Kelly Lagor: Putting the “Science” in Science Fiction: Part Two

Putting the science in science fiction involves a lot of moving parts and navigating them can be challenging at any point in your writing career. Both science and science fiction are ever-expanding fields, and staying on top of one, let alone both, requires diligence and persistence. Furthermore, getting the level of detail just right so as to not be so technical you alienate your readers, while avoiding being needlessly inaccurate, is a delicate tightrope walk. To better explore the various practical aspects of putting the science in science fiction, I spoke with a number of writers and editors on the topic.

Even knowing where to start can be intimidating. “Within any given field, there can be numerous subspecialties, often with their own jargon, research methodologies, and technologies,” says short fiction author Caroline Yoachim. “One of the challenges in science fiction writing is filtering the vast quantities of scientific information down to the point where it does not overwhelm the story, and there is a larger body of research to sort through now than there was in the past.”

With that in mind, where does one begin? Author Elizabeth Bear prefers a proactive method. “I read articles on science, talk to scientists and engineers, and in general try to keep my baseline knowledge of popular science at a current enough level to know where to look for further information on whatever it is I need to know for any given story.” A proactive method can also feed the endless research-new story idea-research cycle of science fiction writing. Short fiction writer Marissa Lingen says, “I do a lot of ongoing background reading in the sciences because I like to, and that often gives me inspiration beforehand rather than having to do research to catch up.”

Academic journals, such as Nature and Science, can give valuable insider perspectives into current scientific conversations and include lay articles that cover new discoveries. Journals, however, aren’t as concerned with conveying the larger social and political context of a given discovery as they are with describing the science itself, but that’s where other non-fiction sources can fill in the gaps. “Popular science books are a fun source of thoughtful inspiration for me too, especially for the stories that are more socially focused,” Lingen says. Beyond books, there is no shortage of other sources of inspiration around, explains short fiction author A.T. Greenblatt. “I’m a fan of Wired articles and the Reply All podcast for ideas and information. I also run a lot of Google searches and read Wikipedia.”

Equally important is keeping on top of trends within science fiction. “I think in general since the ’70s the emphasis on physics has lessened,” says author Sarah Pinsker, “partly because we reached a point where we’d proven that a lot of the stuff that might’ve still been considered possible in early SF was impossible. There’s so much great science fiction that deals with the so-called softer sciences, and even more that deals with the really interesting line between what we know and call science and what we don’t know and might call magic. Annalee Newitz’s new novel deals with time travel technology that is not understood at all by the people using it, but it’s indisputably science fiction as far as I’m concerned. And N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is grounded in geology even as it employs things that are beyond our ken, so to speak.”

This shift in scientific focus is also reflective of changing reader anxieties. “In short fiction, we have considerably more biotech, AI, climate, and really earth-centric stories,” says writer and co-editor of Escape Pod S.B. Divya. “It’s obvious they’re very much on people’s minds right now, along with social media, advertising, surveillance, and increasing intrusion of consumption and capitalism thanks to technology. All the sort of id- and ego-level concerns that we have surface in people’s short fiction right now.”

Understanding subgenre conventions when it comes to how science is portrayed is also important. Tor.com editor Lee Harris says, “Different subgenres perhaps have different attitudes. For example, we’re much less critical of the science in the latest superhero epic than we would be in a hard science fiction story, but that’s okay because we have different expectations, going in.” Those expectations will help define your research plan, author Aliette de Bodard explains. “The science might be a kind of glue that holds everything else together, but if you don’t see much of in the story, it can be a sort of ‘trust me I’ve worked it out’ handwave, versus explaining in detail how you’re going to build a spaceship. That obviously requires a lot more actual science.”

Reading broadly also helps in writing something sellable, as it gives a sense of what elements readers are responding to, as exemplified by the recent “hopepunk” trend. “Readers really engage with stories that show us a way forward, and authors love to write tragedies,” says Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams. “Sometimes trying to get them both on the same page, literally, is not easy. I’m not saying everyone has to write happy endings for me, there are plenty of stories in Asimov’s that don’t have happy endings, but while science fiction readers like to read stories about disasters to learn how to avoid them, they also want ideas for how to deal with all the different problems that face us and how to find a way out.”

Once you’ve figured out the type of story you want to write, your approach to research will depend on your familiarity with the science. “When I write something I’m really familiar with, like AI or computer stuff,” says de Bodard. “I’ll get a refresher course on Wikipedia, which is fine for most sciences.” This kind of direct experience with a scientific field can richly inform a story. “Sometimes I draw on my own academic background,” says Yoachim. “One of my recent stories, ‘The Archronology of Love’, was partly inspired by an archaeological dig I did when I was in college – the main academic discipline in the story is purely fictional, but some of the research methods and philosophies have real-world parallels.”

Unfortunately, with great familiarity can come great reluctance. Greenblatt, who has an engineering background, explains. “I got stuck writing science fiction for a while because my engineer characters would ask ‘well how does that work?’ and it would hang up the entire story.” Similar difficulties plagued de Bodard. “I didn’t write any SF stories for the first 2-3 years that I was actually writing stories because I was like, ‘I have to get the science right’ and getting the science right is such a pain.” Getting over that reluctance required a shift in perspective, de Bodard explains. “Since then, my approach to science has been a bit of a mix of faking it up, like inserting key words and a little bit of things that are evocative for the readers. I can use an artificial intelligence made of electronic and organic compounds, but I don’t actually need to tell you how I built it, which would require three pages and a whole lot of blueprints and things that I can’t actually deal with in my fiction because I do that in my day job enough as it is.”

