Pros and Cons of Writing Science-Fiction

Last week I clawed at my shell and shared a bit of my writing path with you, about how I got on the science-fiction highway—doing a face-plant from an overpass. Now I’d like to talk about why I stuck to it despite the hard landing, and why this genre will most likely be my chosen road for good. And maybe there’s even a favorable argument in it for you, if you haven’t decided about your genre just yet.

In my opinion, every informed decision is chiefly a matter of Pros versus Cons. I’m not always that anal when it comes to making choices, and often just test drive the main options and listen to my instinct, but I always contribute a bit of objective argumentation to the decision process if I can. After all, a consequence-heavy choice should be an actual choice, not a guess.

The commonly accepted definition of science-fiction is more or less this one: “a genre dealing with an imaginary but plausible reality that is based on scientific advancement.” This rules out all paranormal elements (science-fantasy), and makes scientific plausibility a required element. That’s the main trait of science-fiction compared to other genres.

There are dozens of sub-genres (you can check out some really cool lists here, here and here), but I personally mainly distinguish between hard science-fiction—where the scientific idea or problem is the core of the story, and the characters and plot are all just means to an end—and various types of stories in a science-fiction setting, which chiefly incorporates all other sub-genres, each with their individual flavors. The scientific element is just as indispensable in stories that are not hard science-fiction, but it takes a second place to characters, plot or theme.

Side-note: indispensable scientific element, by my definition, means that if you can remove the scientific element from the story’s problem, and the story still makes sense (or could just as well be played out in our currently known reality), then it’s not a science-fiction story, but a story with some science-fiction stuff thrown into it to spice it up.

So in light of this definition of science-fiction, I found that the best fit of genre for my story (and by all means, my favorite genre of all times, though I enjoy some hard sci-fi now and then) is psychological thriller in a science-fiction setting.

Woohoo, I know my genre! This bit alone lift a huge freakin boulder from my skull, but it obviously comes with pros and cons. Wanna see them? I haz bullet-point list, neat and tidy.

Β 

CONS of writing science-fiction

1. No safety net
Everything that happens, needs to happen for a comprehensible and re-traceable reason. You must make events and actions plausible within your storyworld at all times, or they’ll snap the reader’s suspense of disbelief in twine like a pretzel stick. Willy-nilly-ness is not welcome in science-fiction. You can’t just go “But this is how it really happened!” or “I’ve got the particle disintegrator, I make the rules!”

This can give you some real brain-cramps, but no work is too hard when it comes to achieving quality and reader satisfaction. The reader is king. Serve him well, and your efforts shall be rewarded. If it means breaking a sweat, hell with it. Make it count.

2. Research
And then some.
All genres require research, but only two genres will kick your ass from here to Sunday in this department—historical fiction and science-fiction. There’s no excuse for blatant errors in these two. You either love to sift through history or sciences and do your homework, or you better do your sanity a favor and opt for another genre, and kick ass over there. There are so many other ways to give your creativity a wide berth if you cringe at the thought of extensive research.

3. Exigence
Sci-fi fans reeeally know their shit. Chances are high they know the genre way better than you, and some of them even ace the sciences you drew from. Trust me, editing takes a whole new meaning in this light. Stock up on coffee, and warn your neighbors.

4. Complexity: undercover
Worldbuilding makes up for at least half of the science-fiction writing process. The larger your world (i.e. more planets, societies, or types of technology), the larger that “half” gets. You practically have to write two novels: one is a biography and radiography of your world, and one is the actual story.

Here is where I strongly believe the Pareto principle (or 80/20 rule) applies. It means that 20% of your worldbuilding will be enough to satisfy 80% of your story’s needs.

Today’s market and broad reader expectancy in genre fiction is for those elements that are not directly related to the characters to not occupy more than roughly one third of the story. In my opinion, modern science-fiction—or at least the type of science-fiction that I love—survives and thrives on those 20% of the worldbuilding elements, that are elucidative and powerful enough to cover 80% of the demand for a backdrop. Sometimes, this is damn hard to balance, but sooo worth it, since the end result is a fast-paced story devoid of info dumps.

