If you love good science fiction, you know the genre is so much more than deep space adventures or scientific mishaps like Frakenstein’s monster. Read tips on writing science fiction from eight sci-fi authors:
How to write good science fiction:
- Decide your type of science fiction
- Imagine it doesn’t have to be the way it is
- Keep abreast of science and tech news
- Think in systems and impacts
- Explore the creative uses of AI
- Show the effects of change
- Embrace the complexity of speculative tales
- Think about power, representation and access
Don your lab coat and let’s begin:
1. Decide your type of science fiction
Science fiction as a genre term may conjure images of spaceships and Spock, but it is much broader in content than interplanetary travel or deep space exploration.
This is evident in the answer Ursula K. Le Guin gives when asked about being associated with ‘science fiction’ as a term in The Paris Review (Fall 2013). Says Le Guin:
I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.
That’s how one can identify a sci-fi author, I guess—tentacles coming out of the pigeonhole.
If you want to write good science fiction, as with any genre you need a wide frame of reference (lest your tentacles stay in the proverbial pigeonhole).
Read widely within your genre for deep understanding of the range of science fiction writing ideas out there.
What type of science fiction do you want to write?
What are examples of science fiction categories? Popular types of science fiction or sci-fi subgenres include:
- Hard science fiction: ‘Hard’ science fiction typically explains the scientific concepts it uses in detail to underpin story events with scientific fact, concept and argument. Hard sci-fi example: The Dune series by Frank Herbert.
- Soft science fiction: ‘Soft’ science fiction tends to focus less on technological development or function, rather using elements of science and/or technological advancement to explore the ‘why’ (for example, why a future society might stratify (or not stratify) power a certain way). Soft sci-fi example: H.G. Wells, The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth.
- Dystopian science fiction: This subgenre typically imagines a future world where technological or scientific progress has led to catastrophe, disaster, or totalitarian repression. Dystopian sci-fi example: 1984 by George Orwell.
- Space exploration: There is a whole category on Amazon for books that involve space exploration and speculation about what might be out there. Space exploration sci-fi example: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.
There are many more subgenres of sci-fi. Amazon sci-fi subcategories currently include:
- Alien invasion
- Alternative history
- Anthologies and short stories
- Crime and mystery
- First contact
- Galactic Empire
- Genetic Engineering
and much more. Browse the full list to get a sense of what’s currently trending in each sci-fi niche in case you want to niche down.
In my opinion, two streams run through science fiction. The first traces back to Jules Verne. It is ‘the idea as hero’. His tales are mainly concerned with the concept—a submarine, a journey to the center of the planet, and so on. The second derives from H.G. Wells. His own ideas were brilliant, but he didn’t care how implausible they might be, an invisible man or a time machine or whatever. He concentrated on the characters, their emotions and interactions. Today, we usually speak of these two streams as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction.Poul Anderson article on science fiction history, ‘Ideas for Science Fiction‘ in Writer, September 1998
2. Imagine it doesn’t have to be the way it is
There are several ideas that are helpful in writing any kind of speculative fiction, whether science fiction or fantasy.
One of these great ideas, courtesy of Ursula K. Le Guin again, is ‘It doesn’t have to be the way it is’.
In Le Guin’s brilliant essay collection No Time to Spare (2017), she writes about the inherently subversive power of fantastical fiction. The way imagining ‘otherwise’ is a revolutionary act:
“Why are things as they are? Must they be as they are? What might they be like if they were otherwise?” To ask these questions is to admit the contingency of reality, or at least to allow that our perception of reality may be incomplete, our interpretation of it arbitrary or mistaken.Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is’ in No Time to Spare (2019), p. 83
Further on the same page, Le Guin writes:
Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is – more than any kind of writing – subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.Le Guin, p. 83.
How do the above ideas connect to how to write good science fiction?
Imagining otherwise: Sci-fi writing prompts
Here is a list of prompts to generate science fiction ideas based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s statements on sci-fi’s subversive power:
- How might future technology change hierarchy, power, the status quo?
- What new social relations might emerge in the future or exist on a planet (or in a dimension) to which humans never been?
- What new economic rules or ways of exchanging goods for services or labor might one day exist?
- How could technology and religion or cultural custom affect one another in the future?
To write good science fiction, start by saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be the way it is’.
Lean into could, should, and God forbid.
3. Keep abreast of science and tech news
Writing good science fiction requires, as with writing any fiction, passion (or at least curiosity) for your subject matter.
