away … or less! The only thing Niven really got wrong there was not guessing that we’d figure out how to make tape decks do the flipping, or that we’d invent a better music storage medium within a few decades (and then another, and another …).

Clarke’s first law then, is a reminder not to let the limits of those without vision be our limits. Sure, someone says “it” is impossible. And today, it might be. But tomorrow is another story, and our job, when writing about Science-Fiction and the future, is to write about that tomorrow!

So yes, when a scientist says ‘this is possible,” it almost certainly is. When they say “this is impossible,” it’s likely only a question of “For how long?”

Don’t be afraid to write about “the impossible.” It’ll get here soon enough. And you never know: Your work may be the inspiration that drives someone to make it arrive.

Law #2: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Clarke’s second law is an excellent companion and follow-up to the first. While the first reminds us of the vast volume of “impossible” things that have gone on to become impossible, and directs us to look to the impossible in what we write and explore, #2 is more of a guiding stone for how to get there, and says so in a succinct fashion that almost makes me hesitant to add anything. But … I’ll do my best.

I will note foremost that law #2 raises an important point: Limits exist. There’s a limit to speed, be it horse or sound. There’s a limit to the volume of a sphere. Everything around us has a limit.

However, the only way we can truly discover those limits and where they lie is by pushing past them. For example, we learn how much air a balloon can hold by filling it until it bursts. Only then do we know what the limit was. Before it came apart? We didn’t, we only had theories.

And then? As the latter half of the law indicates, we go make a better balloon, and push past the limit of the possible into the impossible. Which then becomes the new limit, and then we push again …

You can see this with computers. When I was young, my family’s first computer had a 75 MHz processor. I remember when 500 MHz processers were coming out, and then 750 Mhz. I had a teacher who explained to me that 1 GHz (1000 MHz) was the proven limit, and only tricks could carry us past that. When I bought my first 1.8 GHz processor, I remember that conversation with amusement. Now the “limit” is 4 Ghz … but even then engineers are already figuring out ways past it.

As writers, especially of Science-Fiction, of the future, we need to know what the limits are … and then push past them. We shouldn’t restrict ourselves to what the current limit is, but instead look past the barrier to what might be.

Writers dreamed of breaking the sound barrier long before it was broken, back when it was a limit. The Wright brothers dreamed of pushing past the limits of gravity. Through weird tricks? Maybe. But most of physics is, in truth, “one weird trick.”

The point of Clarke’s second law is to see the limits of what we can discover as starting points, not ending ones. To ask ourselves how much more may lay past the barrier of, say, the speed of light, or our understanding of gravity. To walk right up against the barrier we ourselves have constructed and then say “Yes, but what’s past this?” Only by taking that step will we discover the impossible.

As writers and creators, we’re gifted with a unique opportunity to inquire in this manner. A scientist can’t simply start pushing the limits of the speed of light, for example. Not out of nowhere. They have to reach the limit first, just as a child inflating a balloon until it pops has to have a balloon to inflate first.

But as writers, we can create a world where that limitation is easily accessible. Where a scientist is capable of going up against the speed of light … and then perhaps pushes beyond.

Now, there is a subtext here I want to bring up: In order to pass limits by, we must know them in some fashion. One can’t write a book about someone speeding past the sound barrier without knowing what the sound barrier is. Or how it operates. Or why.

Law #2 is, therefore, a subtle if unspoken call that as writers of Science-Fiction, we should know what the science is! And you’ll find that most successful Sci-Fi writers do! They may not be able to give you the 100% details … but when it comes to writing about a topic they’ll learn a lot about it in order to know what the limits they’re stepping past are.

In other words, law #2 has a tacit, if not directly stated, support for one of my favorite rules of writing: Always do the research.

Do the learning, find the limits of the possible. Then push past them.

Law #3: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And now we come to one of the most famous of Clarke’s Three Laws, the law that has been restated and repeated, in one form or another, for decades. And well … not without good reason.

Law #3 is another truthful observation on the reality of the progression of science. In fact, this exact accusation was leveled against the telegraph when it first appeared, with numbers of nervous people decrying the invention as “magic.” Because what is magic, really?

Something we don’t understand. In fact, a common corollary that has cropped up in recent years is that any sufficiently understood magic is indistinguishable from science.

Now, while many take this law at face value—and bear in mind that there is nothing wrong with that—I do want to dig a little deeper with it and tackle what some call “Science Fantasy,” or ‘Fantasy that masquerades as Sci-Fi.’ While I can’t speak for Clarke, I would argue that the third law refutes the idea of ‘Science Fantasy’ as many approach it. Rather it points out that the lines between the fantastical and the scientific are often—and frequently—blurred, the difference truly only being the understanding of the workings therein. To many, the idea of gravity control form a work like Colony, or a ring world from a book like, well, Ring World, may seem like magic. However, magic it is not: Merely science we do not yet understand. Science that may operate on physical principles we haven’t yet discovered, but principles nonetheless.

To this end, so what if your story has spaceships with artificial gravity? It’s not magic … it’s just a science we don’t understand yet. The more advanced the technology, the less it’s understood, the more like magic it appears … but it isn’t. It’s just science.

I mean, it could be magic. But again, that just wraps around into being science once understood …

Ultimately, however, if there were one thing I’d say to take away from this law for your writing (and you could easily take more than one), I’d say it’s to not worry about making the sky the limit. You want to give your space soldier a gun that arcs lightning around? Go for it! Sure, we can’t make one now, but that doesn’t make it magic. You want aliens to have discovered FTL but not rocketry? There’s literally a story about that (The Road Not Taken). It’s not magic, just a branch of science mankind never discovered.

One could also argue, and I would, that this final law? It’s a reminder to have fun. Put the crazy things way beyond our understanding in your Sci-Fi story. Postulate what would happen if a society had wormhole guns, or how time travel could work, or anything else wild and beyond a limit we know that sounds fun!

So what if the poor, primitive humans reading it think it’s magic? It’s not. It’s nanites, or branches of physics we’ve yet to discover. Maybe in two-hundred years, someone will read it and say “Wow, that’s actually not that far off!” before walking through a wormhole to visit their family on Mars. Who knows?

So there we have it! A breakdown of Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws. I hope that you learned something, and that as you head on out to get to writing, you find them useful to keep in mind, whether that’s with pointing you in the right direction or just giving you ideas. Whatever or however they help, thanks for reading.

Now good luck. And get writing.

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