The rules of any game are as essential as the game itself. If you were playing chess and your opponent moved their pawn four spaces to the left, you would feel cheated. You may even stop to explain pawns just don’t move like that. Rules govern our chess games, just as they govern the worlds in our science fiction and fantasy stories. We must accept they cannot be broken, bent, or distorted.
As inventive and strange as sci-fi/fantasy novels can be, they are far from ‘anything goes.’ A good author must present both the strangeness of the world and the rules on how to navigate. In this regard, no matter how fantastic the setting of the plot—be it outer space, a school for young wizards, or a futuristic city—the reader is comforted by knowing the basic principles.
Here are a few sci-fi/fantasy novels and the respective rules that afflict the characters. Be aware, there may be a few spoilers.
Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Rule: “No man can kill The Witch King of Angmar.”
We know the Nazgul have survived for thousands of years. We know they don’t like fire and aren’t too keen on swimming. But how can they be defeated? The reader—at least those who neglected the lesson learned from Macbeth—is led to believe no man can kill The Witch King, i.e. he is invincible, and therefore it is futile to fight against him. Eowyn, the niece of King Theoden, however, does kill Angmar in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But the rule is not broken, since Eowyn is not a ‘man.’
This is not deus ex machina (a solution based on divine intervention). We, the readers, assumed the word ‘man’ meant ‘mankind’ and possibly elf-kind, dwarf-kind, and hobbit-kind. The killing of The Witch King is not out-of-nowhere. It is a skillful, albeit predictable, play on words and the established patriarch.
Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
Rule: “No one can apparate or disapparate at Hogwarts.”
One would assume a wizard—even the headmaster of a school of wizards—would be able to simply wave their wand and be off to wherever they choose. But, rules are rules: no one can disapparate on school grounds. In the 6th installment of the book franchise, even Dumbledore must walk with Harry Potter to Hogsmeade before disapparating in search of the horcrux. The film adaptation caused an uproar on social media when Dumbledore and Harry disapparated from the Astronomy Tower, which was most certainly on school grounds. Dumbledore quips, much to the chagrin of loyal Harry Potter fans, “Being me has its privileges.”
Rules are rules, people. You cannot apparate or disapparate at Hogwarts. Period. There are no exceptions. Dumbledore breaking this rule on screen opens up a slippery slope. Does this also mean Voldemort can apparate on school grounds? What about Fred and George? Can’t Dumbledore’s ‘privileges’ extend to them just for just one gag? The answer is no. It is a rule. And because it cannot, under any circumstances be broken (in the books), Draco Malfoy must discover another entrance for his denizens in The Room of Requirement.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Rule: “Only Henry’s body can time travel.”
Time travel has fascinated science fiction writers since the 1800’s. Books like The Time Machine, Harry Potter, and Outlander all have their own spin on how exactly time travel works (and rules on what to do and not to do while time traveling). Most often it involves a machine or mechanism or Time-Turner.
But in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry just goes. And wherever he ends up—be it an open field, a museum, or the Newbery Library—he is always stark naked. A young Claire learns the dates of these random appearances and has a stow of clothing ready for him when he arrives. The rule is enforced over and over. He arrives naked. Always. Still when he inadvertently travels during a frigid Chicago winter, we hope, just this once, for the rule to be broken. Alas, it cannot.
Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Rule: “Once a zombie, always a zombie…Right?”
Just like time travel, zombies are not new. They have exploded in popularity over the last 20 years. World War Z, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…you get the idea. Each author who creates a horde of zombies seems to have their own idea of the ‘rules of play.’ In some books, zombies can’t run or climb. In others, they can. But what the reading community can all agree on is this: humans can and do turn into zombies. But is there a way for a zombie to turn back into a human?
In Warm Bodies, a zombie known only as R, falls in love with Julie, a human. And because of their mutual love, R begins changing back into human form. The reader is surprised, taken back, encouraged. Why? Because in the zombie universe we have been led to believe once a zombie, always a zombie. Marion plays on the reader’s assumption of this sci-fi rule but never directly or blatantly states changing back to human form can’t be done.
Under the Dome by Stephen King
Rule: The dome is impenetrable.
Where did the dome come from? What is it made out of? And why did that unfortunate woodchuck cross the path exactly when it did? These questions seem to be irrelevant. What is relevant is that Chester’s Mill is completely cut off by a transparent, indestructible glass-like dome. Ram it with a truck. Fly a plane into it. Shoot a missile at it. Nothing will work. Chester’s Mill is, in all meanings of the word, an ant farm. Look at them scurry. Look at them fight.
This situation seems the most hopeless on my list. Characters always find a loophole for the rules in their world. Can’t take your clothes with you when you time travel? Have some ready when you arrive. Can’t disapparate on school grounds? Do so when you’re off property. But an impenetrable dome housing an enormous meth lab, a power-hungry politician, and hundreds of propane tanks? That is a rule with no foreseeable loophole. Unless of course you contact the aliens responsible for the dome and ask them for mercy. Deus ex machina for the win.