storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 4: The Many Facets of Science Fiction

See the source imageScience Fiction comes under the general heading of “speculative fiction,” a genre that pushes the “what if” scenario to the wall. According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2007), the term was coined in 1851, and it was in 1927—in Amazing Stories (Jan. 974/1)—that Jules Verne was called “a sort of Shakespeare in science fiction.”

So what is science fiction, and what separates it from fantasy? In simple terms, it is a story set in a place or time different from our own “in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in a scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms” (Brave New Words, p. 171). In other words, science fiction is a genre in which gadgets are employed in telling the story, while fantasy utilizes magic in the same way. For example, Donn Kushner’s The Book Dragon (Avon Books, 1987) is a fantasy about a dragon in our time who protects a New England bookstore from destruction by an evil developer. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, however, is from a science fiction series about a colony of humans stranded on a far planet where there are alien creatures that happen to look like the dragons of old earth mythology.

Robert A. Heinlein broke it down even further when he wrote, “There are at least two principal ways to write speculative fiction—write about people, or write about gadgets. . . . Most science fiction stories are a mixture of the two types” (“On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: 20 Dynamic Essays by Today’s Top Professionals, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 5). I would postulate that the gadgets make it science fiction, while the people make it good storytelling. If the focus is on the gadgets—the technology—then it would be what’s known as “hard” science fiction; if the focus is on the people, then it would be known as “soft” or “social” science fiction.

There are those writers who will attempt to dabble in science fiction by simply moving a story idea into a science fiction setting, but just placing a romance on a space ship or on another planet does not make it science fiction. One important thing to remember when writing sci-fi is that for a story to be science fiction—whether it also be a romance, a mystery, a thriller, or any other type—it must be so thoroughly integrated into the science fiction universe in which it is set that it could not be told in any other setting.

For example, in my novel, The Stars of Dreams, my protagonist is kidnapped by some bad guys, rescued by some good guys, and eventually falls in love with the leader of the good guys. If this were the main plot of the story, there would be no reason to set it in space, because it could happen at any time or place here on earth. But The Stars of Dreams  is not a romance because the bad guys in this case are aliens out to destroy a Commonwealth of Planets located toward the center of our galaxy. The kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the Earth woman is only the catalyst in the plot that alerts the good guys to a military coup under way. Yes, the story has elements of action adventure, mystery, and even romance in it, but Dreams is not about those things. It is about defending a Commonwealth of Planets from destruction, and that’s what makes it science fiction.

There are actually about a dozen science fiction sub-genres. Here is a partial list, in no particular order, with an example for each:

  • Hard Science Fiction/Gadget stories [military, cybernetics, robotics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI)]: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • Soft/Social Science Fiction [social commentary]: just about anything from Star Trek

  • Time Travel: [forward or backward]: H. G. Well’s The Time Machine (future); Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (past)
  • Alternative History [such as, What if the South had won the Civil War?]: Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain (from the Southern Victory series)
  • Parallel/Lost Worlds:  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core

  • Space Explorations [man goes into space]: A. C. Crispin’s Starbridge

  • Extraterrestrial [aliens come to Earth]: David Weber’s The Apocalypse Troll

  • Dystopia/Utopia/Apocalyptic [Earth doesn’t do well in the future]: Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (The Planet of the Apes)
  • Space Opera [just what it sounds like]: think Star Wars

  • Steampunk [future worlds with Victorian mores and technology]: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The key to writing good science fiction is the same as the key to writing well in any genre: Always remember the story comes first. However fantastic your gadgets—your starships, your aliens, your alien worlds—you need to create a balance between your gadgets and your characters. And as in creating magic in fantasy, you must be consistent with your gadgets. For example, however futuristic faster than light travel is, if you write about a technology that allows a starship to travel that fast through space, you also need to create the rules that allow the technology to work and then stick with them.

As in any fictional writing, you don’t want to forget to “show don’t tell,” but while it might help to be technology minded (so you can “write what you know”), you don’t have to be a technical expert to pull it off if you can imagine it well enough. C. S. Lewis, when speaking of the technology in his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, said, “Obviously it was vague because I’m not a scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of in. . . . In my case it was pure mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me” (in Lewis’ Of Other Worlds, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, p. 87). I describe the technology in my Commonwealth Chronicles (The Stars of Dreams and The Stars of Home) in much the same way. The characters from Earth are civilians from a relatively primitive planet, so as long as I describe the technology through their eyes when they end up on a Commonwealth starship, it works. Like Lewis, it’s “pure mumbo-jumbo” to both me and my characters, but that’s okay because a person from Earth in either 1996 (Dreams) or 1874 (Home) is not supposed to understand how Commonwealth technology works!

The next time we’ll take a look at the Western novel.

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