It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Why bother writing science fiction?


You want to be a writer, you want to write. But why science fiction? Of all the modes of fiction you could write, why choose sf?

You’re not going to be hip, you’re not going to be relevant. Even during the Apollo programme, sf wasn’t relevant. In 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human being to step onto the Moon; the following year, the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel was awarded to… The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin. It’s an excellent novel, but it has nothing to do with space travel. Even the year before, the Hugo went to Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, a novel about over-population.

You’ll not get any critical plaudits – not from outside the genre, anyway. Science fiction has been accused of cardboard characters, lumpen prose, in-yer-face exposition, and idiot plotting and, to be fair, it’s not an entirely unfair accusation. Nor is it wholly accurate. Those who claim characterisation and prose style are unimportant in sf because it’s all about the ideas, they’re nincompoops. That’s like saying eating food is not about the taste, it’s about the calories.

Sf doesn’t sell very well – in fact, you’ll probably never be able to give up the day job. And the nearest you’ll get to a jet-setting lifestyle is gazing longingly at contrails in the sky. You might get free trips every now and again, but it’s more likely to be to Derby than Rio de Janeiro. If you’re really lucky, you might be asked to appear on a television programme. It’ll be on BBC4, however, so no one will watch it.

Then there’s that blank look you’ll get when you tell people you’re a writer and they ask what sort of books you write. As soon as you say “science fiction”, the smile will congeal on their face and they’ll wander off to watch some paint dry. Unless it’s a sf fan who’s asked you, of course. In which case, they’ll probably tell you exactly what was wrong about your last story or novel. Assuming, that is, they’ve a) heard of you, and b) read it. Neither of which is guaranteed.

Then there’s all that stuff you need to be an expert in. Yes, you can just Make Shit Up, but readers’ credulity only stretches so far. And they all have different thresholds – some will just wow at the ringworld, others will (famously) work out that it’s inherently unstable. And there’s definitely a level of knowledge, especially in the sciences, below which you cannot drop. No -300 degrees Celsius on your icy moon, for example. No supernovas visible in nearby star systems at the exact moment they occur. No, er, breathable atmosphere and water oceans on Venus. The closer you get to the real world, the more you have to make sure it’s right (or, at the very least, highly plausible). Aliens, artificial intelligences, faster-than-light travel, time travel… they’re not real, so no one’s going to cavil if they don’t operate as they do in other authors’ novels. It’s often seen as an advantage if they don’t, if their workings are entirely original to your story.

Because you have to continually struggle to be original and inventive. You have to write as though everyone who reads your story or novel has read every other sf story or novel that’s ever been published. There are no shortcuts. You’ve got build an entire world, or universe, and it’s got to be entirely off the top of your head. Yes, there are tropes you can recycle, used furniture, characters from central casting, but unless you’re being deliberately knowing you won’t be forgiven for making use of them. Well, you might get away with using some, providing there’s plenty that is original in your story or novel.


You probably want to write science fiction because you’ve been reading it since you were a kid. You’re a fan. You can’t even imagine writing anything else. That may well be the best reason in the world to write anything. But there are lots of other wonderful things science fiction can do. It’s a wide genre, there’s room for a whole universe of things. There’s even space in there for things that – ssh, don’t tell anyone – for things that are not really science fiction. You can pretty much set the boundaries yourself. There are all those sub-genres, for a start: space opera, cyberpunk, hard sf, alternate history… In fact, there are so many, people have been arguing about them since 1926.

Also, let’s face it, world-building is fun. You can do as much or as little as you like; you can show as much of it, or as little of it, as you like. You have a level of power over your creation no other genre can match. Many of the visuals are pretty cool too – all those eyeball kicks and special effects on the page. This is stuff you’re never going to see in real life. After all, sf is as big as your imagination. It’s only limited by what you, the writer, can’t conceive. Sort of like a reverse strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Writing sf, you not only broaden your readers’ horizons, you stretch your own as well. You can’t help it – it’s the nature of the genre.

Then there’s the whole community that comes attached. It’s a vocal community, and it can be as condemning as it can be approving. But on the whole sf readers are a friendly bunch, and they’re not afraid to make their opinions known. I don’t know if sf has the largest online presence of all the modes of fiction, but I suspect it has the largest in comparison to the size of its market.

On the whole, I think the pros outweigh the cons. It’s not just the vast canvas available for stories, but the breadth and variety of the genre itself. There’s not much you can’t do. There are no other modes of fiction which offer the same openness to different approaches or different styles. You can be as relevant as you desire. And sf has permeated popular culture so much you can even be hip, if that’s your thing.

As a writer, that kind of freedom is liberating.

12 thoughts on “Why bother writing science fiction?

  1. A well-argued and entertaining piece. Ultimately, I think, you can just do such big things with SF that mainstream fiction – if we can call it that – can just seem dull by comparison.

    I wonder what your feelings are as regards SF vs. Fantasy? It seems to me a lot of what you say applies to both genres.

    • I think fantasy might be more restrictive in terms of its world-building. Yes, you have the magic and the non-fhuman races, but there’s a common template for the worlds in which stories are set.

  2. Sniff. You’ve made my life so barren since I’m in the middle of my novel. You mean I don’t get to party with Lady Gaga?

  3. And it is a fact that for many people, SF is their only source of subversive ideas!

  4. Interesting article.

    Speaking as one of those ninconpoops who “claim characterisation and prose style are unimportant in sf because it’s all about the ideas”, I take issue with your food analogy. I would suggest that it’s more like saying that the appearance of food doesn’t matter, only what it tastes like.

    I guess the appearance of food does matter though. We all want our food to look appetising, as long as the process of making it look good doesn’t spoil the flavour (which is a particularly apt part of the analogy in my opinion). But ultimately, as long as food tastes good, it is worth eating.

    You may well be right, that in order to be a successful SF writer today, you need to have good characterisation and prose. I speak only from a position of personal taste.

    • I’d never accuse you of being a nincompoop. I recognise that different readers are happy with different levels of characterisation/prose style in their science fictions, but that doesn’t mean neither is unimportant. If every character in a book was exactly the same – and they weren’t all clones, of course – then no matter how nifty the central premise, surely you’d be disappointed?

      • I guess it’s a question of the degree of importance. Characterisation and prose aren’t as important as ideas for SF as they are in other genres. In my opinion anyway. That’s not to say that they don’t matter at all.

        Incidentally, when I read fantasy or horror, prose is far more important. Flat prose in those genres will disappoint me far more than in SF.

  5. Well, this is just one of the reasons why I’ve never tried to write any – and don’t intend do.

    OTOH, I’ve had 6 pieces published so far this week & I expect to get paid for all of them… :¬)

  6. Dear Ian,

    I’m representing the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of both genres in Romania.
    I liked very much your text.
    I’m kindly asking you to allow us to translate it and to post it, on our site,
    Thank you.

    Cristian Tamas
    RSFFS/Societatea Romana de Science Fiction si Fantasy

  7. Pingback: Societatea Română de Science-Fiction şi Fantasy » Blog Archive » De ce să-ţi baţi capul scriind science fiction?

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