 

But now enough of the cons. Let’s get to the juicy bits!

 

PROS of writing science-fiction

1. No limits
There’s nothing your mind can conceive, that cannot be expressed in a science-fiction story. You can go really crazy and venture out of all boundaries of common sense and contemporary possibility, and come up with unique, unrivaled ideas that you won’t find in any other story. That’s because the indispensable scientific element alters the story’s problem like a virus, and makes it mutate into forms that have never been done before.

This is huge!

Of course, if you’re really brutal, you can boil everything down to a handful of insipid, repetitive themes that’ve been chewed on since the days of old, but seriously now—if done well, no two stories are the same. Fuck generalization and groundhog-day mentality. Go big and bold in your fiction. Look, Ma, no hands!

2. Vision
i.e. some really deep, philosophical stuff.
If you’re inclined to spot issues in today’s societies, or sniff out dangers in the direction we’re heading in as a species, there’s no better place to explore them than science-fiction. You don’t have to be Nostradamus, or venture into politics if you don’t like to, but if you’re the kind of person who is bothered by cultural, societal or philosophical issues, science-fiction allows you to extrapolate freely and grandly. There’s just one rule of thumb: don’t get preachy. No one likes a smart-ass.

Also, science-fiction often precedes science. If you have a knack for inventing awesome gadgets or foreseeing scientific discoveries, but lack the money for an own lab or the math skills for an idea patent, science-fiction is the right way to contribute to humanity’s inspiration pool. Scientists have been stealing out of the sci-fi cookie jar for decades, it’s a symbiotic relationship.

3. Adventure
Interstellar flight, exploration of other planets and galaxies, discovery of the universe, robots, androids, cyborgs, pew-pew guns, exotic locations and incredible gadgets—all rolled into one! How about time-machines, worm-holes, parallel universes and super-powers? Faster than light travel, nanotechnology, extreme medicine, biotechnology, immortality? Does any of this make you tingle with excitement? Welcome to science-fiction!

4. Extreme situations
Stories are always about trouble. That’s the first commandment of fiction. And there’s no better way to portray trouble and heart-crunching drama (or trauma), than by exposing the human mind to extreme situations. Hey, extreme is science-fiction’s middle name.

How does the mind deal with the unfathomable? How does it survive the shredding of its sense of reality? How does one cope with alienation? How do people forge relationships if they’re fighting to survive an untamed environment? How do you trust your loved one if you can’t even be certain he’s human?

This is one of the main reasons I love science-fiction so much. It allows you to explore dark aspects of the human psyche in fresh, cutting ways, without having to resort to overused contexts (such as war, abuse or insanity). Oh, the endless possibilities!

5. Aliens
C’mon, they freakin rule! There’s nothing more exciting for me than extraterrestrial life-forms, technologies and societies. I wouldn’t give up their “natural environment” of science-fiction for all of the benefits of other genres put together and covered in whipped cream!

 

So, yeah. Science-fiction is the love of my writerly life. It implies truckloads of work and I will always feel like I’m not doing / reading / learning enough, but it just… makes me happy. *wide, toothy grin*

 

Now back to you guys — what do you like most about science-fiction?
And if it’s not your cup of tea, what do you love most about your favorite genre?

 

24 Replies to “Pros and Cons of Writing Science-Fiction”

  1. Oh man – I feel this post. I’ve written three contemporary YA’s because they don’t have any of the above “scary” factors (read RESEARCH) except for little drips and drabs. Now I did write a post-apocalyptic horse girl adventure and I LURVED the world building part of it – as an artist, all those sensorial/anthropological details are fascinating to me.

    I have a sci-fi idea – yes it would be sociological character driven sci-fi with elements of govt. and environmental issues that mirror our times here, just set off-world – but I’m SKEERED to start, because I know I haven’t done all the background work necessary because I am essentially a LANGUAGE and ART person, not a SCIENCE person – and I surely don’t want to write something inauthentic. Ya know?

