Bad Science Fiction: No Space Biscuit!
When someone who doesn't understand Science Fiction tries to write it.
First of all, let me say that I haven't any great degrees, and am not a professor specializing in this subject. I have an Associate's Degree in Commercial Art, and a lifetime of interest in the Science Fiction Field. These comments on Science Fiction are those I have learned about from writing and reading Science Fiction over about forty years of my life . Let me add at this time that I prefer a little bit of Science, and lot of filling in with good writing rather than a story that stops all the action for a lesson in Physics.
The old west in space.
This seems to be an easy escape from actual effort for someone trying to write in this genre, especailly when they don't normally read it. They take a story that was set in western North America in the late nineteenth century, and change the location, the hardware, the extras and livestock to make it look like Science Fiction. I used to see that all the time on animated television series, especially on Saturday Mornings. The bad guys rob the First Bank of Mars, and take the Sherrif's daughter hostage. The Sherriff's deputy, who happens to be the hero of the story and the boyfriend of little Nell tricks them or forces them into abandoning the gold and the girl and saves the day. The problem with this story is that the Old West skeleton sticks out of the Science Fiction window dressing, and shows that the writer must have almost missed his Thursday 0900 deadline, and had to come up with something quick.
A good example of this in the movies was the clunker movie: "Outland", starring Sean Connery. Two hours I will never get back. It was a redressed presentation of "High Noon", set on the Jovian moon IO. In it, you had a gang of men chasing eachother around an airtight colony, and shooting sawed off shotguns at eachother. The most amazing thing about the show was that it took over an hour for one of the bad guys to blow out a window, suffocating himself.
Unrequited Love and all that soap opera stuff.
Love is good, love is grand, and people have written about it for millenia. The problem is that you shouldn't interrupt a story for a love affair that has nothing to do with the plot. If the Captain of the spaceship is single, you can mention that in passing. If he was seduced into committing treason, that can be part of the story as well. The problem arises when the love story is written into a script just to keep a 200 page novel from being a 75 page novellette. I know that publishers want big stories that can fill 1200 page trilogies, but the whole thing shouldn't be padded with a love story that could be removed or only mentioned in passing without hurting the plot. If you want a love interest in it, make it vital to the plot. People recognize plot stretching, and can turn your story off, or throw the book in the trash.
Vannah, show us The Magnificent Doohickie
A problem that is peculiar to Science Fiction, and probably Fantasy as well, is when a writer gets so excited about a thing that he has created that he forgets to put a story around it. It's like; "Hey I have this great idea for a spaceship that picks up bits of floating metal, melts them down and makes new ships out of them." Great! What is the conflict? If you spend all your time building and describing your contraption, and don't have anyone in the story who does more than a pretty model who gestures at the latest Dodge Neon at a car show, you don't have a story!
What makes a Story?
What makes a story? Well, what you need is simply a goal for the Hero to attempt, and some problem in the way of it, so he isn't just charging through paper like a High School football team at homecoming. Harry Potter, for example, must defeat Voldemort, and in order to do so, has to collect and destroy all the horcruxes, or individual items that contain the pieces of the soul of He-who-must-not-be-named, granting him a kind of immortality. To further complicate matters, he only knows what a few of these items look like, and Professor Albus Dumbledore, his mentor, is unable to give him all the clues to find the horcruxes. Frodo Baggins, from the epic "Lord of the Rings", must destroy the one ring that is the most powerful in Middle Earth without being corrupted by holding on to all that power as Gollum did. He has to travel a long way; hide from those trying to kill him- including Gollum, and get the ring back to the cracks of doom where it was made, and without getting seduced by its corrupting ways, destroy it.
To get an idea of what it means to actually create a plot, I suggest reading the book "The Writer's Journey" by Christopher Vogler and Michelle Montez. I also suggest the book "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell. These can show you how to make a story,as compared with a verbose description of an object. You don't have to use each as a template for everything you write, but it is best to know what the archetypes are before you set them on their heads, as is explained in "Writer's Journey."
Keeping up with Science
This is another problem that you can run into in writing Science Fiction. You want to remember that in 2011, there are such things as integrated circuits, contact lenses and radial keratotomy to improve eyesight, laptop computers, digital cameras and a lot of other things. You have to look around you, and see what there already is in the fields that you want to do Science Fiction in. Don't get caught trying to reinvent something that has already been invented, unless you can create it in such a way that it is new and exciting.
"As You Know, Bob"
I was recently watching a show on woodworking, as that is another one of my hobbies, and one of the regulars said to another, "as you know Bob, you need to number the sides of the box so that you can keep the line of the grain running all around it without interruption." Bob, of course, should have known this, and would probably have said something like "WELL, DUH!" if the camera hadn't been on him, and if he hadn't written this lame script. (No offense intended, but he was a woodworker first, and probably never read a book on how to write a television script.) Keep this in mind, and try to impart vital information about the rules of your particular universe without having someone tell something to someone the second person already knows, such as; "As you know Bob, we have make sure our oxygen tanks are filled every time we prepare to go out on the surface of the moon." Such 'as-you-know' statements sound dumb in cabinetry shows, and sound dumb in Science Fiction.
It's been done already!
Almost every invention that you may think is a novel idea in your story has already been described in a Science Fiction story over the last one hundred and twenty five years. The trick is not to do it in exactly the same old way. H.G. Welles probably invented the idea of the Alien Invasion of Earth back at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you want to do an alien invasion story, don't just make them from another planet, especially Mars, which as a lot of people now know, is a barren, cold desert planet.
Also, while we're on the subject of alien invasions, show good reason why they are doing it. Are they out of space on Glockenspiel five? Are they afraid we will destroy them if they don't hit first? Are they suffering from an Arsenic deficiency, and need to get as much arsenic as possible here? Show a reason!
I once got into a discussion with some friends at a Science Fiction Club meeting about: If there were other civilizations out there, why hadn't they contacted us? What occurred to me is: What if they had monitored our transmissions, and had come to the conclusion that this was the most insane planet in the universe. Not only would they not try to contact us, but would probably run away, hiding any traces of their existence rather than let us track them down. Brought the whole discussion to an amazed, but thoughtful halt.
And in Conclusion... (Audience Cheers and Applauds.)
This is in itself not a complete guide to everything you need to know about writing Science Fiction, but instead an essay on things that every Science Fiction writer should probably know if they want their material to be taken seriously. Don't write "Wagon Train in Space," someone already did, and got it rejected. Study, learn from the masters, and don't take it too personally if your first couple of tries are rejected. As I write this, I am sixty. I have wanted to write and get published for the last forty three years.
Science Fiction was originally created as speculation about what the world was going to be like when specific machines became commonplace, such as telephones, and computers. The big problem with the uninitiated writing what are supposed to be Science Fiction books, movies, or television shows is that they may not be familiar with the genre before they begin, and try to use a change of location and hardware as a way of calling a story Science Fiction. This can lead to the rejection pile at a publisher in a nanosecond. If you want to write good Science Fiction, you should be well read on the subject. Read as many Science Fiction books as you possibly can before putting a word on paper or computer screen.
Books I recommend
This book, by Joseph Campbell, is about the standard story pattern of the myth, and the archetype characters that inhabit it.
A good description of how to apply the mythic structure shown in the Joseph Campbell book to the writing of books and screenplays. A keeper, if there ever was one.
This book is really a good book about the basics of writing. It includes a discussion of the annoying "As you know, Bob" type of data introduction.