Science fiction – the realm of the weird and wonderful, freakish and futuristic, and often the technologically advanced. While our stories may push the boundaries of reality, they still have to feel believable to readers. By believable, I don’t mean we have to convince readers that the alien race we’ve invented or the plasma engine powering our space ship is actually real, but we do have to invite folks into our world and not give them any reason to leave it rolling their eyes. The way we handle the science in our science fiction can help bring authenticity to our fictional worlds. Here are some things I think about when crafting my science fiction stories.
What kind of sci-fi is it?
Some types of sci-fi will demand more realistic science than others. If you’re writing space opera, for example, the realistic nature of the tech may not be as important to the story as the characters and their adventures. In Star Trek, we have warp drive, tricorders, and transporters – all rather far-fetched science as far as that sort of thing goes. But, we don’t really care. We’re willing to set aside our need to criticize the sketchy take on quantum theory and the complete avoidance of relativistic effects in favor of a good story. The characters, their adventures, relationships, and even the moral conversations in the episodes are really what we tune in for.
If you’re writing a near future story, however, you’ll probably need to use technology and science that’s more accurate. When you’re creating a setting that will be familiar to readers or using technology close to what we currently have, you want to get your science right. And, if you’re writing what’s considered hard science fiction, your tech, while certainly futuristic, will still need to feel plausible. So, probably no transporters.
The technology has to fit the world.
Regardless of the type of science fiction you are writing, the science and technology you use has to fit the world you’ve created. For example, transporter technology doesn’t fit into the world of Battlestar Gallactica, and we don’t expect tentacled aliens to turn up in Firefly.
Yes, we can rewrite the rules of physics. My characters can communicate across the galaxy instantaneously. But the key is to follow the rules you’ve established for your world. Whether they relate to how your ships fly, or to environments of the planets you’ve created, be consistent. Readers will notice if you aren’t. Here’s more on world-building and being consistent with the rules of science, magic, or technology in your world: World-Building Basics Part 2.
Every science fiction writer ventures into unfamiliar territory. It’s the nature of the beast. But if we use constructs that will feel familiar to the reader in some way, we owe it to them to be authentic wherever we can. Solid research helps.
In one of my books, the main character gets into a dogfight. He may be flying a spaceship when it happens, but people on Earth are still quite familiar with the concept of a dogfight, so I had to make that scene feel authentic. I played flight simulator videos, researched World War II aviation, and got sucked down the internet rabbit hole learning about current US naval fighter jet technology.
Other ways you can conduct research include asking an expert, experiencing something for yourself, and of course Google. Here’s a more comprehensive article on research: Beyond the Google Search – Research for Fiction Writers.
Part of the fun of writing science fiction is inventing new technology and imagining ways to push existing science past the limits of possibility. When we do it well, we can take our readers on an otherworldly journey!