Perfecting the Sci in your Fi

The joy of writing sci-fi is the ability to speculate on the limitless possibilities of alien worlds and future times and asking ‘what if?’. But one of the mistakes I made when starting my book was not putting the leg work in up-front on how the scientific nitty-gritty of my world worked, As a result, my first draft ended up feeling vague and unconvincing. It was only once I researched into present-day technology, and did some proper planning out of the scientific underpinnings of this world of alien refugees, that the world and the story took shape in a meaningful way.

As an example, the entire mystery of my first novel (Interplanetary Homesick Blues) centred around a human examining an alien blood sample. But it was only after I had done my first draft that I started thinking about microscopes. How small is it possible to go with today’s technology? What sort of equipment would you typically have in a hospital for diagnosis? Getting this straight helped lend a slight air of credibility, but crucially it meant I could impose limits on how much my human characters could discover before they became reliant on my more advanced alien technologies to learn more. The limits of the science informed the progression of the narrative.

But even when it came to the potentially-limitless alien sciences in my book, I needed to somehow ‘research’ that, and impose clear limits on the alien tech in order to help the world to feel credible, and to help drive the narrative.

The main time I hit this was figuring out how on Earth all these aliens managed to get to Earth in the first place. Before I started the re-drafting process, I did a lot of work on straightening all that out, and it ultimately informed the foundational power dynamics of my alien cultures.

Distances in space are vast, and whoever has the ability to navigate them freely has a level of control and authority over those who can’t – as Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ showed to great effect. For my refugees I came up with an ‘artificial and extremely expensive wormhole’ which reduced the total journey to around two-three (Earth) years. This aspect of the story is only briefly mentioned in the book, but establishing it helped nail some key story points. First, the journey time was substantial enough for it to be arduous, but not so long that you start ending up with generations born in space. It also established a crucial ‘rule’ of the world of the book – the aliens can’t just fire up their own ‘faster-than-light’ drives and try a different world. They are stuck on Earth. Finally, the fact it was expensive (and therefore came at a cost) meant that the richer planets could pay their way easily, but what about the millions of poorer aliens? What does ‘travelling coach’ look like for interplanetary travel? What about those who couldn’t afford legitimate transit? Were there illegal options open to them? I could only scratch the surface of this in book 1. The sequel will delve much more into the stratification of space travel.

I do think the power of sci-fi comes from feeling that the world of the book is ‘possible’ in some way. Your science has some sort of rules and some sort of nodding acquaintance with reality. My advice if you are writing sci-fi, take the time and put the legwork into the ‘rules’ of your world before you start writing. Not only will it help lend credibility to your narrative, but it will also help you to create interesting plot points that will give your story a unique voice of its own.

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