Sci-fi... science fiction. The very word conjures to mind spaceships, intergalactic civilization, laserbeams and robots. Or, maybe it just conjues up images of slightly overweight nerds in glasses who are obsessed with TV shows and live in their parents basement. Which is unfortunate, even if there is some grain of truth in it.
I'll admit it. I'm a little nerdy at times. I got good grades in school, I read science fiction novels, played D&D, and watched Star Trek. I still have a Star Trek t-shirt in my closet. Hell, I even wear glasses.
But you know what? I'm proud to be a nerd. And if you are reading this little 'how-to' guide that I've put together, then you probably are too. Go on. Admit it. There's no shame in that. We nerds have got plenty to be proud of. We practically invented the internet! We put out thousands of novels, comics, movies, TV shows and (let's admit it) fan fictions every year! We even have a whole channel dedicated to us! So be proud; you're in good company.
And now that we've got that out of the way, let's get onto the real meat: actually writing science fiction.
As the name might suggest, in the most basic form, science fiction is a particular genre of fiction which deals with science. Just how accurate said 'science' is varies from story to story. Certain tropes and even styles have come to focus on particular issues like time travel, alien life, parallel universes and the like, but really none of these things are necessary. A great many science fiction stories are set in the future, or at least the near future, but even this is not required.
Really, the first thing you need to do is find some spark or inspiration. This is no different from any other story, of course, but a science fiction story should always be centered around some scientific development or breakthrough. This need not even be the central theme of the story. In a world where cybernetic implants or extraterrestrial visitation are commonplace, one can still explore all the complexities of daily human life and passion. The only real difference is that now you have some fantastic element to use as a plot device.
And even then, this need not be too outlandish. Perhaps you envision a post-apocalyptic world where radiation-scarred mutants dominate society, or life amongst settlers on a recently terrformed Mars. But, maybe you want to do something a little more low key. A story exploring the ramifications of current events such as cloning, genetic engineering or antimatter need not take place in a world dramatically different from our own.
The best advice I can give for inspiration is to look at current scientific developments. For example, Michael Crichton's 'Jurassic Park' deals with cloning and modern interpretations of dinosaurs, and it was an absolutely brilliant book (and a good movie too). If you look through newspapers, as well as magazines like National Geographic, Scientific American, Smithsonian and the like, you can find any number of news items and articles to take inspiration from. A trip to your local library might uncover a few gems, and the internet is a gold mine. When it comes to science, most of the important things come from journals as books tend to be outdated or disproven pretty quickly. Fortunately most of these journals are online these days.
But you need to be burdened down by accuracy. Yes, if you are going to be writing about the subject it couldn't hurt to get some basic understanding of astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, mathematics and the like. But you shouldn't feel like you need an advanced degree in quantum physics either. That's why we are talking about science FICTION here guys, not peer-reviewed scientific journals. Having your terminology and basic facts makes a story more believable but you will presumably be playing with some our basic assumptions.
Case in point, Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein,' which is a classic and has been adapted (and spoofed) in film, television and popular culture. You probably know the basic plot: Dr. Victor Frankenstein sews together a patchwork man out of cadavers and brings him to life. What you may not know is that Mary Shelley wasn't quite sure about how she could explain it through 'science'. Rather than being daunted by this, she simply glossed over the process, describing it as a perverse blend of 'science' and 'alchemy'. And it didn't take anything away from the story.
Be somewhat consistent with the 'science' in your fictional universe and at least have a grasp of the basic terminology and you will be fine. If you are going to post it on the internet, be aware that many self-styled critics and 'experts' will probably point out every little mistake that you made. You have a couple choices on how to react to this, but my best advice is to develop thick skin. Don't let their comments get to you. Besides, as I said before, you aren't dealing with actual 'science'. You are writing fiction and shouldn't be afraid to toy with the basic laws of the universe.
Far, far more important is developing an interesting story with three dimensional characters, each with their own personality, voice and (dare I say it) character. The 'science' elements of your story should never overshadow the fact that you are writing a story about people... or mutants, aliens, robots, cosmic entities from a parallel dimension, etc. Its far better to use the fantastic 'science' elements as a plot device to move the story forward, to add to the dilemmas the characters face, and to create situations which they must react to.
Does your story take place in space? Then how have the characters adapted their daily routines to zero gravity? Or is your story set in a post-apocalyptic world? If so, maybe you should plan out the events that led to this apocalypse, even if your readers won't be aware of this. It helps to add depth to the fictional universe, and to keep it fairly consistent. Don't be afraid of paradoxes either. It's completely acceptable to limit characters by saying that certain actions would have disastrous consequences, up to and including destroying reality itself.
