Ramblings (pl. noun): talking or writing in a confused way, often for a long time
Bardlings (pl. noun): Ramblings from Bard

[tsat home] [#38] [editorials]
SF 101: Writing the Hard Stuff
by Michael W. Bard
©2005 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved

I've always read SF and I've noticed a distressing lack of science-fictional TF stories. So, here are some thoughts, warnings, and links, to encourage the nervous and cautious amongst you to try writing some SF transformation stores for a change.

Some of you may be shouting out that there is a lot of SF TF fiction being written. After all, any TF story that offers a technological method1 is, by definition, SF. Yes, this is true. However, I'm pro-hard SF, pro-space travel, and pro-alien worlds. Stories set in the current day with only TF tech added are SF, technically speaking, but they just don't 'feel' like SF to me. So, my discussions below are going to assume you want to set the story in a different time period than today.

For good or ill, there seems to be a strong belief that one has to be a physics PhD (or equivalent) to write SF set in the future, particularly space-based SF. This is not necessarily true. A particular story might require such knowledge, depending on how it was written, but there are ways around that requirement.

In all likelihood, a distant future would be utterly unrecognizable to a current day reader -- and completely incomprehensible in terms of technology, culture, etc. Science Fiction has tried to do this the odd time, and may have succeeded, but what fun is it for the reader? In other words, don't go overboard on making the future amazing. Make the future human (or whatever) somewhat like us, and the technology something conceivable today.

Oh no! you're thinking. I have to work out all kinds of social-economic trends, extrapolate the physical possibilities that could be manufactured to enhance every day life, and understand all the electronics and physics of how it could work!

No, you don't.

Think about this: how much do you know about how an automobile works? About how a microwave works? About how a DVD burner works? And yet, you use these devices every day. How do you manage this incredible feat? Simple: All you really need to know is, "What buttons do I push?"

What this means is that your characters don't need to know the nitty gritty detail. They, like you, need only know what buttons to push. You can say: "The pilot wrestled with the controls and they fought back, feeding the atmospheric turbulence back into the joystick, feeding him information clearer and cleaner than the malfunctioning instruments. Somehow he was able to maintain control, keep from burning up, and manage to slow down enough with the emergency belly jets to land in a way he could walk away from." Note the 'vast quantities' of mathematics in that example... No, there aren't any. There don't have to be. It could have been written with equations, speeds, thrust values, momentum vectors, gravitational resistance forces, gaseous turbulence equations, etc. But it wasn't. If you know enough to get into that, fine; but you should write it directly into the story if and only if your character would think that way. Otherwise just have the character do what the character does -- and don't worry about the how.

To repeat: you don't need a PhD in math or physics!

Now, you can go too far. In the '50s, writing a science fiction setting simply required putting the word "space" in front of everything. So you'd have a space suit, a space house, a space door, a space dog, a space wife, a space kid, even a space space heater. Don't do this. For names just figure out what the thing does, and give it a descriptive, functional name. And if this name is in common use, shorten it; for a real-world example of this sort of thing, consider that "San Francisco" (four syllables) is often reduced to "Frisco" (two). So, rather than Three Dimensional Video, just call it TriVi or TriVid. Remember that people call a "Video Cassette Recorder" a VCR. For inspiration read almost any SF novel.

Yes, this has rambled a bit, but I can sum it up in a final paragraph.

People in your wonderful future are going to take it for granted. It won't be wondrous to them, it'll simply be the way things are. Other than repairmen, none of your characters should have to trouble themselves about how things work, just what buttons they have to push to make it work. And ultimately, that is all you as a writer have to worry about.

Next Month: Handling Space Travel and Basic Physics!

See Bard's previous editorial on this topic, TFing By the Numbers. [back]

[tsat home] [#38] [editorials]