I recently caught a few old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and got reminded how some of the details in science fiction plot truly aren’t necessary to explain. One episode, the Enterprise is talking about how it takes forever to get from where it is to some other system. In another episode, the ship is running around from system to system without caring about silly things like distance. Over time, little inconsistencies build as the permanent details of the story unfolds.
But nobody really cares (that I’ve met, at least).
The thing is, stories call for different attention to different details. Writing about travel and exploration, the journey is everything. Whether it takes a long time or a short time doesn’t matter; the plot determines which details are important at the time. I think this is true for any sort of episodic story, including written works. In fiction, plot is a more fundamental law than the speed of light.
That’s kind of sacrilegious to say as a fan of science fiction. Personally, I want a story to be internally consistent. Additionally, I want science fiction stories to be consistent with whatever science it does rely on. Breaking those rules either turns the story itself sour or turns an attempt at science fiction into speculative fiction. While there’s nothing wrong with mixing fantasy and sci-fi, it creates situations where a story is mislabeled.
I’m realizing that even in Star Trek, their inconsistencies were in carefully placed gray areas. So, in the episode where speed was an issue, they never actually said how fast the ship was going. The story played to its strengths and avoided any major pitfalls in details.
Even in writing science fiction, I think this is something important to remember whether the story is hard or soft sci-fi. The science is important to be consistent, but building that consistency means knowing when to not explain too much. Nobody has to know the specifics of how fast your ships can go, or how the engine works. They just have to know that the ship is moving to the next plot point, and that something interesting is going to happen when it arrives.