There is a breed of Science Fiction (SF) story that tries to pay special attention to the rules. And by that I mean the story doesn’t play fast and loose with the known laws of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and other natural parameters of which we’re aware. Or, if it does play fast and loose, it plays fast and loose in a very specific way, with a very specific aspect of physics, or chemistry, or mathematics, while paying attention to a new set of rules established by the author — rules adhered to throughout the duration of the story. This type of SF has been called “hard” by most of its fans and authors. One of the more famous practitioners of Hard SF (HSF) is a man named Larry Niven, who himself cut his teeth on the works of one of the all-time greats, Robert A. Heinlein.
I in turn cut my teeth on Larry’s works, and learned to love HSF by taking tours of Larry’s various universes, including the Known Space series. I’ve since gone on to make a bit of a name for myself with HSF stories in what is, to this day, the English language’s premier HSF magazine — the same magazine where Niven and Heinlein have been featured: Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
Now, before I start, I want to make it clear that I submitted perhaps two or three dozen different stories to Analog before (then editor) Stanley Schmidt purchased my first-ever Analog piece; a story called “Outbound.” So it’s not like I walked in Stan’s front door, plunked down my first effort, and raked in the Analytical Laboratory (AnLab) readers’ choice award. I spent a long time — many years! — pushing to refine my storytelling and my wordsmithing (two different skills, in my opinion) as well as reading a lot of HSF: Niven, Heinlein, Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson, and others.
I hope it doesn’t take you nearly as long as it took me; to get the hang of writing good HSF. I am hoping that I can provide some guideposts that will help you along your route.
First, a good HSF story isn’t just about the technical details. This is one area where I think HSF and non-HSF readers tend to rely on a canard: that HSF is a “nuts and bolts” subgenre that doesn’t require the author (or the reader) to dwell much on characterization, drama, plot, etc. The idea itself — the technology, or the exploration of a physical phenomenon, or delving into some new aspect of medicine, engineering, astronomy, space launch systems, etc. — is enough. That may have been true a few decades ago, but I think a good HSF story (now) combines both good sci/tech and good, well-rounded characters, who have to grapple with important, pressing issues.
Second, a good HSF story tends to be a combination of two or three strong elements which compliment each other. When I was much younger, I tended to wait until an idea popped into my head — a predicament, say, or a technical barrier, or a dangerously exotic situation — and off I went. I’d write a story focused on that sole piece of the puzzle, send the story off into the universe, and wonder why it only ever got rejections. It wasn’t until I developed the patience to wait until two or, preferably, three or more elements spontaneously clicked together, that I began to have success with editors; not to mention readers. For instance: dangerous new technology, by itself, may not be enough to hold a story up. But, combine the dangerous new technology with a jaded engineer who is trying to recover her career and she just happens to be competing against a company where her rotten ex-husband is the project lead . . . that’s a much meatier situation.
Third, all the gadgetry in the world doesn’t matter if your character(s) can’t be cared about. I’m a firm believer in the idea that drama doesn’t have to be ginned up. Place a sympathetic character into a predicament that is a natural consequence of a certain time, period, place, etc., and the drama will fashion itself. Almost everybody is acquainted with drama in their own lives. What may seem dramatic to you or me, may not seem dramatic to someone else. Unless you keep the stakes raised to such an extent that anyone placed into that predicament might feel the same pressure, the same anxiety, and so forth. People love to root for people. Make sure your story doesn’t turn its individuals into wallpaper for your fascination with a setting, or a scientific theory.
Fourth, your character(s) need to be going somewhere, and the technology, science theory, new idea, etc., needs to somehow be integral to the character(s) journey. To complicate things, your outward journey — travels in space and time — needs to be complimented by an inner journey. Not that hard, really, if you examine your own life. Invariably you can identify challenges you’ve overcome, or protracted problems which were not easily solved, and you realize you came out of the trouble a different person than when you went into it. Personal growth and change will compliment your character(s) change of setting, change of location, change of planet, and so forth.
Fifth, science and technology are often double-edged swords. Almost nothing is ever an unadulterated boon to mankind. Consider that the same jet airliners which make modern travel so fast and cheap, have also been converted into cruise missiles for murder and destruction. The technology didn’t change, it was simply used differently. This may affect how your Good Guys and also your Bad Guys respond to a given scientific or technological development. A brilliant example of this kind of story is Niven’s “The Hole Man.” It was a Hugo winner in 1975, and it’s still a great story today.
Sixth, stories which set out to be the “last word” on a given combination of setting, technology, scientific phenomenon, etc., usually aren’t. Just focus on giving the reader a good time. Trying too hard to be “the last word” will simply distract you from doing your job.
Seventh, never be afraid to tread a well-worn path. There really are no new ideas in SF, much less HSF. For example, you may or may not be the first one to combine a certain aspect of human behavior with a given piece of technology, in a specific setting. What’s really going to set your story apart is the style and voice you bring to your prose. And the only thing that will help you develop that style and voice, is practice. Lots and lots of practice. The bulk of which may not produce very good stories. Not at first. Maybe, not even after a dozen or more tries. But if you work at it, and you’re not afraid to keep pushing, and you have an inquisitive mind that relishes science fact articles, science fact television programs, etc., I think you can teach yourself to mix all of these various things together in ways which will delight an audience.
Now, for a few personal caveats. These are just my prejudices and biases speaking, so take ’em or leave ’em.
Endless polishing is death on productivity, and death on learning. I never learned anything from spending months or years tinkering with the same piece of work. Give yourself a personal rule, for when you’re going to stop on a specific work, and move on to something new. Either how many revisions you’ll do, or how much time you’ll devote to finishing touches once you’ve put THE END on the tail, etc. Just don’t get locked into thinking you can make any story perfect. I can speak from experience: good enough really is good enough.
Downbeat endings suck. They are ‘literary’ and some critics and aesthetes love them. But they suck. If you’re going to roast your characters in hell, at least give them a little silver lining at the end? Some kind of hope for a more positive outcome? Your readers will thank you.
Stories that demote humanity to being puny and insignificant, also suck. We may be small and/or not as advanced as other intelligent life in the universe, but we didn’t get to where we are now by being meaningless dullards. Humans are crafty and stubborn. Never say die. We should be reflected as such.
Some of the best HSF I’ve ever read, inspired in me the notion: Wow, this is how it could really happen! Be it space colonization, or warp drive, or first contact with another intelligent species from somewhere else in the galaxy. When you play by the rules — keeping the universe as we know it relatively intact, accessible, and consistent — you’re shining a light on a possible path. Not predicting the future per se, but illuminating a way that things might develop. That’s the kind of story that may inspire some teenager somewhere to become a rocket scientist.
Speaking of which, leave the “playground equipment” around for your readers to mess with. That’s a Niven-ism. If the reader gets to the end of your story and can imagine events continuing on — populated by your characters, the reader in character form, or both — then you’ve really won. Because you’ve made your world and your story so engrossing, the reader doesn’t want to leave! That’s a reader who will want to come back for more. That’s a reader who will be loyal, and tell others about your work.