The Hard Science of Sci-Fi

by Dexter Loken

So you want to know how to write a believable sci-fi, eh? First: Know your shit. Dexter’s Dictionary defines this as “an understanding of the nuances surrounding the topic you wish to discuss.” This can be said about every aspect of literature, but it especially rings true for science fiction. But how much shit must you know? Well, certainly not all of it, but a lot. There’s a singularity coming, and you’ll need to be prepared lest your readers be swept away (in a bad way—like away from your book). I’ll get to the ways different authors work with and around knowing their shit so hang tight—or skip ahead to “Navigating the Star Field,” where I’ll discuss sleight of hand and how picking a near-future setting is easier. It would be prudent to start with some of the simpler things before getting to the magic of suspended disbelief, also known as deception. 


Scientists Like Science

Who’s going to read this shit anyway? That’s a great place to start. Write the story you want to write, but many of us have the desire to, you know, get paid, so let’s try to do both. For our purposes, we’re going to assume we love science fiction and all the boundless possibilities it has, from Star Wars to Fahrenheit 451. Sci-fi falls under the speculative fiction (fiction characterized by an alternate world setting) umbrella before further categorization. Some of the more popular science fiction subdivisions are space opera, dystopian, cyberpunk, and hard sci-fi, which often have scientific and futuristic settings. Subgenres vary in the amount of actual science used to drive the story; we’ll call the ends of this spectrum “soft” or “hard” sci-fi. If your goal is to write a super soft sci-fi, then go to town. Invent space wizards to solve all your problems. You do you. It’s not necessary to set your sciency fiction in the future either, but it is tricky to convince your readers that this world has flying cars and holograms in 2001 when, in fact, we did not (that I’m aware). You also begin to slide into other forms of speculative fiction at this juncture, such as historical fiction and fantasy, and things only get blurry in this line of thought. I don’t need glasses—nor do I want to think I do—so let’s not get too hung up on the blurry parts. 

Back to hard sci-fi. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, but what I am here to tell you is that it becomes harder the harder your sci-fi becomes (see what I did there?). If you want to use science, you’re going to need some accuracy because who likes science? Scientists, that’s who, and you can bet they know their shit. There’s the problem: we are setting out to write for people who understand science by using that very thing. One of the core ideas behind “speculative fiction” is in the name, speculation. Sci-fi takes a step in the specificity direction by saying, “Hey, I’m super-cool and going to give you a ‘what if statement’ using science that changes the world. What do you think about that?” Quite a lot, as is immediately evident to anyone who has sat through a … well, any movie with me. 2001: A Space Odyssey deals with the fear of artificial intelligence, which is still being discussed today, but postulated this would culminate in 2001. It’s fine to be wrong, but why be wrong when you can be right? You’’ll certainly gain more fans if you aren’t immediately disprovable. Yeah, Interstellar, you were doing fine until you decided to fall through a black hole, which is kinda bullshit even though it’s not disproved per se.  Scientists, people like me, and many others will scrutinize every aspect of your world, so if you decide to write about the future, there are some things you should know. 


Future=Present=Past, Therefore the Future has Passed

This next bit is about the current predictions around the speed at which technology is progressing. We’ll start simple: The phonograph was invented around 1877, and we can credit the term record player to 1940; the cassette was created around 1963; the CD player came on the scene in 1982; and finally, the MP3 player was invented in 1994. And here are the year totals: The phonograph was viable for about 86 years, the cassette 19 years, and the CD player was obsolete after 12 years. Yes, you can nitpick how long it took for these things to be used in the mass market or the many forms within each, but “just because you’re accurate, doesn’t mean you’re interesting.”1 The point being, technology is being invented faster and faster. It used to be conceivable to say, “Oh, in a hundred years, we’ll be able to communicate over vast distances with a small metal device.” Sorry Star Trek, we did it in under twenty. We don’t have the Enterprise yet, so at least we have that to look forward to. 

DVDs were invented and made obsolete in my lifetime. How the hell am I supposed to tell you how my main characters watch a movie in five years, let alone a hundred? If you want to read more on this topic, check out The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil. If you don’t wish to read the entire book, you can check out SingularityHub, where they have a few articles analyzing the key points. The basic premise is that we’re approaching a singularity of technological growth. Think of what happens when you divide by zero (if you don’t know what this looks like, then … well, the next sentence gives an example you can graph on Wolfram Alpha). The limit as x approaches zero in the equation y=1/x illustrates dividing by zero and thus this concept of singularity: a point at which an explosion of growth occurs verging on infinite, but not quite achievable because, well, math.2 This is hard to grasp, so I’m going to ask you to trust me because otherwise, this essay is going to become a math lesson. Technology is growing faster and faster, and as a result, becoming near impossible to predict. Accept that and move on. 


