Unreal Realities: Writers’ Tips on Writing Science Fiction

Science fiction is one of the biggest genres in literature, and with good reason. By nature, science fiction (alternatively SF or sci-fi), is concerned with speculation, exploring the “what-ifs” of our universe with regards to what is scientifically plausible in our current time. That means understanding, or at the very least acknowledging, what we currently know about science in general: the laws of physics, current trends in engineering, biotechnology, psychology, and all other branches of science both soft and hard. In the end, what counts is that SF accepts our currently reality, but at the same time makes it strange. Darko Suvin, an academic whose main interest is SF, said that SF as a genre is characterized by two devices, one of them being the novumThe novum essentially entails a “strange newness” – something familiar made new and unfamiliar, yet plausible. That is what SF strives for.

Understandably, SF, with its general preoccupation with fictional inventions that could exist, may be a daunting genre for those who want to write in it. It could especially be a concern for those who do not have an extensive background in the sciences. Even with SF clearly being fictional, the whole idea that SF stories are generally rooted in existing scientific principles entails an understanding and capability to write about technical material. One will notice that there are a lot of SF writers who do have scientific backgrounds. New Wave Science Fiction writer J.G. Ballard had a background in anatomy. The Three-Body Problem writer Cixin Liu worked as a computer engineer. There are doubtless many more SF writers who have an intimate understanding of whatever scientific material they are writing about, and a quick Google search would yield that.

But should the “science” part of science fiction deter all others from working on SF? Turns out, it probably shouldn’t. As Susan Stepney notes in the article “The real science of science fiction,” published on The Guardian, a lot of SF writers have arts and humanities backgrounds, and make up for a possible lack of formal technical training by doing research:

SF authors do their research. They tend to read widely, to generate ideas, and then think deeply, to focus in on the details. In the age of the author blog, readers can observe (some of) the authorial process. A lot of research can go into a book, much of it hidden, or even discarded. Inferior authors will info-dump every little last detail they’ve discovered; better authors weave their research seamlessly into the story, discarding what doesn’t fit.

Research is not the work of only one person, meanwhile. Writers are often told to “write what you know,” and in the event that you don’t know much about what you’re writing, you should try to “know what you write.” Stepney says that a lot of SF writers work with or consult actual scientists, which may generate some new and unique ideas:

Pair an SF author and a scientist, and see what results. One great example of this approach is the quartet of Science of Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. In each book, Pratchett writes a short Discworld novel that exhibits some scientific properties of interest; in alternating chapters, Stewart and Cohen then explain the underlying science.

Stepney’s example suggests that science and the art of writing fiction have to work closely together in order to weave great SF story.

Writing SF may still seem daunting, certainly. I had the opportunity to contact SF author Teresa McLaughlin, who gave the following tips for writing SF:

  1. “I would advice sci-fi writers to think about what they want to piece of technology to do. It might seem like magic now, but eventually, the technology will be invented.”
  2. “Think of some conditions, elements, or technology that might aid in its invention, and talk about that. My experience tells me that the technology does not have to be described in detail, just mentioned matter-of-factly. They can even do some free research on Google, to find out whether someone is working on developing it. That way, they can find more details to bring into the story, if that works for them.”

Teresa’s advice echoes what Stepney has insinuated – that SF is fiction supplemented with research. However, as Teresa McLaughlin notes, technology or SF elements don’t have to be detailed. In other words, SF shouldn’t appear like a complicated scientific research paper. It could be backed by details and technicalities, but the “fictionality” of the scientific inventions and concepts in the story should still be there, and should allow the reader to have room to imagine for themselves how things work.

Given all this, it is, of course, important to know in the first place whether or not you do want to write SF. Dedication and the sheer desire to write SF might be enough to propel you to read about what you want to write about – whether it’s a general, sort of scattered research, or more in-depth – and everything else will hopefully fall into place.

Finally, a general piece of advice from Michael Moorcock:

Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

Relevant Links:

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Dead Worlds or Dying: The Realism of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Speculative fiction, in general, does not have the tendency to be realistic. Fantasy is suffused with the elements of the magical, and science fiction may feature improbable – but not impossible – technology to the reader whose real-life experience with tech is only really dominated by audio-visual media. There are no elves in real life, no unicorns, no hellspawn climbing out of the cracks in the earth. No one knows if aliens are real. Humanity hasn’t even reached the point where lunar or Martian communities are a reality, so the immediate idea is that speculative fiction and realism do not go together well.

