A good SF story must have a scientific or technological element.

Scifi fan

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I'm trying to do some work in science fiction, as in a space opera, and I'd like to bounce something off the masters in this forum.

Robert Heinlein said

"Let's gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story: 1. The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story. 2. The new conditions must be an essential part of the story. 3. The problem itself—the "plot"—must be a human problem. 4. The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions. 5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you've got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well"


I would agree with that, but the difficult part, as always, is implementation.

For example, a story of "Martian girl falls in love with Earth guy during interplanetary war", that would be just like Romeo and Juliet, and that would also be campy, because the SF version would just be substituting labels like "Martian" for "Montague" and so on. An interplanetary version of this love-story-tragedy must have something that is subtly different.

I'm not a literary expert, but I can give an example from a slightly different story line. "Enemy Mine", the novella by Barry Longyear, involved a human marooned on a planet with a reptile. They fight, but eventually learn to cooperate so as to survive, and they become friends. The reptile is a hemaphrodite, so it gives birth to a reptile, dying in the process, and it makes the human male promise to raise the child properly.

This is a good love story, and it can only happen in a SF setting, because the mother is a, well, hemaphrodite. Of course, it could also be a story of Romeo and Juliet marooned on a Pacific island, but the fact of the reptile being a hemaphrodite makes the story very different.

A similar story, no doubt inspired by Enemy Mine, is the final episode of Galactica 1980, which tells the story of one of the regular characters, Starbuck, being marooned on an island with a Cylon. Both make peace, and they are joined by a human female who gives birth to a child. The SF elements are that 1) Starbuck finds a Cylon that isn't working and he makes it work, and 2) the human female turns out to be a superior being sent to judge Starbuck.

I've done substantial research, and I know that there are predecessors to this story line, namely, "None but the Brave", a 1956 movie, as well as "Hell in the Pacific", where the characters, who were enemies, are marooned on a Pacific Island and learn to be friends. Both movies involved men, who therefore had no child and definitely did not repair their enemies.

So a good SF story would take from other genres, but it would also insert a scientific element, so that the SF version would be something that could not have happened in those other genres.

Can anyone give me feedback on this?
 

Abernovo

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Not really sure what you're looking for in this, but my thinking is that the story is about people - aliens, robots, godlike beings are all people in a different guise, allowing the reader to identify with some trait or other. It's always about people. Sometimes weird people, but still people.

As to a scientific element, well, surely it's more a scenario, or setting. You're writing space opera? Well, that's science fiction, but doesn't tend to require a massive scientific input. The underlying themes (e.g love, struggle, aspirations, friendship) could be found in any genre.

Just forget the genre and write the thing. :)
 

Jo Zebedee

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I've often wondered about this. I have a space opera and I'm pretty ropey at science, so often thought could I take that scenario out of that setting and put the characters elsewhere. It would be a lot easier in some ways.

For me, the answer was no. The setting shapes the characters,the characters affect the setting.

Sci fi is a huge gamut from integral to the story, to a setting for a story, it's up to you where you put your story on it.
 

mosaix

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For me, the science element is there to provide a background such that if the element wasn't there then the story wouldn't work. If the science element isn't essential to the story then, for me, it's not science fiction.
 

psychotick

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Hi,

Stories in the end are about people. So Enemy Mine - a damned good story by the way - could have happened on Earth. All that would be needed to make it happen would be for the enemy warrior to be a pregnant woman.

The science fills too roles in my view. The first is that it provides the backdrop, the world build which can be fantastic and in many cases is enough to make a book or show sci fi - eg Star Wars. It could just as easily be a fantasy.

But where sci fi really starts rocking in my view is when the science starts allowing possibilities that completely alter the story. The stasis bubbles in Vinges The Peace War. How to survive the end of the world and simply wait until the world returns to something liveable. Star Trek's transporter and its inevitable malfunctions allowing two people to become one. Time travel and all the brilliant paradoxes it brings - eg the Butterfly Effect. The stories are still human, but they are human stories that could not possibly occur in our world.

Cheers, Greg.
 

Scifi fan

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Thanks, everyone. :)


For me, the science element is there to provide a background such that if the element wasn't there then the story wouldn't work. If the science element isn't essential to the story then, for me, it's not science fiction.

That would be my approach.


Stories in the end are about people. So Enemy Mine - a damned good story by the way - could have happened on Earth. All that would be needed to make it happen would be for the enemy warrior to be a pregnant woman.

Hmmm, good point. But they could not really have had a fight or escape the flooding island if the enemy warrior was pregnant.


But where sci fi really starts rocking in my view is when the science starts allowing possibilities that completely alter the story. The stasis bubbles in Vinges The Peace War. How to survive the end of the world and simply wait until the world returns to something liveable. Star Trek's transporter and its inevitable malfunctions allowing two people to become one. Time travel and all the brilliant paradoxes it brings - eg the Butterfly Effect. The stories are still human, but they are human stories that could not possibly occur in our world.

Exactly!


There seems to be two schools, from the initial responses - one would agree with me, and the other would say that the scientific element was just a backdrop. I would say that the former would make the SF story a far better one, because, if the galaxy and planets were just substitutes for the world and Pacific islands, then the SF story would be pretty bland.

