Science in fiction (1)

One of the more depressing aspects for someone who writes what he calls “science in fiction” is that when the time comes to start seeking an agent, so many potential agents have warnings: “anything but science fiction”. Then I get reminded that there are a large number of readers who say they refuse to read science fiction. I should write something else! Actually, I tried writing “something else”, but somehow or other it morphed into the type of story I seem to always end up with. Worse, when I compare what I write with other SF, I am forced to conclude I am already writing something else. What to do?

As a scientist, the logical approach is to first try to work out why SF is a turn-off for some, what it is that turns them off, and to do this I intend to write a small series of blogs in which I shall try to illustrate what I think the problems are, and I invite comments from anyone who is interested in commenting. What I write in these blogs is simply my opinion, and it may or may not be right, although it includes what I feel has moulded my writing. Maybe I am on a totally wrong track. Maybe there is not even a track on which to be. I need more opinions, so anyone out there: help me!

The first problem is to define what I mean by “science in fiction”. I certainly do not mean that people sit down and carry out convoluted mathematics. Science is a discipline that tries to establish what is by the application of logic to observation. In fiction, “what is” is usually some device that does something unusual, and while in reality “it is not”, that does not matter. I should add that I think that is somewhat too restrictive. I call the Sherlock Holmes stories “science in fiction”; in this case the science is forensic science. In my opinion, Holmes’ use of logic and analysis has not put off his audience; indeed it is almost certainly the key factor that will make Sherlock Holmes immortal. Yes, he has character, as does Watson, but those character drawings are by themselves far from sufficient to explain his success.

So, why is it that Conan Doyle’s writings may well be immortal, while only too much of SF is scorned? I have my own ideas on this, some of which shall appear in further blogs, but have you (assuming there are any “you” actually reading this) have any ideas?

5 thoughts on “Science in fiction (1)

  1. I’ve always been told that people who read science fiction are usually smart. That, in itself, should tell you something. I’ve read a few SF books by Heinlein, and a couple of them I really enjoyed. In my humble opinion, people who love SF have great imaginations and have the ability to dream in technicolor. Maybe agents have a hard time stepping out of reality into the fantasy of SF. I believe there are a lot of people who like SF.”Starwars” and “2001: A Space Odyssy” were SF and they did quite well at the box offices. Keep writing Sci-fi. Check in the Wrier’s Market. I see lots of agents and publishers who take Sci-Fi.

  2. Ian, I think that your example of Sherlock Holmes is not necessarily a prime example of science fiction. The heart of the story is a mystery that uses forensic science to find out ‘who dunnit’. On the other hand, stories like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, are in settings that if you remove them from those settings, the stories are fundamentally changed I believe Orson Scott Card (author of the Ender’s Game series and How to Write Science-Fiction and Fantasy- published by Writers’ Digest) classifies SF as anything with ‘nuts and bolts’- we might call it ‘tech’ now adays-. If the story can’t stand when you take them away, then it is SF. Likewise, if you have a story that CAN stand without ‘nuts and bolts’, then you most likely have a Fantasy or other genre that is using science as a tool not a framework.

    As far as why many agents say “no SF”, I believe it to be first a matter of marketing. While SF has never gone away because there are those of us who crave it, it is much more difficult to market nowadays unless it is truly unique, and when a agent is plowing through longs lists of manuscripts (the electronic version of the sluch pile) it is easier to focus on other genres that require less time commitment. (Again this is my opinion and would LOVE to hear from some of the agents who have posted such a ban.)

    The second reason I believe they have posted the ban, is likewise a function of time commitment. Sadly, I believe there are so many more inexperienced/ novice writers out there (with arguably wonderful imaginations) that choose the SF genre to write in because it has the depth they need, but a wonderful story with poor execution is not enjoyable reading. As Carole mentioned, these would be authors are quite intelligent and many likely cannot see their short-comings, which leaves the rest of us who have dedicated time and energy to learning our craft swimming through the mire to get to the top and be noticed.

    • Sharon, I agree with most of what you write, although I am unconvinced that Sherlock Holmes could stand without the logic/forensic approach. His stories are “who dunnits” but the essence of Sherlock Holmes is that he uses his forensic approach and logic to work it out, and take those out and the stories would have to change immeasurably to get to a conclusion, and then they would not be “Sherlock Holmes”. My definition of “science in fiction” extends what many consider to be science-fiction, but while I have been writing quite a bit myself I have come to a number of conclusions, which I intend to share in a sequence of further blogs. Are they right? Hopefully, people like you who comment will help me sort it out, and with any sort of luck, it will help others too. Thank you and Carole for commenting.

  3. There may not be one sin gle “solution” to making science in fiction more appealing to agents, but in my own second novel, Fugo, what attracted a publisher (without going through an agent!) was that there was a plot with “conventional” elements — bad guys, a romance, government officials on the “take” but also high-tech elements that were completely plausible. So, while not in the realm of futuristic science, the scientific elements could be verified and were explained so the average reader could understand them. But, I do agree that many agents and publishers are not going to engage long enough with a serious work that contains lots of technical/scientific details. However, it only takes one good agent/publisher to help you succeed!

    • Elizabeth, I most certainly agree there is no single “solution”. As you may guess from the (1) in the blog title, I have a little more to say on this matter (I hope to get about three blogs a month – I am also running a science blog at the Royal Society for Chemistry, and I have to allocate some time to writing and earning a living!) but there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that one of the keys to having a good book is to have a good plot that hangs together and then conveys some message.

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