Being a Better Writer: Science-Fiction

Hello readers! Welcome back! I trust you had a good weekend?

I certainly did! Shadow of an Empire picked up another Five-Star review, which while not being a title that fits with the genre today’s post is about, is certainly something that I’m happy about regardless. The reviewer in question stated that they found Shadow of an Empire while looking for fantasy books that had deeply developed hard magic systems, and to that end they were incredibly impressed (and thoroughly enjoyed) just how deeply the magic was laced through the world, characters, society, and setting.

They also expressed sadness that there was only one title to date in the series (well, they probably don’t know about the short in Unusual Things, or weren’t counting it because it was, after all, a short). And to that I say “I have plans.” But I need to finish up Starforge and the UNSEC Space Saga first.

Okay, news done. Let’s get down to details with today’s (admittedly) broad topic of a post: Science-Fiction. First of all, what do I mean titling a post with such a broad, generic term?

Well, as long-time readers of the site may recall, I’ve done genre posts before. Such as the post on Westerns, or the one on Mysteries. And doing a genre post on Science-Fiction has been on my list for a while because, well … There’s a lot of disagreement out there about what Science-Fiction is.

Yeah. Again, what is the internet but a location for people to argue over whose lack of knowledge is greater? Even outside of the internet though, the subject of “What is Sci-Fi” in the last decade has become a topic of much debate. And I don’t mean “debate” in the terms of “Let’s sit down and have a calm discussion” either. More often than not the “debates” over what Science-Fiction “truly is” devolve into people speaking or shouting past one another … or threats and disparaging comments made about the parentage or life of anyone who disagrees.

In other words, if you’ve heard of how the internet, from Twitter to conventions, has become a “battleground for Science-Fiction and Fantasy” in the last decade, the argument over what Science-Fiction is most assuredly plays a part in that debate.

So why talk about it then? Well, because I happen to believe that one entire side of that argument is wrong. At which point I’ll forewarn that this means I’ve “entered the debate” and taken a side that could see all kinds of disparaging things thrown at me or said about me. But it’s not just that one side is wrong, but that the debate has become so fierce that there are a lot of people out there that legitimately don’t know what Science-Fiction is anymore. The term has become empty, or misused. The term has been diluted and at odds with itself through its various definitions.

Which in turn has led to no small amount of confusion among both readers and writers alike. It’s hard to go a few days anymore without seeing a discussion of Science-Fiction online where someone doesn’t bring up a book only to have someone else say “Well, that might be a nice book, but it’s not Science-Fiction and therefore not germane to this discussion.” Or bring up something that they’re working on writing, only to have someone post “I’m sorry, but that’s not Science-Fiction. If you want it to be Science-Fiction you’ll need to dump these elements and do this.

Of course, by hopping into this “debate” there is some risk, in a small way, that I’m simply contributing to what the webcomic XKCD as the “standards” problem. But I’ll try not to, as after all, Science-Fiction has been around for centuries, and a fixed definition for decades now (newcomers trying to change it notwithstanding). So with all this said, let’s dive in, starting with the answer to the following question: what is Science-Fiction?

Well, it’s pretty simple once you boil it down, and rather than quote someone else’s long drawn out answer, I’ll give you a definition in my own words:

Science-Fiction is a genre of fiction built on the underpinning concept of future scientific advancement and/or discoveries.

That’s. It. That’s all there is to it. Where it goes from there, well, that’s what story is. In other words, if its a story built on future technology or science we haven’t quite discovered yet at the time of the title’s writing, then it’s Science-Fiction. Even if said technology later proves utterly unworkable or “impossible.”

Science-Fiction. Fiction rooted in Science. Note that this doesn’t mean “Fiction written with a 100% perfect understanding of modern science and nothing else” (yes, I’ve seen this definition for Sci-Fi used to classify everything from The Martian to The Icarus Hunt as “Fantasy”). It means that one of the core underpinnings of the story is “The fiction of Science.”

