How to Write Sci-Fi

Sci-fi is a peculiar genre to try and tackle because, despite being in the public eye since the 17th Century, it’s still a relatively niche readership. Can you count the number of sci-fi books you have read? It does not help that the genre has a preconceived stereotype for having confusing technobabble or ambiguous themes. Sci-fi is a difficult genre, but it is not impossible for a writer to delve into. It is important to take into consideration if your sci-fi is about the technology or if it is a character-centric story, what purpose your sci-fi serves, why the technology/aliens are important, and creating a thought-out setting.

Is it even about the Engine Room?

This was a question I discovered from an article on pertaining to writing science fiction and it is one of the fundamental things you should consider when crafting a sci-fi story. The question is in relation to excessively explaining sci-fi mumbo-jumbo like how a ship’s hyperdrive works, or how a laser sword operates. Unless it is imperative to include as a main plot point, hard sci-fi should be kept simple because the reader does not need to know everything. Sometimes it is the element of the unknown that gets the readers hooked into a sci-fi world, not the four-page explanation of how futuristic technology works.

That has been my primary approach to writing sci-fi, the notion that the technology is more for aesthetic purposes rather than to fully tell the story. Sci-fi tech absolutely enhances the story and makes for creative scenes, but it is not what drives my storytelling. At the end of the day, the characters are what drive a sci-fi story because if they do not work then no manner of cool tech or strange worlds can save the story. You can see this at the center of many popular sci-fi stories like Star Wars, Hunger Games, and Avengers. Luke Skywalker’s journey to become a Jedi Knight, Katniss Everdean’s revolution against President Snow, and Tony Stark’s realization of self-sacrifice are at the center of those stories. Luke’s lightsaber, Katniss’ environment, and Tony’s armor are simply aesthetic elements that make them iconic and help develop their journey as a character.

With that said, a writer should understand the basic rules of their technology even if it is not explained in the story. You need to remain consistent with your technology or else it compromises the immersion. Sci-fi writers do not need to know the exact science of how nanotech weapons work, just that there are rules for it. We as viewers understand that Iron Man’s nanotech suit can form weapons and shields, but it cannot create food or water. To make for an effective character journey, the technology should not be able to solve all the MC’s problems. Sure, it would be awesome to have a suit of armor that could solve every situation, but that eliminates all conflict from the story. Taking a page out of Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic: what the technology cannot do is far more interesting than what it can do.

Hard vs Soft Sci-fi:

When it comes to writing science fiction, it is important to consider what kind of sci-fi you want to delve into. There are two main subcategories of this genre: Hard Sci-fi and Soft Sci-fi. An article on defines, “Hard Sci-fi means that everything is based soundly in science, or at least in speculative science. Soft Sci-fi has less of a focus on the technical aspects of the world and more of a focus on the people.” A lot of authors, myself included, tend to delve more into the Soft Sci-fi subgenre because we choose to put greater emphasis on the challenges of characters rather than the science. While we do our research and obtain advice on the various sciences applied in this genre, a lot of authors feel safe knowing that there is a deeper, character-driven story to fall back on. Hard Sci-fi is more for writers who have a solid background in physics, chemistry, or biology because they can accurately explain the science behind their work.

An example of Hard Sci-fi is the novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton where so much of the story revolves around computer systems, chaos theory, paleontology, and genetic sequencing. A lot of technobabble is in this book, and it unfortunately overshadows the character story arcs. But that is not to say that the story is boring. The basis of Jurassic Park is a theoretical look at what could happen if cloning technology was used unchecked and without regard to human morality. A Soft Sci-fi example is the novel Red Rising by Pierce Brown where the technology is visually described, but the inner workings are left to the reader’s imagination. A reader can glean enough data from the name of a “ripWing” to know that it is a fast starship, and that is all they need to know. Instead, the focus is on the main character, Darrow, and the story revolves around his emotional and physical journey to enact vengeance.

In either sub-genre, it is still imperative that a writer understands or researches some fundamentals of science. Even for a two-sentence throwaway line about a computer algorithm, you need to do the research to ensure such technobabble is as accurate as possible. Even understanding human biology is important when dealing with scenes in the vacuum of space or planets with different gravity. How would our bodies react to lighter gravity? What happens to human lungs if they breathe in a different atmosphere? Your Google search is going to be full of strange questions.

Why Sci-fi?

Another question you should consider when writing sci-fi is: Why Sci-fi? What is the purpose of setting your story in the far future or in a different galaxy? For many sci-fi writers, the why relates to themes of human expansion, cultural evolution, or dystopian revolution. Some writers