So You Want To: Write A Science Fiction Story
Science fiction brings to mind lots of stock images, from androids to spaceships, first contact with aliens and machines that let us travel through time. It's a vast and multilayered genre on par with Fantasy (which is why the two genres are often paired together in the acronym "SF&F"). But how do you tell a good science fiction story? We'd be amiss if we didn't first recommend checking out So You Want To Write A Story for advice on how to tell a good story above all else. Also, check out the Speculative Fiction index: it's the supertrope of Science-Fiction, and contains many, many tropes that are applicable to this genre.
Necessary TropesFirst, you need science. Seems self-explanatory, but it's much,much trickier than you think. Science in fiction can range from hard to soft, from accurately researched and plausible (like basing your spaceship off real-world NASA rockets) to Technobabble and Applied Phlebotinum to Hand-Waved plot devices. Most audiences only have a very basic grasp of scientific principles (if even that much), but there is such a thing as Willing Suspension of Disbelief. The key is to make the rules of your fictional world consistent, whether it's based on Real Life or your own imagination. Second, you need to address which scientific issue is at the root of your story. Most people think of outer space and aliens when they hear science fiction, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Some stories are about Time Travel, others are about Genetic Engineering, and still others are about how A.I. Is a Crapshoot. The first arguable work of science fiction was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is about the ethics and trauma of Creating Life. Once you've got a grasp on what kind of science you're dealing with, you can work out the kind of story you'd like to tell based on that premise.
Choices, ChoicesIsaac Asimov published an article in 1953 entitled "Social Science Fiction." In it, he posited that all SF falls into one of three categories, obligingly catalogued on This Very Wiki as Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction:
- Gadget-based SF is about the invention of a new technology. These days, Technobabble may result, but back in Asimov's day you were expected to actually know something about science, so many of those ideas were scientifically valid. ("I want to create a very small television-creating device! It can record moving pictures but be the size of a button! I want to create... the hidden camera!")
- Adventure-based SF is about how the new technology can be used—Applied Phlebotinum, in other words. It typically causes the plot, but rarely as a MacGuffin because its properties will then have bearing on resolving it. ("Help, help! Now that I've invented the hidden camera, unsavory types have kidnapped my Beautiful Daughter! She's being held in a dungeon that can only be plumbed if someone takes my brand-new hidden camera with them!")
- Social SF is when Reality Ensues and Misapplied Phlebotinum rears its ugly head. The new technology is widespread, the beautiful daughter is safe and sound... but what's going to happen to the world now that we can have tiny cameras everywhere? What if we were to take photos of people in compromising positions and use them against that person? What if we were to imprison a man within The Masquerade and broadcast his bumbling misadventures for our own entertainment? How are we going to solve the new problems created by the new technology? Adventure-SF is about how it can be used, but Social-SF is about how it should be used.
- Cyberpunk: a dystopian future where information technology has allowed corporations to subvert the government. The almighty dollar rules all, Might Makes Right, and the protagonist is typically an oppressed commoner who still, somehow, has the skills and guts to make a change in the world (though not always a good one).
- Military Science-Fiction: Military fiction Recycled In Space. Typically focusing on a soldier and The Squad around him, it explores what war might be like in the future. Expect a lot of gadgets, War Is Hell, and maybe a Ray Gun or two (though, in a more realistic setting, weapons that don't shoot very bright, very shiny beams of light may be preferred).
- Superhuman: this genre concerns the emergence of the Transhuman and what that means for the rest of us muggles. All of the Other Reindeer is the most Necessary Weasel here, since said transhuman will probably experience prejudice and feel annoyed by it.
- Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic: fiction set After the End. The Apocalypse How can vary—disease, war, ecological disaster, astronomic impact, zombie plague—transhumans run amok—but this brand of fiction typically involves itself with Action Survivors struggling to rebuild, or at least survive, as everything comes crashing down around their ears.
- Space Opera: drama, or even melodrama, on a galactic scale. It typically takes place in a well-developed and well-populated universe (though the presence of aliens, Rubber Forehead or Starfish, is optional) and at least one interstellar nation, against which is pitted an opponent who can match it blow for blow. Originally a derogatory name (a snowclone of Soap Opera), it has lost its pejorative connotations—The Empire Strikes Back was something of a turning point for it.
- Space Western: the Western, Recycled In Space! While post-apocalyptic fiction takes place After the End, this genre happens Before The Beginning. You know those space empires we just talked about, that are having their war in a Space Opera? How did they begin? What was Settling the Frontier like on this planet, or any other? This genre answers that question by having a Wagon Train Walking the Earth. ...in space.
- Time Travel: typically, this involves someone going into the past and screwing things up somehow, creating an Alternate History, or at least having a wonderland adventure exploring the world of yesterday. It can be difficult to write well due to logical paradoxes resulting, as well as the fact that—according to Albert Einstein at least—time travel is physically impossible.