A guide to avoiding savage nerds converging upon your innocent science fiction story and ripping it to shreds.
The journey into writing science fiction can be perilous. No writer with a brain wants to accidentally alienate the hard-line physics nerds or quantum theory junkies who lurk in their own parallel universe in specially designated areas like insultingly stupid movie physics.
One of the most intimidating things about writing for science fiction is the possibility that your science is wrong; that your time travel story will get all caught up in its own paradoxes and wind around itself like a planet orbiting a black hole; or that someone might figure out your laser gun is based on your vague idea of how you think maybe a microwave works.
The thing is, science fiction is, in many ways, less about ‘science’ than it is about ‘what could be’ and how that reflects on ‘what is’. Which is basically saying that the genre works to reflect society and technology and how they interrelate. It lets you explore questions like: ‘What does it say about the eternal existential question of human consciousness when your animatronic fuck-ranch suddenly develops sentience?’
Here, we look at a couple of tips from the world’s greatest sci-fi writers on how they put the flux in their capacitor.
The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness
Here Le Guin highlights philosophical difference between the science fiction and fantasy genres – where fantasy looks more at the personal quest and how our choices reflect who we are as individuals, sci-fi is perennially focussed on the human species as a social construct.
Of course it’s ridiculous to say that these are the only differences between the two genres – it’s just a good place to start.
The ‘science’ in science fiction can be addressed in a number of ways but here are some rough guides – hard, soft, utopian and dystopian.
When writing ‘hard’ sci-fi, which is to say: often technical, well thought-out technological theory, what your doing is trying to blend your vision of possibilities with something that could physically happen in the future. You don’t have to be a scientist with amazing lambchops like Asimov to do this – just do your research and try to find a person who knows what they're talking about to check it over for obvious flaws.
“What science fiction is good at is doing scenarios. Science fiction may never predict what is really going to happen in the future because that’s too hard. Strange things, contingent things happen that can’t be predicted, but we can see trajectories.”
— Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Mars Trilogy
Soft sci-fi writing, which explains a lot less of the technical stuff but still likes to use it for devices in plot, prefers to approach the issue more obliquely. You can say that most people (regardless of how much they actually enjoy science fiction) know what a laser gun is and what a spaceship is. The theoretical concepts have been around for over a hundred years and they are part of our collective storytelling memory. Because we already know what a laser gun does (even if we don’t, not really) the writer doesn’t have to spend ten pages describing the inception and creation of laser beam technology.
Science fiction has its tropes – lasers, sentient robots, spaceships, lightsabers, invisible energy shields… and they can be used for great effect when writing ‘soft’ sci-fi because you can skew your wordcount toward the characterisation and plot of the story rather than long didactic descriptions of the Warp Drive.
“We try to aim for Wikipedia-level plausibility. We want it to seem plausible, but we never want scientific rigor to get in the way of awesome. We try to at least not be insultingly implausible for most things. We probably fail sometimes, but we try not to be insultingly implausible. Most of the research we need to do can be done with just reading, finding biology texts — and there are a lot of people out there who have done work on other possible bases for life. There was a guy who was, for a while, proposing the idea that life could have started out with a crystalline structure and then shifted to DNA. What would that look like? Just reading that stuff gives you great ideas. One of the main things you do is take out all the math, so that nobody can double-check your work and see all the things you screwed up.”
— James S. A. Corey, co-author of The Expanse (now an amazing Netflix series)
Dystopian science fiction is less about the use of technology, than it is about the trajectory of humanity. In fact it often takes away technology, and allocates technological power to castes delineated by ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. These stories are often more heavily focussed on exploring humanity and society, and whether we revert back to survivalist mentality or if we can still move beyond that. And because it’s dystopian, the answer is usually no.
Utopian sci-fi stories, of which Star Trek is a great example, use the ‘wonder’ of technology to solve a number of humanity’s problems and provide the backdrop for greater exploration of the way humans can interact with the universe.
These distinctions: hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, utopian and dystopian aren’t hard and fast rules, they are often used and recombined in a number of ways – think of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
“I think utopia and dystopia are essentially flipsides of the same form, and that every utopia has a dystopia concealed within it. And every dystopia has got a utopia concealed within it, otherwise you wouldn’t have anything to judge the “bad” by.
Utopianism is something people both wrote about and did, from the seventeenth to maybe the end of the nineteenth century. Then it kind of blew up, literally, with the First World War, and the Second World War, and a couple of other experiments in utopias. So the USSR and Hitler’s Germany were both experiments in utopianism. “Grand Plan, going to make everything much better, except first of all we have to get rid of these people.” These were followed by Mao’s China and Pol Pot. There’s some minor ones too, Ceaușescu’s Romania and the Albanian Adventure, etc.
Each utopia always had a little bit of dystopia, the part where “we had to get rid of those people.” And each dystopia had a utopia, the better society that we either remembered or hoped to escape to.
— Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake
Ultimately, even scientists get told that they’re wrong all the time. Just look at those guys who thought the Earth was flat, and boy do they look like a bunch of muggins these days – or they would if they didn’t still exist which just goes to show what a strange world this is. And did you know that doctors used to believe that bleeding people was the way to help them heal, because fevers were caused by too much blood or something? Also that a ‘tincture’ of mercury, the very poisonous element, was a cure-all.
Ultimately, it doesn’t hurt to try to keep your science closer to plausible technology than to inexplicable devices that are interchangeable with magic – purely for genre reasons – but the focus on science fiction has always been on how humanity is tied to technology as a way to define our species.
If our technology changes, do we change or are there some things that are fundamentally human?
Raphaelle Race is a professional writer and editor based in Melbourne. Her fun writing can be seen in Overland, Junkee, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, Phantasmagoria and Feminartsy, among others. Like many others, she is writing a book.