Updated: Apr 15
If you ask fifty people if a story about monsters eating people's faces is science fiction, you'll get fifty yesses. Yet, such a story would not be science fiction. It would be horror. Nothing against horror, except it isn’t science fiction.
Novels about magical spells aren’t science fiction either unless the story explains the technology of wizard magic. Stating that a wand contains a strand from a phoenix feather isn’t enough. Nothing against fantasy, but it isn’t science fiction either.
Science fiction is ordinary fiction with a scientific or technical theme about something that hasn’t yet happened but could. The "but could" separates science fiction from fantasy and horror stories.
How does one write about something that hasn’t yet happened, but could? Could a benign virus mutate and kill half the people on Earth? One could. Could a vaccine for Alzheimer’s patients tested in apes result in Earth being taken over by apes? Well, maybe.
Science fiction is about events that could happen. Not goblins, vampires, or aliens from outer space eating people's faces.
Wait, what’s wrong with aliens eating people's faces? That could happen, right?
It could, but only if the aliens’ digestion systems required the same nine amino acids we need for digestion. Otherwise, their eating us would be like our eating wood or plastic. It would make them sick, and they'd go home in disgrace. All DNA on Earth, including that of people, animals, plants, and even bacteria, is composed of four chemical bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine). What are the chances of life on other worlds having those same four chemical components? If they don't, they probably wouldn't benefit from eating us.
Likewise, there is the problem of molecular chirality: the right/left-handedness of molecules. Would creatures from other worlds have the same molecular chirality as ours? And what about respiratory alkalosis? That is what happens when one inhales the incorrect percentage of carbon dioxide.
Then there is the problem with the sense of smell. We can smell things only when certain molecules in the air fit the shapes of specific receptors in our noses. What are the chances of extraterrestrials having smelling organs with receptors that match the smells on Earth?
I know someone who's been a mortician for thirty-five years. He told me he's learned to not smell certain odors. The problem with this impressive achievement is it has ruined his sense of taste for many foods he would otherwise enjoy. Blocking the ability to smell certain odors hinders his ability to smell other pleasant odors.
See how complex real-life physiology is?
The list goes on. This may be why there are many more fantasy novels than science fiction novels. Too much heavy research.
A minor tweak
Good science fiction is regular fiction with a touch of the unknown, like the spice you got from your grandmother that you add to your spaghetti and your dinner guests ask, "What's your secret?"
Shown below is a representation of how science fiction (shown by the yellow band) is just a minor extension of what is to what could be. Science fiction hugs so closely to fiction that readers might not realize they're reading a science fiction story (the novel 1984 by George Orwell).
The figure isn't drawn to scale because fantasy keeps going outward forever. If you're writing fantasy, and your characters must span a wide chasm filled with lava, all they have to do is realize the knife they're carrying used to belong to a portal wizard (whose existence was unknown previous to the scene), and all they have to do is say the words, "sillias-storius" three times and they'll be taken magically to the other side.
Good science fiction stories
Here are examples of science fiction writers who got it right, where the science fiction component of the story is only one of the many flavors in a greater tapestry.
1984 (1949), George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Ray Bradbury.
Andromeda Strain (1969), Michael Crichton
Rendezvous with Rama (1973), Arthur C. Clarke
The Giver (1993), Lois Lowry
The Hunger Games (2008), Suzanne Collins
The Road (2009), Cormac Mcarthy
All of these stories are great hits. And none of them involve,
Monsters eating people's faces.
Gray aliens with big black eyes.
The stories are famous because they step away from the tropes and clichés. This is exactly what you want to do as a writer.
My second science fiction novel, Hanover, is only fiction except for one component of the story that likely will be true someday, as scientists around the world are presently working hard to figure out how to do that particular thing.
What the story is really about
Good science fiction is introspective, meaning the story is never about what the antagonists do, but how the protagonists react to them internally and externally.
One of my favorite science fiction novels is Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. It's about what happens to a small Arizona town after a U.S. satellite crashes nearby. The crash doesn’t kill anyone. But for some reason, shortly after the crash, nearly everyone in the town is dead. What caused the deaths? What a mystery! See, monsters eating people’s faces aren't required.
Another of my favorite science fiction novels is 1984, by George Orwell. No extraterrestrial influence there. The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, is a story about what could happen. The same with the novel, Unwind, by Neal Shusterman, where teenagers can have their organs removed and donated to other people at the request of their parents. Ouch.
Why is “real” science fiction so rare? I believe it's because it's difficult to write. It’s easier to write about an adversary whisked away by magic words than to have the foe frozen by a micro-freeze device. Without some explanation (more than nothing) of how the micro-freeze device works, the story flirts toward fantasy. What explanation could be given for how a micro-freeze device works that doesn’t break a known rule of science? If you came up with a real explanation, you could build a micro-freeze yourself and patent it. You’d be rich. No fiction writing required.
So then, how does one go about writing good science fiction?
Find a hole
Here is your tip for today: Search for a gap in known science, a “hole” of knowledge that isn’t yet known. For example, you could discover through your research that to create a micro-freeze device, one would have to come up with a third kind of electron charge besides positive and negative. Then, you must research a yet unknown but plausible way to create that third charge.
Once you’ve done that, you have a scientific loophole through which you can weave your story. Voila! Pristine, shimmering, Grade-A science fiction that deserves international acclaim.
That is if you also do a hundred other things correctly.
I wrote the following post on my Facebook account. This pretty much sums it up: