The Challenges of Believability in Writing Science Fiction

Today’s guest post is by William R. Leibowitz.

 It’s not called “science” and it’s not called “fiction.” It’s called “science fiction,” and that means that if an author is going to successfully wade into those waters, it requires a balancing act.

Readers of science fiction are generally sophisticated. Reading science fiction isn’t easy reading. A reader needs to think and to concentrate. Science fiction places demands on a reader. That’s why it’s not the most popular genre—romance novels are. You don’t have to think or concentrate when you read a romance novel. But you do when you read science fiction. And science-fiction readers have real standards that they’ve developed by reading the great writers who developed the genre—and also by seeing countless good quality science-fiction movies and television programs.

So, when sitting down to write a work of science fiction, the writer has to rise to the standard. Bad quality science fiction is painfully obvious even to the casual reader. If a work of science fiction is to be believable and engrossing, the science in it must be plausible—and the science must be understandable to the reader.

Too much detail easily becomes boring and makes the reader think he is back in school. Too little detail and the author is asking the reader to take giant “leaps of faith,” and this undermines the credibility of a science-fiction story.

So what can an author do? I can only speak from my own experience. When I wrote the medical/psychological/conspiracy thrillers Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox, I was confronted with these same issues. The protagonist in both novels is Robert James Austin, the greatest scientific genius in human history.

But I couldn’t just ask the reader to believe this; I had to demonstrate to the reader that Austin did have these remarkable talents from a very young age. And when Austin proceeded to cure one disease after another, I had to make his discoveries believable, or the plot would just become fantastical, and I would lose the reader.

Writers Must Be Researchers

What this means is that the author of science fiction must do what writers of “pure” fiction rarely have to do—become a researcher so that the reader, in turn, can be educated and elevated—all within an entertainment context.

To make Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox credible required me to spend a great deal of time doing extensive research in two areas: the nature of human intelligence (particularly genius), and diseases, treatments, attempted cures—and the medical/scientific methodology relevant to formulating cures.

I researched the lives of actual geniuses so I could understand how genius manifests itself at various ages—and the behaviors often attendant to genius. Because Austin has an intelligence that is unique in human history (10x that of Einstein), I extrapolated from my research and “pumped up” various things about Austin so as to reflect his extraordinary abilities. So, while I highly magnified elements of his behavior and thought processes, they are grounded in documented realities and, hence, became credible.

What is the reward to the author for this hard work? I’ll tell you. No reader or reviewer ever made a negative comment regarding the “believability” of Austin’s genius. If they had, my novels would fail because they would have been based on “bad science.” If the science is inadequate, the science fiction fails, even if the fiction element is strong.

Regarding the medical/scientific aspects of both novels, I knew that in order for the story to hold the reader, there had to be plausible scientific foundations for the ways in which Austin invented cures and the way that his cures worked. I couldn’t just declare to the reader, “And then he cured this disease, and then he cured that disease.”

At the same time, however, I was mindful that I had to minimize the science so that it didn’t bore the reader. The cures that Austin devises in both novels are creative but believable, and the scientific explanations given for these cures and the way in which Austin devised them are completely plausible.

This was borne out when I received numerous letters from medical doctors and disease research scientists who read the novels and told me that they found these “cures” to be so interesting as to wonder if they would work in the real world!

In The Austin Paradox, Austin faces his greatest challenge—finding a cure for a new disease that was created by terrorists and has become a pandemic. As humanity faces extinction, Austin must invent revolutionary scientific concepts to formulate a cure. Coming up with this was a great challenge for me as an author, but the detailed scientific explanations that are in the novel resonate with the reader as being plausible.

Accurate and Believable Details

Simply put: if the science in the novel appears to be amateurish or “junk science,” then the author will lose the reader and the novel will fail. Readers who enjoy science-fiction books want fiction and good storytelling, but they also want science that is credible and that allows them to be swept away into the story. Good science makes for good science fiction.

If the author doesn’t want to put in the hard work of research and using her creativity to fashion “science” from imagination, then, please—do yourself and your reader a favor and write a different type of fiction because the reader will not be impressed.

In fact, the same requirements pertain to any factual matter that is included in science-fiction writing. For example, both Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox are highly critical of big pharma, which views Austin as its worst nightmare because Austin, unlike the pharma companies, seeks to cure diseases rather than merely treat symptoms. Austin’s discoveries kill off many of big pharma’s most profitable “cash-cow” treatments, and pharma devises various draconian plans to destroy Austin.

To paint a realistic picture of this and immerse the reader in the dynamic conflict between big pharma and Austin, I had to do a lot of research into the actual documented workings of the pharmaceutical industry, both in terms of science and the industry’s political maneuvering and interface with powerful governmental forces. This attention to detail brings this aspect of the story to life. Readers of science fiction appreciate the “reality” that science brings to fiction.

Similarly, one of the driving subplots of The Austin Paradox deals with international financial manipulations and money laundering. To make these somewhat complex areas realistic and interesting to the reader, much research was needed. It is the realism and accuracy of this information that, when woven into the plot lines, captures the reader.

