dr² > Writing

I love science, and I love science fiction. So I'm working on writing some!

As my first novels are still being written, I can't yet direct you to buy copies for all your friends. However, there are certain basic principles that I try to follow, mostly as fixes to the things that bother me about typical sci-fi fare. Take a look!

Currently In Development:

Guiding Principles

Good sci-fi helps us think through the future situations we may one day face. Whether that is tomorrow or many millennia from now, the genre places us in other places and times within the universe (and in the extremes, outside of the universe).

Bad sci-fi doesn't ask us to think*, and often doesn't adhere to the limitations of the universe in which it exists. Sometimes that is refreshing (and part of the reason I love reeeeaaaally pulpy drug-store sci-fi paperbacks), but it can also feel like the author is taking unnecessary shortcuts.

In order to make my story universes feel lived in, I try to stick to the following:

Racial and Social Makeup

Problem: We live in a society that is a rich tapestry of cultures, creeds, and colors. Yet, a lot of sci-fi is filled with monoculture worlds run by white guys.

Solution: To get around this, I have developed an unabashed fondness for census and survey data. If you take a representative cross-section of the population from this data, what would it look like? Alrighty! That's your cast. Unless the story specifically deals with issues of culture-clashes, there's little reason to construct a cast differently.


Problem: English is the language spoken throughout the galaxy.

As someone who has studied the evolution of language for the last ten years, it's kind of irritating to see first contact situations where the (as-of-yet) uncontacted civilizations converse with their new allies/overlords in an approximation of the following: "Wow! Who are you?"
"We are visitors from another planet."
"Neato! It sure is great that we speak the same way!"
"Yes. It sure is convenient."

Solution: The solution here is complicated. It would be obnoxious if a story were fifty percent conlang and translation. However, to ignore the fact that travel, even on present-day Earth, can be hampered by language issues always feels like a major oversight. Lack of communication is fascinating, frustrating, dangerous, freeing -- a hundred different things that all make for excellent plot points.

Similarly, because languages interact with each other, change over time, die off... if I write about a cryonically frozen person being woken up in future Earth of the year 3000, you can bet that the first language heard will not be English. And if it is, it won't be mutually intelligible with today's English. Yet I can think of almost no piece that admits to this. Imagine how much more isolating it would it be a character's use of English was as out of place as someone trying to converse in Latin. Much harder to blend in if things go awry, too.

The optimal solution to language issues, however, seems to be mostly one of compromise. If the story is not about linguistics, stick to the following: Admit the issue. Have the characters struggle with it. But once a workable solution has been found, proceed from that point on in translation without the original conlang. No need to make the text messy.

Monoculture Planets

Problem: As an extension of the above, a seriously problematic trope are planets with one culture. Star Trek, with its Vulcan homeworld and its Klingon homeworld, springs to mind. Flabbergastingly, cultural knowledge and rituals are basically identical, no matter which Vulcan or Klingon you meet.

Solution: This one is too obvious to waste precious e-ink on. Basically -- planets are big. There's room for more than one social group.

Deep space is crowded

Problem: "Uh oh! We've stumbled on enemy ships!"

Typical, and yet... so, so very unlikely. Space is big. Really big. Really, really, really, reaaaaaaally big. And most of it is empty.

Solution: The real terror of space is not running into enemies. It's dealing with the existential dread that you are unbelievably small and unimportant. When your navigational computer goes out, the true terror comes from never being able to find your way home. Yes, you are surrounded by visual landmarks, but because parallax is so small on the cosmic scale, you could be a light-year from home and not see a meaningful difference in the stars. Cry, scream, whatever -- from that point on, you drift helplessly, just waiting to die.

Everything is instantaneous

Problem: "Uh oh, looks like trouble ahead. Why don't you radio Houston, and let them know we've spotted something."
"Houston, this is the Industry."
"Go ahead, Industry."
"Looks like we've got some trouble ahead. We're going to go investigate."
"What's your position?"
"We're flanking Ganymede currently."
"Very well. Proceed with caution."

Again, space is big. And light only travels so fast. If you're out by Ganymede, radio communication is going to take about 35 minutes each way. That's going to make conversation tough.

Solution: Space communication is going to be more like the old days of telegraph and letter communication. You get some news from a friend. Then you write back and wait. And meanwhile anything could happen. The suspense of waiting, especially in a high-tension situation, could be used to great effect in sci-fi. However, when was the last time you remember seeing a crew having to wait an hour for their next instructions?

Science Fiction ≠ Fictional Science

Problem: Anything that is too rigid in replicating known reality can get really boring really quickly.

Solution: A good story is paramount. The above are simply guidelines, and can and should be broken if it makes for a better narrative. That said, if a good narrative can be written around current science and feasible extensions of it, then all the better. Make it feel real. Make it believable. A person 20 years from now shouldn't laugh at the assumptions you made. They should still feel transported to the world you envision.

Good Youth Sci-fi?

Problem: Books for a younger audience tend to ignore the rules more often. If we really want to push STEM education, I feel one of the ways to promote interest is in creating stories that let young minds explore what the future might reasonably look like. These are the stories that show a future that seems obtainable, but is ever yet just out of reach. When kids start thinking about what projects they want to get involved in, the first thought from their brains should be, "Bring me that horizon."

Solution: I'm working on it! I'll let you know when I finish writing the current projects. :)


* Here's a classic example of bad sci-fi that dodges even tangential explanations for future-tech:

He let the saucer glide out of the shed. [...] It didn't accelerate, as all earthly vehicles, even rockets, must, the saucer simply shot from zero speed to supersonic speed in one instant. "No grip of gravity, no inertia, no air-drag," said Thane, still impressed after dozens of saucer rides. "No, don't tell me how it's done. I wouldn't understand."

-Eando Binder, Night of the Saucers (1971)

(I have to give this work some credit, though. This is a fairly brilliant dodge.)