How I write: Science fiction

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    Wonderlane (CC / Flickr)

    An idea drawn from current science or politics is likely to end up being science fiction.

  • The story needs characters impacted by the idea and a situation that forces them to confront it.
  • A story set in the present can explore an idea in isolation.
  • A realistic future or alternate past needs every factor to be different from the present.

I am a promiscuous genre writer. A glance at my story list makes that blindingly obvious. They fall into the categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical and crime. Many of them explode across categories.

What I do not write is literary fiction. I’m not sure exactly what literary fiction is, but every submission I’ve sent to a literary journal has come straight back so I evidently don’t write it.

This is the first of a series describing the genres I do write, and what I’ve learned by writing them. As ever I’m sharing my own experience, which is not going to be universal.

What if?

I’ve written about what science fiction actually is elsewhere, so I won’t revisit the controversy here. My own science fiction starts with extrapolations from current science, politics and economics, so that’s what I’m going to pontificate about. I mean no disrespect to the brand of science fiction that deals with far future technology, but I don’t know how to write it.


Tamás Mészáros (CC / Flickr)

Most stories start with the question, ‘what if?’ If the ‘what if?’ is scientific or political, there’s a good chance that the resulting story will be science fiction. My main sources of inspiration are New Scientist  magazine and TED. They deal with scientific and social trends in detail, and are not afraid to speculate. I find the mass media rather shallow and plagued by the assumption that today’s headline will become next decade’s dominant trend. The technical literature tends to go too far the other way. It’s necessary to read a lot of articles in a given field to get enough breadth of knowledge to extrapolate from them.

The Endocrine Tyranny started with my musing on how much the hormones of the endocrine system influence emotion. The obvious way to speculate on their interactions in fiction was to uncouple them, which was the starting point.

Under the Hooked Cross started with speculation about how science might have progressed if Nazi Germany became the global superpower of the second half of the 20th century rather than the USA and USSR.

Neither idea was more than a starting point, and neither came with a plot or characters attached. I still needed to invent the three legs of the story tripod.

Idea to tripod

The Endocrine Tyranny should have been an easy idea to develop as it defined at least one character from the outset. In fact, that didn’t help much as I got stuck on the question of who would do that to themselves for a ridiculous amount of time.


David Maxfield (CC / Flickr)

Under the Hooked Cross and Beside the Dammed River were more complex, though I actually developed them a lot faster. Both stories needed a world that had developed differently, the former an alternate version of the 1970s and the latter several decades in the future. Both worlds would vary from our own in terms of economics, technology and environmental change. It was a lot to consider, especially as I had to bring it all down to a few thousand words.

The time in which they are set is a key difference between The Endocrine Tyranny on the one hand and Under the Hooked Cross and Beside the Dammed River on the other. In the former, I wanted to focus on the one factor of disconnecting hormones from the brain. Part of the reason it took me so long to develop was that it took me a ridiculous length of time to realise it would be better set in the present day than the future. If I set it in the future, the whole story world would have to reflect that. Placing the story in a familiar present day milieu allowed the story to focus completely on that one thing.

To make it work, I had to persuade the reader that uncoupling hormones from emotions was only one step ahead of what contemporary science. The sort of thing a maverick untroubled by ethical considerations could do. In real life, rogue scientists are rare and they’re usually more concerned with hiding the fact that their ideas don’t work than developing dangerous new technologies. The brilliant rogue scientist is, however, a time honoured device of science fiction so I used one to make the concept work.

The future will be a different country

The worlds of Under the Hooked Cross and Beside the Dammed River were more difficult as every element had to reflect the way the alternate past or the possible future differed from my own world and that of the reader. To focus on the future of Beside the Dammed River, there was more to a convincing future setting than having characters find their way to a cinema showing the holographic version of Mission Impossible 13 using the Galileo system on their iPhone 66. Most people don’t live in first world cities, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.


Philip Roeland (CC / Flickr)

It takes more than a few changes in personal technology to produce a believable future. A central theme of Beside the Dammed River was a water shortage in Eastern Thailand caused by dams under construction in China. I also dropped in a reference to rising sea levels. Bangkok already floods whenever heavy rain combines with a high spring tide, so higher sea levels would be a serious problem. Nor would they just be an urban problem. A small rise would inundate much of Thailand’s low lying agricultural land with salt water several times a year. Agricultural failure would undercut Thailand’s economic base, shrinking the infrastructure and making the central government unable to support the regions most hit by the environmental degradation.

I have to admit that I made it slightly easier for myself by setting the story in a milieu characterised by degradation, which meant I didn’t have to predict where several decades of Moore’s law and consumer electronics development would place the characters. Technological progress had not stopped, as asteroid mining was central to the storyline, but I didn’t have to predict what iWhatsit will be in vogue a few decades from now or what part of the body it will interface with.

Predicting technology is risky

Moore’s Law, and the consequent speed of progress in consumer electronics, is the bane of the science fiction writer. To draw an example from film, the colonial marines in Aliens were kitted out in gear that looked high tech and futuristic in 1986, but watch any news film of NATO soldiers in Afghanistan and you’ll see gear that would turn Corporal Hicks green with envy.


Mediatheque Quimperlé (CC / Flickr)

I suspect this is a major reason why dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures dominate science fiction at the moment. Visualising the future is much simpler when progress is either halted by an apocalypse or restricted and channelled by a totalitarian regime.

I got caught out myself with Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, which was set in the 2040s. In the opening paragraphs, I wanted to drop in something to shout ‘future!’ at the reader, so I gave one of the characters a computer interface in her spectacles. I didn’t reckon with the difference between the rapid advances in electronics against the glacial speed of the publishing industry. Several years passed between my finishing the story and its publication. By then, everyone was talking about Google Glass, which is similar enough to make my fancy spectacles look rather dated.

To summarise, the starting point for the sort of science fiction I write is to take an element drawn from modern science, economics or politics and extrapolate to a maguffin. I invent characters who will be profoundly affected and put them in a situation where they must confront the maguffin. If I want to explore one thing, it’s best to make the setting as contemporary as possible. If I set the story in the future, I have to consider how all factors of the world that impact the characters might change.

If I get it right, I end up with a story you enjoy reading.

Speaking of which, my science fiction stories to date are:

Full text of The Endocrine Tyranny

Preview of Beside the Dammed River

Preview of Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo

Preview of Rainfire by Night

Preview of Spookmoth

Preview of Virulence

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing
4 comments on “How I write: Science fiction
  1. D.I. Ozier says:

    Excellent advice. One note about about consulting mass media for ideas about science fiction: while I certainly agree that a lot of available news is a bit too shallow to serve as detailed inspiration (for example, I’m really not looking forward to the inevitable see of manuscripts that purport to be about what “really” happened to the missing Malaysian planes), they can provide broader ideas that can be supplemented with scientific research. For example, news about global water shortages can connect to environmental studies about fresh water depletion, which can lead to books like Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      I agree that current affairs can be a good starting point, and water shortages were central to one of my own stories. I think the difference is between the headlines of the day and a feature article written by someone who has researched a subject properly. New Scientist and The Economist are good, newspapers and television news tend to be misleading.
      Incidentally, are you an editor? I presume that’s why you’re expecting those Malaysian Airlines conspiracy theories!

      • D.I. Ozier says:

        I’m not an editor, much lowlier than that: I’ve been on the editorial staff for a few literary agencies and small publishing houses. It’s enjoyable work, but it can be tedious, since those lowest on the totem pole are largely responsible for chipping away at the slush pile.

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