To find tidbits of emerging tech news around AI, robotics, and other types of scientific innovation, create a Google Alert for a science topic that fascinates you.
This way, whenever something that could spark a story idea is published, you’ll know.
2021 Nebula and Hugo Award finalist S.B. Divya shares sci-fi-adjacent news on her author website published under the title ‘science bytes’.
Divya describes her archive as:
A collection of science & technology news that I found interesting this month. Many of these relate to tech that’s covered in my novels and short stories, but some are here purely for inspiration.S.B. Divya, author’s website.
Journaling about interesting scientific developments like this is a great way to keep track of fascinating new ideas. This is also a great idea of the kind of content you could share on your own author website for science-interested readers.
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4. Think in systems and impacts
Worldbuilding is a challenging aspect of writing speculative fiction (fantasy or sci-fi). It’s tough because it requires you to imagine highly complex systems.
Science fiction on YouTube is full of insight as there are many full-length interviews with esteemed sci-fi authors.
Here’s a fascinating interview with Arthur C. Clarke, one of the great sci-fi authors, where he predicts many of the ways the modern cell phone works before its time (in 1976).
An interesting aspect of the interview, for how to write good science fiction, is that it highlights how technological and ecological change are so inextricably linked.
The interviewer asks Clarke to put in context his statement that communication tech in the 1970s was still in the ‘semaphore and smoke’ stag [semaphore referring to communication by holding two flags at various angles to each other]. Clarke says (1:25-1:46):
[With future communication devices] you’ll tell the machine, ‘I’m interested in such and such items – sports, politics, and so forth – and the machine will hunt the main central library and bring all this to you selectively. Just what you want, not all the junk you have to get, you know when you buy the two or three pounds of wood pulp which is the daily newspaper … and [I’m] saying this is going to save whole forests for posterity because the newspaper is on the way out.Arthur C. Clarke, interview from AT&T-MIT conference (1976).
Clarke’s argument is of course utopian-seeming to modern readers. There are different scales and rates of technological development, and deforestation is as concerning as ever (due to wildfires and agricultural expansion).
If imagining a future system, ask how tech changes might affect the environment, or how environmental necessities may affect or drive tech.
Imagining systemic causes and effects – the moving variables within a whole – and showing more than telling these creatively in action and description is a hallmark of some of the best science fiction stories.
5. Explore the creative uses of AI
In our monthly writing webinars, we interviewed Now Novel member, author and emerging tech speaker Kate Baucherel about her cybercrime thriller SimCavalier series, the first book of which is set in the near-future (2040s London).
Besides asking her science fiction writing tips, we discussed AI and the rapid rate of technological development. Says Kate:
I do think that the artificial intelligence aspect is really interesting because it is so darn powerful and so utterly daft at the same time. There was a wonderful panel at South by Southwest® in Austin this year where they looked at, ‘Could an artificial intelligence work out what the end of a children’s story was [if it] was simply inferred?’Kate Baucherel, interview, Now Novel webinar ‘Writing sci-fi with Kate Baucherel’.
Every human from about the age of two can work out that the bear has eaten the rabbit because it stole its hat. But the artificial intelligence would not be able to tell a cartoon bear from a real bear. […] It’s only as smart as the data you feed it.
There are many creative AI tools online you can use to find inspiration for science fiction stories or their settings (or create your own visual prompts).
Try craiyon.com, a browser-based app based on OpenAI’s framework for turning natural language into images. This was a result of entering ‘an incredible alien world and its alarming vegetation’
Example: Using AI tools to find science fiction ideas
Copy.ai is an example of an online tool using AI to help writers (specifically marketers) generate and develop ideas.
We fed the phrases ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘virtual humans’ and ‘machines that have emotions’ into the tool to see the analogies it would generate.
Options it returned for analogies began fairly predictably:
My computer is a virtual human in that: it can fool me into thinking it has emotions.Analogy output via copy.ai
Where copy.ai got interesting from a storytelling perspective was where it returned an anomaly, a more bizarre, unexpected response to the same prompt words:
Goodbye to a priest in that: he is friends with another kind of people.
There was no hint of the clergy in the original inputs, so there must have been something in the sample data around these terms.
This sentence could be expanded into a ‘soft’ science fiction story idea using Now Novel’s central idea finder in our story outlining dashboard:
This is just one possible development of the AI-generated prompt (‘Goodbye’ could also be interpreted to mean another kind of departure, posthumanism, for example).
Writing good science fiction requires using your imagination to think ‘otherwise’. AI, virtual intelligence, and simple browser-based apps can help you do that in sometimes surprising, playful ways.