    Great post – AS ALWAYS! (and welcome to my new affectation, the prone to random shouted words capitalization – what are you gonna do?)

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    1. Thanks, Jaye! I dig your Tourette’s if you’re yelling SCIENCE at me! πŸ˜€

      As long as you have a clear structure of the world set up, the rules and the most important events that have happened before the story starts and that affect the plot &/ characters further on, you can start toying with the actual story. Just draw a basic map of the stuff you want to happen. I’m not gonna mention the character work, just the worldbuilding.

      You don’t need to have everything in place before you start writing, because as you develop the plot and expand your characters, you will notice and fill only the storyworld gaps you actually need for your story, as you go. Most of the really nifty things will only become apparent to you as you gain volume for the story anyway.

      Thanks so much for sharing that here! I’d love to see you write that story!
      Just remember that worldbuilding-heavy stories really do require more planning than others, there’s just no way around it. But planning can be a lot of fun, very revelatory, and it takes so much of the anguish away later on. You’ll see. πŸ™‚

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  2. A very good post showing both sides of the art of writing science-fiction. Speaking of someone who has attempted this genre as well (before I decided I was better writing Fantasy), I think you have raised some good points here.

    With regards to the con you made about Exigence, I couldn’t help but feel that con could just be a minor nitpick. In my experience, Sci-Fi fans are always going to argue about the scientific possilibities of any Sci-Fi world that you create. Hell, I’ve read some pretty strange Manga’s with sciences and powers that would leave your brain frazzled trying to figure out. My opinion of that point is that as long as what you write about fits in within the context of the story (and you actually make this point before this one I believe) then it doesn’t have to conform to real sciences. After all, it’s Science FICTION and life’s too short to argue about the posiblities of light travel and all that.

    Still, a great post and one I enjoyed reading πŸ™‚ I’ll recommend this post to any first time Sci-Fi writers to gain inspiration.

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    1. Thank you very much, Dan! I’m glad you found the post interesting. πŸ™‚

      Most science-fiction fans love good debates on the sciences used in stories, and speculation is a good thing. Readers discussing our worlds creates a good buzz and word-of-mouth, and keeps the stories fresh in their memories. But the aspect that made me include this as a full-fledged con instead of just a minor annoyance is that incongruousness in this area can quickly turn a possible fan-buzz into a demolition of the story and poor rating. Things don’t have to be accurate or achievable, after all, like you said, it’s fiction, but you also can’t invent things that are known to make no sense and known to never will. Why risk it?

      Thank you very much for stopping by and taking the time to comment, and for the warm recommendation and the many tweets. I really appreciate it, Dan. πŸ™‚

      Like

  3. I just discovered your blog yesterday, and I am absolutely delighted to receive a new post already. Your post are right up my alley (I am working on my third science fiction novel).
    You have given me much to think about.

    Just a quick note: your email came with just name as the Subject.
    (almost got deleted as I had just discovered your name yesterday).
    Perhaps put the post title in the subject, as well.

    Again, lots of information to study.

    Roxanne

    Like

    1. Thank you for your comment and your subscription, Roxanne! I hope you’ll enjoy snooping around the posts. πŸ™‚

      I think you most likely mean the automatic confirmation email informing you about having subscribed to this blog, which incidentally has no other name than my own. There’s not much I can do there. Thanks for not deleting it, thought, haha! πŸ™‚

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      1. Actually, it was an email yesterday with the complete text of “Pros and Cons of Writing Science-Fiction” with only your name in the Subject.

        None the less, I grabbed it and read it. Fascinating stuff!

        Like

  4. Another great post, Veronica. Sci-fi has always had a huge allure for me. As my children say, if some of the characters aren’t aliens, dad won’t watch it on TV. My reading choices tend to be a lot more varied, but I don’t think you could have chosen a more fascinating genre. Here’s wishing you a super-successful series of projects. “To boldly go…” as they say πŸ™‚

    Looking forward to your next post!