If you’re thinking that this sounds very broad, well, you’re right. Science-Fiction is an incredibly broad genre, one that covers everything from Michael Crichton novels like Jurassic Park (word has it that the genre “techno thriller” was invented as a way to sell Science-Fiction to people who thought they were too “grounded” to read Science-Fiction) to 2001: A Space Odyssey to the imaginative settings of Star Trek and yes, even Star Wars.

All of those are Science-Fiction. The story of Jurassic Park, for example, only happens because a wealthy industrialist uses supercomputers and DNA research, combined with Paleontology, to resurrect dinosaurs and open an amusement park to feature them. Something at the time out of the reach of Science … but also at the time feasible with a little imagination and asking of “Well, what if we could figure this out?”

2001: A Space Odyssey? Also Science-Fiction. After all, the “science” that underpins its entire premise is “What if mankind had the technology to start building on the moon, and found that someone else had left a beacon there?” Again, at the time the story was written the tech to build colonies on the moon was fictional … but the science was coming. Clarke (at least in the short story the film was based on) asked “Well, what if we got it and found others had been there already?” Basically.

Star Trek? What if mankind develops FTL tech and begins to explore the stars, making friends with aliens we find out there and discovering “strange new worlds?”

Even Star Wars, though closer in tone to a Fantasy with it’s use of the force (a universal “magic” that science can’t ever fully explain, even in its setting), still uses the bases of a galaxy that’s unquestionably touched by scientific advancement far past anything we have even today, with ships crossing the galaxy in the span of days or weeks. In fact, Star Wars is so loose with how it’s characters regard technology that you could almost say it fills a nice slot opposite the coin of Star Trek (where Trek has characters constantly be amazed even by the everyday tech around them, Wars characters treat it with almost bored indifference most of the time).

All of these are Science-Fiction. Each one of them takes advancements of some sort in science, be they close (Jurassic Park with its supercomputers and DNA recovery, 2001 with moon colonization) or far (FTL and artificial gravity allowing mankind to break beyond the solar system in Trek or to wage galaxy-wide war in Wars) and then asks ‘What will people do or discover with such technology? How might things change?”

At it’s core, that’s Science-Fiction. To take an element of Science, spin it forward days, weeks, years, centuries, or even more, and ask ‘Now what?” That’s it.

Where people are getting tripped up, then, is in trying to “narrow” that window so that it only fits one “sector” of Sci-Fi, and then trying to cast all others aside. For example, there are some who hold that “true” Science-Fiction is only stories that explore future culture and social changes (and Science doesn’t even have to come into it). Or stories that only use modern, true science, complete with the math to back it up. If you can’t prove it with the science of today, then it’s not Sci-Fi but fantasy.

These definitions (and others like them) are wrong because they’re each guilty of trying to look at a single small facet of what Sci-Fi can be and saying “This is Sci-Fi now, all others are false. Only Moscow is Russia, all others are pretenders.” And in true nature to the “No true Scotsman” approach, the more they try to narrow it down, the further from Sci-Fi they get (the “social change,” for example, being bereft of any science at all, or that other definition eschewing any and all aspect of looking forward).

Science-Fiction is an incredibly broad genre, not a narrow one.

Okay, so all this said … why aren’t half the books in bookstores “Science-Fiction?” Two reasons.

First, some of them don’t want to be Science-Fiction, reacting to the old association from decades ago that “Science-Fiction is imaginary and therefore shameful.” Some people still have this mentality, even today, hence why Jurassic Park and so many of Crichton’s novels, despite being 100% Science-Fiction, were marketed as “Techno Thrillers.” Thankfully, such thinking has, over the last few decades, started to slide out and is more in the minority than ever, but that still doesn’t stop people from possessing it.

Second, some stories have futuristic science elements in them, but not as a core focus, and thus end up in a grey area where they have all the pieces to be something that would be Science-Fiction, but instead choose to not address those pieces, instead leaving them in the background.

