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.

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An Introduction to Slipstream

It’s been pretty quiet on CreativInfluence lately, and we’re not going to make any excuses for that. But as a sort of comeback post, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the “newer” genres of literature – “newer,” because it’s less of an actual genre that has surfaced and is negotiating its own generic boundaries, and more of something that has been pieced together from existing genres. Which, one may argue, is basically the case for a lot of genres in writing. But I digress.

What we have here now, folks, is a neat thing called slipstream, which sounds like a pretty slick genre. A quick look at the Wikipedia page on this subject gives you this:

Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.

The given definition doesn’t sound quite as helpful as it should be, as it still does sound rather vague. How does slipstream cross “conventional genre boundaries” between genre fiction and literary fiction? In fact, we exist in a world where writing has become experimental in terms of genre identity. What defines science fiction? What defines fantasy? There are things we call science fantasy, even, and military fantasy, to name a few. How tenuous are the so-called conventional genre boundaries of these genres, and how does this tenuousness affect slipstream’s attempt to challenge these boundaries?

That may be a story for another day. The answer for the penultimate question in the previous paragraph, interestingly, may just simply be slipstream. We are already questioning genre boundaries anyway. Are science fiction texts defined by their settings, their features – aliens, space, the like? Likewise, fantasy fiction? How can genre fiction be literary? Slipstream tries to answer that. There are texts that are elusive enough that they cannot fit a single genre, and so have to make one “new” genre to encompass that.

Slipstream falls between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction. While some slipstream novels employ elements of science fiction or fantasy, not all do. The common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real.

The main thing about slipstream is that it has to be unreal. So perhaps one can also consider it magical realism. Or fantastic literary. A lot of names and words can be used to describe slipstream, but one cannot truly feel what it is until one is given a sampling of the genre’s texts. British writer Christopher Priest (who is, apparently, and incidentally, a slipstream writer himself) offers his own list of top ten slipstream books, and the list is marked by names like J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, and Jose Luis Borges. Priest also gives Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopia that does not necessarily carry the traditional elements of science fiction (incidentally, it won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a prestigious award given to the best science fiction novel among a list of nominated texts) – as an example of a slipstream text, and cites authors such as Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as slipstream authors.

If it gets a little confusing, that’s alright. The authors mentioned, as well as the texts given, all test boundaries of the genres they’ve been fit into. They go outside of their generic boundaries – J.G. Ballard’s Crash, for example, is not necessarily science fiction, but it carries elements that invite your suspension of disbelief – and define their own settings and content. If you can’t define slipstream with a clean definition, you can at least get a sense of what it is through the authors and the works associated with it. Here is a great article called Slipstream 101 by the Science Fiction Research Association, and introduces you to the basics of slipstream. You may want to look at that post and read through all of it.

What one can get from slipstream, though, is this: that you can also test your writing boundaries, or the boundaries of the genres that you know. Let elements of other genres bleed into your own writing, because that can add zest and flavor to your piece. And not just your own piece – it’s amazing what you can find when you run through a list of books and read through them, the common feature of all these texts being that they refuse to be confined to one specific genre. This allows for the luxury of experimenting with the text. Try to expose yourself to slipstream – it might yield some interesting results.

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