Why do science-fiction stories work?

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The “Science Fiction” panel at C2E2 consisted of, from left, moderator Gary K. Wolfe and authors John Scalzi, M. D. Waters, and Daryl Gregory. // all photos by Michael E. Bakich
I recently attended the fourth annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). It ran from Friday, April 25 through Sunday, April 27. Because of Astronomy’s tie-in to the science end of things, I attended as a member of the press.

One of the panels I attended was “Science Fiction.” During the hourlong session, authors John Scalzi (The Human Division), Daryl Gregory (Afterparty), and M. D. Waters (Prototype) talked about how they got into science fiction, their influences, and what’s hot vs. what’s not right now. They also had some great points about writing high-quality sci-fi, several of which could apply to any type of writing.

1) Write with someone in mind. All three authors agreed the person "in mind" should be a non-science type.

Lots of people (including me) wore science-related T-shirts. This was one of the funniest.
2) Organize your story in blocks that people with different interests will find fascinating or entertaining. Don’t make any block so long that it becomes boring to a particular group.

3) Give people what they think they want, but also surprise them with your overarching story line — in other words, what you want to give them.

4) The best stories are the ones that readers participate in as much as the authors. Gregory said that he adores fan fiction (works by fans of the original story rather than by the author) because it’s so participatory.

5) Always leave an option for a sequel or a series. It’s easier to plan ahead than to write a continuation of a book you initially viewed as a one-off. Scalzi said that he builds not fully realized characters into each of his works so he can, if needed, go back and develop their histories. Oh, and the general consensus was, “Serialize first, then compile.”

6) This area of literature has broad roots. When writing sci-fi, you can borrow from any genre.

One of the booths at C2E2 was none other than a Milwaukee favorite — American Science and Surplus. Visitors from around the world got their nerd fix here for a surprisingly reasonable fee.
7) Don’t overreach. A sci-fi story or book is a window into another world. It doesn’t have to be the whole world.

8) In sci-fi, the best endings are what Scalzi called “slingshot endings.” That’s where, even though the story is over, the readers know things are going to change radically. Such a vehicle gives them one more opportunity to think about the story they just read.

I asked the final question of the session: “Each of you has talked about your influences from the world of fiction. The subject, however, is science fiction. Do any of you delve into the science realm?”

Scalzi said he reads science not only as required for his research, but also for entertainment. Gregory said he doesn’t read fiction anymore at all: “It’s all science now.” Then came my biggest surprise. Waters said she watches a lot of science fiction and reads a little of it. She then said, “Science is boring to me. I don’t read any of it.”

Hmm, I bet her books are fascinating.

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