Thursday, June 4, 2009

Erin Anderson (aka The Screaming Guppy) on Science Fiction

This week The Literary Lab presents a series of guest posts exploring the conventions of different genres and what writers love and loath about each of them. We're continuing with The Screaming Guppy on...

Sci-fi you say?

The Screaming Guppy here, weighing in on what makes science fiction (both in reading and writing) awesome!

I needed to come up with a clever and educated opening. So I went to Wikipedia. ;)

Science fiction (abbreviated SF or sci-fi with varying punctuation and capitalization) is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations on current or future science or technology. Science fiction is found in books, magazines, art, television, films, games, theatre, and other media. In organizational or marketing contexts, science fiction can be synonymous with the broader definition of speculative fiction, encompassing creative works incorporating imaginative elements not found in contemporary reality; this includes fantasy, horror, and related genres.

Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation). Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas". Science fiction is largely based on writing entertainingly and rationally about alternate possibilities in settings that are contrary to known reality.

These may include:

  • A setting in the future, in alternative time lines, or in a historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archeological record
  • A setting in outer space, on other worlds, or involving aliens
  • Stories that involve technology or scientific principles that contradict known laws of nature
  • Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots, or of new and different political or social systems (e.g., a dystopia, or a situation where organized society has collapsed)

There are subcategories as well, but the biggest divide is what could be called “space opera” and “hard sci-fi.” All of the above pretty much applies to both, but hard sci-fi focuses more on real science and making up things inside the scope of what is actually-maybe possible. Space opera is more about cool ideas, epic storylines and made-up science without taking the time to explain things on a deeply scientific level. It’s like watching Star Wars verses watching the Discovery Channel (but with a plot).

I fall into the “space opera” side of things, with a strong aversion to actually having to justify my fake science with chemical equations and physics (of course, there is a balance to keep things believable within the world you create. More on that in a sec). I think this comes from my roots – I used to write almost entirely high fantasy. The draw of the genre (the broader umbrella of “speculative fiction”) for me was that I could create my own worlds, my own magic, races, and societies. Then I realized that guns can be a lot of fun. And I can write sci-fi and still create my own worlds.

The real world is fun, sure. But what happens if the world as we know it collapses? What happens when we met aliens from light years away? What happens when the zombie apocalypse starts? And how do people – humans and humanity – handle the pressure of the world we know becoming something different?

I like big questions, character dilemmas, love, loss, struggle and triumph. I like throwing obstacles in front of my characters and watching them crawl through and come out with cuts and bruises, or, um, dead. Of course, any genre can have these things.

It comes down to world building for me and my fascination with all things fantastic. I live real life everyday, so when I write and read I’m looking for characters I can relate to – in a world different from my own.

World building is a challenge. Anyone who writes fantasy or sci-fi knows what I mean. It adds a new dimension to the creation process. I build my plot; I dream up my characters; I see the conflicts. Now, I get the added amazing task of creating the ENTIRE universe that they live in. But with it comes great responsibility, young Jedi (sorry, too dorky? And I’m not even that big of a Star Wars fan, I promise).

Building your own universe, with your own rules and everything else requires dedication and consistency to trap your reader. Writing in a genre like this means you have to explain everything – and do so in the careful craft of writing something without making it sound like an info dump. Immersion is important in any genre, and I enjoy the challenge of making my reader believe that humans now live only in spaceships and have no planets, or that broken cities now make up arenas for zombie gladiators.

A cliché, but part of the excitement of writing and reading sci-fi is to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before. To take your characters to places yet unknown to people outside your own head and then take your readers with them on the journey. To make your characters face the complications of this new reality. The what-if beyond our backyards and the Earth we know. That’s what keeps me interested in this genre: all the depth beyond the pew pew pew.

I like most of the conventions of my genre, though I don’t feel like sci-fi is restricted to space and aliens. And I don’t think sci-fi can’t tell a deep and meaningful story just because you’re zooming around on spaceships blowing up people…rather, biped humanoids.

A few good examples of the type of sci-fi I enjoy reading (and attempting to write):

Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon

This is one crazy book – it’s almost like a sci-fi fantasy hybrid. But, the point is, the world building is amazing! It didn’t matter if I was in the alternate universe or the future Earth. I believed it.

Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card

Bigger ideas, neatly wrapped up in a floating space station school for elite children in an alternate future of Earth.

Helix by Eric Brown

A completely CRAZY idea about a fictional structure of a solar system. Insane, impossible, but the way he wrote it made me believe I was there.

Dune by Frank Herbert

The Dune world is a new venture for me, but the first book was enough to hook me into the world.

Some other things that tackle the genre in an awesome way include:

Star Trek – the series and the new movie

Star Wars – the original space opera (referring to the first three movies)

Sunshine – movie, alternative/possible future of Earth, with space ship and character trauma

28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later – technically horror movies, but fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction

Mass Effect – video game. It doesn’t get much more epic than this storyline. Period.

Babylon AD (the movie) and Babylon Babies (the book the movie is based on) – bad ending, but the world building is so cool. I’m still reading the book (it’s a French author, so some stuff is a little strange) but so far the world building, again, is very neat.

The Island – perfect example of a sci-fi dystopian future, with big guns, complicated characters and awesome world building.


