10 Tips for Writing Science Fiction
Chapter 2 “Genres” – Section 4 “Sci-fi”
“Science fiction has a way of letting you talk about where we are in the world and letting you be a bit of a pop philosopher without being didactic.”
Today, we are going to talk about the grand and inclusive genre of science fiction. But as we continue to move along in these tutorials about genres, I feel there is something important to point out. Nearly all of the suggestions that I make are universal and can be applied to all other genres. I go into each tutorial, with the intention of applying the tips best suited to that particular genre; but that doesn't mean that any of them are exclusive. Additionally, I will try not to repeat myself (except for on the topic of particular cliches) so that those of you reading every tutorial don't have to wade through the same information.
Tip 1: Create an intimate story with characters that you care about.
A typical convention of science fiction is the creation of large and expansive universes. We see this in such series as Star Wars, Star Trek, Rick and Morty, etc... When this is done purposefully and well (like in the above examples), it can turn out to be an engaging and thought-provoking journey. The problem with the convention, however, is twofold. First, science fiction stories can get so lost in the grandness of the universe that they forget to tell a personal story that focuses on the struggles and accomplishments of a few select characters. So while the world becomes incredible, the story loses its level of engagement. Second, beginning writers sometimes feel like they have to create an expansive universe in order for their work to be considered good science fiction.
Remember that science fiction works like any other genre. You do not need to meet the standards of any other author, only those standards of quality that will keep your readers engaged. So feel free to make your story as grand or as small as you like. Then, challenge yourself to really focus on a personal story within however large a universe you decide to create. Whether your story is a grand and epic space battle, or a sole human accidentally finding his/her way through a new planet, pay attention to their personal fears, desires, goals, successes, failures, and growth as a character.
Never allow your story to just be a world-exploration vignette. You will not bring focus to your world by accompanying it with a weak story. The only effect of a weak story will be general disinterest and lack of immersion into the world you have so artfully created. If you have a strong world idea but not much of a story, design your world in your notebook and just save it for a plot that is strong enough to make all your hard work and wonderful ideas pay off.
Tip 2: Recognize the strength of the genre of science fiction.
While most genres can be hybridize with most other genres (romantic-comedy, comedy-horror, fantasy-drama, etc...), science fiction is unique in how effectively other genres can be blended into it. You can create science fiction dramas, like Star Trek; science fiction fantasy melodramas, like Star Wars; science fiction political/philosophical commentaries like Ender's Game; science fiction horror, like Aliens; science fiction theology, like Lewis's Space Trilogy; science fiction comedy, like Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy; etc... The list is endless because science fiction is such an open and loosely defined genre. Some genres hybrids would be difficult to impossible to pull off successfully. A romantic horror story, for example, would be unlikely because the required audience emotions would counteract one another. Here, however, you are free to write any sort of story that you want within the genre. So don't feel limited to the science fiction conventions that have come before.
Tip 3: The history and world-building of your universe matters.
Knowing the entire history of your world is more essential to sci-fi than perhaps any other genre. The reason is that everything about a futuristic society depends on the circumstances that lead to them reaching such a high-powered future. With such powerful elements as are often used in sci-fi (weapons, technology, aliens, etc), your universe needs to be tremendously balanced to justify why it has not been utterly annihilated by the people who have access to it all. You also need believable reasons for why diverse plot elements coexist within your universe.
For example, why have the artificial intelligence (AI) not completely obliterated humanity for its enslavement of machines? Are there protocols limiting AI free will? Were AI not invented until humans were more enlightened? And why have all the space-age societies met at a comparable point in their technological advancement, instead of one species reaching technological dominance long before the rest? Why are warring planets able to get into space without obliterating all of the enemy factions on their own planets? With the tremendous power required for science-fiction, you must put careful consideration into the balance and logic of your universe.
Tip 4: Behind every incredible exploit, there should be necessity and reason.
In science fiction, there are often futuristic ideas that contain little to no logic. Examples of these range from glowing pink umbrellas to the use of completely useless or sub-par weaponry. The problem with these are not the silliness themselves (after all, lightsabers are awesome, no matter how silly they are), but the fact that authors sometimes do not put enough thought into their history. An example you could look at in many science fiction stories is that of laser/plasma guns. Why would humans switch from using explosive bullets to using lasers for weaponry? I'm not saying it's a bad choice, only that there should be reason.
Did the humans watch so much Starwars that they were determined to one day fight with lasers? Can lasers go through bullet-proof jackets? Let's look at another question. If this is outer-space sci-fi, why have humans put forth the effort and resources to leave the planet? Are earth's resources dwindling? Are humans finally at peace and just seeking enlightenment from the stars? Are humans competing for space domination amongst themselves? Are humans facing overpopulation?
