The Cheat’s Guide to writing Science Fiction
I decided a while ago that I enjoy writing science fiction (SF), or speculative fiction as many SF writers prefer to call it nowadays, more than any other genre. There was one major drawback. I know nothing about science. I can’t tell you what’s on the periodic table, or why it’s only on there periodically. I don’t know how the positronic brain works, but I know that Data on Star Trek The Next Generation had one and it got him into all sorts of trouble. And I’ve no idea how to get someone from one era to another, except that it usually involves people going all wobbly or flying off into the distance in a DeLorean before killing their grandfather and stopping themselves from being born.
Despite all that I still want to write SF. It really came home to me how ill-equipped I was when I decided to write a novel set on a space ship. Not just any old spaceship; one about eighty storeys high and in the shape of a cathedral. Thinking I was being a good SF writer, I asked myself, ‘Where would it be built?’ ‘How would it get off the ground?’ Just so I could get the novel started, I decided I wouldn’t try to answer either of those questions unless they somehow turned out to be relevant to the plot. So far they haven’t been relevant at all. Because everything happens inside the ship, and it’s happening to the passengers who have no more idea of how the ship got off the ground than your average Easyjet passenger knows how a 747 stays in the air. In other words, I’m cheating.
Now I’m going to share some of my own cheats with you - or how to write SF without a science degree.
Don’t have scientists or space captains as main characters. That’s just asking for trouble. Because if you have ‘Einstein’ or ‘Kirk’ in your story, he’s going to have to know what he’s talking about, isn’t he? Which means you’ll have to know what you’re talking about. Just have everything that happens happen to ordinary folk, like you. They don’t need to know that the space ship is going to crash because the main thingamyjig has fallen into the wotsit and Scotty can’t get the parts. All they need to do is sort out any issues with parents/ex-lovers/siblings/children, save their fellow passengers, apart from the obviously evil ones who must die, and then bail out in time to start up some new issues for the sequel.
Don’t explain. Have all your technology as you want it. Time travel, speed of light, other dimensions. Space ships shaped like cathedrals. Just don’t bother trying to explain how it all works. If your story is strong enough, and the technology reasonably plausible, or so extreme, that plausibility isn’t an issue, people won’t notice.
Set your story in a post-industrial era. Society has broken down. There are no more machines and humankind has gone back to living off the land. It cuts out all that worry about what sort of technology we have in the future. Create a world that’s gone back to nature, whilst characters allude to some Big Disaster that brought them to this point. To create authenticity and familiarity, have the characters find a Starbucks coffee cup or the odd CD disk, so that the reader knows this is the future they’re dealing with. Examples of post-industrial speculative novels include Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Will Self’s Book Of Dave.
Set it in the near future. You can probably guess, by looking at the new technology available now, what’s going to be out in five, ten or twenty years. It’ll just be smaller and more expensive. Also bear in mind that few people can afford to upgrade regularly. My printer is 18 months old, my tower system just over 2 years old and my monitor is at least 5 years old. So what’s wrong with your future people owning similarly outdated technology? Just have them kicking and banging their computers a lot and saying, ‘I’ve had this heap of junk since 2008 but since the evil robot emperor took over and put VAT up to forty per cent, I can’t afford a new one’. Or something like that. There is even a recognised offshoot of SF for this. It’s called Mundane SF, which is based on the idea that the laws of physics, and therefore technology, can’t evolve much beyond what we already know. So you might be pushing it a bit having an evil robot emperor. An excellent example of Mundane SF is PD James Children Of God.
Beg, steal or borrow ideas. Not for one minute am I suggesting plagiarism, but there are some well-known plot devices that originally started with one author, and have gone on to be recognised as standard science fiction fare. Like HG Well’s time machine, which countless writers have used, only varying the design and method of time travel. The makers of Star Trek The Next Generation took Asimov’s idea of the positronic brain for the android Data, and Asimov, in his turn, got the word robot from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. Asimov’s creation, hyperspace, is a means of space travel that has become standard for many writers who want to get their characters across the far reaches of the universe. The trick is to make these ideas seem fresh. But, whatever you do, don’t use the idea of warp drive, as apparently real SF buffs will immediately label you as an amateur.
Characters and themes. The best science fiction stories are really about the characters and ideas, not the technology. Blade Runner (the film of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) is not about how the replicants were created. It’s about, amongst other things, how much like us they are, and whether that gives them the right to live. Asimov’s robot stories aren’t just about robots. They’re about how we treat each other, dealing with themes of prejudice and alienation. The best SF stories, regardless of if they’re set on another planet, in an alternate universe or in some hazy future are about the fears and concerns we have today. So use those fears alongside compelling characters.
Research. Well you didn’t think you’d get away with doing no work at all, did you? Look things up, online or in the library. Unless you are writing hard SF, there’s no need to know everything about the technology your story needs, but it helps to learn a bit. Just throw in enough so that people think you know what you’re talking about. You can do that by searching online, or reading books of popular science, or just by watching science and ‘extreme nature’ documentaries, which offer up some good ideas.
The most important advice I can offer is just to enjoy imagining the world you’ve created, write your story, and don’t worry too much if it doesn’t fit in with accepted SF conventions. For all you know, you might be the SF writer who breaks the mould.