Perhaps you remember the 'Back to the Future' franchise? That would actually be a prime example of this. When Marty McFly went back in time to 1955, he accidentally tampered with the past, which almost caused him to cease existing. This is a more contemporary take on an old mainstay of science fiction. Ray Bradbury wrote a similar story in 'A Sound of Thunder,' which detailed a group of big game hunters going back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Despite precautions meant to ensure that they wouldn't change the past, one of the hunters accidentally steps on a butterfly, ultimately changing the future.
So let your imagination run wild. As long as you have a good idea, you're great. But before you get started, I'd like to introduce a few of the more well known 'sub-genres' of science fiction. Some of them may be familiar – like old friends from the sci-fi section of your book store or the video rental shop – while others may be new to you. Hopefully it will provide you with some new ideas that you might not have otherwise considered.
"Hard" sci-fi refers to a sub-genre based around the physical sciences, such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, mathematics and the like. It is based very much on the actual science, and as such requires a little more research and dedication than other genres of science fiction. Still, it is fiction and can (and does) have the fantastic elements common to other sci-fi stories. The key difference is that it tends to be much more grounded in reality, so no laserbeams, psychic powers or intergalactic battles. The best examples of this would be Arthur C. Clarke's 'A Fall of Moondust,' Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy and the short story 'The Cold Equations' by Tom Goodwin.
If hard sci-fi can be understated and grounded in reality, then space opera would be the complete opposite. Such stories are generally set in the distant future, when intergalactic travel is not only achieved, but has become common place. Such stories often involve numerous world or galaxy spanning civilizations, alien races and larger-than-life characters. Often set in space, the plots to these stories can be long, complicated and span worlds or even galaxies. Think of popular TV shows like Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5, as well as E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series and Frank Herbert's Dune.
Perhaps related to space opera, science fantasy is a particular sub-genre which involves more fantasy and less science. Such a setting might be characterized by advanced technology, space travel and alien races, but has decidedly un-scientific elements like 'magic' as a heavy plot device. Like space opera, such stories tend to be over-the-top with epic characters and world shaking events. But they tend to draw as much from Joseph Campbell and world mythology as from hard science. In case you haven't guessed, the best example would be the Star Wars, but literary examples also exist, like Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter adventures and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series.
Grounded more towards the hard science end of the spectrum, cyberpunk is an old and very popular type of science fiction based around dystopian futures in which robots and/or cybernetic technology has become common place. Obviously the abuse of technology and the human body is a major theme in this sub-genre, and it is very much characterized by a certain gritty, depressing mood reflecting the social disparity of the setting. William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, Max Headroom, Blade Runner, animes like Akira and Ghost-in-the -Shell, and the RPGs Cyberpunk and Shadowrun are prime examples. Indeed, cyberpunk has spawned its own subculture, and if you plan to write it, you would do well to research their particular aesthetic.
Time Travel/Alternative Histories
Almost two separate fields, both relate to the question of what would happen if you changed this or that. Time travel involves taking a person from one time period (past, present or future) and putting them in another. Often, it involves some sort of machine but I've seen a few creative alternatives. Our time-traveler then has to face various problems (possibly monsters like the Morlocks) and find their way home without changing the timeline. Examples of this would include Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder,' H.G. Well's 'The Time Machine,' Michael Crichton's 'Timeline' and (to a degree) Doctor Who.
Alternative histories are similar to this in many ways, except that they extrapolate outward from changing one (or more) important historic event. What if the South won the American Civil War and ceded from the Union? What if Alexander didn't die and finished his conquest upon returning from the East? What if the Soviet Union was still around? We'd live in a vastly different world, and while it may not involve robots or aliens, it's still sci-fi. Philip K. Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle' explores one such world in which the Axis powers won the Second World War.
Again, 'pulp' is a pretty broad term which almost demands its own genre. There are consistent tropes and themes that reoccur in pulp adventures, and many common stock characters. But until, let's treat it as a kind of science fiction. Modern pulp stories try and capture the feel of adventure and detective stories popular in the early twentieth century. Serialized in magazines and dime novels, these lurid, two-fisted adventures tend to focus on heroes who are larger than life and often involve elements of the fantastic. Psychic powers, exotic locations, martial arts, pseudo-science and dangerous dames are all common elements. If you are familiar with Doc Savage, The Shadow, Flash Gordon or pretty much anything published in 'Weird Tales' then you know what I am talking about. As with certain other sub-genres, you really need to capture a certain aesthetic in order to do these stories justice.
The natural legacy of the earlier pulp adventures, superheroes such as those found in the pages of Marvel and DC comics have become a mainstay of modern pop culture. While you can still find the stereotypical muscle-bound men in spandex and capes, the classical superhero has been forever changed by Alan Moore's gritty 'Watchmen.' Now you've got a darker, more cynical take on the genre which you can explore as well. If you are going to write a superhero, it's pretty much the same as other forms of sci-fi, but the story will be shaped by the hero and his superpowers (or lack thereof; Batman, one of the most familiar superheroes, has no innate powers and yet still manages to be interesting, fighting crimes with high-tech devices).
