Thursday, May 12, 2011

Writing Science Fiction

I've found that writing a science fiction story is very different from writing a fantasy. This probably sounds absurdly obvious, but I think you need to actually try writing both before it slams home just how significant the differences are.

For me one of the major issues is voice. I have to use a completely different voice for a story set in the 2100's than I do for a fantasy in a medieval setting. I actually find that fun, and the few readers I have had so far seem to like this voice better than my fantasy voice.

The hardest part for me has been dealing with technological issues. For almost any action that a character takes, I have to ask myself whether the means of performing that action would have changed over the years. It's not just a matter of whether a character will have a flying vehicle or not. Will you need cash in any form? Will you need to even use thumb or eye scanners, or will advances allow, say, your apartment door to recognize you in some even more advanced manner, such that you don't need to actively do anything for it to open up and let you in?

Since basic mind/data interfaces are already being developed, I expect very advanced ones to eventually become affordable to the masses. Imagine inserting cards into your head to directly access data, from languages to history to...whatever. In that case, I think the need for judges and juries would evaporate, since the authorities could simply plug into your data interface and scan your mind directly to see if you are guilty or innocent. You may no longer have to take tests, as they could simply scan your mind to see if you have the requisite knowledge and understanding. My story begins with a character graduating from college after plugging in for about twelve minutes for the university to scan him. I have to think like this for everything, even the smallest daily activities. This really slows things down, but if I don't do it I will end up with a story filled with inconsistencies.

I think I have a lot of new ideas, ones that I feel are logical and I fully expect them to happen at some point in the future. But I haven't read every science fiction novel ever produced, let alone every short story, so there will always be those who will look at what I do and say that so and so already did it. I think these people will miss the point -- I may come up with ideas that in a general sense have been done before, but the specifics of how I do it are most likely unique.


  1. Interesting stuff. I'd say your idea about judging people's guilts by scanning their mind would suffer from the saem problem as lie detectors, in that what a person believes isn't necessarily what actually happened.

    I think Philip K Dick is a good example of a sci-fi writer who came up with lots of crazy ideas that no one else had thought of. Mind you he was receiveing signals from an alien planet.

  2. I disagree on that, though I understand where you are coming from. Whatever our active memories are (think about how hazy most childhood memories are), your brain actually has everything stored in it, regardless of whether you remember it in your active memory. This is what I mean -- that the scans could dig out what the brain has fully stored rather than what your active memory is.

  3. Well, the beauty if fiction is you can make it work whichever way you want. Personally I see that idea of perfect memory stored in the brain a bit like amnesia through bump on head, and split personaity disorder, kind of fictional concepts not really borne out in real life.

    There's been too many times when I've remembered a fantastic scene in an old movie that's inspired and entertained me in my mind, and then I've finally caught the movie again and the scene is completely different to how I remembered it.

    Of course, this is more to do with how I don't trust my brain. I can see it selling me out to the police in a flash.

  4. I wish I could recall where I read such stuff, perhaps it was while my mother was doing her psychology degree, but I remember reading about how one's mind has perfect recall of everything you have experienced, only your active memory is quite different (with the exception of a very few rare individuals who have perfect active recall).

  5. I think you'll find all that stuff is theoretical. Studies in memory are nowhere near as definitive as that and there isn't any way to test it, let alone prove it. Not as far as i can recall, anyway...

  6. We can only create so much new stuff! I tried to stay away from the really technical issues. Tech-heavy science fiction bores me, and I didn't want to bore my readers. I am adding more technical description to my book's sequel but keeping it simple. My critique partner, Rusty, made a good point - if someone from two hundred years ago asked how a TV works, how would I describe it? I'd keep it simple.

  7. Alex, that's my feeling, too. Scientists keep being wrong about what we can and cannot accomplish, so who are they, no matter how brilliant, to say that something absolutely will never be done? I think if they hopped two centuries into the future they would be astounded.

  8. I'd double-check that whole "perfect recall" thing where the human brain stores everything perfectly. That sounds like the whole "We only use 10% of our brains" myth.

    It's tempting to believe that we all have incredible, latent superpowers just waiting to be discovered in our brains. I suppose it might be possible with the eventual merging of biological and artificial intelligence (inserting chips into your brain, for example). Still, I'd rather use such a chip to learn 50 languages, or martial arts or fluid dynamics, not remember what my kindergarten classroom looked like.

    But in the end, any "memory record" like you describe, which can be transcribed and put into evidence somehow --- could also be wiped, altered, or faked, just like any other digital file. It wouldn't be any more reliable than any other form of testimony.

  9. Right now I'm actually working on a fantasy novel and having more fun than the sci-fi novel that I decided to shelve. A lot of science went into the sci-fi novel. With the fantasy one, I created a super simple plot and just basically have two characters with a little magic and some romance. I don't know which kind of story I prefer though. I definitely think I get more satisfaction from the sci-fi work because it seems more challenging.

  10. I believe people have real trouble understanding that there is far more to their brains than just their active memories. Try as hard as you can to recall a certain day, and it just won't come, but have someone or something provide a trigger and suddenly those memories are there again. They were never gone. They were right there, just not in active memory.

  11. Ref: Imagine inserting cards into your head...
    Years ago, I wrote a SF short story where the MC had one of his eyeballs replaced with a jump drive. Nowadays you don't even need to physically connect to data.

    In the news a couple of years ago, there was a story about a professor who had a chip surgically implanted into his head. He's able to give simple commands to his computer.

    The best way to get a leg up on tech is to pay attention to news stories, then extrapolate what the next logical advancement would be.

    For my recent SF, True Believers, I contacted a computer scientist for some of the up and coming advances in artificial intelligence. I also researched conspiracy theory sites because they often have a nugget of information I can build upon.

    The research is half the fun for me. I love coming up with new inventions. And I've found readers really like the mechanics on how things work as long as you can keep the narrative light and show the device in action.

    Best of luck, Ted.

  12. Some of it depends on the type of sci-fi you're doing. Obviously, you're going for something quite realistic. Yet even for the comedy cyberpunk thing I worked on a month or two back, I found that, no matter what the technology was doing, people were still basically people.

  13. Stu, that's my feeling. I am more concerned with telling a fun story that happens to have some interesting ideas in it, but it does make me a little uncomfortable to think of the hard sci-fi folks panning my work. I'm hoping to get enough right that they can hold their tongues (or keyboards).

  14. Don't worry about that Ted.

    You already know how fantasy readers can be pretty cavalier about judging a story solely on superficial details, like whether the author gets a fantasy creature or setting "wrong" (say making elves taller than the reader would prefer --- or including firearms or bird-people when the reader feels they don't "belong").

    Sci-fi readers are even tougher. For example, some of them simply reject any story involving intergalactic commerce, on the grounds that any species/culture that masters faster-than-light travel must have the ability to manufacture just about anything they could conceivably need or desire.

    That could well be true, of course, but then again you could say that no species/culture would have any reason to go to war with another one that's light-years away. Or even explore very much. But assuming your sci-fi has spacefarers (like many do), they've got to be out there for a reason, right?

    Don't worry about the "hard sci-fi" brigade. Anything really worth doing is going to have some detractors. Like you said, be "concerned with telling a fun story that happens to have some interesting ideas in it".