There are no wrong answers to these questions, so long as there is uniformity and forethought between your answers and the rest of the elements of your novel. For example, if you are creating a militaristic/western future-earth, I will be hard-pressed to believe that they choose laser-swords as their weaponry. Your universe should either demonstrate humanity taking the path of greatest logic and least resistance, or give a believable reason for why they did not. So look at all of your cool idea and technologies, and make sure that they make sense given the context of your world.
Tip 5: Go beyond traditional conventions whenever possible.
Going back to the same topic of cliché and convention that we discussed in the tutorial on fantasy, there is nothing wrong with using science fiction conventions in an original way. But your story will shine in the places where you create completely original ideas. Lasers, warp-drives, space stations, and robots are all really fun ideas, and you can use them in original ways that your readers will find interest in. That being said, these conventions have been overdone so that readers now take them for granted. Fifty years ago, the fictional idea of a warp-drive would have had readers on the edge of their seats. And really, this is what sci-fi should do—it should kindle the imaginations of readers with new and wonderful and terrifying possibilities. So, whenever you have the chance, try to think of original ideas and ways of war, society, and technology, that have not or have rarely been used.
Tip 6: Use Point-of-View (POV) and Narration to adjust how your reader sees the world.
Think of all the amazing technology that exists in our everyday lives: cars, cellphones, the internet, medicine, streets, buildings, factories, guns. Now, imagine that our modern world is in a fictional story, being told to people from thousands of years ago. If you wanted to excite your ancient audience about these innovations, would you want to tell the story from the perspective of a common person from this era? Definitely not. As many of us do, a modern character who was used to such wonders would take all our technology for granted. They wouldn't look at a cell-phone as an incredible device from which you could access any other person, as well as all the information known to man. As a result, the modern protagonist would not realistically bother to describe or really explain any form of modern technology, particularly with any amount of excitement.
Now, if you want to create a pessimistic tone for your story (as with a sci-fi dystopian novel), which is free of any excitement or wonder, this is completely and totally acceptable. But if you want to look at your world and have your reader feel excitement, you are going to need to get creative. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to solve this problem.
The first solution is to introduce either a narrator or a Point-of-View (POV) character who is not from the exciting era you are writing about. You can see this in stories that include time-travel or a human who is taken into a futuristic alien world. They look at everything with wonder because it is all new to them. In fantasy, we see an example of this in Harry Potter, a character with a completely normal childhood who is suddenly thrust into the magical world of Hogwarts. Imagine how much less detail and attention that Harry would have given his impressive new world, had he grown up in it. As an outsider, he shares a similar perspective to the audience and allows a great level of satisfaction the way that the world is presented.
Alternatively, your narrator can be a modern human who is talking to someone futuristic, asking all of the sorts of questions that readers would like to know, and accounting the story with excitement. We see this in Interview with a Vampire, where the narrator asks the vampire (the protagonist and POV character who is telling the story) about all of the things that he would otherwise take for granted.
Other options include haveing your POV character come from a normal life on Earth, though they are vaguely aware that exciting things happen off-planet. Or you can create an eccentric character who is excited about things that others find ordinary. Regardless of how you choose to illustrate your world, you must create a valid reason that your Narrator or PPOV Character do this with the level of wonder, interest, and intricacy that you choose.
Tip 7: When creating your world, either subscribe to science or logical fantasy.
Some people may disagree with me on the following point, but I do not see any problem with using technology, in a fictional world, which is not scientifically possible. (Although there should be some fictional logic and limits involved to balance power and keep the story uniform.) Again, I love the idea of lightsabers, and will continue to love them no matter how impossible they are. I'm also impressed by stories which strive for scientific realism, and explain the very real principals or theoretical sciences being applied (so long as it is not overdone). However, do not insult your reader's intelligence by giving in-depth scientific explanations for technologies that have no real scientific backing.
We see examples of this done both well and terribly within the Star Wars franchise. No matter our knowledge of scientific possibility, all people have some idea that lightsabers are bullshit. However, given the fantasy genre hybrid, we don't really mind this. In fact, we['re even okay with the explanation that there is light being focused through a magical crystal retrieved during a Jedi's training. We're okay with it because the explanation is as vague and magical as the rest of the story, and because it tells us more about the lore of the world than it tries to trick us with fake science. However, when we learn that the reason for Jedi powers is a biological substance called “midi-chlorians”, we are far less pleased. We know that a Jedi's powers are bullshit, as much as their swords, but we don't need a scientific explanation because we have already accepted the magical universe. The revelation of “midi-chlorians” contributes nothing to the plot, nothing to the lore of the story, and just feels like the author is getting defensive of the realism within the world.
