Science in Science Fiction

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?

  1. If you are getting this directly from my brain by telepathy or something, please don’t tell me. It will creep me out. But I guess you already know that.
  2. But wait! Those science dudes (and dudettes) working on a real warp drive! Can teleporters be far behind?

17 Responses to Science in Science Fiction

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Dec 18 2013 at 9:20 am #

    “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 just gave me a great idea, a magic system where the spells are pretty generic, but the effects depend on the ink and quills used to write them.
    I’m a big fan of letting the science show through its effects, rather than trying to explain it all. When I was writing St. Martin’s Moon, a sci-fi werewolf novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about how a werewolf’s special abilities would be affected by lower lunar gravity, and designed my lunar colony accordingly. But I don’t talk about it, I just have the hero notice the way they live and deduce the rest.
    Another important aspect of SF is that it doesn’t necessarily have to make sense to us, but it should to the guys in the story. I distinguish several levels of SF on that basis. The hardest uses our rules from our universe, but it can still be SF if it works on rules in their universe, even if those rules aren’t our rules. That’s the sense in which Star Trek is SF, since they understand how warp drive works even if it doesn’t work in our world. Even a fantasy novel, where the magic works on rules, can be classed a s SF in that sense. Lyndon Hardy’s trilogy on the rules of magic feels very much like a science fiction series, especially the first one. Many SF novels, such as Heinlein’s Number of the Beast, feel more like fantasy because of the lack of any rules.

    • jodimeadows Dec 18 2013 at 4:33 pm #

      Hah! That sounds like a fun idea! 😀

      Thanks for the examples! I’m not sure I agree with you — fantasy should have rules, even if we don’t know what they are. The characters and world should obey them anyway. The lack of rules certainly shouldn’t switch something from SF to F, as if fantasy is all chaos! (That said, I haven’t read either of those books you mentioned, so I don’t know how they read, genre wise.) There are a lot of folks who’d argue that science fiction is classified under fantasy, what with the technology not being real and all. 😉


      • Marc Vun Kannon Dec 18 2013 at 7:04 pm #

        Any realistic world has rules, yes, but quite often magic does not. One version of magic is an imposition of the magician’s will upon the world, so the means isn’t as important as the end. In my own fantasy novels, the magic is shaped by the verses the hero sings, but he’s a Bard and knows how to select a verse for the proper effect. In A Name to Conjure With, simply speaking the hero’s name reshapes the world, and the book is all about putting him in a position where the speaking will have the most powerful effect. In The Master of the Five Magicks, the hero starts as a student of Thaumaturgy, and has to learn the two principles, ‘Like calls to like’ and ‘Once together, always together’. Each form of magick has its own principles, and he is one of the few capable of learning and mastering them all. In that sense magic can be like science. (In the Lord Darcy stories magic developed in place of science.)
        But some SF employs the inverse of Clarke’s Law, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, to introduce a very loose magic under the guise of advanced technology. They have it but they don’t explain it and don’t try (and when they try they usually fail; midichlorians, anyone?). Star Wars is a fantasy movie, while Empire is more SF-like, what with Han trying to fix his ship all the time. Space Opera is more concerned with peoples and epic struggles, while Military SF is concerned with tech and how it functions in combat. And to be honest, the lack of rules in The Number of the Beast is a serious flaw in the book. It’s not SF, it’s just an SF-flavored romp.

  2. Sandy Dec 18 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    Thank-you for this article this has made writing about anything that isn’t something I have extensive knowledge or experience in a lot less scary. It also definitely points out that the “explainers” aren’t just used for scifi. I remember McGee and Abby from NCIS who are the go to people for anything computer related and Forensics (Abby) and whenever they start to go too deep with the explanation they are always interrupted and told to get to the point and give up whatever results they have (where is so and so located, did you find a match? etc).

