SF101: Writing Technological SF

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Author: Michael Bard

I've always read SF and I've noticed a distressing lack of SF based TF stories. So, here are some thoughts, warnings, and links, to encourage the nervous and cautious amongst you to try writing some SF transformation stores for a change.

Some of you may be shouting out that there is a lot of SF TF fiction being written. After all, any TF story that offers a Technological Transformation is, by definition, SF. Yes, this is true. However, I'm pro hard SF, pro space travel, and pro alien worlds. Setting stories in the current day with only TF tech added isn't SF to me, even though technically it is. So, my discussions below are going to assume you want to set the story not today.

For good, or for bad, there seems to be a strong belief that one has to be a physics PhD (or equivalent) to write SF set in the future, particularly space based SF. This is not necessarily true. A particular story MIGHT require such knowledge depending on how it was written, but there are ways around that requirement.

In all likelihood, a distant future would be utterly unrecognizable to a current day reader. And completely incomprehensible in terms of technology, culture, etc. Science Fiction has tried to do this the odd time, and may have succeeded, but what fun is it for the reader? In other words, don't go overboard on making the future amazing. Make the future human (or whatever) somewhat like us, and the technology something conceivable today.

Oh no! you're thinking. I have to work out all kinds of social-economic trends, extrapolate the physical possibilities that could be manufactured to enhance every day life, and understand all the electronics and physics of how it could work!

No you don't.

Think about this: how much do you know about how an automobile works? About how a microwave works? About how a DVD burner works? And yet, you use these devices every day. In other words, you know what buttons to push, and really don't need to know any more.

What this means is that your characters don't need to know the nitty gritty detail. They just need to know what buttons to push. You can say: "The pilot wrestled with the controls and they fought back, feeding the atmospheric turbulence back into the joystick, feeding him information clearer and cleaner than the malfunctioning instruments. Somehow he was able to maintain control, keep from burning up, and manage to slow down enough with the emergency belly jets to land in a way he could walk away from." Note the "vast quantities" of mathematics in that example. No, there aren't any. There don't have to be. It could have been written with equations, speeds, thrust values, momentum vectors, gravitational resistance forces, gaseous turbulence equations, etc. But it wasn't. If you know enough to get into that, then get into that IF and ONLY IF your character would think that way. Otherwise just have the character do what the character does and don't worry about the how.

To repeat: you don't need a PhD in math or physics!

Now, you can go too far. In the 50s writing a science fiction setting simply required putting the word "space" in front of everything. So you'd have a space suit, a space house, a space door, a space dog, a space wife, a space kid, even a space space heater. Don't do this. For names just figure out what it does, and name it. If it's a common item then shorten the name. So, rather than Three Dimensional Video just call it TriVi or TriVid. Remember that people call a "Video Cassette Recorder" a VCR. For inspiration read almost any SF novel.

Yes, this has rambled a bit, but I can sum it up in a final paragraph.

People in your wonderful future are going to take it for granted. It won't be wondrous to them, it'll simply be the way things are. Unless they are a repairman, they won't worry about how things work, just what they have to push to make it work. And that, ultimately is all you as a writer have to worry about.