Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

I enjoy writing imaginative stories, but these days I stick to fantasy. Science fiction is both too hard to do well, and not interesting enough.

The rationale of science fiction (SF) is that the events in the story could actually happen. Maybe in the future, or maybe on some other planet, but the known scientific facts of physics and chemistry are scrupulously adhered to. There are a few permitted exceptions: time-travel stories are always considered SF, even though modern physics doesn’t provide much support for the idea. Other SF devices, such as faster-than-light travel, have fallen out of favor for the same reason, but again, you can still use them if you care to, and nobody will accuse you of writing fantasy.

Most often, SF is set in the future. Amazing stuff has been invented that we know nothing about today. But it’s not supposed to violate the laws of physics … at least not in any way that the reader can easily detect.

The difficulty is, it’s impossible to predict the future. If you want a few good laughs, read some SF from the 1950s sometime. In the year 2000, you’ll learn, everybody smoked cigarets, women stayed in the kitchen wearing an apron while the men went off to work, and everybody flew around in atomic-powered cars.

In Isaac Asimov’s first robot stories, the robots had vacuum tubes in their brains, because the transistor hadn’t yet been invented. Imagine that!

But let’s suppose we can make a good, solid prediction about future technology. That may not help much. If you have a reasonable understanding of history and human psychology, you’ll know that societies and cultures are immensely complex. As are ecosystems. Predicting how a new technology will affect people’s lives is backbreaking work — and writing a good story in which your predictions are presented in a coherent and meaningful way is even harder.

It can be done. I’m thinking of a novel by Robert L. Forward, the title doesn’t leap to mind at the moment, in which the main characters (not human) live on the surface of a neutron star. But I’m not smart enough to do it; I’m only barely smart enough to understand the challenges.

All too often, SF isn’t about people. The characters in the story are just the author’s pawns. The real protagonist in an SF novel is quite often the human race itself. Which almost always rises to the challenge and ends triumphant, because who wants to read a story in which the human race as a whole is defeated? There’s a political and psychological bias written into this type of story that makes it rather unappealing to me.

The golden age of SF began in the 1920s, when the dominant view of technology was (a) that it was a force for good and (b) that it could solve any problem. The birth of the atomic bomb caused something of a reassessment of those premises, but it’s still the case that a lot of SF has a strong pro-technology bias.

I don’t have a strong pro-technology bias. I like my computers, but I could make a long, long list of technologies that frighten, annoy, or disgust me. Selling an SF story that focussed on issues of this sort would be difficult, simply because of the pro-tech bias of the market (and perhaps of the readership).

So why bother? Besides, I actually like writing about wizards.

This entry was posted in society & culture, technology, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why I Don’t Write Science Fiction

  1. Well, if you want to try your hand at something new, go for it! It will take a lot of research and creativity. If you want to stay on the same subject, that is fine as well. Expanding as a writer depends on the mood of him or her. Lots of luck.


  2. textfilesdotcom says:

    Actually, only “hard science” Science Fiction adheres strictly to known scientific facts. Example might be Larry Niven. While others will maintain a scientific bent but in fact mostly be using it as a backdrop for other actions. See also, six billion SF short stories.

  3. Steve says:

    You might want to patiently slog through Neal Stephenson’s recent “Anathem.” It will infuriate you at first with its self-created jargon and architectural fetishism, but if you’re patient, you’ll come out the other side feeling you’ve really had a story about _people_ given to you, at the core of it all. Really, quite a magnificent work in that way, and rewards the patience.

    I’ve also relatively recently discovered Peter F. Hamilton, a British author, who has these same qualities in his writing.

    The value of both of the above is that they combine intellectual, rational speculation about alternative worlds and futures without losing the dynamics of writing a moving story about real people’s lives within those worlds — a rare feat, even in classic sci-fi.

  4. midiguru says:

    I tried Anathem. I found the jargon and architectural fetishism a difficult slog, yes. And I couldn’t figure out whether it was an alternate-Earth story, a future Earth story, a some-other-planet story, or what. I bailed out after 50 or 100 pages.

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