Tag Archives: hard science fiction

Writing Hard Sci-Fi Stories

MILTON3 This is the final in the LTUE 2014 seriesĀ 

Putting “hard science” into a story isn’t has hard as it sounds. The key is figuring out the ramifications of your neat invention or premise. If you have thought those out well, then your story will be consistent and have some “that’s neat!” stuff in it that will impress readers.

Here is a mundane example of thinking through ramifications: Imagine…

o Your character invents chewing gum.

o OK… this is a food, you put it in your mouth like you do jelly beans.

o But unlike jelly beans you have waste, something you don’t want to swallow. (Well, some of us don’t.) This aspect of gum chewing makes it more like eating a banana than jelly beans — you have something to throw away.

o So you’ll need a wastebasket of some sort.

o But… unlike a banana peel ABC chewing gum (Already Been Chewed) is soft, sticky and a small item.

o Voila! A surprise use of the technology. You can dispose of it by sticking it to the underside of a table. Your chewing gum inventor is unlikely to have thought of that use!

This is an example of thinking through the ramifications of a new invention. This process requires inventive and observational expertise — also known as common sense — more than deep theoretical expertise.

I’ll say it again: widespread experience helps with this style of adding science to a story. As you go through life, watch for the neat and unexpected ways people use things. Mixing and matching diverse experiences helps a lot.

Here are some personal examples:

o In 2006 I wrote science essay on why the surface of Venue is so hot: It is simply because the atmosphere is so thick, which makes is so dense at the surface. I came up with this explanation based on some pure physics learned in high school and college (the Ideal Gas Law), mixed with some Hollywood movie hokum, and some practical experience gained by learning to fly airplanes. In 2004 I watched the movie Day after Tomorrow and its portrayal of stratospherically-cold air coming to Earth’s surface. “Hah!” says I while I’m watching, “I’m a pilot. And one of the things I learned in pilot school was that air heats up as it moves to lower and lower altitudes because it is compressing.” So the movie didn’t work for me… but some time later I read an article about Venus in which a scientist proclaimed that runaway Greenhouse Effect was causing the high heat. Nope, I didn’t buy that either, but it stimulated more thinking about Venus… and out came my article.

o I wrote a short story about adventuring in the Ooze Zone of Neptune. (my term) This story started as a personal challenge: How to write some kind of story about people actually doing something in a gas giant’s atmosphere? It took a lot of thinking, but the “Ah-Hah” was realizing that the gas giant’s atmosphere changes from gassy to solid without changing its composition. Example: The interior of Jupiter is mostly metallic hydrogen. The “Ah-Hah” here is that if the top is gaseous hydrogen, and the bottom is metallic hydrogen, there must be a transition layer in between… the Ooze Zone. I then began thinking about what the properties of this Ooze Zone would be. This became the basis for a short story, Pressure Point, in my book The Honeycomb Comet.

o In my short story The Failure I speculate on how cyber beings may first be created: It will happen by accident, and after they are created they will say “Thanks. Bye now!” to mankind and move on to face their own problems and challenges. I came up with this idea by observing the relation between humans and cows, and by imagining what this relation looks like from the cow’s point of view. (that story is here)

These are three examples of how hard science can produce some neat story ideas. The key is wide observation of the world around us, adding some mixing and matching from those wide observations, and then carefully thinking through the ramifications of those mixes and matches. It is the ramifications that will reveal the surprises uses of the technology, and that is start of your really neat story.

Note that when I say something took a lot of thinking, I don’t mean sitting in front of the keyboard waiting for inspiration. When I’m doing a lot of thinking in this sense it means I have this question stored in the “Unsolved Mysteries” file in my brain. I think about these as I walk around, and eat meals, and watch and learn new things. As I’m doing these things, pieces fit together, patterns emerge, and one-by-one some of the unsolved mysteries become solved. And when that happens, then I gleefully hit the keyboard about them.

Here is an upcoming example of what I’m thinking about now, but haven’t written about yet: driverless cars. What difference will driverless cars make to how we live? Based on how the role of cars has evolved in my lifetime, I forecast that car ownership will change dramatically. We will switch to a mostly taxi culture instead of a mostly ownership culture. If a car can simply drive up and carry you away, why bother with such nuisances as finding parking, worrying about maintenance, and even learning to drive? Driverless will be changing how we live, and how we relate to our cars.

And when that change happens, there are further ramifications — surprises. Example: movies about driving cars will take the cultural role that cowboy Westerns did in the mid-20th century. Much more Fast and Furious, anyone? This genre will become cultural nostalgia. There will be change, but there will also be familiarity — driving up and walking into a wild party will replace riding up and walking into a saloon.

The biggest advantage of incorporating more hard science into your stories is that it will take them into strange new realms. If you stay consistent with your premise your story will be different from those previously told. That is because science changes how we live. If you mix in hard science, and think through the ramifications, your characters are going to have to change how they live, and you will have a story that is breaking new ground.

Sometimes incorporating hard science can be hard, real hard. Example: SF writers in the Golden Age rarely wrote about communication revolutions because when communication is too good, people look so silly when they make the mistakes that are common story devices, such as, “I heard a strange noise in that dark room. I’m going in.” Look at a lot of Spielberg’s stuff. (the Jurassic Parks come to mind) Notice that he will often add a story device early on that isolates his characters — they can’t get on the phone or radio and call for help or advice.

I’ve written a lot more on incorporating hard science in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

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