The topic of what information should and shouldn’t be widely available has been in the news recently due to several reports about deadly weapons being made using 3D printing technology (and the irresponsible designer behind these weapons posting the plans on the internet). Anyway, these news articles got me thinking about the subject of “forbidden knowledge” in sci-fi (and fantasy) stories.
Any good sci-fi or fantasy story usually contains some kind of “forbidden knowledge”. This is information which, in the context of the story, is either censored by those in authority, highly dangerous or known only to a few people.
If this is done well, then it can really add a sense of depth and detail to your sci-fi or fantasy story as well as making your readers feel incredibly curious. And, if your readers feel curious, then they’re going to keep reading. Plus, in stories with first-person narration, it also can create a sense of intimacy between the narrator and the reader too if the information is something which the narrator wouldn’t tell most people.
Before I go any further, I should probably point out that – for fairly obvious reasons – this article will only focus on creating and including ficticious “forbidden knowledge” in obviously fantastical stories.
When it comes to using real “forbidden knowledge” in your stories (eg: information or techniques which could be potentially useful to criminals and/or potentially dangerous to anyone who uses them) then, for both legal reasons and for the sake of public safety, you should always either intentionally leave some details vague and/or change a few details so that it won’t work if people actually try it. Or, better still, just don’t include it in your story at all.
This warning mainly only really applies to “realistic” thriller and detective stories rather than sci-fi/fantasy stories. But, if you’re writing a near-future sci-fi story which involves computer hacking, this may be worth bearing in mind.
Anyway, when it comes to making up “forbidden knowledge” for your sci-fi or fantasy story, there are several things which are quite useful to remember:
1) It must seem realistic in the context of your story: This is a fairly important thing to consider. If you’re coming up with forbidden information for your story, then it should feel like it’s a realistic part of the world of your story. This can either be done via foreshadowing (eg: briefly hinting that something is possible earlier in the story) or by ensuring that the information is consistent with what the reader would reasonably expect.
For example: If you’re writing a cyberpunk story and your protagonist is planning to download large amounts of information or do something ridiculously complicated with a computer. Then she can’t, for example, make a “highly illegal neural interface” in order to control the computer directly using her brain unless this technology has either been briefly mentioned or shown earlier in the story and/or your story is set far enough into the future for such technology to plausibly exist.
2) Your protagonist must be the kind of person who would actually know this stuff: In short, if your protagonist is a novice magician or someone who knows relatively little about technology, then you can’t have them casting forbidden death spells or hacking into a mega-corporation’s computer system in the early parts of your story. If your protagonist has any kind of forbidden knowledge, then they either must seem like the kind of person who would realistically know that kind of stuff or you should show why and how they learnt it.
3) Sometimes less is more/add a “red herring” or two: Sometimes “forbidden knowledge” works best in sci-fi and fantasy stories if it’s just a small background detail or something mentioned in a brief aside by the narrator. This also adds a sense of depth to the world of your story and makes the reader feel knowledgeable, but doesn’t involve writing long descriptions. Likewise, if you’re foreshadowing something which will be used later in the story, then having lots of other “red herring” descriptions of things can make this a lot less obvious too.
Here’s an example from an unpublished cyberpunk novella I wrote in 2010 called ‘Ephemera’: “I looked at my calculator again, an old scientific calculator from the late
1990s. Ravi had hollowed out the bulky, grey-black case and filled it with modern components he’d filched from a few phones. It had been kind of an anniversary present. Anyway, the clock showed that he was twelve minutes late. I wasn’t going to leave it longer than fifteen. Outside of that time-frame, the cameras start to get interested. At a pinch, Ravi could hack them with a guess-bot but it probably wouldn’t be quick enough to do the job.”
“Guess-bots” and avoiding time-sensitive security cameras don’t really play much of a role in the rest of the story, however the calculator proves to be incredibly useful in a few scenes later on in the story. However, not only do the parts about the cameras and the “Guess-bot” conceal the fact that the calculator might appear more often later in the story – they also help to characterise the narrator as being a computer hacker or at least someone who knows a few of them.
4) Your protagonist must have a valid reason for using their “forbidden knowledge”: Generally speaking, if people are using information which is forbidden, then they usually have to have a very compelling reason to do so. This usually means that they’ll only really use this particular knowledge in extreme situations or in situations where nothing else would really work.
For example: If the your protagonist in your fantasy story knows how to summon zombie soldiers who will unthinkingly follow his orders, then this should probably be reserved for the final battle with the antagonist/villain rather than something he does when he can’t be bothered to go down to the shops to buy new shoes or whatever (unless you’re writing a comedy story, of course).
5) Even if it’s fictional, it’s sometimes good to leave it slightly vague: This is something which is probably more useful to writers than to readers, since it means that you can come up with interesting forbidden things in your stories without having to spend ages working out the exact details of how they work. Not to mention that if the reader has to use their imagination, then they might feel like they know more about your story than you do.
This doesn’t work in every story and if you leave things too vague, then it can look like lazy writing. But it can be useful sometimes.
Just remember, don’t try this at home! Only joking. Have fun.