Writing science fiction (SF) is hard. Of course, writing anything worthwhile is hard. But in a sense writing SF is twice as hard as writing mainstream/literary fiction because you not only need to have good characters driving a compelling story but you need to have the science or speculative part as well, and that also has to be compelling.
Of course it is not expected that you flesh out a future world with full scientific realism. That is not possible, and it is also not necessary – the reader will go along with you if the world is appealingly suggested. But you at least have to have some convincing detail that is self-consistent and not obviously wrong. That is quite hard, particularly as knowledge advances and more and more readers (and, especially, editors) are familiar with the various scientific fields. Fifty years ago, a writer could write freely about Martians and Venusians and encounters with the same. But now that Opportunity has been wandering around Mars for more than ten years without finding any sign of life, that kind of story won’t cut it any more. At the very least you have to come up with a plausible account of where the Martians were hiding.
To take an example of one of my own mistakes. I read David Deutsche’s illustration of the emptiness of the universe in ‘At the beginning of infinity’. He shows that from a point between the galactic clusters, nothing whatever is visible to the naked eye – even the galaxies are too far away to be seen. This striking image inspired me to write a story about a man on a sleeper ship who is woken by machine error from suspended animation. Going back to sleep is not an option; he faces certain death. His last wish is to reach the port and catch a last glimpse of the stars he will never reach. He reaches the port, only to find that nothing whatever can be seen.
The story itself probably wasn’t very compelling, more a vignette or a scene rather than a proper story. But the main problem was the science. There were some errors which fortunately I did spot in time.
First of all, inter-galactic travel – or still more, inter-cluster travel – is something hardly imaginable for humankind. Even at near-light speeds (and how could we achieve such speeds – and if we could, how could we maintain them safely through the dust and objects in our crowded galaxy?), the journey would take non-human lengths of time, while separating the voyagers from their peers on Earth by millions of years – in fact, by several species iterations. (Even an Alcubierre drive ship, if such a thing turned out to be possible – and we don’t know if it is even theoretically possible – would not solve the problem of separation in time.) Any reasonable tale of inter-galactic travel should address these points.
Secondly, any being travelling between clusters would be travelling at near-light speed. In such case they would not expect to see anything more than a narrow or point-dimensioned patch of light in their direction of travel – and a blue-shifted point as that. It would make no sense for a being on an inter-galactic mission to slow down to a speed at which objects could be viewed in the normal frame, for the energy and time taken to do this would be prohibitive.
And thirdly, although this is perhaps more sociology than science proper, why would any being want to travel to another galaxy? Our own galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars, a substantial proportion of which probably have planets. This is vastly more than enough to occupy our species for its existence span, many times over – if, indeed, we manage to master inter-stellar travel, which has the same problems albeit reduced by two or three orders of magnitude. The next galaxy over probably has more or less the same contents. There would be no point in going there even if we could.
The other side of the coin in writing SF is that the author invests so much effort in developing and proofing the idea that he neglects to write a good story. This was the feedback on some of my early efforts – ‘Liked the idea; pity about the story’. So should it be, story first, SF idea second? In a sense that is right, but no committed SF writer would accept anything less than first place for their idea. So it has to be both – convincing characters driving a compelling story around a compelling idea. And that makes writing SF hard.
Another trap that the SF writer can fall into, although editors are more tolerant of this one, is to position their characters on the cusp of world-transforming change. The scene may be a dystopian future, and the characters find a way to break out. Or it may be normal future, and the characters experience the change to dystopia (via alien invasion or whatever). This is equivalent to writing literary work only about Inca characters at the time of the Spanish invasion, or French characters at the moment of Allied liberation. It is fine to have some stories like this, and perhaps that is why an editor would find it difficult to reject a well-written story of this nature. But most stories would more naturally be about people immersed in their world – utopia, dystopia or whatever – and getting on with their lives and conflicts in that world. Truly world-transformative change doesn’t happen that often.
And a trap which, sadly, we all fall into as inescapably as we would into a black hole, is to write about the future in terms of our own time. Nineteenth century Jules Verne, who showed truly remarkably percipience about the future, could not really escape the embrace of nineteenth century engineering, as Ray Bradbury could not escape the atmosphere of 1950s small-town America. Today’s SF writers populating their stories with avatars and Google glass-type lenses will later appear equally chained to their time. That is part of science fiction’s charm, and part of its relevance to contemporary society. But it is truly difficult to write about the future. If you could really convey the future well, would you be understood?