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10 Laws of Good Science Fiction

November 5th, 2009

Author’s note: These rules are intentionally provocative, and they have generated much discussion and some intense opinions for and against. This is as it should be. They are not all original with me. Rules 6, 8, and 9 have been stated (in different words) by SF editors for years, so if you write and submit stories, you may have been reminded of them in rejection letters.

These rules are more applicable to written SF than TV or film. Film SciFi is usually about monsters and although being set in an SF world, they are only monster movies with few, if any, science elements necessary to the plot. if you can relocate the locale to ancient Rome, take out the space ships and ray guns, and the movie still works, then it is not SF.  TV shows, with only 40 or so minutes to move a plot, don’t have time to be careful about rules.

Please don’t trash me (or my spelling) when you think that you disagree. If you have an intelligent argument, please make it. Abusive comments and trolls will be disemvowled.

10. Earthmen are not all white or all men.

Subscribers to Science Fiction magazines in the 1950s were predominantly adult educated white men working as engineers or other technical jobs. White, educated men with technical backgrounds wrote SF stories. There is a strong tradition dating from the Golden Age of SF that SF protagonists are white educated males.

Today, SF readers are younger and much more diverse. SF characters need to reflect the diversity of its readership. It should be as diverse as the backgrounds of the readers, and even more so. Characters need to be all age groups from very young to very old. Ethnically they need to reflect the readership and then push the limits. Sexually, there should be reality-based characters that represent the readers’ real world.

Science Fiction should expand the worldview of its readers and expose them to much more than the normal, expected and ordinary. Nowhere is this more important than in the characters that populate SF stories.

9. No Supermen

A Science Fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to men that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight. It is not interesting that there is a being out there who can simply step on us like an ant. This is one of the rules of the famous Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

It is quite possible that we will meet such beings, but it will not be such a good story because the aliens will destroy us, ignore us, or take us as pets.

In order for there to be interaction, or conflict, the protagonist has to have at least a chance of success. He has to out fight, out smart, out luck, or out something in order to make an interesting plot resolution. Avoiding the superman is not interesting. If you can avoid him, he may not be so super. All villains have to have a weaknesses and faults. Even the hero should have a few faults, and it helps if the pretty girl brought along by mistake has a few as well.

The hero’s cause can look hopeless, but we expect that. It is always interesting to see how someone gets out of a sticky situation, but it is no fun when the cause is without any hope.

8. No Trek or Star Wars.

Nothing can kill a story, conversation, or relationship deader than an inappropriate reference to Star Trek or Star Wars.

Star Trek and Star Wars are worlds unto themselves. They are beyond judgment and criticism. It doesn’t matter how bad any individual scene or episode is, on the whole the worst Star Trek episode is better than anything else that has ever been on television. But, don’t ever think that Star Trek and Star Wars are good Science Fiction. Rarely, they have had moments where they approach good SF, but only rarely.

Authors, please do not bring elements of ST and SW into your stories. Don’t use Phasers, teleporters, droids, Klingons, Wookies, the prime directive and especially never bring “The Force” into a story. This, of course, includes renaming things.

The technology, philosophies, plots and characters of ST, SW, Bab-5, BG, and other TV shows are so obvious and easily recognizable that these elements, no matter how well disguised, are instantly flagged as a bad imitation.

7. Science Fiction is Real.

Science Fiction is not like fantasy. Science Fiction has to plausible, realistic, possible and yes, it has to be real. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, or never happened in the past, Science Fiction has to be possible in some alternate world. Elements that make a story downright impossible make a story something other than Science Fiction.

There is a lot of leeway as to what reality includes, especially when dealing with a possible science or technology. It is important that the ideas appear to be real and do not raise obvious objections. There will always be a certain level of what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief”, but a Science Fiction story should never ask a reader to swallow something that is obviously ridiculous or patently impossible without a lot of convincing explanation.

Reality includes creating scientific principles and concepts for which there is no current basis. These scientific notions must be plausible in the sense that they act like the scientific principle which we currently are sure of, but they may not so outlandish as to negate anything we are pretty sure is true now.

