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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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?