Saturday, 19 September 2009

Resources for SF Authors

“If at first an idea does not sound absurd, there is no hope for it.” Albert Einstein
Speculative Fiction authors face some challenges that writers of non-genre fiction do not face, but also have freedoms that are not universally available. For example, the situations in fantasy and science fiction stories must be exotic and innovative, but the story universe must be internally cohesive and rational: sci-fi must have a scientific basis (unless verging into space opera or writing for Hollywood) and the best fantasy has an internal logic.
With the literature education in this country seemingly concentrating on Shakespeare and the 19th century novel (not that there is anything wrong with those of course), where is a speculative fiction author going to learn their trade with a minimum of trial and error? Here are a few sources and thoughts that I have found intriguing or useful.

SF authors on writing SF

Ian M Banks

Ian M. Banks, in his interview included with Matter, said “I enjoy writing science fiction more than mainstream, but there’s not a great amount in it. To the same small degree mainstream writing can be more rewarding just because it’s more difficult; I’ve got to restrain my imagination a little, rein it in and work within certain limitations.”
“Written SF relies heavily on ideas – you can write a perfectly good mainstream novel with no original ideas at all; you just have to tell an interesting story with interesting characters who have something to say. I don’t mean that as criticism either: that encompasses perfectly valid, rich and rewarding literary forms, you can’t get away with that in science fiction; you have to have completely new ideas in the somewhere or it doesn’t really cut it as proper SF”.

Larry Niven

Larry Niven, author of the Known Space series (including Ringworld), wrote in his postscript article The Last Word About SF Detectives in The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton that “tec/stf stories are rare, and for a reason.”
“A detective story is a puzzle. In theory at least, the reader can know what crime has was committed, by whom, and how and where and why, before he is given the answer.”
“Science fiction is an exercise in imagination… A story is judged on its internal consistency and the reach of the author’s imagination. Strange backgrounds, odd societies following odd laws, unfamiliar values and ways of thinking are the rule.”
“Now, how can the reader anticipate the author is all the rules are strange? If science fiction recognizes no limits then … how can I give you a fair puzzle?”
Agatha Christy’s criminals never had access to x-ray lasers or teleportation devices. A SF detective author has to ensure that their readers are given access to everything they need to solve the puzzle without signposting the answer.

Orson Scott Card

Apart from writing such classics as Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card also teaches writing at several universities in the US. On the back of this, he has published a couple of books on fiction writing.
Characters & Viewpoint takes a detailed look at fictional characters and is not genre specific. It will take you over inventing characters, constructing and performing them. Point of view is so important and Orson Scott Card’s is one of the best.
How to write Science Fiction & Fantasy is, as you might expect, a book about writing fantasy and science fiction. The topics include defining the story universe’s boundaries and rules, constructing stories, writing well, and the business side of writing.
“in many ways this (the SF readership) is the best audience in the world to write for. They’re open-minded and intelligent. They want to think as well as feel, understand as well as dream. Above all they want to be lead into places that no one has ever visited before. It’s a privilege to tell stories to these readers, and an honour when they applaud the tales that you tell.”

Jasper Fforde

In his recent Greenbelt talk about his work, Jasper Fforde told us that he started by concocting impossible scenarios and then tried to write his way out of them. One of his first short stories was the one about the man who turned into a banana. After about 25 such short stories, he realised that one, Humpty Dumpty as a murder mystery, would work as a novel. This eventually became The Big Over Easy. Unfortunately, he now found himself in the impossible situation of explaining his books to publishers and agents…
Fforde’s website is an excellent insight in to his rather surreal take on literature, the media, the towns of Reading and Swindon, and restrictive substances for bears. One of my favourites is the Toad headline: “Six out of seven dwarves not Happy, survey shows”.
His latest book, Shades of Grey, is due for release around Christmas time, and I suspect that the reason to read it will be the same as his other works: its great, just read it!

Simon Morden

Simon Mordon has published a couple of essays on both How to Read SF and What makes a good story, both of which he has allowed me to publish here on this site. I think that they speak for themselves, especially as you can read them for yourself and not take my word for it.


OK, this is close to the previous section, but meta-fiction in my definition is not writing about writing, but writing about the stories themselves. It is not a hard-and-fast boundary; in fact all of Jasper Fforde’s published books to date could be included in here, as could Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction, but we have to draw a line somewhere.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Diana Wynne Jones’s Hugo nominated book is a self proclaimed authoritative A-Z source of information for tourists visiting fantasy lands. It includes information on why there are Dark Lords but no Dark Ladies, what kinds of ambushes to expect, and where magical swords come from.
As you might guess it is a tongue-in-cheek survey of fantasy clichés and thus is a source of inspiration for comic fantasy writers and a list of things for serious fantasy writers to avoid. Diana Wynne Jones’s fan club has more information and you can read an extract
Diana has also published hints on writing stories, which you can find at her fan site

The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy

The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy is an online science fiction self-confessed “shameless ripoff of Diana Wynne Jones's The Tough Guide to Fantasyland”. Likewise, it is a satirical dictionary of classic science fiction elements from AI to Warfare, concentrating mainly on space opera staples. One unanswered question though is why are there no entries for X, Y & Z?
You can find it at

Popular Science

You will find most popular science publications useful for ideas, whether books in the local store or magazines like Wired ( and and New Scientist (, especially as the current edition is a Sci-fi special).
What your source is will depend to some extent on your subgenre: hard sci-fi is based on physics and soft sci-fi on sociology; both benefit from a good dose of psychology. But don’t forget, while a good SF story is backed up by good research, what you must not do is show your research to the reader. Think of research as seasoning not an ingredient.
Here are a couple specially written for science fiction authors.

Project Rho

So you want to design a realistic nuclear powered spaceship for you story and don’t know where to start? Why not check out the Atom Rockets at for both the reasons why most spaceships on film and television just will not work in reality and the maths to create a sensible hard-sci-fi vehicle. This 57 chapter magnum opus (the chapter on weapons alone would take you 99 pages to print out!) covers everything that you need to know about future space travel.
TV, film, & space opera writers never let reality get in the way of telling a good story, of course, but realism is an essential part of written science fiction.

Physics of the Impossible

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Arthur C Clarke
I have just bought the latest book by Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and co-founder of string field theory, where he looks in detail at topics on the edge of current science, rates how feasible they are and how they might be achieved. These are divided into
  • Class I impossibilities: technologies that are currently impossible but do not violate any known laws of physics. Many are actually being actively researched today. These include teleportation, antimatter engines, certain forms of telepathy, psychokinesis and invisibility
  • Class II impossibilities: technologies on the very edge of our understanding of the physical world and might be realised on a timescale of thousands or millions of years. These include time machines, hyperspace travel and travel through wormholes.
  • Class III impossibilities: technologies that violate the known laws of physics – these are surprisingly few in number.
“Prediction is very hard to do; especially about the future.” Neils Bohr


These are just a few useful sources – I am sure that there are more, so please feel free to add your suggestions below.
Remember, we are not alone.

1 comment:

Peter Debney said...

OK, so it is not just a resource for SF writers, but for lonely SF geeks in general: a dating website for SF fans