Interestingly, though, speculative fiction, for all the fantastic, improbably, and supernatural things that happen within the genre, can afford to do one thing effectively. That is, to expose a spectrum of truths, and to talk about society and its flaws, without subjecting the reader to the entire heft of such serious topics. One of the pieces that I would consider early speculative fiction – or what I would refer to here as proto-spec fic – is Thomas More’s Utopia, which details the culture, geography, and general habits of the Utopians, who live in the titular Utopia. (Interestingly, and this is included as a note in Utopia, More may have derived the word “Utopia” from eutopia or outopia, meaning ‘good place’ and ‘no place,’ respectively.) It is a work that is several centuries old, though if one reads the text right now, it still sounds as improbable as it might have sounded back when More first worked on it. The Utopians keep a strict population count, keep to themselves, keep to a strict set of working hours and leisure hours, and are never idle. Utopia sounds solidly conceived, and everyone can afford to be happy – which was a fantasy then, and which is still a fantasy to us now.

Speculative fiction has grown since then, of course. Under the fantasy genre, sub-genres abound. Urban fantasy, young adult fantasy, and high fantasy all exist. Science fiction has spawned a range of subgenres like space operas, cyberpunk, and steampunk. Texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are just some of the popular science fiction texts today.

All these examples and I haven’t even expounded on my point yet. One time, my professor asked the class why fantasy is an effective tool in tackling philosophical topics like existentialism. I’m broadening the scope to include science fiction in the picture. In general, speculative fiction manages to talk about problems that the world is tackling right now without letting the reader bear the entire weight of the implications, possibilities, and realities presented within speculative fiction as a genre. Take Brave New World, for example. Immediately obvious is its critique of mass production – among other things – mass production being something that the world was being preoccupied with at the turn of the 20th century, of course. Pat Cadigan’s Synners concerns itself with the marriage between human and technology, through the use of sockets of music videos, both essentially dehumanizing the human being and blurring the line between being man and being machine.

The point is, in broad strokes, speculative fiction can afford to be vocal or critical on issues that society chooses not to view. Clothing societal issues in the guise of other worlds – worlds that are not our own – makes our reality easier to digest, without having the message get lost on the reader. Hopefully, sometime later, I will talk about this in more specific terms, but the idea is, I hope, there. Even in the guise of the unrealistic, speculative fiction has the ability to show us what our realities are like, and to drive home these realities and the implications that they have.

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Extra-Terrestrial, Extra-Tantalizing

I don’t know what it is about the unknown that keeps us enthralled. Scientists have been studying planets and other celestial bodies in hopes of answering the question on whether or not another lifeform exists in outer space. If it were impossible to send out spacecrafts until today, and no proof whatsoever of aliens visiting Earth was found, I strongly believe there would still be a lot of fiction written about them. It is in our intrinsic nature to seek company, even the company of those that very much unlike us. How you wish they were real.


Regardless of what your spiritual belief is, human as you are, you tend to have faith in something bigger than you. Or at least you want to believe that such entity exists. In ancient  Greece, they have made up gods and goddesses, which are very significant characters in their literature, to make life more meaningful and interesting. I admit, if I were born in that time and place, I would have been greatly impressed at the creativity of the minds of those who birthed these characters. From nothing, they have constructed a hierarchy of beings that don’t exist at all. Even so, not being tangible did not stop these beings from being a thing of interest up until today.


Going back to aliens, these extra-terrestrial beings – they were very popular elements in books during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. How this genre originated is actually very, put in a lesser formal expression, cool. See, in the 1930s and 1940s science fiction was only beginning to catch the attention of the public. That time, the hot topic in print and media was stories of war. Some writers who would rather not do a parallel scheme for fear that they might end up soliciting negative impressions from the masses, decide to tell stories about the World Wars using an out of this world scenario. They have pioneered the ‘Intergalactic Wars’. And somehow, these stories have formed one of the largest fan bases in the sphere of fiction. Today, grand conventions are held to celebrate the different characters of this genre and many of the attendees come wearing costumes. You have got to admit, once in your life, you wanted to play the role of any character from either Star Trek or Star Wars, two of the most popular products of science fiction.


If you have read any sci-fi novels, you will notice that although the story is set somewhere in a galaxy, far, far, away, the aliens in the story show some very human-like traits. This is because their emotions are patterned from that of ours. This is how being creative can give us god-like powers. Creativity enables you to produce something new, and part of it reflects you. It’s not exclusively Biblical to say that creation is created in the image of the creator. Many authors of fiction will agree that most of their characters identify with them, not the other way around.


Even if there really aren’t any aliens out there, I’m sure you will be able to make  a story about them. Yes, you, using nothing but your imagination. I’m encouraging you to write your own sci-fi story. It doesn’t have to be about a war. What is your idea of an alien civilization? You can use romance, comedy, or both as a theme to have an unusual take on the genre.


A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’ Pointless, really… ‘Do the stars gaze back?’ Now, that’s a question.” – Neil Gaiman

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