In your own story, you can explain the fictional logic, or the fictional principals involved with the things that don't quite makes sense. So long as it has a purpose in creating balance, or adding to the excitement or mythos to the world, we will be okay with it. We'll even accept scientific details (given you weave them skillfully into dialogue and into the narrative without overburdening us with it all at once), so long as the science is real. But don't bore your reader with in-depth fake science that serves no purpose. Have confidence in the level of fantasy you choose for your story, keep in at the same level of uniform logic as the rest of the elements in the world, and trust in the readers who choose to be immersed into the carefully crafted magic of your story.
Tip 8: Beware allegory and propaganda within science fiction.
One of the coolest things about science fiction is its ability to demonstrate the potential future of humanity, as well as to explore philosophical ideas and the effect they might have on our future. One example of this is the science fiction/horror/steampunk video-game series, Bioshock. Bioshock looks at what would happen to a world completely governed by an Ayn Rand-styled survival-of-the-fittest capitalism. The problem that writers often face is that they are completely in favor or completely opposed to certain ideologies/people-groups, etc... That is fine, on a personal level. After all, I'd be lying if I said that I had any respect for the type of ideologies criticized in Bioshock.
When it comes to writing a novel, however, you face the dangers of allegory and propaganda. Allegory is a tool for explanation or “preaching to the choir,” not for exploring complicated issues like sci-fi so often does. Allegory does not look at issues in a realistic and multifaceted light, but instead patronizes the audience by telling them “this is bad, and this is good.” Propaganda, on the other hand, is when we paint an ideology or philosophy as sacred, pure, and beyond reproach. You'll see propaganda performed in utopian stories where virtues such as pacifism or patriotism lead to a perfect world. And while I, personally, am entirely in favor of pacifism, it does not excuse propaganda. No matter what you believe, you should strive to validate the criticisms and problems within the ideology you represent. Doing so is a gesture of honesty both towards the readers who agree and to those who disagree with your platform, an olive branch that says that you will treat them with as much honesty as you can manage. As a result of it, any potential reader will be more inclined to trust you not to trick them, and be more willing to look at the world through your eyes.
You'll notice that Bioshock does not fall into allegory, nor propaganda. First, the heart of the story is not in the political ideals, but on the personal story of the protagonist who must decide between the fate chosen for him or making his own path paved by mercy. Secondly, it does not portray the capitalistic ideals as being strictly inept, inferior, unreasonable, and evil. Sure, it paints the ideology darkly, but that is mostly due to actions beyond the antagonist's control. On top of that, we actually see the scientific progress and the benefits to the world only possible because of the philosophical system that Bioshock is criticizing. It does not demonize the philosophy, by calling it completely evil, nor does it romanticize any alternative form as completely good. It critiques by showing a possible outcome of the philosophy, both the good and the bad, while leaving room for the audience think and come to their own conclusions.
If you want your story to be respected for its realism, you need to show both the light and the darkness—the mixture of good and the bad. For example, if you want to criticize humanity and the path we are headed towards, do so with a level of realism and balance. Look at the problems that humans have actually worked towards solving, and how we have grown. Then look at the challenges we face and the past demons have we failed to overcome. Don't tell us how to think by painting an all-good or all-bad picture. Give us realism, leave us room to come to our own conclusions, and trust that your audience are more than idiots who need morals spoon-fed to them.
Tip 9: Avoid anthropocentrism.Anthropocentrism is a fancy word that Wikipedia defines as, “the belief that considers human beings to be the most significant entity of the universe and interprets or regards the world in terms of human values and experiences.” In other words, it is a masturbatory appraisal of humanity, in comparison with everything else that exists, a worldview as old and contrived as the idea that the sun and galaxy revolve around the Earth. We see this in such science fiction stories as “Independence Day II,” where the entire point of the story seems to be how “special” humans are. The problem with this attitude in storytelling is the same as any story that singularly praises any ideology, religion, figure, etc... It is overly simplistic, it has become a tired cliché that limits potential creativity, and it breaks many readers' sense of immersion. And if the reader catches you doing it (just like any other form of propaganda), they will be more likely to distrust you as a writer.
Think of it like someone who would spend all day telling you how amazing a person you are, and how everything about you is better than anyone else. If someone did this, you would either become the greatest egomaniac in the world, or (more realistically) begin to doubt the motives of that person. Additionally, thinking humans know that while there are good things about our species, we are far from perfect. On top of that, the universe does not revolve around us. Note that it is certainly valid to paint humans in a good light, to include anthropocentric characters, and to let the audience look at the universe through human eyes. The thing to avoid is centering the universe that you create for the singular appraisal of humanity over all else.
