This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
You might have the impression that everyone who writes science fiction knows, or thinks they know, exactly what science fiction is.
You might, in fact, be surprised by how difficult even science fiction writers find it to define the genre.
There seems to be little doubt that this genre exists, and there are many works which are unhesitatingly placed in the category, because, as far as popular culture is concerned, they contain science.
This has led to the genre containing a vast diversity of content and content type, so I’m beginning by asking you this simple question: which one of these best describes your book?
Some books are placed in the SF category because the story takes place “in space” – regardless of the type of story, and regardless of whether the rockets or the rayguns are based on (or derived from) known science or are figments of the author’s imagination. The presence of humanoid robots and matter transfer are additional indicators.
In a way, this is the most meaningful type of genre classification because it concerns itself only with the setting, and completely disregards the story, which could be a romance, a tragedy, crime, thriller, horror – it really doesn’t matter. If there are spaceships and lasers, it must be SF.
Rockets & Rayguns may legitimately be referred to as “SciFi.” Some authors don’t like their work being referred to in this way, because they want to distance themselves from 1950s pulp science fiction that is, with a few notable exceptions, one of the two categories below, or something very similar.
In many, possibly most cases, R&R SF falls into one of two main categories:
Knights & Dragons in Space
The stories and characters are straight out of Arthurian legend. There are princesses to be rescued (or more recently, I’m relieved to say, saving themselves), there are strange birthmarks and in some cases, special powers. Often these stories become fairytales in space or sword and sorcery in space.
Cowboys in Space
Space seems to be full of bounty hunters. But it also has its fair share of exploited indigenous peoples, rebels, bandits, US Cavalry, marshals, and so on.
I appreciate Star Wars, because it gives so many examples of cobbling together fun ideas that look awesome in trailers, even if it rarely makes a coherent narrative. Star Wars is of course, a mish-mash of everything, throwing samurai and nazis into the mix.
A purist, and I am not a purist, might prefer that a fiction genre take account of the type of story, but for most readers, a familiar setting is a comfortable place in which to discover and explore new stories.
For those readers, there’s little difference between Asimov’s rambling (or, if you prefer, far ranging) Foundation saga and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s rambling Lensman series.
Both were chemists, but as writers leave a very different impression of their scientific knowledge and its influence on their writing. Doc Smith’s work is definitely Rockets and Rayguns. But to many readers, Asimov’s is…
Whereas any story may be told in R&R, in Other Worlds, the kind of story that can be told is defined, or at the very least, directed our bounded, by the nature of the world that the writer imagines.
For Other Worlds to be SF, however, certain rules must apply to the imaginary world, of which the primary is:
Everything in it must have a scientific – or at the very least, nonmagical explanation.
The author is expected to build a world on sound physical principles, careful rationalization and extrapolation from what we know. This is usually done by building on a rational “what if” statement:
Much SF exists only in order to place real people in unreal situations, and explore their reactions and interactions.
In some cases, the story only arises because of some unexpected scientific or technological invention. In many cases, the author and the reader are captivated by the way in which these inventions will change the world – by which, inevitably, I mean change human society.
This type of SF is typically subdivided into Hard SF and Soft SF. There are many categories in between.
Hard Science Fiction
Hard SF explores the potential practical, social and human consequences of real, known, verified science. The author’s imagination is therefore restricted to the consequences of the science or technology.
Typically, the author will take some new scientific discovery, and imagine what would happen if its applications became commonplace.
For example, we know that some forms of cloning are possible. The author would have to explore the consequences on health, society, morality, of those forms of cloning becoming commonplace – such as the availability of genetically identical organs for transplant meaning that there is no longer any argument against banning motorcycles.
Soft Science Fiction
Some readers will argue that if the technological foundation of the science in an SF story is completely imaginary, then the story is not even soft SF, but fantasy.
Doc Smith’s infamous “disintegrating copper bar ” might well be an example of this.
To qualify even as soft SF, then any imagined future tech or future science must be derived from known scientific fact.
I’m sure you can imagine just how much argument there can be over this, which is why, I think, that there is another category in this section:
Moral SF is as much about the popular understanding of science as it is about science itself.
Typically, the author will invent a science or technology that resembles not real science, but what most people think science to be, and use that to explore the ethical, moral and social questions that surround the real science.
This would be the story about cloning where a clone is an identical copy of a person, right down to their knowledge and personality. What would that mean to our sense of self, our sense of what makes a person, and our responsibility for eachother?
You could easily imagine that Star Trek, especially TOS is at best soft SF, at worst R&R. But I think the reality is a little different.
Certainly the voicover of the opening titles uses the rhetoric of colonial exploration – which implies “Colonial Era Explorers In Space” – but the stories themselves are really about the interaction between the crew of the Enterprise and the societies and civilizations that they encounter. It isn’t for nothing that a recurring theme of both TOS and TNG is that the Enterprise crew are tested by an all powerful (or pretending to be all powerful) alien intelligence.
Space Opera is actually a kind of extraordinary circumstance where human society is placed in contact with other societies. It’s a combination of Moral SF and Other Worlds.
For me, the Tech Thriller is just a variation of the “McGuffin Plot”, where the author invents an object, item or piece of information that everyone wants to get their hands on. (This could look like an item oriented story but in general I advise against orienting your story this way.
Instead of an object the author comes up with a scientific or technological advance that represents a threat. It’s better to think of it as a type of thriller than as a type of SF. After all, the reader is along for the threat, and the thrill of discovering how it is thwarted.
