How much science does there need to be in Science Fiction?

This is a question that gets asked a bit in writer’s forums, and frankly, I have some trouble with it. I mean, it’s called Science Fiction, isn’t it?

Yes, I know there are many stories out there that don’t seem to have any science at all. Look at Star Wars, for example. It’s so full of semi-magical rubbish that you can hardly call it Science Fiction and… yeah, yeah. That said, how do you know that some real science wasn’t behind the inspiration for some of the admittedly cool worldbuilding? Sure, there was a lot of stuff that’s plain impossible and more like magic, and overall, Star Wars is probably closer to fantasy. But, you wanted to know how to write better and more sellable Science Fiction, right? You’re not writing Star Wars and your name isn’t George Lucas, so let’s forget about them and all those stories that have questionable science. You want to sell a story to a good magazine. How much science do you need?

In the last year, something changed for me. I went from being able to sell stories at semipro level to being able to sell them at pro level. In my case, I can pinpoint the exact moment of change. It was that hot Sunday afternoon in January 2010 when I went to Officeworks and bought that pair of titanium scissors. I became interested in titanium and after reading about it, I cobbled together a number of ideas into a strange ecosystem that relies on titanium. From there, it was only a small step to invent characters and a story. Ultimately, not that much science made it into the story, but the science inspired almost every bit of worldbuilding the story has.

The story I wrote next, Party, with Echoes, which I sold to Redstone SF, had even less science visible in the story, but that doesn’t mean none went into the writing of it. In fact, since it’s set on Europa, I bought a book on the moon. The same book has given me ideas for further stories.

His Name in Lights, which I sold to the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette, has even more science, and more of it made it into the story, but again, the science formed the basic inspiration for many elements in that story. The science told me what should happen, and gave me ideas for cool scenes. Having asked myself the question: could one possibly sign-write on the clouds of a gas giant, I set about writing a story that involved just this.

The quality of my stories took a big leap when I decided to start taking the science in Science Fiction seriously, and using the science to inspire and guide the story rather than tacking some pseudo-science onto an existing story, and hoping no one noticed. About using facts in Science Fiction, someone at the Analog forum said this very true thing: don’t think no one will check; they will. Very true. You have to get the facts right. Better still, make sure you’re one step ahead of the editors and readers in terms of research.

So I think those people who ask how much science a Science Fiction story needs don’t fully understand the concept of the genre. Science is not optional. Science Fiction is, breathes, and lives science. The inspiration for it is the science. The resulting story may or may not have an obvious science component, but without the science extrapolation or inspiration, it would be dull, commonplace or clichéd.

That doesn’t mean dull, clichéd stories don’t get written. Heck, sometimes they even get published. But if you want to give yourself the best chance at getting published in a decent Science Fiction venue, it is my strong feeling that you had better start looking after the science other than spending five minutes on Wikipedia checking the most obvious facts.

When I talk about science, I include the social sciences. There are many great stories that can be written about concepts in such fields as psychology, political science and linguistics.

You do not need a PhD in any of these fields to learn about them. Your readers will probably never have heard about the interesting concepts you have used as inspiration for your fiction, and therefore, the stories will have that spark of being different and fresh, as well as feeling authentic and interesting.

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14 comments on “How much science does there need to be in Science Fiction?

  1. “So I think those people who ask how much science a Science Fiction story needs don’t fully understand the concept of the genre. Science is not optional.” I agree 100%.

    And as for Star Wars, it gets misslabled all the time–it’s actually space-opera, which used to be called space fantasy. Just because the setting is space doesn’t mean the story has anything to do with science.

  2. I totally agree. Even with space opera, I enjoy it when the writer pays attention to little details and doesn’t just handwave stuff like artificial gravity, faster than light travel, etc.

    • Yes. I love it when writers make the effort to dream up ‘realistic’ FTL options that sound at least as if they could happen in that world. I guess hyperspace is such a mechanism. But I hate it when writers just mention artificial gravity without further explanation.

      (disclaimer: that doesn’t mean I won’t do this myself. I have, on occasion, in space opera short stories, where there wasn’t the word space or opportunity to explain. Practice what you preach does not always apply here, but if you’re going to make a major effort, like a novel, I don’t think you can handwave this sort of stuff and be called science fiction)

  3. I actually dislike the Star Wars series. There never was anything “science” in that fiction. Star Trek, on the other hand . . . now we’re talkin’. Indeed, in the original series when weapons were depicted impacting against the shields or even the hull of the Enterprise, you’d see the flash of the explosions but there would be no sound (in space, nobody can hear you scream . . . remember that one?).

    Unfortunately, they got away from that and started inserting the silly sound effects in the vacuum of space. I always thought the lack of sound made the attack scenes not only more accurate, but also more chilling because it drove home to the viewer the consequences of a hull breech.

    • I actually enjoyed the older three of the Star Wars series (the latter three were just an awful plot mess). But I enjoyed Star Wars on a different level. I agree the science didn’t add up.

  4. I think you hit the point of science fiction. It does need credible science in it.

    I think the problem–within all genres–comes when the research overcomes the story with author intrusion of “look how much research I did, now you’re going to learn it” when that overcomes the characters and story.

    It’s a tough balance, but is fabulous when done right.

  5. The way Star Wars works is by relying on your visual and audio senses as a shortcut to making the universe of that storytelling believable. The Star Wars novels rely on the movie crutches.

    Using the written word to build an original work in SF does work best if there is either an established nickname for a SF element (warp drive, wormhole, antimatter or the like); or if the author can present an idea that let’s the reader understand the principal without having to become hung up to the point of disbelief. I like to have a simple construct for SF elements in my stories so if I write,”the ship was new enough to have gravity plating in the decks,” I already have an idea that the plating has a inductive mass effect like an induction stove top uses magnetic waves to create heat in an iron pan. I may not write all that out at the time, but having that concept may provide a twist later in the story, like when an alien is floatng in the ship because his body makeup doesn’t allow the mass induction (like a glass pot doesn’t work on an induction stove. I wouldn’t have a floating alien if I didn’t invent the technology first. I think the reader would be lost if I just said that the ships gravity didn’t work for the alien without some way to let them accept this and move on.

    I’ve always had a problem with Superman’s ability to fly just because he is from another planet. Why can he walk?

    • Given that gravity plates and mass induction and pretty much BS, and that there is a realistic way of creating artifical gravity, I can’t see why people don’t use that.

  6. I feel that sometimes SF that focus on social sciences are misrepresented in the genre. There is also a whole world of brilliant interstitial works that are misnomered as science fiction because they don’t belong to a genre. That doesn’t make them unworthy of publication or of lesser quality, in my opinion.

    What do you think?

    • I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what you mean. Are these works that you’re talking about included in SF or not? Does that mean they’re of lesser quality?

    • Agree about historical fiction. If you want to write it, you have to do the legwork. Or, alternatively, if you do the legwork, you will have a lot more success.

  7. I had a eureka moment the other day while reading the headlines from Science Daily news. And again while listening to a psychologist on NPR talk about a book he’d written on ‘Brain Bugs’. Until then I didn’t think I’d be able to write true (hard) science fiction. But after that, I became inspired and a story was born. It’s based on real scientific research although that facet won’t be an overt part of the story.

    Your blog post was very encouraging because that is how I write. I like having my fiction stimulated by odd snippets of science, athough the majority of what I produce will likely always have strong fantasy leanings.

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