Why I am a glutton for punishment

Because writing science fiction is damn hard work.  There’s so much research to do.  Depth of planetary crust.  Effects of electromagnetic pulse on electrical equipment.  Volcanic activity and pyroplastic flows.  Neutral particle beams and charged particle beams.  Tracked vehicle mechanics.  Explosive decompression.  Environmental effects of meteorite impacts.  Surface effects of underground nuclear detonations.  Bioextraction of minerals from spoil.  Cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatic disease.  FTL communication.

You know, that list makes the novel look pretty damn exciting.  Which is why I started to write it in the first place.

Okay, I am now motivated and reinspired.  Huh. And this was supposed to be a rant.  Well, instead of a rant, let it be an elucidation.

It’s true that 99% of this information won’t make it into the book.  Not as information, anyway, but it will affect the physical world, which in turn affects the characters.  Which is why it has to be right.

Oh, you think it doesn’t matter?  That no-one will care if my pyroplastic flow doesn’t obey the physical laws of this universe?  That I can just give my characters ray guns, and leave it at that?

Hah, no.  It matters.  Because the first thing a science fiction reader is going to ask when confronted with a ray gun, is “what kind of ray?”

As an science fiction author, you’d better have the answer, or your credibility goes straight down the toilet.  For a perfect example, check out Bad Astronomy, one man’s personal war against those vile creators who Take The Laws Of Physics In Vain.

Yes, okay, the average Bob won’t realise that you can’t use a black hole to save a planet from a supernova.  But you can get away with a lot in movies, because you can hide behind flashy scenes and special effects.  In books, it better be tight, and believable.

Besides, the average Bob doesn’t read science fiction.  The science fiction audience is, in general, more technical, more critical and more demanding than, say, the urban fantasy audience.  According to Orson Scott Card, they tend to take metaphors literally because, to the science fiction audience, someone who ‘walks mechanically” could quite easily have robotic legs.  Readers coming from other genres can have difficulty making the leap to reading figuratively.

However, times are a changing; in the last 20 years or so (I was about to say 10 years, then realised how old I am) science ficiton has developed a couple of subgenres.  There’s McCafferty’s popular science fantasy, The Dragonriders of Pern.  There is a plethora of science fiction romance (I recommend Sharon Shinn as a great place to start).  I’m sure there’s some science fiction erotica out there, but I’m not going looking.

How do you tell the real science fiction from the rest?  Well, if the science has laws, and is an integral part of the story, it’s science fiction.  Anything else is just a story set in space.

And that’s 500 words I could have been writing on my novel.


10 thoughts on “Why I am a glutton for punishment

  1. I do care if the details are integral to the story, but if I understand what a machine does, I don’t usually worry about how it does it. :)

  2. I have a couple of very close friends who both are avid sci-fi nuts. One offered to edit for me once – had I followed her suggestions my very first book would’ve ended up 1000 pages and then some, because she NEEDED every little thing explained in full (which sprang to mind with your ‘walks mechanically’).
    The other writes – and is new to writing. He asked me to read for him but I couldn’t find his story… was so darn well hidden under the science and the detail. – he has since learned – just because you know it all doesn’t mean you have to spit it out in text, at the expense of the story!

    I know understand where those two are coming from and how annoying my genre (crime thrillers) must be for them!!


    Tony and Elvis are eye-balling me… something’s up in Gnomeland.

  3. I’ve honestly got to say that, as a sci-fi lover, I couldn’t give two tosses about the science behind the story. Unless it’s a blatant slap in the face to real, commonly known science, I don’t care. Story rules above all. If you get too bogged down in science you turn into Peter F Hamilton – using 2500 pages to tell a 600 page story.

  4. I’m trying to go ‘casual’ on this one. I don’t attempt to explain how a ship’s main drive works, but then I also don’t list everything needed to accomplish such an engineering feat.

    Personally, I like to try and mesh the current level of technology with what I can see it being. I’m not doing ray guns or tractor beams, or green women. Instead, I prefer to see my future (which granted, it far removed from the now) as if time had wound back in on itself, perhaps after a point where technology was at it’s best, and then became somewhat rudimentary again.

    I think, for me, it’s more about my style of writing as opposed to trying to please a crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not lazy, I just like stopping when I know it makes a little bit of sense, and your imagination can do the rest…

    …did any of that make sense?

  5. Now I’m wondering if all the terms I was taught on how to break up science fiction have fallen kaput.

    Hard science fiction – tells you exactly how the FTL works and what parts you need to fix it. Admittedly, I don’t have any examples from the science fiction genre because my eyes glaze over when it gets technical. Tom Clancy would be hard science fiction if he wrote science fiction. (Why I love the movie actually has very little to do with the actors; I sloughed through Hunt For Red October once.)

    Soft science fiction – uses technobabble but doesn’t get tied down in explaining the nuts and bolts of how it works. Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov–especially his Robot stuff–fall into place here. But that’s not to say that the background details are not just as strongly rooted in actual engineering details because FTL has to work the same way every time it is used.

    Space opera – romantic/fantasy story with a space setting. Star Wars is pure space opera.

    You get other sub-genres when you start mixing the important elements from other genres, so I’ll go along with science fiction romance (and think that describes a whole lot of cheesy sci-fi cover art better than the text it surrounds), science fiction erotic, and science fiction mystery (which I will one day finish).

    Well, if the science has laws, and is an integral part of the story, it’s science fiction. Anything else is just a story set in space.

    That’s still true with both hard or soft, and if someone could point me to a space opera that cares about it, I’ll be thrilled. So I’m just curious which you are putting this novel in: hard or soft?

    Second point of curiosity: Have you read World Building by Stephen Gillet or Aliens and Alien Societies by Stanley Schmidt? I’ve found both really helpful in breaking down planetary and biological science so you don’t end up with one ecosystem worlds like Hoth and Tatooine or cookie-cutter aliens a la Star Trek. And you don’t have to have a science degree to understand the concepts!

    I’ll fess up, I scraped out of the sciences with Bs and Cs both in high school and for my B.A. I got my highest grades in Ecology, Biology lecture because I can take really good notes, and Physics cause I’m really good with mathematical formulas. I need the information to make plausible backgrounds simple.

  6. And while we’re on the subject, whatever happened to those chapters I emailed to you? They were so awful you couldn’t bear to tell me? *sniff*

    Never awful! I’ve read the first 2 sentences. That’s as far as I’ve got. But tomorrow, the small man is in daycare, so I shall have the review to you, I promise!

    In the meantime, feel free to send more…tomorrow is a good day for me to get work done.

  7. On behalf of Joes everywhere, I object to your two uses of the phrase “average Joe.” It is discriminatory and degrading to Joes everywhere, and belittles our accomplishments through history. Consider the fine examples of boxer Joe Louis, author Joe Heller, athletes Joe DiMaggio and Joe Montana, and ruthless dictator Joe Stalin.

    Okay okay, I’m picking on Bobs now. Are you happy?

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