How to Write Science Fiction
By John B. Rosenman
Copyright © 2007 by John B. Rosenman, All Rights Reserved
Believe it or not, some folks are
afraid of writing science fiction, and think they canít do it. How,
after all, can you explain a cyclotron or bioengineer an improved breed
of humans if youíre not a scientist? And as far as creating a
scientifically-correct alien world is concerned, just forget it. Leave
it to the experts like Larry Niven and Poul Anderson, right?
Relax, itís not that difficult.
The first thing to know is that like
people, science fiction has cousins and often intermarries with them.
In other words, it overlaps with related genres, especially fantasy,
both light and dark. Sometimes, it even becomes hard to decide whether
a narrative is science fiction, fantasy, or science-fantasy. Is Ann
McCaffreyís popular Pern series fantasy or science fiction? Yes, youíve
got dragons, which make it fantasy. However, youíre also given a
scientific explanation for the dragons, which makes it science fiction.
Take your pick.
Want another example? Okay, suppose
youíre a fantasy writer who likes unicorns. Now, do you want to become
a science fiction writer without first earning a Ph.D. in nuclear
physics or biochemistry? Simple. Without going into too much
detail, create your unicorns in a laboratory and transport them to a
distant, Earthlike world (just call it Terra). Is the result fantasy or
science fiction? Well, using one diagnostic device, if you get there by
a flying carpet, itís fantasy; if you use a spaceship, itís science
fiction; and if you take a taxi, itís slipstream or contemporary
fiction. To be more sensible, where you put it in the bookstore depends
on whether the events are based primarily on the paraphernalia of
science fiction (faster-than-light drives, black holes, laser weapons,
etc.), or of fantasy (dwarves, elves, magical spells, etc.). Just
remember that if you want to write soft (as opposed to hard)
science fiction, you donít have to be too technical, and that if you
write fantasy, you can write science fiction as well.
What, then, is science fiction?
Sometimes itís called speculative fiction, and many agree itís the
most conceptually rich genre there is, filled with endless
possibilities. Science fiction can take place anywhere Ė in the
present, the past, the future; on this world, or on others; in this
universe, or in others Ė even a universe in a drop of water! Wherever
it occurs, though, science fiction presents an alternate reality based
to a lesser or greater extent on current science. Often, as in stories
of time travel and faster-than-light drives, you have a writer
speculate about what people could do if they could transcend certain
"fixed" natural laws. In other works, or hard science fiction,
you have systematic extrapolations of current knowledge into the future
Ė e.g., Anderson and Beasonís Assemblers of Infinity, which
concerns nanotechnology or the creation of microscopic machines.
Besides being speculative, science
fiction causes people to ask questions. For example:
Are there any particular roadblocks
in writing it? While you
donít have to be a scientist, it certainly helps to be one if you go
into the nuts and bolts of building a fusion engine or space station.
Still, diligent homework can compensate for your deficiencies, just as
certain mainstream writers like James Michener have exhaustively
researched places like Texas and Hawaii. Just remember not to
make assumptions based on ordinary experience. For example, in an early
draft of my novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars, I had ships
colliding in space and making one hell of a racket. Wrong! Space is a
vacuum, and you wouldnít hear a thing. Nor, unless you put him in
suspended animation or jump through hyperspace, can you have a starship
captain visit another galaxy and return to embrace his wife. Because of
the principle of "time dilation,'' itís widely accepted that your
captain would age more and more slowly as he approached the speed of
light and that his wife would be long dead. Indeed, he might find his
great-great-great grandchildren waiting for him!
How does one prepare to write
science fiction and avoid such mistakes?
Easy Ė write, write, write; read, read,
read. Join a writerís workshop which emphasizes intelligent critiquing
rather than mutual praise. Read the masters, Dozoisí annual The
Yearís Best Science Fiction, and subscribe to the best magazines
like Asimovís Science Fiction. Above all, remember that good
writing is good writing regardless of genre. Often, it has some kind of
early "hook" to interest the reader. For example, hereís how I began my
story, "Rounded With A Sleep,'' which appeared in Galaxy: ''The
ship came down like the breath of God, jets blasting the ground and
echoing off distant mountains.'' In all other respects, good science
fiction contains the same elements you find in Shakespeare and
Dostoyevsky: well-rounded, interesting characters that act and grow;
intriguing, ingenious plots; good, even poetic language; skillful
dialogue, rich symbols, subtle foreshadowing, etc.
Can too much technical stuff bore
the reader? Yes, it can,
unless itís the rare reader who likes it. Even in most hard science
fiction, the story comes first. In an interview I did with Mike Resnick
for Dark Regions, he said that if "science and technology intrude
upon the human values of a story, to that extent the story may succeed
as science fiction, but it fails as fiction." To him, "a writerís two
primary jobs are to entertain, and to elicit an emotional response."
Resnick does both superbly in his popular "Kirinyaga" tales. With
masterful economy, he lets you know youíre in a tribal land relocated to
an orbiting space station without bogging you down in detail. Story and
characters are primary, and he maintains a delicate balance, telling you
just enough, and no more, than is necessary.
Let me end with the cardinal rule about
writing any kind of fiction: almost always, Show, Donít
Tell. Like Resnick, look at exposition with a critical eye, cut it
whenever the story can tell itself, and youíll be on your way Ė who
knows, perhaps even to the stars.