Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


Wells's Law

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

"Wells's Law" is a principle described by H.G. Wells (see below) by which science fiction maintains a respectable degree of realism and avoids turning into fantasy.

According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Wells's Law stipulates that "a science fiction story should contain only a single extraordinary assumption."

Put another way, for a science fiction story to maintain realism, it should limit itself to one miracle or exception to natural law.

In one story, for instance, aliens might arrive on earth, and humans would respond according to the resources normally at hand.

In another story, a child might suddenly exhibit an extraordinary mutation that might enable him or her to rule the world, to which the child's parents, school, government would respond as they could.

But if aliens arrived AND a child gained world-dominating powers in the same story, that story would verge from science fiction into fantasy.

from H. G. Wells, Preface to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (omni 1933 )

. . . Anyone can invent human beings inside out or worlds like dumb-bells or a gravitation that repels. The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human.

"How would you feel and what might not happen to you," is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you. How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you became invisible?

But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses also began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats and dogs left and right, or if everyone would vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting, where anything may happen.

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader to play the game properly, he must help him in every possible unobtrusive way to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. He must trick him into an unwary concession to some plausible assumption and get on with his story while the illusion holds.

And that is where there was a certain slight novelty in my stories when first they appeared. Hitherto, except in exploration fantasies, the fantastic element was brought in by magic. Frankenstein even, used some jiggery-pokery magic to animate his artificial monster. There was trouble about the thing's soul. But by the end of last century it had become difficult to squeeze even a momentary belief out of magic any longer.

It occurred to me that instead of the usual interview with the devil or a magician, an ingenious use of scientific patter [language, jargon] might with advantage be substituted. That was no great discovery. I simply brought the fetish stuff up to date, and made it as near actual theory as possible.

As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.

cf. Washington Post review of Naomi Alderman's The Power