Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Putting the Science in 
Your Science Fiction

by Karen J.H. Thistle

2002, 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 elsewhere).

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 something new.

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 science).

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 in.

Sources:

http://www.sfwa.org/writing/turkeycity.html

http://www.sciam.com/

http://www.discover.com/

http://www.pbs.org 

http://www.popsci.com/popsci/

http://www.eurekalert.org

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:  karen@karenjhthistle.com