Navigating the Star Field

You may be wondering why I care about sci-fi in light of the looming technology singularity and Skynet going live, but I’m not going to explain that. Instead, we’re going to talk about how different writers (myself included) convincingly use science to further their narratives. This will involve research, but hopefully you’ll learn that you can limit it by picking your battles. 

First and foremost, Dan Simmons. He is a master of hard sci-fi. I’ve read four of his books, and the thing that strikes me about all of them is the amount of shit he knows. He manages to pull out these obscure words that describe the precise thing he’s talking about. His book Ilium is superficially about the Iliad occurring on Mars. Ha ha, how could that possibly be realistic? Spoiler alert: Through the act of writing, new worlds are created in alignment with the principles of quantum mechanics, meaning that advanced enough humans, who have used artificial intelligence to prematurely evolve, can break apart dimensions and alternate universes to recreate events from Earth. This time around, the superhumans are taking on the roles of the gods from ancient Greece. As I see it, their motivation was that they were bored, but Simmons gives all of this scientific justification. He trusts his readers will do the necessary googling to keep up, but if you trust him, everything starts to fall together, and the technologies become trivial just as they are to some of the characters. If you know hella science, then you don’t even need to use the internet because you already paid someone to explain it to you in university. This kind of writing allows you to hold onto those who don’t understand, but doesn’t immediately turn away those who do (like how I was upset that falling through a black hole did not result in spaghettification; take a hint, Nolan). Look at how big our audience is now!

How does he manage this? Great question. I have to assume he is a genius and spent hours researching either over the years or in one sitting. From his interview with Claire E. White on The Internet Writing Journal, it’s apparent that he is a workhorse:

I wrote Hyperion and its second-volume The Fall of Hyperion in 18 months because my wife and I wanted to buy an old house, and my agent said that if I wrote two SF novels (I was finishing two other books at the time), he could get me the $25,000 advance I needed for the down payment.3

Yeah, so apparently, he can just write award-winning novels like that. No big deal, but that doesn’t afford the whole amount of time I imagine was necessary for those novels, which further indicates he had been researching as part of his life.

Now, we’ll talk about a hard sci-fi a little easier to grasp, The Martian by Andy Weir. More spoilers: An astronaut gets stranded on Mars and uses his knowledge of botany and mechanical engineering to survive and eventually get rescued (this is the biggest deus ex machina of the book ’cause, really? The guy who happens to get stuck can grow his own food and fix all the shit that breaks? Fine, proceed). Side note: Matt Damon plays the astronaut in the film, which means the fictional worlds portrayed in his movies have spent roughly nine hundred billion dollars to save him by the end of The Martian.4 This book and subsequent film take into account orbital mechanics, statistics concerning the Martian environment, and how to grow potatoes. Weir also said he did all the math and ran computer simulations to achieve as much accuracy as possible.5 What can I say? He knows his shit. Simmons and Weir both did incredible amounts of research, but the major difference was that Weir based his book in the near future and used existing technologies as a guide. Simmons’ Ilium takes place something like a thousand years in the future (I’m pretty sure it is post-singularity), which makes it a much more challenging feat. It takes a lot more to produce something convincing the further your story is from the present. However, they have more in common (don’t go spending your life researching how doorknobs work just yet … unless you want to, of course).  

A useful writing technique is what I like to call sleight of hand. This involves showing your readers enough to convince them you know how everything works, but in reality, you skip over a lot. Most speculative fiction writers have to use some level of sleight of hand to write a practical world. If you know one thing well, then your readers won’t question the rest. I have taken classes in quantum mechanics and the mathematics of space, so I might know a little bit about how some of this science works. I had the advantage of listening to the audiobook of The Martian right after I finished my Space Math final (yes, I got an A, which you should expect by how nerdy I am about sci-fi). I can say that Weir doesn’t tell any of the math—he tells the reader through the point of view character that he was going to jump over the math. Good thing because no one wants to read that (well, maybe me, but I have read that kind of thing already). Giving us all of the mathematical justifications would also open him up to criticisms for mistakes because if it were that easy to go to Mars, we’d have already done it. There is a scene where a lowly computer programmer is given the task of monitoring the astronaut on Mars and is told to never lose sight of him. That is really difficult. I had to work out those equations, and let me tell you, it’s lucky they had a computer doing most of the work because I would have given up had I seen that on my final. 

