The Thing about Sci-Fi

“I’m writing a science fiction novel,” I say. Most people, especially those who have known me in previous lives, ask the question that my statement begged. “Why?” The answer is not particularly sexy.

“Because I dreamt the ending and I didn’t have any time to do research before I had to write an entire novel in thirty days.” Sci-fi because I could just make it all up. Minimum research. Or so I thought.

I wrote and finished the first draft, but months later, I’m still doing research. I have a lot left to do. Why? The answer to the second “why”, will, I hope, be a smidgeon more interesting.

Starting with the Ending

My Venerable Technical Advisor (VTA) told me that it’s easier to turn a story out if you know how it’s going to end. This is what happened to me. I was working in Geneva at the time. One night, in 2012, my New York City and Washington, DC worlds caught up with me and collided in a nightmare.

I was being chased by a gaggle of thick-necked, well-muscled humanoids with gray skin flaking off of their bodies. They were trying to eat me.

It was just before dawn. I was running, desperate to find a way out of an impossible situation. The creatures were closing in on me. There was no way out. Then a Colleague-from-Real-Life appeared from behind a stone slab. “Dude,” she said, motioning to me. “Come this way!” And we escaped. A few more things happened after that, but I don’t want to give away my ending.

When I woke up, I was tempted to write down the sequence of events as I recalled it, before the whole story dissolved into the muted daylight. But I decided to try something different. Instead, I jotted down the sequence of emotions I had felt. Anxiety. Fear. Terror. Desperation. Relief. Confusion. Wonder. Then I wrote down the events surrounding these feelings.

I had my ending.

This ending went into the piles of partial story bits I had been collecting over time, unused but never forgotten, and then I got up to get ready for work. Two years later, I finished writing the first draft. It was true – I think I only finished the manuscript in the time that I did because I knew how it was going to end.

But I Made It Up

A cardinal rule in writing – whatever it is – is this:

Write about what you know.

So SFT takes place in New York City, Washington, DC, and Seattle – places I used to call home in past lives. (Technically, though, I lived just across the bridge from Seattle, and my neighborhood makes a cameo.) I mostly drew on memory, but I did have to look up a few geographic details as I wrote.

I wrote more and found myself doing bits of random research on logistics centers, Japanese swords and good candidates for where I might put my secret lab. I wrote even more and then I was done! Editing time.

Now, I’m done with the manuscript draft, but I’m researching neuroscience, skyscrapers and lasers. I’m reading about rats. I’m looking for war veterans and refugees to talk to. I’m finding myself doing a lot of research.

Wait a minute… This is sci-fi! I already wrote the thing and it’s my future. I made it up from what I know, and judging from initial feedback from a handful of readers, it has promise.

So why am I still doing so much research?

Because Life, Really

“It’s okay,” VTA told me one day, “if things aren’t technically possible today. It’s sci-fi. It just needs to be internally consistent.”

It’s true. At the start of this round of edits, though, I decided not to set SFT in the far future as I had originally imagined. I decided that it would take place in the near (-ish) future. In this case, I wanted there to be a remote chance of a remote chance of the technology being even remotely possible. At the very least, I didn’t want to violate the laws of physics. So VTA jumped on my wild ride through lasers and forcefields and more.

Beyond the technical aspects, however, I find that there is just too much I don’t know yet about what is most important. I don’t know what it’s like to live each day fearing for my life. I don’t know what it’s like to be at war. To fight an unseen enemy. To recover from that (or not).

So many people feel the emotions I dreamt every single day in so many different circumstances. So many people have done so in the past. Anxiety. Fear – mortal fear. Terror. Desperation. Relief. My book might be about the people who will do so in the future, but really, it’s meant to be about anybody who lives or has ever had to live this way. It’s meant to be about anybody who has been treated so badly (and so well, on the flipside), by someone else.

And so, as most sci-fi is, this isn’t just meant to be a thrilling adventure. It’s political, social and economic commentary. And that requires a lot more research and discussion. I don’t just want to read about these experiences – I want to know and understand from people who have lived it. I don’t have a day job at the moment, but I don’t want to spend all of my hours behind a computer screen or with my nose in a book just because I can (though I could if I wanted to). I want to talk to real people in real life about their lives because I’m not just writing a book – I’m living in a world with other people in it.

Now, to get over my paralyzing shyness and find some people who will talk to me.

To the Distillery

The other day, I was browsing places to submit sci-fi short stories and novellas. The biggest message these guys had was that they weren’t as interested in your science fiction technology as how your sci-fi technology shapes and is shaped by human behavior. (Though obviously, you need to get your science and tech ecosystem down pat.)

When I picked this genre – when I picked this storyline – for very lame reasons, I didn’t fully realize what I was really getting into. Then I remembered my favorite sci-fi novel, which I had read when I was 15 or 16 years old.

It was Excession by Iain Banks. I went to the future, into space, and when I finished reading it, I felt like I was looking into my own soul.

That’s the answer. I’m still doing so much research because I want to get my sci-fi right. And that’s the thing about sci-fi. I want SFT to distil and represent what human nature is, has been, and will continue to be at times when the world seems to have gone mad. So that after we come out of the action and adventure, we can look at ourselves and maybe recognize a little bit of the worst and best of us there.

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