the Science in
Your Science Fiction
by Karen J.H. Thistle
Karen J.H. Thistle
The good news about writing fiction is that you don't have to describe
the workings of the internal combustion engine every time one of your characters
wants to go for a drive. That is
also the good news about writing science fiction.
However, if you really want the story to be science fiction,
there's going to have to be science of some sort in it, either as foreground or
background material. The better
news is that you, the author, get to pick the science.
This seems like a perfect no-brainer, but I spent way too long on the
shores of the genre, one toe in the water and shivering, because I didn't know
anything about rocket propulsion (and didn't know yet that my interests lay
Don't misunderstand me. You
need to know enough of the basics so that when your character presses the gas,
the car goes (or not, if it's in neutral, or turned off). Basic physics, biology, chemistry, are just a few topics
you'll want to become acquainted with. Where
to begin? School.
If it's been awhile and you need a refresher (or you're just starting
from scratch in a particular subject), you'll find that good children's books
are a great place to get the essential basics in understandable language.
Children's television shows are also a good place to go.
One of my favorites is Bill Nye the Science Guy.
He'll teach you solid concepts. It's
a little repetitive, but I like that kind of reinforcement when I'm learning
So, then, after the basics, what's important?
As a writer, you need to find out what's important to you (which includes
what fascinates you, what your moral compass is, what the issues are that most
get your back up, and so on. For the purposes of this article, we'll stick to
I know you're reading science fiction, but what straight science
materials are you reading? How do
you find out what fascinates you?
Some places to start would be the magazines like Discover, Scientific
American, Popular Science, (some articles are available online and
there's always the public library). Read
all the articles you can. You'll
find out quickly what subjects interest you.
Another good website is Eureka Alert (http://www.eurekalert.org). Shows on Public Television like Nova and Nature
can also get the juices flowing.
The articles you find that pique your interest will point you toward
books on the subject (which could be anything that grabs you:
computer science, evolutionary psychology, biochemistry, etc. etc.)
What will happen is that your interests will start generating story
ideas. You'll already have the
material to work with and it'll have been so much fun, you won't even realize it
was research. You might not even
mind doing the odd bit of directed research to fill in the gaps.
Now you have the material, maybe the germ of an idea, so the next
question is how to integrate the material within a story.
One technique often used in the genre, so much so that stories of this
type almost constitute a sub-genre, is known as the "If this goes on"
approach. Simply put, the writer
takes a current trend and writes about the effects this has on the future.
Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! is one classic example,
postulating a very scary, overpopulated Earth.
The details, the garbage in the streets, the corpses in the
streets, the high cost of water, the low value placed on a human life, all of
these things Harry Harrison extrapolated from trends that were going on at the
time of his writing (trends still marching on, even now).
Give the "If this goes on" approach a twist and you speculate
about things that we aren't even able to do yet or aren't even happening, a
"What if" approach. One
of my favorite examples is the Beggars Trilogy by Nancy Kress (Beggars
in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, Beggars Ride) which kind of
goes: what if you can manipulate
the genetic make-up of your unborn children and among the more cosmetic
advantages you can give a child (like attractiveness and athleticism), you can
have a child who doesn't need to sleep, and what if one of the effects of this
is that such children are super-geniuses and grow up able to do everything
better and not just that, but around the clock, and what if they are basically a
reviled (though wealthy!) minority because of laws making those kinds of genetic
changes illegal, and what if, in spite of the illegalities, some of them
manipulate the genetics of their own children...and it goes on.
That doesn't begin to include Nancy Kress' speculations on politics and
the economic and social fall-out resulting from a cheap and plentiful energy
source. How cool is that?
I hesitate to get into the caveats of fitting your science into your
science fiction (for every rule, someone has broken it successfully).
However: beware of the
expository lump, which is basically a lecture in the middle of a story that
brings the action to a screeching halt (the Turkey City Lexicon calls
this an Info Dump). Likewise the
howler that has characters who should already know a thing, reiterating it for
the benefit of the reader (often couched as "As we know, Bob..."--Turkey
City Lexicon again)
That last can be gotten around by having a character who doesn't
know, or at least not all of it. Nancy
Kress managed in the first book to have a major character who understood the
issues up to a point, but required clarification. It worked for several reasons, including the fact that the
exposition was not the only thing going on in the scene (read Beggars in
Spain for details).
Working the material into the background of the story is one of the more
subtle and challenging joys of writing science fiction.
To quote the Turkey City Lexicon again, "We just need a clear
picture of how people's lives have been affected by their background.
This is also known as 'carrying extrapolation into the fabric of daily
life.'" The science is
illustrated by the way the characters live and the things that happen to them.
What else? It is unlikely
that you will predict the future. A
very few writers have managed to put their mark on reality: Robert A. Heinlein and his waldos, William Gibson and
cyberspace, Karel Capek and his robots.
The fun is in the dreaming. Jump
By Nancy Kress:
Beggars in Spain ISBN: 0-380-71877-4
Beggars and Choosers ISBN: 0-812-55010-2
Beggars Ride ISBN: 0-812-54474-9
By Harry Harrison:
Make Room! Make Room! ISBN: 0553564587 (Out of Print)
Edited by Lewis Shiner, Second Edition by Bruce Sterling:
Turkey City Lexicon: A
Primer for SF Workshops (see hypertext
link referenced above).
About the Author
Karen J.H. Thistle lives and writes in Southwestern Virginia, has a
wonderful husband, a straight job, two cats.
Visit her website: http://karenjhthistle.com
E-mail her at: email@example.com