If the thrills are sufficient, then the reader won’t be too bothered about how convincing the science or technology is. Dan Brown makes a substantial living from understanding this distinction. His critics are always those who see his work as SF, and therefore challenge the science.
Avoiding this kind of criticism is a matter of sticking to one of the two standard Tech Thriller plots:
Tech Thriller Plot #1
Tech Thriller Plot #2
If it seems like I’m doing tech thrillers a disservice, I’m not really. This is more of a short-sell, in the hope that you will look for more plots than just these two, or better still, you’ll write your story without thinking about the plot, and thinking more about the characters and consequences.
Both of these are arguably genres in their own right, and not SF at all. Sometimes they get listed as subcategories of SF for no better reason than that the action takes place in the future.
This is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
It doesn’t matter what caused the apocalypse; it doesn’t matter what caused whatever it is that the characters have to survive. What matters is how they set about surviving. To decide whether or not your book is post apoc/survival or SF, ask yourself this simple question:
Could the same story have been told in another time and place?
When your generation ship crash lands on a distant, but improbably habitable, planet, with only 30 survivors, how different is the story you tell from a story of 17th century explorers shipwrecked on a remote island?
If the only differences are in the scientific and technological knowledge of the characters, then you’re probably writing a wilderness/frontier survival story, and not SF.
When nine-tenths of the world population is wiped out by a genetically engineered virus, how different is the story you tell from one set in medieval Europe where nine-tenths of the population is wiped out by the bubonic plague. On the face of it, it might look pretty different.
But instead of thinking about what your characters know; what creature-comforts they crave and what kind of world they want to rebuild, think about what they whole experience makes them feel. I suspect the feelings of 21st century plague survivors would be much the same as those in the 14th century.
Clearly I have to take a pop at this. The Zombie Zeitgeist seems to be enduring longer than ever this time around.
Zombies are mainstream. There may be good, if disturbing, reasons for this.
Broadly speaking, zombie fiction can be divided into one of three categories:
Supernatural zombies obviously aren’t SF. They are the stuff of horror or fantasy.
I quite like to see a supernatural zombie or two in Urban Fantasy. Supernatural zombies are the ones that claw their way out of their own graves in spite of their soft tissue being in the process of rotting away. It’s simple mechanics; if you haven’t got working muscles and sinews, you have to have magic.
Scientificy-explanationey zombies are arguably science fiction. Whenever zombeism is caused by a pathogen or poison, but the zombie is basically still alive, then the author is at least nodding to some sort of scientific thinking.
The purest form of this in recent years was the movie 28 Days Later. Darren & Marcus Wearmouth’s Activation series is sometimes called a “zombie apocalypse without zombies” but it’s really more of a post-apoc/tech thriller crossover. Arguably, the Activation series fits in the last category – even though there are no aliens.
Alien zombies happen whenever the author wants to avoid the supernatural but handwaves the scientific explanation with a vague or veiled reference to outside forces or evil science. In a sense, this is science fiction because the story premise arises from the idea of what science might do. This is a core concern of:
Yay special category.
A significant proportion of science fiction is about the fear of science. In such stories it’s only natural that the science be unreal – because it symbolizes the excesses and the dangers of science.
These stories are still SF, however, because they are about the consequences of science. Luddite SF, therefore, often resembles fable or parable.
Spec. Fic. is the bucket genre of any non-realist fiction. It is often an excuse for letting your imagination run wild, and as a result often results in writing that lacks focus, or even coherence.
Spec. Fic. can all to easily head off on dreamlike tangents from which it never returns.
What Spec. Fic. ought to be is the exploration of the possibilities beyond the bounds of our current knowledge. A solid Spec. Fic. starting point is found someplace where human knowledge ends. There are two possible launch platforms:
Hard scientific spec. fic. wonders what might exist beyond the boundaries of our knowledge or (more contentiously) our understanding. For instance, what sort of Universe preceded the last “big bang?”
Hard scientific Spec. Fic. can get a little softer, when exploring questions like “what sort of life would have evolved on Earth had the initial conditions been different?” And softer still: what if the dinosaurs had not died out? (We already know this one; they didn’t. They turned into birds.)
Mystical Spec. Fic at its best explores the what-if: “supposing superstition X were true?” If you approach this as a sociologist or hard SF author, it can result in some very interesting social consequences.
At its worst, mystical Spec. Fic. is about the afterlife. There are lots of stories about people discovering that the afterlife is real, and that there are problems there that need to be solved. 99% of such stories are awful, because the afterlife described is non-symbolic.
If you really want to know how to do this, read D. P. Prior’s Shader series, where other worlds, including a sort of afterlife/limbo are described as if real but their role is entirely symbolic. Using symbolism this way is a technique well worth learning and will be covered in detail in a future course.
How do you draw the line between Science Fiction and Fantasy?
I suspect that the real difference between SF and Fantasy is not about the setting, the trappings, the magic or the tech.
I think it’s really about the character.
Fantasy stories are about individual struggles. Science Fiction stories are about groups – about societies.
I think that’s why SF writers feel a need to anchor their stories in hard facts wherever possible.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to write first-class stories in the genre of science fiction:
Professional Literary Editor and Creative Writing Teacher. If you want help of any kind with your book, you may contact me here. I recently launched a course to teach you everything I've learned about writing novels in the last 8 years. It's called Read Worthy Fiction, and you can find it on Udemy.