As the name implies, steampunk is a flavor of sci-fi based around clockwork and steam technology, usually set in a Victorian or pseudo-Victorian setting. Sometimes they involve alterative histories, but this is not always the case. While the level of technological development is important in these stories, the aesthetics and 19th century dress and etiquette matter just as much. Examples of this can be found in the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Alan Moore's 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' the Deadlands RPG and the excellent (if short-lived) 'Adventures of Brisco County Jr.' TV series. Again, if you want to write steampunk, it is essential to research the subculture first.
Since the X-Files came out, there has been a boom of sci-fi stories involving alien contact and the government cover-up. This is obviously connected with the popularity of such stories, starting with the alleged abduction of Betty and Barny Hill in 1961. Such stories take place in the present-era, and have a sinister tone with a shadowy military-industrial complex covering up the existence of aliens. Or perhaps even working in collaboration with them! If you intend to write on this, I would suggest reading up on alleged alien abductions, men-in-black, cattle mutilations and other elements of the UFO hunting subculture. The most obvious example of this in popular culture comes from the X-Files, as mentioned above, but there is no shortage.
Perhaps the most difficult sub-genre to define, or write for that matter, experimental sci-fi has as much to do with the style of writing as the story itself. It often involves toying with some of the assumptions common to speculative fiction, and attempts to push the boundaries even further. I would suggest that you get a couple of stories under your belt before you try writing this sort of story, but whatever you feel most comfortable with is good. Examples would include writing a story from the point-of-view of a non-human entity or shifting time within the story itself. Difficult concepts to get your head around but still fun to think about. Just make sure that your audience can follow you.
But What About Monsters?
Horror and sci-fi are close; almost like siblings or lovers. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that it can be hard to separate the two. One thing I've often told people is that 'horror' involves monsters, be they real, physical monsters (Dracula, the wolfman, Freddy Kreuger, Pinhead) or figurative "monsters" that display all the worst traits of humanity (serial killers like Michael Meyers, Jigsaw or Norman Bates). The truth is that it's never so simple.
Science fiction frequently involves the question of alien races, or at least intelligent species other than humanity. Now, usually there is a pretty clear cut line. Nobody is going to claim that Vulcans, Ewoks or even Daleks are 'horror'. On the other hand, something like the movie 'Alien' has very clear elements of both horror and science fiction. Which one is it? Is it both? I would be inclined to say yes. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with crossing genres if you feel like it. Just be aware when you do so and you'll be fine, because a science fiction story is (at its core) simply a fiction story which features some element of fantastic science. It could be horror, but it could just as easily be romance, comedy or mystery. Take your pick.
The main difference between horror and sci-fi, in my opinion, has to do with how much you explore these elements. Perhaps by its very nature, science fiction is speculative and is concerned with the question of what is out there, or what is possible. Horror tends to be scary specifically because it is unknown. That is where these two categories begin to overlap, and when they do, you can get some fantastic results, such as 'Aliens,' 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' or the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Who said that aliens can't be 'scary'?
Of course, that said, there are just as many awful combinations of horror and sci-fi. Witness the travesties that were 'Jason X' and 'Leprechaun in Space'. Part of what made these so bad was the fact that they essentially just took the popular slasher character and dropped them in space with little to no real explanation. Sure, it might be fun for the camp value, but they aren't really memorable either. These should be textbook examples of how NOT to combine horror and sci-fi.
Making Love in Space
Since this is lit, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention this. If science fiction explores how people's daily lives might be affected by technological or scientific developments, then we absolutely must consider the question of sex (and sensuality). When we make first contact with aliens, someone will decide to have inter-species sex. Awesome, right? Well assuming all the parts are even compatible, what would be the ramifications of this? What if said species has completely different physical sexes beyond merely 'male' or 'female'? What if they are asexual and reproduce by budding off? Or what if they are parasitic? Hell, what about cross-species STDs?
Hopefully that got your mind running. Because science fiction is limited only by your imagination, there are infinite possibilities for describing and elaborating upon sex acts which would not be physically possible. The softcore porn spoof 'Flesh Gordon' is a good example of this, albeit rather light hearted and taken to the comedic extreme. Relationships between humans an aliens, or humans and robots, are but one of many, many possibilities.
Would humanity mass produce robots specifically for sex? How about clones bred exclusively to be concubines? In a world where cybernetic or even biological augmentations are common, what sort of fetishes might exist? What would sex in zero gravity be like? What would happen if you went back in time and became your own father? What would it be like to experience psychic sex? The list just goes on and on. And I'm sure that some of these have already appeared on literotica in some form or another, but there is still plenty of original material for you to come up with yourself.
In closing, I hope that this brief essay has given you some basic pointers and perhaps even some inspiration to start writing your own sci-fi, and maybe you would even be kind enough to share it with us here on lit. I in no way wish to limit your imagination, so go ahead. Be creative. There's an infinite number of possible alternate universes to explore...