Writing science fiction as a non-scientist

Unlike many of my science fiction-writing friends, I am not a scientist by trade or by training. I don’t think you have to be a scientist to be a science fiction writer, but I do think you have to have a good understanding of the science that underlies the stories that you write. Not all science fiction stories have a scientific grounding (there are “soft” and “social” science fiction stories, for instance) but for those that do, an effort has to be made make that science feel like a legitimate part of the story. That is what I try to do with my own stories.

Not being a trained scientist, I work at a disadvantage, particularly for the types of stories that I write, which generally involve some type of hard science fiction. Hard SF stories are those in which the science is based on our understanding of the universe today, but allowing for an important assumption. For example, a story that involved interplanetary space travel might assume a propulsion technology that we don’t have today (an antimatter drive?) but all of the other science would be based on what we know. Inhabitants of such a ship would still have to content with living in a reduced gravity environment. Trips between the planets would be very long. Solar radiation would present a hazard. Incorporating these things into a science fiction story helps to give it a feeling of verisimilitude, but they can also help raise plot problems and make the stories more interesting. But doing so also requires a basic understanding of the science involved and for a non-scientist, that can be a daunting task.

Despite being a non-scientist, I have always been fascinated by science. I took AP science classes in high school (biology and physics; I took regular chemistry) and I took some additional science classes in college (when I thought I would be a physics major). But my biggest lessons about science, scientific method and the evoluti0n of our knowledge of the universe came from reading Isaac Asimov’s science essays.

As a “hard” science fiction writer, it is my job to portray science realistically and accurately, and yet I also have to try to imagine what reasonable changes and advances we might make in the future. I used to wonder how science fiction writers managed to do all of this, because it seems like it is a lot of work. I now have some idea of how they do it and it is a lot of work. I thought it might be useful for me to outline how I managed to stay informed about science and how that keeps them ideas coming for my stories.

  1. I read two science magazines regularly. On a weekly basis, I read New Scientist cover-to-cover. On a monthly basis, I read Scientific American. I’ve written before about the difference between New Scientist and Scientific American and won’t revisit that here. The key thing for me is that reading these magazines keeps me up-to-date on those areas of science that most interest me. I try to read these issues as soon as they arrive so that I can stay on top of things. And I clip many articles and make notes.
  2. In some instances, there will be an article on a subject which is important to a story that I am writing. Often times, the articles in New Scientist will cite the original journals in which the research appeared and if it is relevant, I will seek out the original article and read it. I have done this most recently for the story I’m currently working on, which involves getting a much better understanding of a special type of black hole.
  3. The book review columns in these magazines often have books of interest and I will note any that interest me and add them to my list of books that I should read. I can’t read everything so I try to prioritize them. If one will help with a particular story, it gets moved to the top of the list, for instance.
  4. There are occasionally places where my comprehension of a subject fails me, where I feel like I am not getting it. In these instances, I’ll go to friends who have a background in the subject area and ask them for some help in understanding the ideas being presented.
  5. Especially for my hard science stories, I will usually ask a science fiction writer friend with a strong background in the subject area to read the story for me with an eye toward the science to make sure I am not making any glaring mistakes.
  6. I try to learn from my mistakes.

Case in point: with my most recent story, “Take One for the Road”, which appeared in the June 2011 issue of Analog, one reviewer found some difficulty believing my characters could have walked on the surface of Mercury. I thought I’d covered this in the story, but apparently I didn’t do a good enough job. The reviewer said that if I’d only added one line indicating how they’d done this, it would have helped the story be more believable. Well, too late this time (unless the story is reprinted) but it did teach me a good lesson.

Keeping up with science is not easy. (It has never been easy. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in the 1950s called “The Sound of Panting” which was about how difficult it was just to keep up with one’s field.) But it has multiple benefits. It helps in my stories, sure, but it also makes me better informed about science and science policy. And for me, at least, it’s fun, too.

5 thoughts on “Writing science fiction as a non-scientist

  1. I think the era where one man could keep up with everything in science ended around the 19th century.

    Magazines like SA and NS are useful in being at least conversant with a variety of science fields…and not just for writers and readers of SF either.

  2. Reading definitely helps (there’s a NASA journal – who’s title escapes me right now – that covers new tech developments and is great for peering into the future) but I find that having a bevy of knowledgeable friends to be just as influential and perhaps a bit more ‘real’ as you can interact with them in one of the most important areas: believability. (I’m STILL working out the details of a ‘reality’ drive – central to a plot – with friends….)

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