I'd like to share with you my favorite SciFi story of all time. It's called "Knock," and was written by Frederic Brown in 1948. Here it is:
"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…"
The story goes on from there to describe how this immortal alien race eradicated all life on Earth except for two of every plant and animal, but I'm not too interested in that. Not after those first two lines, and all the loneliness, and fear, and mystery charged within just those few words. It's amazing how one or two little sentences can give you so much.
A lot of young writers (including this one) have an impulse to over-explain things, especially when we crack open the big airlock doors of our imaginations and enter the realm of Science Fiction. In the spirit of brevity, and in anticipation of an autumn full of productivity (NaNoWriMo is less than 1.5 months away, y'all!) , here are three brief but powerful quotes every aspiring genre writer should carry in their noggins:
"It is my job to create universes."
In an amazing 1978 speech called "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," SciFi legend Philip K. Dick says this about a writer's job:
"It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind… It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope."
Your readers will hope the same thing. Part of what makes the invented worlds of novels like 1984, I, Robot, Hunger Games, and even Harry Potter so powerful is that they all fall within the realm of possibility. Everything about the characters and the dense worlds they inhabit just fits, and if not for a few minor idiosyncrasies (e.g. an omnipresent dictator who watches you through the TV set; criminal automatons; superstar child gladiators; magic) these realities could pass for our own. Then, as you think about them more, a scary thing happens: you realize these realities are our own…just a little bit inflated.
Remember that in your own stories: you need not reinvent the universe to warp our perceptions of reality!
"Space is big."
Comedian cosmonaut Douglas Adams says it best (what doesn't the dude say best?) in his fantastic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space."
If you're writing a tale of interplanetary intrigue, remember that it's going to take more than a few hours at sub-light speed to cruise from Planet A to Planet Z. Like, decades more. While there is something fascinating about a life spent in galactic transit (e.g. Sunshine, 2001: A Space Odyssey) it doesn't make for the most gripping changes of pace or scenery. There's plenty of universe to hold your brain's wildest creations—but maybe not all in one story, 'cause that's an exhausting trip right there.
"I could tell you what's happening, but I don't know if it would really tell you what's happening."
This line of dialogue from the 2002 film adaptation of Stanisław Lem's SciFi masterwork Solaris is all about confusion and perception—but in a more abstract sense, it's a pretty great writing lesson.
You've probably taken enough English classes by now that the catch-all commandment "show, don't tell" has been sufficiently crammed into your cranium. That advice is just as applicable to plot as it is to imagery, and when you're writing SciFi it's important not to let your narration get too caught up in the Sci. Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than a disruption of the narrative flow, especially when you've got a genuinely interesting plot unfolding; if you halt your story to give a long, phoney-baloney explanation of some science that you don't really understand, your readers will be rightly pissed at you. Focus first on an awesomely compelling plot and characters. Show us what they're doing; don't tell us why it's important.
Keep these words from the masters in mind during your own awesome fiction pursuits. They're helpful models, for sure, but don't let them overshadow the most important rule of all: You are allowed to break all the rules, if you can get away with it.
Ok. Oh, and one last thing: Don't eat the yellow space.
Now go and write.
Are any of these nuggets helpful? What SciFi quotes get you stoked to write? What SciFi projects are y'all working on right now?