Where was I? Weir keeps the reader’s attention by not going into this kind of analysis and saves himself some research and time. Simmons does this as well by having some technologies so ubiquitous that the characters wouldn’t know or even care how they work. In Hyperion, Simmons has these portals that let people cross impossible lengths of the universe between planets. These “farcasters” were given to humanity by the artificial intelligences known as The Core, and humans have not figured out how they work, so Simmons is saved from having to explain away this science magic. The best real-world example is the device you are using to read this essay. Can you truthfully say you know exactly how your computer/cellphone/tablet works? Then why would your characters go into an in-depth discussion of the science behind their holograms or whatever? 

This is my primary tactic when writing sci-fi. Make the reader look the other way. If something doesn’t yet exist, you aren’t likely to know exactly how it works, but you can take theories and extrapolate. I do this with the multi-verse theory popularized by Marvel Comics (Avengers Endgame still messes up time travel, so we won’t be using them as a model). Get detailed about some things, and then generality is your friend. Have I given some thought as to how my characters use new computer thingies to talk to each other? Absolutely. Would that actually work? No idea, but maybe, and that’s the point of speculation.

You have to add a certain level of consistency to these generalities, though. This is what frustrates me most about the first Jurassic Park movie. They somehow can clone dinosaurs from the left-over blood inside a mosquito. Sure, okay, I can get behind that, but have you seen the computers they use to do that? Utter shit. No way they are using computers from the nineties to make this work. Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is exceptionally rare that one area of science will jump ahead of the rest of the world by such large margins. Science is interconnected, and advances in one field can usually be used in other areas of study. This revelation came to me from one of my readers. They asked, “Would they still be cooking if they are watching the news on holograms?” Well, no, I guess not. Wait, how are they brushing their teeth? So ask yourself when designing a fancy invention, “What would I need to make this invention possible, and how would the rest of the world look now that this exists?” Sure, you can pull a Dan Simmons and write thousands of years in the future, but you can’t unless you spend a lot of time thinking about the implications inherent in that new toothbrush you invented (I called it the Toothty, which, as far as names go, is pretty shit).


What Now?

Cool, we can write this shit, but can we? This is where the concerns of the future come in. Dan Simmons is brilliant when he looks so many hundreds of years into the future for his works, and he even includes some theories about the singularity. Andy Weir and I decided to get around this by talking about our worlds as being in the near future. I don’t even mention a date throughout my novel. More generalities, but theoretically, there will come a time that technology is moving at such a clip that the things you invent in your story are obsolete by the time the book gets published. Does this mean hard sci-fi will be relegated to alternate universes? What happens when we can access those as well? Will there be a time when speculation about the future is impossible? Unlikely (that’s a volta for you). We will have some sort of technology to stand on in the future, even if it is currently inconceivable. Suppose the human race still exists when we reach the technology singularity (it might be more likely that we won’t). In that case, we will probably be unrecognizable to the humans of today, much like the humans theorized in Interstellar or Ilium. Now, I could go on speculating about the fracturing futures of humanity, but I’ll let you write that story. 


Works Cited

    1. Mulaney, John. Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. 1 May 2018.
    2. Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology. London, Duckworth, 2016.
    3. White, Claire. “A Conversation with Dan Simmons.” Writers Write, Aug. 2001, Accessed Oct. 2020.
    4. McCluskey, Megan. “Rescuing Matt Damon’s Characters Has Cost More Than $900 Billion.” Time, 28 Dec. 2015, Accessed 19 Oct. 2020.
    5. Alter, Alexandra. “A Survival Guide to Mars—WSJ.Com.” Web.Archive.Org, 14 Feb. 2014. Accessed 19 Oct. 2020.


Further reading

More subgenres of Sci-Fi-,help%20in%20a%20global%20emergency

Dan Simmons—Ilium, Olympus, Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, and many more

Andy Weir—The Martian (I cannot recommend this audiobook enough)

Ray Kurzweil—The Singularity Is Near (I haven’t read this book to completion, but I’m happy it exists)


Dexter Loken is a first-year student at VCFA in the Writing & Publishing program. He is interested in genre fiction especially of the speculative variety, but he has a growing love of creative nonfiction. He thinks of himself as a nomad in search of new experiences, but he is located in California for the moment.