It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of science fiction. I love the sense of wonder and anything-is-possible feeling it offers, not to mention all the opportunities to explore universal themes in a new way. Lots of people love science fiction movies and TV shows. I mean, is there anyone who doesn’t know about Kirk and Spock, or Han, Luke, and Leia?
But hand a science fiction book to someone and the story might be different. Science fiction is too hard. It’s too weird. A lot of people are afraid of the possibility of pages and pages of scientific exposition.
With that in mind, writers, I have some tips about science in science fiction. In list form:
1. Treat it like any other kind of worldbuilding.
I think the SCIENCE!!! of it all intimidates a lot of writers, but unless you’re writing hard science fiction, there’s probably not a lot of need for much in the way of exposition. As with all worldbuilding, character, and story, you will likely know a lot more than will ever make it onto the page. And that’s okay. Add what is necessary for the story.
How do to that? Here’s a sub list:
A. Choose a designated explainer character. I mean, don’t make it obvious; the character should be there for more than explaining things. But think about almost any of the Star Trek engineers explaining the warp drive or holodeck malfunctions to their captains. Do the captains care about how the engineers are going to get get the dilithium crystals back into alignment? No. They just want the ship to work right. The engineers get cut off mid-sentence, but we get just enough science to satisfy the people who want it, but not so much that others go cross-eyed.
B. A more subtle approach might be the way lots of things get introduced—by character interaction. Even in your fantasy novel when the character is using a quill, we see them dip it in the ink before they write the letter. There’s no discussion about how the quill was selected or cut to allow the ink to flow—that’s boring for most readers, and doesn’t do anything to help the plot (unless it’s a plot about feathers). You can use the same technique for science fiction. Main character removes the panel of the malfunctioning whatever, checks the power conduits, and finds that some of the connecty bits have been corroded. Replace them, “try it now!”, and keep looking if that didn’t solve the problem. (Sound like fixing a car?)
You can build tension with this, too. If they’re fixing the spaceship and it’s about explode, eee! Or if they’re watching someone get hurt (or being hurt themselves) with a strange techy device, showing the process of the thing working can build dread and tension and will the character get saved at the last minute or will this actually happen?
In that method, we get a few details about how the thing works because the character is actually interacting with it. That’s much more memorable than just being told about it. (Of course, a book where they go about interacting with everything just so the reader can see how it all works might not work so well. Be selective.)
C. Don’t talk about the science. I mean, chances are you’re reading this on your computer/tablet/smartphone,1 and are you really thinking about how that device works? Nope. You just click or tap or swipe and suddenly you have this great sublist about science. Same for your car or the bus or subway you took earlier. Technology is such a part of our lives that we barely notice it.
So when technology (let’s say replicators!) is commonplace in a science fiction world, will people really comment on it so much that the reader ends up knowing every detail about how it works? No when the captain says, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” and tea materializes, we’ll know that it does work, and unless it breaks and that’s relevant to the plot, we probably don’t need to know any more than that.
2. Do your research.
While you don’t need to be an expert, it does help to know what you’re talking about. If you can’t understand the research, find someone to translate it for you. If you want to make up science, that’s wonderful! It’s science fiction after all. But even if it is something totally wild, do make sure it doesn’t break any basic laws of nature or work in some way that is completely opposite of science fact.
Or if you do break the laws of nature (faster-than-light travel is pretty common in science fiction, but modern scientists are pretty sure it’s really just fiction2), make sure you have a good way to explain why gravity works in the opposite direction or whatever, even if that explanation never makes it to the page. You should know. But no matter what you do, be consistent.
3. Stuck on some worldbuilding issue? Look to science!
I do this a lot with my fantasy novels, too, when working out magic systems or trying to resolve a plot problem. Lots of magic rules come straight from the Laws of Thermodynamics (swoon).
4. I think we all know that it’s important to have a strong foundation to ground the story, right?
If we keep getting tripped up by things that don’t make sense—not just worldbuilding wise, but character and logic and motivation—it’s easy to trip right out of the story. So do yourself a favor and make sure you’re being as accurate as you can, and be consistent.
And remember, a good tale trumps all. There are a lot of great science fiction stories where if you tug too hard on a science thread, the whole world will stop making sense, but does that matter to most people? Nope. They want a good story. It’s your job to give it to them.
I know that was long! (Sorry not sorry. SCIENCE!!!) Gold star if you’ve made it to the end. So, what are some of your favorite techniques of getting science into your science fiction?