Science Fiction Writing advice

Using Science in Science Fiction: How Not to Annoy Your Readers, in Three Simple Steps

By Edward Ashton
Aug 19, 2020 · 752 words · 3 minutes

From the author: In which the author gives some gentle advice on writing science fiction that won't get roasted by nerds.

There was a time, believe it or not, when many of the folks who wrote science fiction were, you know, scientists. Guys like Isaac Asimov, David Brin, and Robert L. Forward didn’t need to worry about getting things ridiculously wrong when they were writing about space travel or alien biology or robotics. They knew their stuff, and if they didn’t, they knew other people who did. If you have a Ph.D. in astrophysics, you probably do too.

What if you don’t, though? What if you’re an MFA grad, or a philosophy major, or just somebody lacking a crazy beard and tweedy jacket? Do you need to forever forego writing stories about alien invasions, post-human cyborg family life, and genetically modified apes? Absolutely not! Everyone deserves to write at least one genetically modified cyborg ape invasion book! It’s good to remember, though, that many of the folks who like to read those types of stories are scientists, or are at least very science savvy—and if you get something glaringly wrong in your writing, your readers are unlikely to be merciful.

With that in mind, here are a few simple guidelines for using science in science fiction, no Ph.D. required.

1.  If you’re using known technology, do a tiny bit of research and get it right.

A while back, I read a story in one of my favorite semi-pro zines. It was a good story. The characters were fleshed-out, well-rounded people. The plot was fun. The writing was solid. But…

A big chunk of the plot of this story involved things in orbit, and it was clear after two sentences that the author had no idea whatsoever how orbiting something works. To be clear—all I know about how orbiting something works is what I’ve picked up from the zeitgeist over the years. Still, I knew enough to know that the things the author was describing were so far from right that it almost seemed deliberate. I scrolled down to the comments section, and sure enough, nobody was talking about the fun plot or the awesome characters. They were talking about the fact that five minutes of googling could have saved the author from embarrassing himself.

The key point here is that we don’t need to earn a doctorate in astrophysics these days to find out that you don't strap a big rock to your spaceship in order to give it more thrust. The internet is a wonderful thing. Use it.

2.  If you’re writing hard sci-fi, you still need to make it believable.

You’re not writing a journal paper, right? This is fiction. It’s totally okay to make stuff up. However (and this is important) the stuff you make up has to, on some level, make sense. Want to send your characters to Alpha Centauri using an antimatter rocket? You should probably know that those things have a theoretical top speed of about 0.3c, which means that your trip is going to take a minimum of twelve or thirteen years. Want to genetically engineer your post-humans so that they live by photosynthesis and never have to eat? Please be aware that the energy density of sunlight at sea level is about 1.4 kW/m2, your body has a total surface area of less than 2 square meters, the conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is about 5%, and you need about 8.4MJ of energy per day to live. That means that if your photosynthesizing post-human spends twelve hours a day naked and spread-eagled in the desert, she can absorb enough energy to replace one pop tart, give or take. Apparently, there’s a reason that plants don’t move around much.

3.  It’s okay to use imaginary future tech, but please keep it internally consistent.

Plenty of classic science fiction uses tech that isn't just unknown—it’s almost certainly never going to be known. Warp drives and transporter rays and mental telepathy and whatnot are tons of fun, and I’ve read and enjoyed a million books that feature them. The keys to making these things believable are simple. There have to be rules. You have to know what they are. You have to follow them to a T. This is true even if you’re writing about straight-up magic—and yeah, I’m looking at you right now, Mr. Paolini.

The bottom line to all of this is pretty straightforward. Science fiction is all about imagination—but it’s better if your imagination is grounded in some level of truth. Make friends with the googles. Your readers will appreciate it.