    • Marc Vun Kannon Dec 18 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      What sells the scene is that they try to explain, they act as if there is an explanation, even if the other characters never let them give it. This will work provided the viewer is not someone with the specialized knowledge to realize that the jargon they’re spouting is nonsense. Bones is another show that worked for me because of all the apparent science behind the forensics, but a few episodes made it clear to me that they were faking it. I try to stay vague unless I do have something concrete to put in the scene. By only actually putting in the true stuff (the more you can put in the better off you are), the made-up or glossed-over stuff looks better.

    • jodimeadows Dec 18 2013 at 4:37 pm #

      I’m glad it helped, Sandy!

      I agree with what Marc said here. The more facts you do have, the better! But knowing when to stop is important, too.

  3. Jaime Morrow Dec 19 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    This is a very helpful article, Jodi. A great reminder, really. It’s giving me a lot to think about with my own YA sci-fi WIP involving space travel. (I’ve been worrying about things like zero gravity and other science-y stuff I sometimes have a hard time wrapping my brain around.) Definitely bookmarking this post for future reference. Thanks!

    • jodimeadows Dec 22 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Happy to help, Jaime. SF is intimidating to a lot of people; I only got the courage to write it a couple of years ago! But you know what I find really challenging? Contemporary. *g*

      You can do it!

  4. Rowenna Dec 20 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Great article! I’m working on a sci-fi right now that sometimes has me wondering how much is too much science, or am I not giving enough? It’s helpful for me to remember that the technology is only one part of a good sci-fi world–that the culture, landscape, geo-political climate, and other factors are just as vital. And that the rules of worldbuilding–not info dumping, building a rich and layered world, considering how that setting impacts and shapes characters–are the same cross-genre.

    • Marc Vun Kannon Dec 20 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      I’m more interested in how the science or the tech impacts the characters than I am in the science or the tech itself. I remember reading 2010 or one of those sequels, and there was a great long section on a probe going into Jupiter and all the marvelous things there were in the clouds and a diamond as big as the Earth at the center and all this really uninteresting stuff because it was just a probe and no one was actually impacted by any of it. Certainly putting in a lot of stuff about pure science might interest those who adore pure science, or geek out over the latest techno-wizardry, but how many people is that? Whereas ‘how it impacts their lives’ leads directly to me wondering how it would impact my life if I was there, and I would think that would be the reaction of a lot more people.

    • jodimeadows Dec 22 2013 at 10:21 am #

      Happy to help, Rowenna.

      It sounds like you’re thinking about all the right things, which is a good start! Find a balance you’re happy with and remember that the story is most important of all. So, whatever you need for the story, and trim anything that slows down the story. Good critique partners will help with the fine tuning. 🙂

  5. Alexa S. Dec 20 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    I liked reading this post, Jodi! I think you did a great job suggesting how to really incorporate the science into science fiction stories, as well as made it seem a whole lot less intimidating. Wonderful job!

  6. Hamed Jan 12 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Great subject to discuss! I think the great sci-fi books are the ones that actually are not about scientific phenomena, predicting future or forewarning about a mind-washing dictatorship .the great sci-fi books I’ve read, they’ve used science as a mortar to glue the pieces of a greater, more important and absolutely contemporary matter together. I mean the thing I’m suggesting is that sci-fi writers MUST use this trampled genre to help us see our everyday lives more clearly. They should be studies on human’s perpetual problems, dateless problems.
    And another thing: I haven’t seen a Sci-fi book or movie with a real out-of-the-box Idea in the last 10 years. I guess sci-fi writers have the most mechanical minds among all type of writers. Have you seen an extra-terrestrial creature that moves in a way other than “terrestrial” methods? Has a writer ever created a living organism based not on DNA and Carbon? Couldn’t they picture humanity’s future bright and not always involved with some kind of totalitarian dictatorship?

    • Marc Vun Kannon Jan 12 2014 at 3:37 pm #

      Do you mean ‘out of the box’ or ‘outside the box’? While these phrases sound the same they mean exactly opposite things.

      • Hamed Jan 13 2014 at 6:47 am #

        Thank you, sir! I meant “outside the box”. Obviously, I have to work on my English. Thanks again for the lesson.

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