  1. Excellent article, Erin! I think sci-fi is probably the most avoided genre for me. I seem to like the popular stuff - Star Wars and Star Trek, but that's because it is "space-opera"-ish, right? Unless I'm getting that wrong!

    I know that reading your zombie book, and some of my other friend's sci-fi work, my mind is opening a little more to this amazing genre. It surely does take us where we haven't gone before! And when you stop to think about that, it's pretty darn exciting!

  2. Hmm, I've heard of sci-fi labeled "soft/sociological," which is the type I want to write. It's the same as your "space opera" in the sense that the author is more interested in creating neat plots than s/he is in expounding upon proven scientific principles or formulas.

  3. Good breakdown, and thanks for reminding me about DUNE. I haven't read any of the other books in the series, but DUNE is a well-written, thought provoking masterpiece. The world Frank Herbet created - through the technology, spirituality, and politics - is as extensive and "real" as Middle Earth, Narnia, or any other popular novel / series.

  4. Yes, a great post here. I always think I don't like sci-fi and then I go to a movie and have a blast. Maybe I should pick up a good scifi book and give it a shot...

  5. Nice article, Guppster. I have to agree with you in that (for me) the appeal of sci-fi is being able to create something according to my own set of rules. Maybe someday I'll want to delve into the real underpinnings of science in order to "ground" my sci-fi in reality, but for now imaginitive creation is much more fun. Go buy yourself a case of Diet Coke with lime. You deserve it.

  6. In many ways, good science fiction can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in technological advances. A writer with decent insight into how technology works is going to be able to take that knowledge creatively to produce something usable that an engineer might not think of.

    When Star Trek first came out, it was so cool that they could tap the communicator on their shirt and talk to the Enterprise. this was back in the days of rotary dial phones. In today's society, where grade school kids have their own GPS enabled cell phones and we can take a laptop to any Starbucks and get online it looks like outdated technology.

    I read somewhere that the secrets to making an atom bomb were once published a SciFi short story.

    And don't forget Jules Verne and his submarine.

  7. Wikipedia agrees with Rick:

    "The modern waterbed was created by Charles Hall in 1968...however, because a waterbed is described in the novels Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert A. Heinlein, Hall was unable to obtain a patent on his creation."

  8. How would you classify books like Martin Amis' "Time's Arrow" or Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time-Traveler's Wife" or Huxley's "Brave New World"? Is Orwell's "1984" science fiction?

    I read the "John Carter, Warlord of Mars" books when I was a kid, and I considered them sci-fi, but now I think they might be more fantasy. Thoughts? "It doesn't matter, that's my thoughts," Erin thought, thoughtfully.

  9. Very nice post Erin! I used to be scared about sci-fi but then I wrote a micro fiction piece and then ideas came flowing in. I got more comfortable with it and now I am writing a womens fiction with some sci-fi elements. I have to say I love it and am dying to get to the awesome sci-fi parts!

    This is really informative and made me realize even more that I am doing something hard like fantasy. Argh! The world building is the hardest for me! Avoiding the info dump!

  10. I always considered 1984 to be sci-fi. That's actually the first thing that pops into my head when I think of the genre. Am I wrong?

  11. I'm with Davin on 1984. Though it's listed as "speculative fiction." I feel the same way about Brave New World. Some aspects seem to be the what-if future, verse fantasy, which to me, seems to be in an alternate reality.

    In my thoughts. :)

    Would fall under the soft/sociological side of things Justus mentioned. I've heard that term before.

  12. Mmm. I love reading Sci-Fi but have been leery of writing it because I am intimidated by the science research needed. Great post.

  13. I think "1984" is sci-fi, because it seemed a possible future at the time of its publication. And, I think it fits into the "soft/sociological" side of sci-fi, because the story dealt with society and human interaction.

    I wonder what subdivision "Ender's Game" and "Ender's Shadow" fall under; they're dealing with space and intergalactic battles (if I remember correctly), yet a lot of the story revolves around personalities and how people manipulate one another.

  14. Cool! Thanks for this, Erin. And for all the authors who have done the genres this week. I should have wikipedia'ed this before the call I had on Monday. Le sigh. Live and learn. :)

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  16. Love this series of posts on here!

    And particularly loved learning about SciFi. It's still fairly new to me, and I'm really enjoying different people's takes on it.

  17. SF is every genre rolled into one. It's just set somewhere else. That's why I love writing it.

    Blade Runner - SF or crime?
    Star Wars - Space Opera or western?
    Star Trek - SF or philosophical treatise on the inner relationships that exist between races and how problems can be overcome without the use of violence?

  18. I love science fiction, in its many forms, sociological, space opera, military, thriller, hard. Only sub-genre I don't like is sf horror, because I'm a scaredy cat. (I'm really afraid when they make the movie version of Erin's book, it will be too scary for me! But I will make an exception and go see it so I can show off about knowing the writer).

  19. It's interesting to me that you brought up THE BRIGHT OF THE SKY. I heard Kay do a reading of chapter one when she first started her book tour.

    That first chapter, especially hearing her read it, really pulled me in. I would agree that her world building is excellent, and I would add that she does a remarkable job with creature-building (for lack of a better term).

    She described the book as science fantasy.

    Thanks for the list of stories you liked. I will have to check some of them out.


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