After listening to people argue and complain back and forth about various science fiction stories (in print and on screen) I thought I would put this out there as an oasis for Sci-Fi writers.
First off, if you are writing in this space, and you haven’t seen or participated in the various arguments mentioned, then you might not know your audience as well as you think. Here are the most common threads that I see over and over again:
- Unbelievable “Science” because of lack of research/concern by the author
- All science and no fiction, no immersion, no story
- Lack of a human element or thin characters
That last one pretty well applies to all fiction, so it’s not sci-fi specific, but it is something that gets mentioned in some of the poison threads on Facebook. But it will be discussed.
Also, with all the promotion stuff and other two blog posts this week, I totally forgot to write something up last night, so this might feel a little rushed. There was a request for etymology, and I haven’t forgotten, but I want to put a spin on that request, but not right now.
The Basic Writing Elements in all Stories
Just like historical fiction, kidlit, or romance, there must first and foremost be a story. You might be amazed how many scifi readers will complain about the lack of one. Sometimes, we writers like to get a little carried away with our research, and especially among newer writers in scifi, there is a nagging thread ripping at our brains to lay out and explain every little detail. This can come across as a “lecture” or a “classroom textbook” more than a story.
There is a niche among scifi readers that don’t mind reading research papers when they pick up a book, but most of us want some kind of story that we can follow along with. This means a story arc for the main character. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. A character, a conflict, and a resolution. Or however you want to label your particular dissection of Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. This is a common theme in every story, from one-line jokes to the longest epics. A trilogy is a nested version of this.
Don’t forget the Science
This is where I’m going to get some hate mail, and that’s okay. There’s a comment section below for voicing your opinions, but this is just an observation. You might think that it’s only the hard sci-fi nuts and NASA employees that care about believable science. It isn’t. There are many, many people on the scifi forums that eat shows/movies like Star Wars and Firefly with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. They will point out every major fail of the creators to make their stories more believable, while others will defend these beloved shows to the death.
Don’t think Star Trek gets a pass on this, there are plenty of haters out there for everything.
What’s really funny about this, is that Bab5 doesn’t get 90% of the criticism that goes along with the others, even the newer version. In fact, the new version may have more fans than the original. “But they have FTL drives.” Nobody cares. You know why? Because it’s done in a way that doesn’t detract from the story, even if it’s all mysterious hand-wavery. The focus of that show, the story, the diversity of characters, ideas, philosophies, etc, etc, etc more than makes up for one little blip on FTL in a super-future. It’s not like they are communicating across huge distances in real-time. For whatever reason, nobody seems to bring up Bab5 when they are complaining about realism.
That’s something to take note of. The science in your story doesn’t have to be perfect. Just check to make sure it isn’t silly. And remember that not all hard sci-fi buffs (very few in fact) are actual scientists. A lot of them are going by what they see in mainstream media articles. Some of them work at places like Boeing or NASA and they overhear jokes from sciencey people, even if they’re doing something more mundane. So, FTL VERY far in the future (not the next 20 years) that has some drawbacks (charging time, special fuel, etc) and isn’t abused in the story, fine. Laser versions of ancient weapons and instantaneous travel with no relativistic side effects or time delays, probably not so much. Don’t cellphone your buddy on Pluto and tell them you’ll be there in five minutes. Just don’t do it.
Sometimes, even the science nerds (like me!) get their own backlash. 2001 was an amazing story, at least in the science department. Many people liked it, some claim it’s the best scifi ever because it got all (or most) of the physics “right.” They even joke that when Kubrick was getting ready to fake the moon landings, he was such a perfectionist that he insisted on filming on location. The story itself, at least in the movie. How do I say this. It was, well, a little boring. I still liked it, just tossing it out there. Good science alone does not make great scifi.
By now, I’m sure I’ve pissed off everyone, I was pretty diverse with the story picking for this reason. Each of the shows/movies/stories listed above has it’s pros and cons, and it’s all good stuff. So it should come as no surprise that if you write Scifi, you’re going to get some backlash. There will always be someone who hates your story, no matter how good you make it. That might apply across the board as well. I mean, there are Harry Potter haters out there, and that book sells better than the bible.