6. Show the effects of change
How to write a good science fiction story means applying a universal element of what makes stories great – change.
Science fiction finds vitality, intrigue, drama in the ways who, what, why, where and when change at the fringes of time and space; beyond the limits of modern capabilities such as transportation, information systems and scientific knowledge.
The Scottish author Iain Banks (whose science fiction appeared under the pen name Iain M. Banks) shared with Open University why he sees science fiction as one of the most important genres:
I’ve said for years I think science fiction is really the most important of the genres because it’s the only one that deals quite specifically with the effects of change on humans, both on an individual and societal level. And that has mattered very fundamentally ever since the industrial revolution.Iain Banks, in conversation with The Open University (23:15)
7. Embrace the complexity of fantastical tales
A feature of speculative fiction such as sci-fi and fantasy that may deter some fans of ‘realist’ writing is its conceptual complexity.
It’s true that many sci-fi books require you to imagine and recall complex geographies, naming conventions, tech innovations, and more. Yet this complexity of invention and make-believe is also one of sci-fi’s deep pleasures. Especially when authors develop complex ‘what if’ questions in characterful, storied ways.
N.K. Jemisin (the first African-American woman to be awarded the Hugo Award in 2016) was praised for how her novel The Fifth Season achieves the above.
The book has not one but two glossaries of terms. It describes a planet that has a single super-continent called the Stillness which has a catastrophic season of climate change every few centuries. Inhabitants call this ‘the fifth season’ (hence the title).
N.K. Jemisin speaks of the values of embracing complexity and having the courage to write genre fiction on your own terms in an interview with The Paris Review:
In a lot of cases, people read science fiction and fantasy when they’re younger and then they age out of it. Fantasy in particular. They get tired of the endless Tolkien clones. They get tired of stories where an elf, a dwarf, and a halfling walk into a bar. They’re not that bad, but you see the formula and once you’ve seen the formula a couple of times, you get tired of it […] I believe at least a few of my literary readers are ex–genre readers who had left, basically in a huff, tired of the formula, and came back because something I’m doing speaks to something they want. There’s a change that’s been happening on a number of different levels. There are more literary-style writers in the genre.N.K. Jemisin in ‘A True Utopia: An Interview With N. K. Jemisin’, December 3 2018.
8. Think about power, representation and access
Whether it explores galactic empires or a single, alien world, science fiction often alights on questions of power.
What makes a Sith Lord join the dark side? Are alien races as warring as humans or do they live in a state of enlightened harmony or post-scarcity environment?
One thing Jemisin touches on in the Paris Review interview above is how some science fiction reads more as ‘magical thinking’ than story grounded in believable historical and other processes.
For example, Jemisin pinpoints how there may be only one or two Asian people in Star Trek even though this is the largest demographic on earth (this is changing due to recent social movements for diverse and inclusive representation):
Science fiction has always said that it strives for a future for all humankind. Most science fiction does not depict futures for all humankind, though. And in a lot of cases, when it tries to do so, it does this by kind of hand-waving how we get to these shiny, happy, utopian futures.Jemisin, The Paris Review
Star Trek, for example. In Star Trek, in the future, everyone can be part of the Starfleet. Supposedly all of humanity has access to good education, good food, all of that other stuff, and yet, Starfleet is still dominated by middle-class, middle-American white dudes. So, something happened along the way, clearly. There’s only one Asian man and Asian people represent the bulk of humanity now. That’s crazy.
Compare to Arthur C. Clarke’s words on the newspaper disappearing. There is no mention of the fact multiple cultures exist in different geographies, with different paces (and desires and requirements) for development, throwing a universally-adopted future system into question by default.
The danger of thinking about science without social science is erasure or blind spots like Jemisin describes.
Power, representation and access in science fiction: Questions
To write good science fiction that is also historically and culturally aware, ask:
- Who is part of ‘us’ in your future world, who is treated as ‘other’ or ‘them’ by any group (is there an economic or political reason?)
- If the story depicts a utopian world where there is no class, racial or gender or other discrimination or exploitation, no prejudice, how did it get to this harmonious state? Is it believable or will it seem like wishful thinking? What other story conflicts are there?
- Who has access to what in a future world? Is education and access to goods or services universal? What does equality or inequality look like?
- Read theorists of society and culture where you can, as well as history – looking back to the past is a great way to find inspiration for writing the future
Who are your favorite sci-fi authors? What do you think makes good science fiction? Let us know in the comments.
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