How Writing Science Fiction Differs from Writing Realist Fiction

Posted: November 5, 2013 in Science Fiction, Writing
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leadBy Kathy De Grave

(Kathy De Grave is the author of The Hour of Lead: A Novel of Kansas and Other Alternate Realities)

Talking houses, vast fields of ice and snow, and a box that lets humanoids communicate across galaxies, giant insects that mate with their human slaves—what could be more intriguing? Science fiction by its nature is likely to have an audience, because it is human nature to be curious and to want to read about the bizarre. But is strangeness enough? Doesn’t surprise after surprise cloy after a while? What makes us read Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Olivia Butler again and again?

The question can be put another way: what is the difference between good science fiction and literary fiction? The answer, on one level, is that there isn’t one. Literary fiction centers on richly complex characters struggling in a fully developed, fully imagined world. Such fiction shines on the page in language that is crisp or lush, simple or elaborate—but always nuanced and precisely right. No stereotypes. No clichés. Good science fiction writing is the same. Bradbury knew this. He claims as his influences Alexander Pope, John Donne, Walt Whitman, and Eudora Welty. He understood that a good story has to make its readers feel—sci-fi or not.

On the other hand, writing science fiction is tremendously different from writing literary fiction: the author has to create his own world. Fiction is hard enough to write when the world in question is our own. Of course the sky is blue and only one sun shines. In sci-fi, however, everything—including green and purple skies—is possible.

That is, until a first choice is made. Just as a free-verse poem creates its own rules, a science fiction story creates its own limitations. In addition to having the sentence-level artistry and character development demanded by any strong literary fiction, a good sci-fi story has to have inner consistency. The writer has to know the physics of her purely imagined world (this is where the science comes in), and she has to know how the people dress, how they speak, what the rules of social interaction are. Jokes there will not be the same as jokes here. Using idioms from our present culture would be out of place in a society that is so vastly different from our own.

That’s why Ursula Le Guin spends years constructing her worlds, getting to know them inside and out: not only their physical shape, but also their cultural and psychological make-up. If a sci-fi writer wants to keep the reader securely in what John Gardner (The Art of Fiction and Grendel) calls “the continuous dream,” the world can’t have slippage. Readers are smart; they’ll notice. And once a reader begins to distrust the implied author of this unique and mysterious world, the project is lost.

There’s another big difference between realist fiction and science fiction: a point. Realist literary fiction works because it has no agenda. Its purpose is simply to render human complexity—an overwhelming job in itself. Readers of science fiction, on the other hand, expect metaphor. They presume that the effort to understand the workings of the fully imagined world of the sci-fi writer will have real-world applications. We will learn to understand pollution, nuclear war, fascist states, fanatic religion. Science fiction writers are not just “imagineers.” They are teachers, and their readers want to understand their lessons.

A caveat here: sci-fi writers might be teachers, but they are not philosophers. They do not create new ideas. They bring to life ideas already in the air—ideas that perhaps sound fine on the surface but that can have tragic results if carried out.

Many young writers think science fiction is easy to write. That’s because they are copying some other writer’s world, and everything they put on the page—no matter how “shocking”—is expected. To write original sci-fi is not easy in the least. Try it if you dare!

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