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  5. LOVE this post, Vero – and your enthusiasm for your genre-work environment. No, seriously! Your post jazzed me up and I haven’t read a lot of sci-fi! LOL! (Although, I love *watching* sci-fi TV/vids/movies. I miss the SCi-Fi channel. We don’t do cable anymore.)
    I would add to #2 in Cons that sci-fi and historical fiction are not the only genres that require thorough research. Fans will nail you to the wall if you break from the expected (or accepted) facts with regards to some fantastical characters. Sure, a great writer can bend, wind, and twist the rules, but first he or she must know them! In other words, if you don’t know anything about Dragon lore in print, film, etc., don’t expect Puff the Magic Dragon to be rack to hang your hat on. πŸ˜€
    (But I get what you’re saying about doing the work when researching science and history.)
    Oh! And you ended the post with a question… LOL! What I love most about sci-fi… Hmm, I could point to the amazing social commentary and vision (e.g., Gene Roddenberry) that the best works supply, but the truth is…
    I love wild alien vs. human battles.
    *hangs head*
    Hey, it’s entertainment! πŸ˜€

    Like

    1. Human vs. alien battles totally rock!!! πŸ˜€

      Thanks for the enthusiasm and your honest answer, Tracy! Glad I could jazz you up! LOL

      Like

  6. Wow, what an act of bravery to follow your heart and go into a genre that you aren’t quite yet comfortable in! And your pros and cons list is pretty impressive – that’s some serious organization and a sign that you are going to write some great SF (keeping all the details straight and thinking every single choice and bit of world-building through makes the biggest difference in the SF world, imo).

    Best of luck with your chosen writing road πŸ˜€

    p.s. I love the pic you chose for this post!

    Like

    1. Thank you very much, A.K.!
      I’m putting a lot of effort into my story & world, because I want them to shine and engage the readers, but also because I really love to do it and no amount of effort seems too great. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the comment! πŸ™‚

      Like

  7. What a great post! It gave me the fuzzies for sci-fi!

    I pretty much agree with all of your pros and cons. This is actually something I’ve been mulling over quite a lot on my own, because I’m facing a tough decision regarding the novel I was working on last year. When I return to it (after I’ve met my short story goals), I have to decide whether it should stay in the science fiction realm or whether the meat of the story can be told better (if at all) as a fantasy story. Obviously that’s a huge change that would involve starting over from scratch, so I want to make sure it’s the right decision. And you laid out most of the tough aspects of that decision!

    Like

    1. Now that sounds like a professional — having a plan for tackling short stories, and one for getting to write your novel, focusing on the story you’re telling, not on some part of the decor. Awesome!

      Changing from science-fiction to fantasy will definitely require some work on transforming the setting, but there will most likely be parallels you can draw, and even equivalents, so you won’t necessarily have to start the idea of the backdrop from scratch, just the setup. If you feel that fantasy will make your story shine through better, then it’s definitely the better choice. πŸ™‚ Wish you loads of energy for it, and keep us posted!

      Thank you very much for the comment, James!

      Like

  8. Science fiction is a favorite of mine to read and I wrote a science fiction novel for my English honors project. You’re right on the money when you talk about all the research you have to do. I read through I don’t know how many articles about biotechnology, information technology, computer programming, sociological data and reports on geopolitics to get things right. But it is so much fun! I’ve still got a thing for sci-fi but I’ve also branched out into weird fiction and even a bit of bizarro but I have stories in my idea book that are pure hard-fi.

    Really good post and good luck with your writing projects!

    Like

    1. Thanks for the wishes, and for stopping by to comment! πŸ™‚

      The research we do for science-fiction is really making us grow as people, expanding our understanding of nature and society, and more often than not, reality surpasses our greatest imagination and pushes our writing to the next level. I wouldn’t trade this for anything else.

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