Most of the time you will be delving into a topic you know little about, so starting with basics may be best. “Read children’s books on the topic,” says Divya. “Even though they are written for children, when you are starting fresh with something you have no knowledge of, it’s really helpful to get down to those basics, and that’s what children’s books do. They have glossaries, they’ll explain things to you in reasonably simple terms, and then you can build on that knowledge and go deeper if you want.”

Never be shy about asking experts, either. “I think the best way is to ask people for help who are knowledgeable in the topic,” says Divya, who has worked as an engineer and a data scientist. “Scientists love to talk about their science. We spend our entire lives doing this stuff, so we are always happy to talk about it. So, you can spend probably half an hour talking to someone, tell them what you’re trying to set up and they’re going to give you all kinds of information that you might not have even come across on your own. And they’re going to quickly correct any misapprehensions you have about what you think is plausible versus what’s actually happening in the lab today.”

Finally, there’s the writing itself, and getting the amount of detail right is important. “Where something strikes me as wrong/implausible I’ll go away and research it,” says Harris, “but I tend to trust that the author knows what they’re doing. And unless the story or the scene is about the science, I expect it to largely take a back seat, and not draw too much attention to itself. If too much time is spent describing the science at the expense of the actual plot, this would make me uncap my red pen – I love that the author k nows how this works, but does the reader need to understand it, or just to accept that the characters understand it? How much education is actually necessary in this story? Answer: not much, or the story gets lost.”

Understanding what your viewpoint characters need to understand can be a useful way to filter those details down to what’s essential. Yoachim says, “A tight perspective helps sort the science/ tech to present what is relevant to the POV character.” Mary Robinette Kowal gives a good example from her recent Hugo Award winning novel The Calculating Stars. “When I’m writing the Lady Astronaut novels, I try to be as accurate as possible with everything that my character directly interacts with. For instance, if she’s flying a spaceship into Low Earth Orbit, then I work to make sure the orbital mechanics are correct because she’s directly interacting with them. She’s not, however, doing work on the sound suppression system on the ground, so I just assume that it exists, and those problems have been solved.”

Sometimes, when it comes to details, less is more. “Just leave the details out,” Divya says. “That’s the biggest thing I tell people when I’m doing a critique or editing. There are going to be people who are going to read it and it’s going to throw them out of the story because it’s wrong. So, leave it out and they’ll fill in the blanks with their own brain with however they think it’s possible to do this thing that you want. The handwave-y black box is sometimes just cleaner.”

What’s more, when you’re writing, you may discover you missed something important in your research and might get discouraged, but be sure to resist the procrastination temptation of more research. “When I get into the novel itself,” explains Kowal, “I do ‘spot’ research, in which I use brackets as placeholders until I have a chance to look up the specific details. For the Lady Astronaut books, I consult with a number of people in aerospace ranging from rocket engineers to actual astronauts. I often ask them to play MadLibs with my manuscript. For instance, I had one line that said, ‘The [job] still had to be [jobbed].'”

In the end, any amount of scientific knowledge is the right amount to start a science fiction story with. With a wealth of different scientific resources available, you’ll never be left wanting when it comes to detail. Just remember, above all, to write the story you, and your readers, want you to write.


Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and science fiction writer by night. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various places and she tweets and blogs about all kinds of nonsense @klagor and at <www.kellylagor.com>.

This article and more like it in the March 2020 issue of Locus.

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2 thoughts on “Kelly Lagor: Putting the “Science” in Science Fiction: Part Two

  • March 17, 2020 at 10:35 pm
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    Here is a story on the science sources.
    In “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, by Frederik Pohl, one of the characters literally says that there is a supermassive object at the heart of every galaxy. Today this is well known and accepted observational result – the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way has a well measured mass of a few million times the solar mass – but in the early 1970s when the novella was written, it was still debatable.
    I was so curious about te source, I actually wrote a letter (yes, they did exist once upon a time!) to Pohl, explained this and asked him how he came up with the idea. And he was nice enough to answer: he read it somewhere, probably in some popular science magazine, but he couldn’t remmeber where.
    Alas, the souce of his inspiration will remain a mistery, but we can go a little further. My guess is that what Pohl read was somehow connected with the quasars – in the mid 1960s Salpeter and Zeldovich speculated that quasars were powered by accretion of material on a supermassive black hole. But it was not until the HST observations in 1990s that this was proven beyond doubt. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were a few papers that pointed that the redshifts of some quasars and surrounding galaxies are similar, implying that at least some quasars may reside in clusters of galaxies. Gradually the concept that quasars may be galaxies, just with unusual core came into being. One such paper – from the right time period – is this:
    http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/pdf/1971ApJ…164L.113G
    I doubt Pohl read exactly this paper or some other scientific paper like this, but the quasars were misterious and hot topic at the time, I would not be surprised if a popular science magazine published a piece on that.
    Anyway, credit should go to Frederick Pohl for doing his research and gettig it right.

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