There is one interesting exception here. I can’t think of a single time that I’ve heard someone tear down H.G. Wells with any kind of legitimate argument. The best people seem to come up with is “outdated technology.” Well, no shit. The radio broadcast was written in like 1938, and it was contemporary scifi at the time. What did it have that makes it so impervious to most of the haters (there are a few out there, I know it, there has to be, because it’s scifi)
- Realistic use of tech in the story
- Plausible alien encounter
- Story arc
This came on the radio one day in October when I was on a long drive, and I was able to listen to the whole thing, including the disclaimers, uncut. Were there a couple things about the ray guns that licked at my science nerves? Yes. Did it matter? Nope. Remember microwaves? You can make a pretty decent ray gun out of one with the right know-how, so I have no problem cooking people at a distance.
HG didn’t have to go outside of his comfort zone. He didn’t have to dip into crazy speculation, because he kept the aliens at arm’s length. He didn’t have to explain their tech, because the story was about people, here on earth. And none of it was what I would consider “over the top,” even today. If anything it was more grounded than most of the fiction I see on TV.
Don’t Kill Me With Science
Okay you Stephen Hawkings and Einsteins and Maxwells out there (or at least those of you who think you are). Here’s the trick. We don’t want to watch you fail to describe your ingenious invention for eighteen pages (not kidding, this happened). Yes, we want details, but we don’t need all the details, and you know what? You don’t have them. Because if you did, you would have a patent for that shit and a working prototype. (That’s right, be careful talking shit around me)
None of these science books have all the answers. Now, before continuing on, I want to point out another little issue that might surprise you. All the hard sci-fi geeks (like me), you won’t usually see them complaining about stories that happen on Earth, only in space (and specifically in space operas). You know why? It has nothing to do with the science being any better, I assure you. (There’s some hand wavery in Viral Spark, I’ll admit it) Nobody bitches about robots and AI, even when they’re zipping back through time to kill the mother of the robot resistance. WHY? Why do all the haters seem to disappear when it comes to Earth science?
Here’s my theory on that. Robots and computers are part of our life. Anyone can buy a VR headset and play 3D games from their phone. Even when they aren’t believable, you can write a computer program for just about anything, and people will buy it. You can make robots as complex as you want, you can even fiddle with time travel. What is it about space stories that brings out the haters like you just dissed a bunch of Girl Scouts for trying to sell you cookies? It’s the fact that authors tend to put time and thought into stories involving gadgets and tech, but most space authors don’t understand fundamental orbital mechanics.
So, you don’t need to explain every detail, but if there is some part of your story that stands out from how we view real science, you had damned well better explain it. Time travelers are always old men that have been tinkering their entire life. Robots are made by huge companies with unlimited budgets. Everyone has pretty much the same idea of how these things work. But if you want your space ship to hover over Seattle at 100km, you had better damn well explain how this is possible, because that’s not a reasonable orbit. Space things don’t “hover” on their own (except at a certain distance and directly above the equator). I tell people over and over, just play KSP for a week, and you will understand orbital mechanics, the basics anyway. Enough to tell a convincing story without having flaws that will snap a reader that knows about science straight out of the story.
And if you’re hovering, if you are far enough in the future that you can legitimize that tech, tell us how. Overpowered photon thrusters with some kind of infinite power generation (not exactly plausible), fine, that’s cool, but have some explanation.
Science Should be Needed
This is my last point, and then I’m going to shut up and hit the “publish” button. If there’s science in the story, it’s because it is needed in the story. I think this is another reason why robotic stories on Earth often get a pass, no matter how dramatically overdone they are. It’s because the best robot stories (Asimov) NEED the robots to make their point. They are essential to the world, the plot, the characters (bionic implants to cure some disease) or whatever else. This is a point that sometimes get overlooked when writing a space opera. Why were there space ships in Bab5? Because they had to leave the planet. iRobot is all about consciousness, both human and artificial. These bits of science aren’t cute niceties thrown into a story that could be told equally well in Rome or ancient China, they’re necessary elements.
Bring in what’s necessary to the story (or the overall series) and try to stick to the human element of the story. Just like fancy dialogue tags or adjectives, if you don’t need it then cross it out. Sometimes, it’s only one story in a whole series that needs the tech, and then you’re stuck with it. Firefly needed a space story, even if most of the series didn’t make that apparent. There were a few elements (like Reavers, did I spell that wrong? eh who cares) that necessitated that futuristic environment.
Anyway. I’m gonna get off my little box. Everything here is just a suggestion, not doctrine, and not all of these ideas are my own, but things I’ve noticed listening in on sci-fi discussions when they get out of hand. No matter what you do, if you write scifi, you’re going to have haters. Be ready. Some of these tips might help to keep the shouting down though 😉
See you next week.