Love it or hate it, science fiction has been with us for a couple of centuries, and doesn’t look likely to go away. Indeed, as modern technology catches up with the science fiction of yesteryear we’re beginning to find science fiction pervading more and more of our entertainment, to the point we often barely notice it. How many TV shows and films (e.g., James Bond) introduce technology that’s not quite here, but feasibly could be? Mild though it may be, it’s still sci-fi. So, what does it take to write a science fiction novel? Here’s a few tips to get you started.
Sci-fi has science in it. Seems pretty obvious, right? But some writers (including screen-writers) ignore this most fundamental of the science fiction elements. The most startling example I’ve seen in recent years is the film ‘Sunshine’, which involved a mission to the sun to detonate a device inside its core and save the world from burning to a crisp. It started out okay, and I could forgive the obvious ‘the sun can melt every element to liquid/vapour in seconds, so what material will they make the spaceship out of’ fact, even though it stretched my credulity. My real issues came when the ship reached the sun, and true science was completely ignored. People walking around on the surface of the sun? Really? What surface? And why didn’t they get squished flat by gravity? Why weren’t they just smoke before they could even get squished?
Without the addition of at least a nod at basic science, a sci-fi book, film, game or TV show is not science fiction, but fantasy.
2 How Hard?
I’m not talking about difficulty, but how much the science mentioned above is adhered to. For instance, Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series is famously a hard science fiction author, meaning he uses no faster than light speed, artificial gravity, or time travel. All the science in his books must be actually possible using the laws of physics as we currently understand them. Alternatively, there are also writers who cherry-pick their science – bending the physical laws to a greater or lesser extent to fit their premise. For instance, Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series introduces the notion of ‘needle-casting’, where data (including digitised human minds) can be transmitted instantaneously across space on a laser-type beam. As we know, though, light takes years to get from one solar system to another, so that doesn’t work, but we can suspend our disbelief because the rest of the science/technology is plausible. This is softer science fiction. Move on to Frank Herbert and the Dune series, and the science gets even softer, to the point where it’s almost fantasy and some of the technology takes on mystical overtones.
3 In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
In fact, no. Science fiction doesn’t have to be set on a distant planet, or far into the future. It can be set now, on Earth. It can be set in the past. Anachronistic machines, alien invasions, galactic empires. If you can imagine it, if it involves technology or science, then it can be science fiction. Whether Roman Legionnaires are fighting robots from the future or the human race is threatened by extinction on an alien world millennia from now, it’s still science fiction.
The only thing you have to consider where setting is concerned is what type of science fiction you’re writing. Is it a milieu book, where your characters are observers who demonstrate the world you’ve created to the reader, or is it a story where the character’s world is somehow altered and they must adapt to cope? Or another type of story where the setting will affect the type of book you’re writing?
As well as the science, SF readers like a bit of jargon. Different from the ‘made up’ terms a fantasy author might employ, this jargon should sound… well… sciency. Perhaps your technology, phenomena or household gadgets use some form of isotope, or a man-made molecule? Maybe it’s a new form of glass with an unusual chemical mix? Maybe the alloy you invent means your weapons can turn water to super-dense ice-crystals that kill without leaving any evidence? Whatever amazing inventions you come up with in your story, they all have to have names. Those names have to sound plausible and cool and relate, somehow, to what the device they describe actually does.
5 Human, Alien or Robot?
In science fiction, there’s no reason to keep your characters human. Readers often enjoy the idea that the characters in a story are something rather different; that they must encounter us and deal with the insanity of our species. This can make for an interesting observation on the human condition, and what constitutes ‘humanity’, but there is a warning. To create alien, artificial intelligences or robotic characters, to make them vastly different from humans – to the point where we really can believe they aren’t human – presents a fundamental problem. We are hardwired, mentally, to recognise basic behaviours, languages and human thought processes. If a writer creates a character who diverges too far from those parameters, it will a) be difficult to write the story convincingly, and b) the reader will have trouble identifying with the characters. To keep the reader on your side, and the characters manageable, they need human qualities, however non-human they are.
6 A Tale of Tales
Any science fiction novel, or series of novels, takes a long time to get going. A writer can spend literally years creating and developing the world(s) their book is set in, before they even type ‘Chapter 1’. But once the background is set, once the writer has finished creating their brand new world, culture, phenomenon, characters and settings, they have to put it all into a good story. It’s very easy to get so carried away with ideas for new species, or the challenges of an alien environment, or new inventions, that the entire book ends up being one long piece of description, in which sometimes people do stuff. Yes, the setting can be a major character in and of itself (think Dune), but there has to be a good story to go with it. The environment – whether it’s future Earth, or a new planet, or some parallel world – should never take the place of a good plot. Readers are not only interested in discovering a fascinating new world, they want to go on a journey.