By Robert Wood
Science fiction is one of the most popular genres in literature, and certainly the one with the most cultural influence. So what is it about sci-fi stories that readers love so much, and how can authors use that knowledge to create their own sci-fi masterpiece?
In this article I’ll be exploring why sci-fi is so influential, and identifying the 3 golden rules that lead to a great sci-fi story. Of course before identifying what makes great sci-fi, we need to talk about what doesn’t…
Sci-fi isn’t fantasy with robots
Ask someone to name a work of science fiction off the top of their head and chances are they’ll say Star Wars. It’s got space ships, aliens, robots, futuristic inventions, the whole nine yards. The problem is that most science fiction writers would disagree, claiming the films belong in the fantasy genre. So what’s the difference?
Science fiction is just that, fiction about science. The science might be invented, and it might be of any stripe: political science, psychology and sociology, electronics, or the type with beakers and skeletons, but all sci-fi revolves around a central ‘what if..?’ question that addresses a deeper query.
It’s for this reason that many prominent sci-fi writers dislike the genre’s name, instead preferring ‘speculative fiction’. Sci-fi asks questions, it’s a fictive study of a central thesis. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep asks ‘what if androids were as emotionally complex as humans?’ This thesis is used to explore how we define emotion and memory, and how we understand what it means to be human.
The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things.
– Margaret Atwood
The Star Wars movies, however, are not built on this kind of thesis. The story is of a (jedi) knight on a quest to save a princess. The castle may be a star ship, the duels fought with laser swords, but the futuristic tech is never used as a lens through which to examine our own world. That’s not to say that fantasy can’t comment on the human condition, or that it isn’t a valid genre with a lot to offer, but it does it in a distinctly different way to sci-fi. No matter how impressive, the aesthetic trappings of robots and aliens won’t make a fantasy story into science fiction.
Rule #1 – Know your thesis
With that in mind the first golden rule of writing sci-fi is ‘Know your thesis’. Just want to write about strange lands and weird characters? That’s fine, but it’s likely you’re writing fantasy in space. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine the protagonist encounters two races, the seemingly brutish, subterranean Morlocks and the beautiful but vapid Eloi. While many readings are possible it’s undeniable that Wells uses the two races to comment on the politics of appearance, and even labor. The protagonist’s constantly shifting understanding of the two races’ relationship provides critique after critique of the modern world.
Wells’ ‘what if..?’ is ‘what if our evolution continued according to our current social behavior?’ His conclusion is best left to the reader, but sufficed to say it’s not favorable.
So what’s the point of your world? What are you talking about? Try and take the ‘science’ of sci-fi as an approach rather than a topic. Use your world as a case study, almost an experiment, which will prove your point to the reader.
Of course stories are more than one thing, but keeping your thesis central has many benefits when writing sci-fi. Knowing the point of your fictional world will stop inconsistencies. In 1984 George Orwell provides detail after detail of the fascist state Oceania. Views on entertainment, dress, behavior and literature are scattered throughout, giving the reader the impression of a totally consistent world.
Orwell is able to create this impression because he has a clear idea of the philosophy behind the society from the start: ‘What if a government tried to cement power by eliminating choice?’ The details that follow are all accepted by the reader because they all serve this idea.
Clarify your idea. What’s your question, and what’s the answer? You don’t have to spell them out to the reader but you have to spell them out to yourself. Write them down and stick them in your work space. Every time you’re looking for details on your world or characters think how they would act in a reality based on that question.
Rule #2 – Do your research
Once you’ve decided on your question it’s time to look into the answer. Margaret Atwood has claimed of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale:
There isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country, or for which actual supporting documentation is not already available.
Based on the question ‘what if the ability to reproduce became rare?’, among a few others, Atwood describes a futuristic society where women capable of giving birth are property sold to the highest and most influential bidder. She uses knowledge of fundamentalist religious treatment of women, as well as the history of slavery and war, to craft a world which feels real because it is built on a real understanding of misogyny.
Whether your thesis is ‘what if we met aliens in the fifties?’ or ‘what if we all went deaf overnight?’ there will be real information you can research to learn how similar situations have gone in the past. What happened in our own past when new cultures met? What is it like gaining or losing a sense? Whether the occupying force is aliens or mutated plants, as in John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, we have records of life under occupation. Accounts of the best and worst in humanity are available in myriad forms.
It’s the details that sell sci-fi. They make the world seem real, validating your thesis by ensuring the story constantly rings true. The more research you can do into your selected area the more ideas you’ll have. There are several types of lizard that disguise themselves as females to avoid alpha males and steal mates, types of birds that hide their eggs in other’s nests where they hatch and kill off the other chicks, and fish that pretend to be caves so prey will swim into their mouths. No matter how strange your aliens, monsters or other beings there are realistic details just waiting for you to find them.
So once you’ve got your thesis and you’re armed with real-life precedents it’s time to really be brave…
Rule #3 – Don’t be afraid of the new
Sci-fi asks big questions and knows what it’s talking about. It’s maybe the bravest genre, not just keeping up with its audience or period but forecasting ahead to the future. That’s why it’s essential to ask what’s new about your story. Is it the world you’re crafting, your position in time, your own voice?
It may be true that every story has already been told, but every day there are new ways to examine the human condition. What does social media tell us about humanity, and what might it look like in the future? It’s a sad truth of sci-fi that the exaggeration of yesterday is the truth of today. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (often described as the first sci-fi novel) explores the idea of creating unnatural life from a Victorian perspective and has many interesting and perceptive insights, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is written from the perspective of a writer not just theorizing about cloning, but living in a world where it’s already been done.
What is new or unique about your questions?
Even if it’s just a new way of presenting your theory to the audience that’s enough, but identifying what you’re bringing to the discussion will help you place emphasis in the right places.
Appreciating your audience
Sci-fi is often the first foray into new ideas. Even as we explore the possibility of real artificial intelligence we already have vast libraries on the resulting moral quandaries, and writing on space travel predated actual attempts by centuries. A sci-fi audience is one with big expectations, and if you can understand what they expect and why it works they’ll be the most engaged fans a writer could ask for.
Writing other worlds or societies can be incredibly tricky, especially when it comes to setting aside your own experiences and biases. For some advice on writing the alien try our article Are you writing believable non-human characters? Or for tips on getting your readers to accept an unfamiliar setting check out Are you in danger of losing your readers’ suspension of disbelief?
Are you a sci-fi fan, or a sci-fi sceptic? What was your first sci-fi story and how did it influence your world view? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.