Writing Science Fiction

Today, the 5th day of Blogtober, I’m going to talk broadly about science fiction. While I won’t get too much into the nuts and bolts of writing scifi, I hope to convey a broader understanding of the genre and offer a few suggestions how to approach writing it.

Why am I Talking about SciFi?

As soon as I’m done with this blog post, I’m going to get another coffee, crack my knuckles, and do some word sprints on Twitter. I’m going to focus on my SciFi novel, Synthetic Dreams. As stated the first day, one of my goals this month is to finish the first draft before Nanowrimo.

This will be my second completed SciFi novel. Additionally, I read a lot of SciFi, and have been doing so since my early teens. I attend SciFi conventions. I dream to one day win a Hugo so that I can be in the company of my heroes, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.

While I may not be qualified to teach the topic, I feel sufficiently saturated in the genre to write a blog post about it. Again, I’m not an authority. I’m just enthusiastic.

Defining Science Fiction

SciFi is a genre, and genres are primarily used in marketing. They are also used as a way to group a set of tropes, patterns, and story beats so as to set the reader’s expectations. Genre is artificial and conceptual, much the way currency is representative of value without actually being valuable itself.

Okay, I intentionally packed that paragraph with controversial viewpoints. That’s okay, because SciFi itself is often packed with controversial points of view, and is viewed by some as the perfect vehicle for examining and criticizing society. Some of the best science fiction ever put to print relies on soft science, rather than hard.

SciFi is usually future thinking, and usually sticks to what is possible, even if improbable. I have to use the ugly word “usually” because several pillars of the genre are definitely neither of those things. Just look at Star Wars and Dune. I’m not bashing either of those, and there are lots of people that say Star Wars is a fantasy or a space opera, rather than calling it SciFi. However, most people consider Star Wars a SciFi story. You’ll find both Dune and Star Wars in the SciFi section of your local bookstore (if you still have a local bookstore).

So what is SciFi? It is space ships and robots and magic dust that lets you see the future and turns your eyes blue. It is physics and sociology wrapped in an allegory. It is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, it is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, it is Andy Weir’s Martian, it is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, it is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

SciFi stories fill people with a sense of wonder and encourage the reader to ask the question, “What if?” SciFi explores space. It explores the human psyche. It trawls the oceans with robots and submarines. SciFi includes space marines and faster-than-light space travel and laser swords.

Is Science Fiction and Fantasy the Same Thing?

My plan is to talk about fantasy tomorrow, so I don’t want to get too much into the definition of fantasy today. I will say, however, that while SciFi and fantasy often get lumped together, they are not quite the same thing.

I believe there is often a fantastical element in every SciFi story. There is one or more element of the story that does not exist now, or simply cannot exist. Going faster than light is, at this point, fantasy. So are space battles as they are depicted in most stories and media. Post-apocalyptic stories start from a pessimistic fantasy. Even The Martian, one of the latest and best examples of good hard SciFi uses an inciting incident that is impossible, because the wind on Mars is not powerful enough to do what it did to Mark Watney. Andy Weir knew it, too, but went with it because it made for a good story.

Some die-hard SciFi fans focus on the science and are wont to nitpick the details that don’t measure up to their scientific standards. I think it’s important that when reading SciFi, you don’t forget that half of the title of the genre is “fiction.” SciFi is not supposed to read like the manual to your stereo receiver. To write good SciFi, you must write a good story.

How to Write Science Fiction

The first step in adding to this expansive genre is: read SciFi. Once again, the prevailing advice is “read.” Like yesterday, I recommend reading lots of SciFi stories in order to get the feel and flavor in your head. You should become familiar with the tropes, because that is the shorthand you will need to speak the same language as SciFi readers.

Reading SciFi stories also informs you of what territory has been recently trod. If you set out to write a story about a permanent settlement on The Moon, you might want to read stories like Artemis to see how another writer approached the subject.

Before I move on from the advice of “read SciFi to write SciFi,” I want to recommend that you talk to M. Todd Gallowglas about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He will go into great detail about the importance of knowing the genre you’re writing in, even if your novel wins The Pulitzer Prize.

What else should you do to write SciFi? Research.

As an example of how research can make your SciFi story greater, I present The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal. Mary Robinette clearly loves the subject. She did enough research into NASA and space flights that if you ever find yourself on a tour of NASA with her, she will provide additional insights and information such that the tour guide learns things right alongside you.

Research into the subject does not mean you must become a subject matter expert. It means that you become familiar enough that you can reliably rest plot points and environmental details on specific, real information that gives your story a sense of reality that you don’t find in other genres.

As Mary Robinette herself has stated on Writing Excuses and in person, she is not a mathematician. She is not an astronaut herself, and she doesn’t know all of the things that her characters know. However, she’s done enough research that she can ask actual astronauts and material experts the right questions, so that she can present the information in a clear and cohesive way.

Parting Thoughts

Since I have now encouraged you to do research before launching into your story, let me offer a word of caution. Do the research, but pay attention to your story. After you have gone and learned a bunch of great information, the temptation is to dump all of that knowledge onto the page, whether or not it fits. Do not do this. Your goal is to write a good story, first and foremost. Do not turn your story into a science report or a reference manual.

You may have heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” This doesn’t necessarily mean kill your characters. What it really means is that you need to let go the things you love that are not serving your story. If you filled a chapter with intricate scientific equations because you spent a week figuring it out, only to discover that it’s interrupting the pacing and flow of your story, THAT is a “darling” that needs to be cut.

I love SciFi. I think you should, too. If you have not written any SciFi, give it a try. Start with some short fiction, maybe some flash that you don’t intend to share with anyone. Set your tiny story on a space ship between the stars with two characters that don’t get along very well, forced to deal with a problem they need each other to solve. You can outline this, using the advice I gave two days ago, or you can try/fail your way through this the way I described yesterday. Immerse yourself in this story for just a moment, and see how it feels. Maybe SciFi is your jam, too!