Certain things so obviously lack reality that they cannot appear in a Science Fiction story. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, demons, unicorns, elves, and magic are mythical and have no scientific basis, and they are incompatible with Science Fiction. No amount of rationalization is going to make a vampire seem scientifically sound.

Religious ideas such as God, angels, devils, life after death and miracles have a kind of reality based on faith, but are not describable using the scientific method. They are perfectly acceptable as part of a society’s or character’s belief set, but under no circumstances should Jesus appear in a story as a fictional character.

One of the things that makes SF so compelling is that there is a feeling that what we read is real. It may be happening to fictional characters in a fictional situation, but the science and technology are a very real and important part of a reality that affects our lives.

6. Giving Something an Alien Name Doesn’t Make it Alien.

Raktajino is coffee. By giving it a Klingon name it sort of appears alien, but everyone drinks it like coffee. It looks like coffee. It is coffee. Writers should not think that making cows into Dvigids and Horses into Pytkos that they are not writing a western. Pistols should not be a ray gun unless the difference between a pistol and a ray gun is important to the plot.

A possible future or an alien culture should not be full of aliases for things that belong in our time on earth – that’s just lazy.

A western can’t be turned into SF by changing Texas to Alderan 7. Humans can’t be transformed into aliens by changing their appearance. A murder mystery set on a space station is a murder mystery, not Science Fiction.

Damon Knight described this as “calling a rabbit a smeerp.”

5. Aliens Should be Alien

It is quite possible that in the next thousand years we will find intelligent aliens or that they will find us. It is not at all likely that they will be buxom babes with an urge to procreate with the men of Earth.

TV and Movie Scifi uses humans, usually with a strange shape of ear, a long tongue, or wearing a rubber alien suit, because it is hard to make stories about truly alien aliens. Very often aliens are not characters, but props or monsters, especially in movies, making the story not Science Fiction, but a horror movie.

It is quite possible that any alien will be humanoid with symmetric bodies, a head, arms, legs, hands, mouths and eyes that work similarly to their human equivalents. It will be unlikely that they work the same way, though. Sharks and Dolphins are similar looking, but very different creatures, so aliens may look like men in many ways.

Aliens may have two sexes, but are unlikely to be mammals and therefore will not have breasts or lips. They may communicate through sound, but even if they do, they will probably not be able to mimic human sound patterns. Lips are an adaptation for drinking milk from breasts. On earth there are many ways in which a creature feeds its young. Breast milk is one way, but this may not be common on other planets. It seems a good solution to us, but may not be the best way. Creatures without breasts do not have lips.

Aliens will not be like us.

Corollary laws:

A. You will never meet an alien who speaks English like a native.
B. Aliens just like us, but with little squiggles on their noses only appear in low budget TV shows.
C. We will never be able to have sex with aliens using the missionary position.
D. Aliens as far as they have personalities will be more likely to be aggressive and pushy. There are not likely to be kindly, friendly and caring aliens because they would not have the drive to explore space. (In this way, they will be much like us.)
E. Real aliens don’t act anything like you’d expect them to act. For instance, they will not be Nazis.

4. No Nazis!

Lazy writers have no idea how to create a villain. Villains are human beings with character flaws, psychological handicaps, or even bad luck that forces them to do bad things. They are hard to create, hard to develop and hard to write. The motivation of someone who performs evil acts is difficult for a writer to explain to a reader.

Writers use short cuts. There are classes of characters who are ready-made cookie cutter villains, and require no thought or effort to put in a story. These include Nazis, serial killers, Islamic terrorists, crooked cops, greedy businessmen, maniacs, corrupt politicians, drug fiends, and sadistic nuns.

A writer should use his experience and his imagination to develop characters. A reader should be able to recognize a character as being like someone they may know. A villain should also have a sympathetic element. This is one of the ways to make truly believable characters, and a believable character is the way to bring a reader or viewer into a story line. A writer must create villains that are recognized, understood and even pitied by the reader. Developing a villain is one of the three or four things that make writing hard, but a good villain is one of the three or four things that make fiction good.

A writer who includes World War II Nazis in his story has given up trying to make a real character and has opted for taking the cheap and easy path.

