Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

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.