Writing Sci-Fi If You Don’t Know Science

That’s not actually the title of my next Norwescon panel, and the difference is an important one.  In fact, I’ll be answering the question, “Can You Write Hard SF Without a Science Background?” And the description complicates the issue even more.

Is it easier to write a hard science fiction story if you have the technical or science background, or does it get in the way?  How do you fold in the science without making it an info dump?

My simple answer is that yes, you can write hard SF without a science background, and I don’t have a frame of reference to say whether it’s easier if you have one. But — allowing for differences between individuals — I’d guess not.

I’m a journalist. These days I write about TV shows rather than City Hall, but the relevant common thread is that oftentimes I need to generate compelling stories about subject matter that I knew nothing about the day before. And there’s a time-honored technique for doing that: You find someone who is an expert, ask that person to educate you, and write up the parts that sound interesting.

Now, journalistic writing is, in many ways, nothing like writing fiction. It has a very strict structure, for instance, and it’s typically written such that an eight-year-old can understand it.  None of these are universal rules — some of the best news articles are features that tell someone’s story.  But more importantly, journalism trains you to look at a complicated subject and distill it to the elements that are both interesting and truly important for your reader to know.

In my experience, having too much information can be just as damaging to a sci-fi story as having too little.  It’s entirely possible to write a strong, compelling story with absolutely horrible science.  It may not count as hard sci-fi, but that probably won’t hurt its sales too much. It’s also entirely possible to write a strong, compelling story around good science.  And it’s possible to write a story that pays so much attention to getting the science right that it drowns the story.  No matter what your level of expertise is, that second type of story is the hardest to write.

In my mind, “technobabble” is not a word that should apply only to made-up science; rather, it’s what happens when authors try to sell the science, or pseudoscience, in their story by dragging the reader through minutiae.

Part of being a good writer is knowing what information to keep to yourself.  But for someone who’s dedicated a career to understanding the details of one particular discipline, your view of what’s important to people who don’t share your level of interest in the topic — which is going to be almost everyone — can get skewed.

You get two dangers.  Under-explaining can happen if you’re already an expert because a topic makes perfect sense to you, or if you’re a non-expert who’s spent so much time trying to become an expert that you’ve fried your brain.  Meanwhile, over-explaining can happen if you’re an expert who’s trying too hard to make your material accessible or if you’re a novice who’s trying to show off how much you know.

Now, if you don’t have a background in whatever hard science fiction idea you want to write, you’ll need to do research. That might make your job harder, but the key element in a successful story is getting someone else to relate to it.

When I was still in school, I asked a much more successful reporter how to write. (How to write well, was the implication.) Her answer was simple enough, and I think it applies: Imagine you’re telling your friend this story. Even better, go and tell a friend this story. What’s the most important thing? What’s your friend going to be most interested in?

This matters for how you work in the science: Put simply, you’re best served by ignoring whatever’s going on behind the scenes and focusing on the scene. Often as not, how a device works is not nearly as important as what it does. That is to say, we don’t really need to know the mechanics of your spaceship’s nuclear-thermal drive — unless your character actually has to build one. Otherwise, what we need to know is how fast it accelerates, or how long it takes you to get to Mars.

I think that being the layman yourself can help you determine what really matters to the reader, who is also probably a layman. The trick there is to learn the science.  And it you can’t find an actual scientist who’ll cooperate with you, the best materials you could use are those designed to explain issues to laymen — college textbooks, for instance — because they’ve already done the work of distilling the science to the practical meanings you need in order to write.

Leave a Reply