Friday, September 23, 2016

The “Sci” of Sci-fi

Last week, I talked about magic and fantasy and writing the two of those things well. The week before that, I spoke about my findings and observations about writing historical fiction. Great, right?
I love speculative fiction, which is probably very apparent.

It seems, however, that many of my posts are directed toward only one category of speculative fiction: fantasy. Many of my world blips are pointed toward fantasy world development, or toward dystopian or toward weird genres like steampunk.
I’m ignoring something, aren’t I?
Not on purpose, of course. I don’t intend to brush over this particular genre, give it one example or one reference and move on. It just so happens I’m not as experienced with this one genre over the other.

Tired of my playing the pronoun game? I mean, we all know which genre I’m talking about because the blog post literally says it in the title.
Fine, I’ll say it: I don’t blog much about science fiction.
Because I don’t write a lot of it. That’s the honest truth. I’ve written one or two pieces of writing (details in the recently renovated “In the Forge” page) that deal with futuristic fiction, but most of them aren’t that great. They need rewriting, mostly for the story than the genre.

Today, however, I’m going to put an end to my long dance around the subject. Today, I’m not going to talk about fantasy, as much as I love it. Instead, I’m going to talk about Science fiction.

Science… fiction.

Let’s do this.

What makes Science Fiction Science?

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Science Fiction? The majority of the world will immediately think of Star Wars, or some story related to it. The universe of Star Wars stretches beyond their far-off galaxy to permeate our own with enough tropes to satisfy any light science fiction lover out there.

Some of us, however, will think back a bit farther than Star Wars. Back to Isaac Asimov, to H.G. Wells, to those distant hard science fiction writers who crafted stories that send shivers down our spines, that delight us with vision of the future.
From stories about aliens from mars, or humans going to mars or perhaps it’s time travel, or journeying to the center of the earth or even stories that never come close to our world. Science fiction delights us, because it shows us worlds that could be.
Humans are obsessed with the future. Even those of us who try to “live in the moment” can’t help but be caught up in the mad scramble to understand the future and what it holds. It’s not a bad thing, in some ways, because it results in some fantastic stories.

I tossed in two phrases in there somewhere that might have breezed right by you, without you even realizing what they were. Light science fiction and hard science fiction.
What in the many worlds of science fiction am I talking about?
To put it simply, soft science fiction is any sci-fi you could also label science fantasy. Of course, it’s more than that, but that’s good enough of a definition for this post. Now… what is science fantasy? It’s stories that mash together sci-fi and fantasy.
Take the example of Star Wars, since I’ve already used it. Where is the sci-fi element? You should probably whack me upside the head for having to ask, because we all know: in the spaceships, in the interplanetary travel, in the clones and the droids and so forth. In short, the technology. And where is the fantasy? Well, it’s mostly in the force, which is a sort of magic (and I’ve heard the arguments against it being a magic, but I haven’t heard any good arguments yet).

Hard science fiction, on the other hand, is thoroughly based on technology alone. Of course, one could claim that all technology can appear as magic, when advanced enough, but here’s where I like to draw the line: magic clearly defies physical laws that technology really couldn’t. In the case of the force, it’s similar to telekinetic/psychokinetic powers which are (as science appears to be telling us) impossible according to the laws of the physical world. There’s no technological/biological way that Darth Vader can choke someone from ten feet away or Darth Sidious could spew lightning from his fingers (and that midi-chlorian crap? Literally magic, folks.).
A good example of hard sci-fi is War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells which applies a fully technological idea (aliens invading via spaceship) and has very little to do with magic. We know spaceships are a thing, and they don’t break physics in what they’re doing. Even if the aliens are a little “out there”, we also know that it could be possible that there are other life forms out there. Scientists have found planets that could harbor life. Whether they do or not is irrelevant, because they could.
Other good examples include a majority of Isaac Asimov’s Foudation, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter, and many more.

There’s nothing that makes one or the other better, hard or soft. It’s personal preference. But there is a difference, and if you intend to write hard science fiction, you’ve got quite a few more barriers than almost any other genre.

Know the Subject

If you thought historical fiction required research…. Let me introduce you to its research grandparent, who makes it look easy.
See… historical fiction readers have a certain level of leeway they’ll give you. Take the musical Hamilton as an obvious example. Several historical facts are changed in order to make the emotion and conflict stronger. And people love it (including critics and people who hand out really important awards and so forth).

When it comes to hard sci-fi, however, you’ve got a leeway that’s a fraction of that which historical fiction has. Yes, you’re making things up, but you’re also targeting an audience that is far, far more knowledgeable in what is possible. Instead of just ignoring truths of the past, you’re breaking (purposely or not) laws of the present.
If your target audience is unforgiving, what’s the solution?
Lots and lots of research.
No, a little more research.
And just a little more…
There…. Well, actually a little more would be better. Hard sci-fi is read by people who enjoy it for the science behind it just as much as the story. We’re such geeks, aren’t we? The reason why so many authors of hard sci-fi have degrees in scientific fields (PhDs in astronomy or physics or some such thing, quite often) is because you really do have to know your stuff.

Man I sound depressing, don’t I? You don’t have to have a pair of doctorates to write sci-fi. Instead, you can go for something simpler…

Softly Science

Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is much easy to prepare for. You need only two things: a basic understanding of science and an imagination. Thanks to schooling, most every single writer is equipped with the first and if you’re an author, you have to have the second, so.
Soft sci-fi can be anything, from Star Wars to the Divergent Trilogy (near-future sci-fi/dystopian), to the Hunger Games (dystopian sci-fi), to your average action flick that’s more explosions than story. It’s a story that contains technology that our world does not currently possess.
It can be technology that we might soon possess (movies like RoboCop or Chappie come to mind), or technology we probably never will (hyperspeed travel from Star Wars being an excellent example).

The key to writing science fiction? Even in all the science and the worldbuilding, never forget that the story is more important. Genre is just a setting. It’s an arbitrary boundary we place our story in. Nothing more, nothing less. It affects the setting and the story only to the amount that we let it.
If we let the genre overpower the emotion and the conflict of the story, we’ve missed the point of writing.

Let’s not miss the point.


  1. Hey, look, I can actually comment on this thing, now (thanks to a technical difficulty with another blog).
    I don't read much of this. I don't really interact with much of it, either. Just personal preference, I guess, happenstance of things. That said, though, the guys in my family are both into it, and happily for the sake of well-roundedness, one's into hard and the other into soft. So I've done my share of discussing it, which is a lot of fun as someone who writes fantasy.
    My father's the one into hard sci-fi, and he fits your stereotypical fan rather well: he's an engineer. He actually tried to write it a couple of times years ago, though he sadly never managed to finish a story, despite being jokingly labeled in college with the name of a hapless writer from a then-popular sitcom, due to the amount of time he spent on the one tale. The one story's tragically premature end came about, actually, for a related reason to the focus of this post- he realized the science he was building it around was faulty. The tale involved a space station and the inhabitants thereof, and as an engineer, he'd happily designed a lovely space station... and realized halfway through the book that it existed outside of the domain of gravity, and thus the design that was so fundamental to the story was inherently flawed.

    1. That's so interesting. I like your dad, engineers who like stories unite! B)
      Science is hard to keep in line with what we want... or the other way around.