Tip 10: Carefully consider the ideas of non-human sentience.Another problem relating to anthropocentrism is using humans as the standard for sentience. We see this in countless forms of science fiction. Often we see one non-human race (space elves, AI, etc...) which is tremendously logical and intelligent, but completely without emotional virtues like compassion, passion, and loyalty. On the other hand, we'll have races that are super emotional, but have no sense of logic, foresight, or self-preservation. In these stories, humans serve as the happy medium, the perfect balance. But, as with all form of anthropocentrism, this is offensive to some readers' sense of realism and has become a science fiction cliché. There is no actual reason that a species cannot be both more logical and more emotional than humans, or less so. Additionally, other sentient species should have standards all of their own, dictated by their evolution and their personal history as a species.
One of the best ways to create non-anthropocentric sentient species is to actually draw out an outline for their entire existence. When you do so, try to consider alternative paths to sentience than what humans took. For example, instead of a tribal mate-competitive culture, you can create a colonial species without concepts of monogamy. This will give way to a very different route to sentience than what humans conventionally think of. Their motivations, emotions, drives, and values will be completely different but equally as valid as those of humans. Alternatively, other sentient species can be almost identical to humans, but with small key differences in their histories. The point is simply to put thought into the creation of new forms of sentience, and to remove the creative limits that anthropocentrism enforces.
Weekly Recommended Reading: "Halo: The Fall of Reach" by Eric Nylund (This book is not perfect by any means, and I am not a fan of the sequels. But in terms of themes and how it takes a close and personal look at a few characters within a very large overarching plot and universe, it deserves your attention. It also does an effective job with creating a uniform world where the fantastical elements all seem to exist for definite reason. Also, for some reason it is the only sci-fi book that my mother read and enjoyed, so I think that speaks something in its favor, haha.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 2.4
This exercise is only for those who are writing any sort of science fiction Write down what sci-fi conventions you plan to use and how you plan on making them original. Then, write down what completely original sci-fi ideas you have for your story.
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ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
Adding Character FLAWS
The LAYERS of Fiction
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Sci-Fi to avoid(normally I don't do this but. . .) - L. Ron Hubbard. . .(and if I offend any Scientologists. . .TOUGH!). I honesty tried to read his stuff and its was as bad(and I mean really BAD) as people have claimed.
Recommended Sci-Fi Reading - Anything by Asimov, Clarke, Lewis, Bradbury. . .ah this'll take too long - Anything published before 1970, the mid to late 1980s, and about the first half of the 1990s is gold!
Very Recommended Reading - Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. An art book drawn and published in the late 1970s. The collection has excellent paintings of alien races found in quite a few sci-fi novels that had been published. The Guide also gives good summaries of these alien races in terms of their worlds, society, and even reproduction. Also the books these races are found in are listed. A LOT of good reading if the novels can be found.
Is L. Ron Hubbard the moron who wrote Battlefield Earth?
Isaac Asimov said that the reason Daneel appeared so often in his books was that his readers and publishers begged it of him.[
And yes Hubbard wrote Battlefield Earth.
And interesting side note - Asimov's Foundation Series is considered 'The Greatest Sci-Fi Series Of All Time'. However it barely,(and I mean barely) beat out EE Smith's Lensman Series.
I think I've heard of Lensman before, but I don't know it that well. What's it about?
The Lens gives the following benefits-
1) It cannot be duplicated by any race other than the Len's creators because the process borders on supernatural and the known physical sciences can't replicate it. This takes care of the counterfeiting problem.
2) The Lens is 'keyed' to an individual's life force. Anyone but the owner touches the lens, that person's life-force will be violently disrupted and results in death. If an owner gets killed, the Lens also 'dies' and for all intents and purposes dissolves into free flowing molecules. This prevent a Lens from being used or studied by criminals after the owner dies.
3) The Lens gives telepathic abilities which includes intergalactic communications, the ability to know truth from lies, and finally it acts as a communicator.
1) The science may come off as convoluted/exaggerated. However the series was written just around the time people were just starting to figure out space travel.
2) In today's world a lot of people say female characters from back then were not written well. Now while there is nothing outright sexist(as in Stay In the Kitchen Barefoot And Pregnant) in Lensman, some people might not like how women are portrayed in certain parts of the series however for the most part, the women characters do tend to be strong in their own way.
Also, so glad to hear the aliens aren't just reskinned humans. So many sci-fi writers seem too lazy to come up with truly unique aliens (I mean, to be fair it's incredibly difficult to create a unique human culture from whole cloth, let alone a literally alien culture and species and society and moral code and etc. etc.).