TV shows and Movies are particularly prone to using WWII Nazis, or proto-Nazi villains (cruel men with dark uniforms), simply because there is so little opportunity to develop a good villain in the short time available in a film.

3. Good Science Fiction is Good Science.

You cannot take the science out of Science Fiction. Science Fiction is not Mythical, Magical or Religious. It is Scientific. Myth, Magic and Religion may be subjects that appear in SF, but there is fundamental difference between Fantasy, Horror and Science fiction, and that is that SF requires real or believable science as part of the plot.

There is a quote somewhere which sort of goes “Advanced science will be indistinguishable from magic”, but when you can’t tell the difference between Science and Magic, it is no longer Science Fiction.

Science must be a part of science fiction. In a real SF story, the science must be so integral to the plot that it cannot be removed from the story.

The science can be mundane, technological, futuristic, advanced or even steampunk science, but it must be part of the story. Stories that take place on other planets or in space are probably science fiction stories. Stories of alien contact may be science fiction, but without fundamental science, are properly classified as horror.

Magical powers like telepathy, visions of the future or communication with the dead are not scientific and not Science Fiction, and they should be classified as Fantasy.

A science fiction story needs to be scientifically real. There must be an element that leads the reader to think, “Yes, this is possible”.

The famous Western Writer, Louis L’Amour describes in an introduction in one of his books the Western Landscape as an active character in a Western Novel. Westerns are not so much stories that take place in a certain place and time as stories about how human beings cope with the land. The deserts, mountains, weather and climate all play an important part in Louis L’Amour stories. It not enough that the stories take place in the West. His stories cannot succeed without some characteristic of the land playing an important role.

Just as the Western Landscape must be a kind of character in a Western, or the sea is a major force in C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, so must good science be a character in a Science Fiction Story.

2. Science Fiction has a Sense of Wonder

Science Fiction is a unique genre. It blends Technology with Fantasy to create a world in the imagination. The world Science fiction creates is much more than ordinary reality. It is a world of dreams and speculation. Science fiction has embedded in the plots, characters and ideas the goal of an amazing universe of possibility.

True Science fiction is imbued with Sense of Wonder. The reader should be astounded, amazed, and inspired. This sense of wonder is what separates Science Fiction from mainstream technical thrillers.

Science Fiction is the direct product of daydreams and wanderings of imagination. It draws the reader into a feeling of awe about the open-ended universe of what-if. This sense of wonder is what separates, more than anything else, Science Fiction from other genres. It is this sense of wonder that makes young boys so addicted to Science Fiction that we are still reading it when we are old men.

1. Science Fiction Changes the World for the Better.

We live in a Science Fiction world. As Ray Bradbury said, “Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction”.

TV, computers, cell phones, cures for diseases, the exploration of space – all of these things are the subjects of Science Fiction. Science Fiction is a “What If” literature dealing with Technology, Science and the future.

I am sure that almost every major advance in modern science and technology for the last 50 years appeared first in a Science Fiction novel or short story.

What is more, I think that most, if not all advances in modern science and technology were motivated by a Science Fiction idea. Science Fiction leads and the real world follows. Science is possible because of the Science Fiction notion that there is a new world coming.

The proper function of writing Science Fiction, other than to entertain is to chart the dreams of our futures. A Science Fiction writer warns us of obstacles and dangers to come and shows us the promises of our imagination. Science Fiction is literature where a  man’s vision is temporarily cast into a plot with characters so that some day it may become reality.

Science Fiction works out our needs, hopes and problems in the form of a written page, but its goal is to create a future world where the human condition is vastly improved.

RULE ZERO!

Many readers of this list complain that I am being too harsh in my judgments and the many great SF stories break these rules. I only have one case where any Science Fiction story can break a rule without failing.

A Science Fiction Story Should Be Fun!

With the exception of rule #4, a good story can break any of the above rules as long as everyone has a good time. SF’s lowest common denominator is cheap thrills. It is often not literature, but escapist reading for enjoyment. A good story can overcome any breach of rules as long as the reader is transported to a land of imagination that makes all transgressions forgivable. (I still think any story with a Nazi sucks the big one, though).

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