How Much “Sci” Needs to Be In Your Sci-Fi
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke
One of my favorite genres is sci-fi—aliens, space, awesome technology, it’s a good time.
I also really love writing sci-fi, and most of my stories have at least an element of science fiction to them, even if they’re more fantasy, paranormal, etc.
The thing about science fiction is that it involves science, and much like my recent post about rules in magic, you want your sci-fi to adhere to certain rules, even if it is pretty fantastical. And let’s face it, we’re not making these rules up. They kind of exist already, and while you can bend those rules, it’s best if you know what you’re doing before you go make wild claims in your story.
1. Know Your Rules
Hey! That’s the same as the first rule for writing magic!
Seriously, though, you have to know the rules if you’re going to break them. This is going to involve a fair amount of research. What you research, and to what extent, is going to depend on your story, but you’ll know it when you get to it.
For instance, for some of my purposes, I had to know exactly what would happen to the human body if unprotected in the vacuum of space (what would happen, you ask? Pain. Lots and lots of pain. But not necessarily death, if you’re rescued soon enough!). This is one of those things that I can’t make up, and can’t really change the rules of, no matter how advanced my culture or characters are. Even most aliens are probably going to have a similar response, unless their physiology is so vastly different from ours that it’d be a pain to figure out. Therefore, if expelling people from ships is going to be a theme, this is something I need to know.
You might not need to know that, but perhaps you need to know how flammable certain materials are, or at what temperature a specific metal will begin to melt. Or maybe you need to know something that doesn’t pertain to fire. I don’t know. You might not even know until you’re writing and you get to a point in the story where you’re thinking, “Wait, is this possible?”
Keep an eye out for things that you aren’t certain of, and research them thoroughly. The internet is right there—it makes your life very easy!
2. Set The Stage
Depending on your story, you might not have to explain a ton of your technology—just make sure it’s believable in the context of the story, and you should be fine. Unlike the rules for things that are static—like how long a person can survive underwater before they drown—rules about what technology can generally do can be bent and pushed far beyond what we’re used to here.
If you want to really push the limits of the laws of physics, say, having a fire burning underwater, then you’re going to have to have some serious technology at play. A fun thing to throw in is a character who’s as bewildered by the advancement of this culture’s technology as your readers will be.
I recently read the (as of yet unreleased) first two books of The Circle War series by my friend, Matt King. He used immense levels of technology—so advanced they seemed primarily like magic—and I never once questioned it because the world he created around this technology was so suited to it, populated with begins so advanced, that even though they could do inexplicable things to me, I was able to accept that it was all possible.
3. Keep It Consistent
If you’re going to bend or break rules, do so consistently. Don’t have a certain kind of spaceship implode in the vacuum of space when its hull ruptures, then later in another scene, a ship of the same model holds up and makes it safely to the planet’s surface. That’s sloppy, and if you’re going to do something like that, you need to offer a believable reason to your readers for why it worked like that.
As I said about magic, more important than getting everything right, per se, is keeping your writing consistent.
Whatever your rules are—and however you choose to break them—keep it consistent across the board. Know what your characters can and can’t do, and if you alter that at all, do it consciously. Do it deliberately. Do it in a way that the story acknowledges, that makes your characters and your readers say, “No way, that’s not possible!” and have the explanation of how be part of the story.
All in all, you’re going to have to know your way around science, probably in a deeper and more involved way than you’d expected. Understanding the scientific principles of what you’re writing is important, even if you’re going to be all over the place in your story. Respect the sciences you’re going to be using, even though you might use them in a very different manner than they appear here in the real world.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever written (or read) in a sci-fi story?