Friday, August 19, 2011

The Science of Writing Science Fiction

Guest Post by Jason Halstead

Erin asked me to write up a guest blog and, well, who am I to refuse a lady in need? What’s more, Erin edited a book of mine I published a year or so back with called Human Nature and she did a great job.

So I write science fiction and fantasy primarily. I started out in fantasy, both in my early years of thinking I knew how to write and in my first published novel. Why fantasy and not sci-fi? Well, fantasy was easier! With fantasy I could make up the rules – even the really important ones like which way is up. That’s the magic of the fantasy genre, both figuratively and literally.

Science fiction is a lot more complicated. With sci-fi a responsible author feels obligated to remain plausible (most of the time). I liken it to the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Trek was and is written by people with a respect for science and for imagining what the future could be. Star Wars was and is written by people who aren’t interested in science and rules, but rather in telling a story in an environment with cool guns and cooler outfits for enslaved princesses. Which is better? If you ask me a blend of the two with a preference towards the Star Trek end of the range. In either case, preservation of the outfits should have a high priority.

I have entire books written and sitting on my hard drive - and some begun and abandoned - in the sci-fi genre. I got caught up so much in the hard SF aspect that I lost the story and the characters. The science behind the fiction has to be plausible, but there are very few people these days that can go into detail about futuristic science and technology without losing readers along the way. The late, and great, R.A. Heinlein was arguably one of the best at this. Then again not many people can plot a rebellion and secession of the moon while simultaneously working with the government to enable humankind to reach the stars. Not only that but come on, who these days has their multiplication tables memorized all the way up to 20 x 20? I sure don’t.

The trick to writing science fiction, I find, is to stop being so hardcore. Rather than trying to explain the manner in which localized singularity generators can compress space-time around a ship to enable a starship to travel faster than the speed of light it’s a lot easier to just say, “Vitalis was seven light years beyond the outer periphery of human solar systems but thanks to the FTL drive they could make it in three months.”

Incidentally the singularity generators directionally warp space time to allow conventional propulsion to allow a ship to cover more distance without actually reaching or exceeding the speed of light. No, it’s not realistic and it’s highly unlikely anything like it would ever be viable but it is a great example of all the thought I’ve put into this sort of thing that you’ll probably never see in a book of mine because, seriously, who cares?

The take home here? Details rock, but don’t bore your readers with them. To me a book isn’t about genre so much as it’s about story. Use the genre to further the story, not to show how much smarter you are than Einstein because you figured out the flaw with the Theory of Relativity. Trust me, you didn’t.

Got some aliens? Cool! As a reader I don’t need to know the precise ratio of their preferred mix of nitrogen : oxygen. If they can breathe our air great. If they can’t, give ‘em a helmet or some breathing apparatus. The obvious caveat to that is if a detail is integral to a story. If said alien needs a high percentage of hydrogen to breathe and humanity’s only hope involves convincing one to belch while holding a lit match in front of them, pay some attention to it.

Focus on the characters and the story. Develop them, move them, make them see and feel what’s going on. The reader wants to feel what it’s like rocketing through space and staring at the beautiful swirls and colors of a gas giant out the port window, they don’t want to read the concentration of gases in the atmosphere and hear how their interaction with each other causes the prismatic blend.

Who is this guy?

Jason Halstead is a sci-fi / fantasy author who spends his free time with his wife and children and hitting the gym in hopes of getting back into competitive powerlifting. During the day he spends time chained to a desk as an IT Manager in the automotive industry. Check him out on!

Erin's Note: Please check out Human Nature, one of the coolest books I've ever had the pleasure of editing. It's also, coincidentally, the title of one of my favorite Madonna songs.

Image Attribution:
Robert Heinlein (with L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov) photo by U.S. Navy - public domain
Gas giants image by NASA - public domain


Brian Miller said...

nice...thanks for popping in today erin...nice thoughts here as well...sharacter development and story as the driver for sure...the details can be woven in but def not overloaded as there will be many you lose...

Erin O'Riordan said...

Glad to hear your thoughts, Brian.

shah wharton said...

Oh really enjoyed this insight. My story has aliens, ghosts and supernatural creatures like vampires etc in it. It's difficult to keep all the lore and science in my head straight at the time of writing. And there really is difficulty in getting the right balance between explaining facts and showing them. I fear info dumping - its in my nightmares ;D

P.S: I stopping enjoying Madonna after her Desperately Seeking Susan faze ((when I wanted to be her instead of Debbie Harry for a year, until I realized I preferred Bob Dylan and Nina Simone and was NOT into pop at all really) ;D Nice link though - :D

Shah .X

Chavonne said...

Hello, I'm new follower of your blog :)

Erin O'Riordan said...

Shah, I'm sure you will come up with a masterpiece. Personally, I like a blend of science fiction and fantasy.

As for Madonna - well, we'll just have to put that in the category of you liking Damon Salvatore and me liking Stefan Salvatore. I'm a huge Madonna fan, new and old material alike.

Chavonne, thanks so much for following. I'm glad to have you aboard.

Life,Twins,DramaQueen said...


New follower from the blog hop please come follow me back :)

P.S I love that music video

Erin O'Riordan said...

Thanks for following, Your Majesty. Glad you liked the video - it's sort of my theme song.

Erin O'Riordan said...

FYI, the video I embedded got deleted from YouTube, so I replaced it with embedded audio - just in case anybody was wondering.