I've probably made up my mind already, but I would like to hear more from others. Thanks once again. :)
 

TheDustyZebra

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5. And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk. It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts


By his own definitions, then, Robert Heinlein did not always write "Simon-pure science fiction stories." Nevertheless, I don't think anyone would dispute that he wrote science fiction, and he remains one of my favorite authors of all time.
 

TheDustyZebra

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I figured, the way it was phrased -- I couldn't imagine Heinlein considering himself or his stories a "Simon-pure" anything. :D
 

AMB

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Actually, he didn't admit to breaking all his rules. He admitted to breaking all those rules.
 

Parson

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I think the question depends on whether the object is to write "Simon-pure" SF. For me the best SF would nearly always follow Heinlein's rules. But a lot of enjoyable SF might be at it's best a retelling of a basic human story. Romeo & Juliet, the Odyssey, a creation myth, etc.

This question is relevant to me right now because I'm reading a book which is so sketchy (Springs does this equal ropey?) on the science that the only thing SF about it is that it is uses SF tropes, without any real sense of how these effect everything else. I wish I could say that the interpersonal relationships made it good reading, but this also gets a fail.

(If you are asking: "Why is he reading it?" The answer is: "I'm not sure." I paid for it? --- It does have interesting and unexpected story development. The most positive thing I could say is that it somewhat reminds me of a slightly more sophisticated "Buck Rogers" Movie. --- Pretty faint praise indeed!)
 

TheDustyZebra

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I've read books like that -- generally, as long as there's something to keep me going, I keep thinking it will get better. :D

I have to say that I'm getting far less patient with books in my old(er) age. I'll toss them aside with a lot less provocation than it used to take.
 

tinkerdan

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I suppose if you wanted to distill it down to it's simon - purest one could expect pure science fiction to be something that contains all known science and physics as we understand it with the variable being as to how the characters in the story interact with the situation and the backdrop. Basically it contains science and the characters are fictional thus its science-fiction. That might then exclude a lot of fiction that delves in anything that touches upon the fantastic.

That way we avoid people discovering the moon is made out of cheese.

And when you put the what if into the story it has to make sense in relationship to the first part above and that means no what if the moon was made out of cheese.

But that will not help with anyone who does believe the moon is made out of cheese and that we have not yet visited it to confirm that it is not.

But I think also that it means we need to understand that Simon Pure Science Fiction is not to be confused with genre's.

I say this because genre's are like a sorting mechanism designed to determine placement of books in bookstores and they contain a bit more fuzziness than is suitable to whatever we decide Simon Pure Science Fiction is supposed to be.
 

TheDustyZebra

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An antique literary allusion to a character named Simon Pure. I think the lady had to figure out which one was him, or something. I'd have to look it up, because that exhausts my knowledge of the whole thing. :D
 

J-Sun

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An antique literary allusion to a character named Simon Pure. I think the lady had to figure out which one was him, or something. I'd have to look it up, because that exhausts my knowledge of the whole thing. :D

Basically, yep. wikipedia.

Thanks for the link to the Heinlein essay, Scifi fan.
 

Liz Bent

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For me, the science element is there to provide a background such that if the element wasn't there then the story wouldn't work. If the science element isn't essential to the story then, for me, it's not science fiction.

I've heard this from a number of sources. I tend to agree, but I would like to point out there's a lot of great SF that doesn't require a close examination of exactly how the science part works- in fact, unless you've got a strong scientific background, any attempt an author makes to try to include a lot of science in the work will backfire horribly. Sometimes it's best to follow writers like Ursula LeGuin and simply say, "what if we had a world in which X was true?" and then write about it, instead of trying to explain X.

A book I've read and hated because it attempted to explain X and, in my opinion, failed miserably was Blood Music by Greg Bear. A lot of my classmates liked it, but I actually threw it across the room a few times because I felt it was so stupid. A lot of the errors he made were completely avoidable by simply not attempting to explain the science behind the world he was creating, or glossing over the details in a charming enough fashion that we accept the world because we like it (an example of this is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams).

So, yes, include science, but be very careful about how much and what you include.
 

tinkerdan

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I wrote a piece one time where a reader said the science was inscrutable.

I figure inscrutable is good; maybe if no one can scrut it I won't end up getting scru'd.

I don't mind a bit of hand-waving now and then. It sure would be great to have someone explain how all those marvelous jump-gates actually work.
 

chrispenycate

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I enjoy books that unscrew the inscrutable, and have to hold myself from doing it too much myself (much too much). You want to know about how a jump gate works? There are three basic techniques that are not contradicted by physics: the fir – no, you don't really.

Just loved the Heinlein trying to define SF - something we all recognise, but actually very difficult to specify - but can think of an alternative group, where it's present day or recent past, and a scientific or technological hypothesis or gadget is developed but makes no difference, for some reason (often time travel). My citation is 'Or all the seas with oysters', Avram Davidson, but there are enough others to make it a viable set.

But I insist on at least some science in my SF. Some reason for which technology is essential for the story to work. And if you don't know the theory, keep it vague; not only the pedant is searching for errors:D
 

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