Can You Write Science Fiction That Will Survive My Scoff-o-Meter?

craft | writing for adults
February 27, 2018


Can You Write Science Fiction That Will Survive My Scoff-o-Meter?

by Rita Reali

I won’t mince words here. I always hated sci-fi. There. I’ve said it.

I realize those are gasps of disbelief (and yes, even horror) emanating from all over the country right about now. But I can’t help it. Give me a cleverly executed love story or mystery any day. I might even assent to a good ol’ shoot-’em-up Western, for goodness’ sake. Just please, don’t make me read (or watch) science fiction!

When my husband sits down to enjoy another of the interminable iterations of Star Trek rehashery––yes, I do make up my own words from time to time. Thanks for noticing––some episodes’ premises seem so insipid and goofy, it’s all I can do to keep my eyeballs from rolling permanently back in my head. I nearly had to retrieve one of them once with an iced-tea spoon.

I’ll admit I was okay with it when Captain Kirk and his pointy-eared pal (I know his name is Spock; I’m just trying to maintain my science fiction-hating distance) aimed their boxy little bloopy-noise machines at space rocks (or aliens) and uttered, “Fascinating,” way back in the mid ’60s; and it was even almost believable when Jean-Luc Picard would point out the front window of the Starship Enterprise and declare, “Make it so, Number One,” after “Mr. Genie Francis” had made some astute observation. But now things have gone seriously awry. I can’t even watch the newest generation of “Star Dreck” long enough to enable myself to insert an appropriately snide comment here.

Is your blood boiling yet?
If sci-fi is your genre of choice, chances are the mercury in your blood-pressure cuff is approaching warp speed as you read this … and no doubt you’ll be so intent on changing my mind that you’re planning on entering the Institute For Writers’ Sci-Fi First Pages Contest. Terrific! I honestly hope yours is the entry that changes my mind and makes me embrace sci-fi.

If you’re new to writing sci-fi, you might welcome a bit of help with creating the surroundings for your story. While you’re engaging in some serious fantasy/sci-fi world building, I’ve found you some really good advice on what not to do.

Another thing to keep in mind now is crafting plausible environments. Yes, you’re creating made-up worlds––we get that. But they can’t be so unbelievably farfetched that even the most ardent sci-fi fan will do a hard eye roll. These things to avoid will help keep you on track.

And if you find yourself in need of a few additional details to round out your story, you’ve got to check out this listing of worldbuilding-relevant generators. After I found it online, I spent about 15 minutes just playing with it and inventing everything from new holidays and plants to candy. Try it. It’s fun!

And now the tide turns
Frankly, I kind of wish I liked science fiction. Some of it seems pretty interesting (like a few of the plotlines described here, and here), as long as it’s largely time-travel related and not so much steeped in those yucky zombie-ridden, post-apocalyptic worlds.

It’s not that I mind stories set on other worlds; it’s just that gleaming metallic spaceships with their shooshy sliding-open doors, interplanetary-travel scenes, and unpronounceable names get so darn tiresome. Doesn’t anybody use doorknobs anymore? And what about driving a George Jetson-style space car? For that matter, what’s wrong with a story set on a single planet? And why can’t someone just once be named John Smith, for goodness’ sake?

Because I like to try to take an interest in the things my husband enjoys, I went with him some years back to see Ender’s Game at our local cine-plex. I kind of had to go; it was a date for our anniversary. Aside from a few moments when I didn’t quite grasp what was going on, I honestly enjoyed it. Part of the reason I got so caught up in the story was the characters and the environment were so nicely developed, it was easy to immerse myself in it. An excellent job of world building snags full credit for capturing my attention. This well-written piece outlines the importance of skillful world building.

On the other hand …
If an otherwise-questionable premise somehow finds itself wrapped up in an intriguing setting or a reasonably believable storyline, I might be persuaded to dip a figurative toe into the water … or at least perch tentatively on the living-room couch and watch for a few minutes.

Such was the case with The Man in the High Castle (in which one of the lead characters really is named John Smith!). The premise—what if the Nazis had won World War II?—was implausible, but once I suspended disbelief, I found the series presented in such a reasonable and engaging fashion, I could almost get on board with it. Its writing is at once crisp and engaging, horrifying and captivating. And now I can’t wait ’til the third season is available!

More sci-fi/fantasy offerings for folks—like me—who insist they don’t like sci-fi/fantasy
I never even considered that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was essentially the first science-fiction novel. Yet it’s recognized as a staple of modern literature.

Then there’s The Giver. I read the novel years ago when I was a one-on-one paraprofessional for an eighth-grader tasked with reading it for language-arts class. Dystopian society, I suppose, does fit the sci-fi genre, if only as a sub-genre. In fact, once the film was released, I’m the one who had to drag my husband to see it.

We can add to that list The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We should also add pretty much anything by Daniel Manus Pinkwater to the fantasy/sci-fi heap … If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend The Hoboken Chicken Emergency as an outstanding starting point for a foray into the mind of Pinkwater.

Hmm … it seems maybe I should amend my opening statement: For the most part, I always hated sci-fi. However, I’m open to recommendations. And should you write something that persuades me to venture into the depths of the genre (sans vampires, zombies, and post-apocalyptic fodder, thank you), I might be willing to have a look.

That said, what are your favorite fantasy/sci-fi books?

Do you write sci-fi? Enter our Sci-Fi First Pages Contest!

Deadline to enter is March 31, 2018. Don't miss it!

Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about writing and editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.


February 28, 2018

Rita M. Reali, you almost convinced me--almost!--to read some sci-fi sometime before I die. But maybe not. Anyway, when you put it this way, so eloquently and convincingly, I can see the light at the end of the black hole. I loved and taught The Giver (can't italicize here!) and am also anxiously awaiting Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle. And I too have an avid fan of sci-fi for a husband. Sigh (fi). My path forward just might include one or two new sci-fi offerings, but only if you recommend them! I'll be waiting.

Christine C Kot
February 27, 2018

I just wrote about Something Wicked This Way Comes. My favorite fantasy work in dramatic literature is Ibsen's Peer Gynt. A theater professor of mine once said that the most fantastic character in the play is the human Solveig, not the trolls or the Button Molder or the other fantasy creatures. Solveig sits in her isolated cottage for decades, apart from human companionship, always loving the man who kidnapped her from her wedding, essentially raped her, and then left to seek adventure. While Solveig's love is Peer Gynt's salvation, I agree with my professor that there is something fundamentally unreal about this human's behavior. I also think this play was probably foundational for Ibsen's moving away from fantasy to realism in works such as Hedda Abler and A Doll's Story. There is something both wonder-ful and frightening about the species homo sapiens and our own existence. Good science fiction can take us away from our own reality and then bring us back, giving us a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Lastly, another favorite fantasy novel of mine is The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Christine C Kot
February 27, 2018

One of my favorite alternative-universe type novels is Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Perhaps it's fantasy, perhaps it's horror. I'm not sure the exact genre or sub-genre. I read it many, many years ago, but I still remember the scene where the father's laughter breaks the power of the witch. Sadly, I think this scene was deleted from the movie. I think all great literature gives us something we can bring into our own lives to help us make it through life. The power of laughter over evil, over despair is a valuable gift.

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