Red Rising, for instance, though ostensibly a Science-Fiction novel, and indeed bearing those pieces, ends up more of a Fantasy novel because it’s never really interested in the technology of the story at all. Again, this one’s a grey area (and I’m sure some readers would disagree with me thoroughly) but despite the premise being “mankind is wildly advanced with technology and spaceships” the entire story plays out like a fantasy, with swords, flying sandals, and similar trappings more suited to Fantasy.

Again, grey area, since all that is accomplished, at least in a hand-wave explanation, by technology. But since that aspect isn’t really explored past the explanation of “technology” … Fantasy? Or maybe, some might say, it’s saying that mankind’s pursuits of technology will just reset society to sword and sorcery.

In other words, some books feature the elements of Science-Fiction but don’t put them to use or explore them, or they bring in other elements (such as fantasy) they’d rather explore more, and so you end up with a book that straddles both genres, and the seller, author,  or publisher picks one.

Okay, we’ve discussed a lot here, but true to the nature of this series, we’ve still got one more very important question to address: what does this mean for you, the writer?

Honestly, the biggest takeaway I can give you is that if you want to write Science-Fiction, don’t fall for one of the narrow-minded definitions. Science-Fiction is incredibly broad. Sci-Fi can be a story about an archaeologist piecing together the remains of an incredibly advanced civilization in a post-post-apocalypse society, slowly figuring out what weapon this ancient world developed that lead to it wiping itself out and choosing what to do with that knowledge … or a story where mankind faces alien contact next week and reels in the face of such an event. Or anything in-between.

The only thing you need to keep core to the story is “future scientific advancement and/or discoveries.” Outside of that …

The sky is the limit! You can set your story on Earth, or on an asteroid, or an alien world! You can have it involve aliens, or odd dimensional physics! You can have it be about all sorts of sciences?

Actually, let’s expound on that for a moment. Psychology? A science. Vulcanology? A science. Astronomy? A science! Crop science? It’s in the name!

Science-Fiction can follow or build on any one of these! Or all of them! Or none of them, and some other science!

Like I said, broad.

But, like many of those other authors out there, maybe you don’t want that to be the focus. Maybe you want a romance that happens to be aboard a space station, but isn’t delving any further than that. Is that Sci-Fi? Or something else?

Well … that’s up to you. What weight will you give the science of that station versus the romance plot that’s the core? Which way will you market it?

At the end of the day, Science-Fiction is fiction. Diving forward into new, unknown angles and stories. FTL travel, lasers, houses that talk, resurrected dinosaurs, astronauts being stranded on Mars, sentient tanks, artificial alien worlds …

It’s a fantastic genre that covers a large amount of ground. On the one hand this makes it difficult to pin down, much like trying to pin down a football field. On the other … it means that the sky is the limit. There’s a lot of opportunity for exploration of all sorts of stories, concepts, and even genres inside Science-Fiction. Science-Fiction Western, Science-Fiction Romance, Military Sci-Fi … the list is massive.

Where will you make your mark on it?

Good luck. Now get writing.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Science-Fiction

  1. My high school writing teacher used to say all good stories were ‘What if…’. The ‘what’ was the palette you chose to paint your story. Technological change? Sci-Fi. Magic or Mystical? Fantasy. Historical events? Historical fiction. But what really mattered was the What if.

    I’ve always hung onto that (despite the fact that none of my stories were ever that good).

    I agree with what you’ve said. I’d rather have your inclusive definition any day. Arguing over narrow definitions and splitting hairs misses the point – writing good stories.


  2. Hi Max
    Thank you for this article. I love science fiction but I’ve always been more interested in the characters and setting rather than the actual science behind the world. In my own work, I feature lots of different speculative concepts but I don’t really go into much detail about how they function within the world as I don’t feel that this is what the story is truly about. One of my greatest fears in this regard is having my work written off as “not real science fiction” but you’ve reminded me that you don’t have to go into detail with every single concept to be science fiction, nor do you have to be a rocket scientist to write it.

    Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this article and will definitely be checking out the rest of your work.


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