The wonderful thing about science-fiction writing is that if the author does the scientific research, puts in the required time and effort, and gives flight to his creativity, the resultant novels will transcend mere fictional storytelling. The “science” will imbue the books with a realism that creates a multidimensional experience for the reader and that, in turn, will heighten the reader’s immersion in the novel.

William Leibowitz is the author of The Miracle Man SeriesHe practices law internationally and leads a somewhat peripatetic existence, preferring not to spend too much time in any one place. Check his blog out here for more tips and insights on the writing process.

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  1. Perhaps I shouldn’t quote my own reviews, but this one on By Rite of Word possibly indicates that I’ve got it right:

    Run from the Stars is an explosion-filled, think-on-your
    feet read, with a protagonist who looks about as dangerous as a
    candyfloss cone and uses that appearance to kick a lot of ass.

    …sometimes the explanations run a little long, but by and
    large this was a highly enjoyable read. R. Billing’s writing is
    action-packed and technically sound, with enough tech to make it fun but not enough to mire the pace of the story in technobabble.

    Because I wanted to do fast action against a backdrop of interstellar travel I had to help the physics along a little. I made the assumption that there is one physical effect remaining to be discovered, what I call “orthodynamics” in the books. This basically is the missing link that unifies gravity and the electroweak forces. In practical engineering terms it gives simple fusion power (Jane’s spaceship generates enough power to run the town of Farnham), teleportation and faster than light travel, although how is never explained. All I have is two grey boxes in the engine room, one generates the juice, the other does FTL, and the works are hinted at but never described.

    One thing I have always felt significant is that you can make technology matter to the reader if it matters to the characters:

    Jane was working the computer furiously, and cursing the results. She took a couple of deep breaths, fighting to keep the terror out of her voice. ‘It’s about as bad as it can be. We aren’t at perihelion yet—we’re going to be getting closer to the sun for another half hour. And the heat shield is going to burn away inside ten minutes. I’d try anything, if there was anything left to try. But I don’t think there’s anything still working.’
    ‘So when are you going to do it?’
    ‘Do what?’
    ‘The locked room trick. Everyone knows Arcturians can escape from locked rooms. You’ll have to do it now, and you’ll have to take me with you.’
    ‘Is that what you thought? That if you smashed the drive I’d teleport us out?’
    Arthur nodded.
    ‘You stupid bloody nutter! I can’t!’
    Jane took a deep breath. ‘We use a teleport transponder. I normally carry it clipped onto the belt of my uniform. The uniform that you took off me. The one that’s in a cardboard box back on Old Earth. Except I wasn’t carrying a transponder—I didn’t want you to find it when you captured me.’
    ‘Space Fleet will be looking for you. They’ll find some way of putting one on board.’
    ‘Arthur, no. Even if they could the teleportal only has a range of a hundred thousand miles. And you couldn’t bring one of the big ships with the generators that close to the sun—they’ve no heat shielding at all. There’s no way we can teleport.’
    ‘There must be, it’s-’
    ‘If you say “force of history” again I’ll fillet you with my bare hands.’

    She does, of course, get out after the chief spaceship designer come up with a hack to make the FTL drive work that deep in the sun’s gravity well. Arthur doesn’t make it, mainly because he won’t take orders from Jane.

  2. I applaud your stand on the necessity of sound science in science fiction. Likewise, the science in science fantasy should be sound also as evidenced by such authors as Niven, Heinlein, Burroughs, Mieville to name a few.

  3. Hi there … dropped in via CHRIS THE STORY READING APE’S BLOG …
    It’s a contract between the writer and the reader. If the reader is to suspend their disbelief, the writer needs to offer the reader ‘science’ that makes sense. 🙂

  4. An important thing to keep in mind though when writing science fiction is that you need to keep your language as simple as possible, even if the idea you are trying to depict is complex. Remember, people read science fiction because they want to have fun and be amused. Now, having to decipher a new alien language or special jargon just to understand your story may not be fun at all.

  5. The most graceful style of writing is not required in science fiction. You can entirely write your story in your own language. You can even come up with your own words and concepts and coin your own terms. This has been done by a number of science fiction authors already.

  6. Okay for me Science fiction is one of the most creative genres in literature. Under this genre, you can write about almost anything – from adventures in faraway galaxies to the underwater worlds and everything in between. And therefore I love Sci-Fi Books <3.

  7. Many people love to read science fiction. Not only is it an amazingly broad genre that covers a wide variety of themes (from post-apocalyptic world to extraterrestrial life), but it can also feed the curiosity and fuel the imagination of the readers. Writing science fiction can be just as fun as reading it. Numerous authors indeed love to write stories under science fiction because of the great amount of creative freedom that the genre offers. The literary world is filled with science fiction authors that create groundbreaking and mind-blowing stories.

  8. Making Science a pertinent case in your narrative is an obvious must. That is why conducting research will be a big part of the whole process. Take note of this, though; incorporate Science in a way that your story is not all about it. This only means that you should not let Science overwhelm your readers. You should know that they also want the thrill and maybe a little bit of romance. Whether you decide to make hard sci-fi novels, you still have to put a little spice in there.

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