“I Have to be a Scientist to Write Hard Science Fiction, Right?” by S.A. Barton

My introduction to S.A. Barton was through Twitter. At first we simply tweeted back and forth a few times, but eventually I got around to reviewing some of his work. I decided after liking what I read that I would ask him to do a guest post on Sci-Fi & Scary. We tossed some ideas back and forth, and this is what we landed on. I’m very happy with the post, and think it’ll be helpful for a lot of indie science fiction writers out there.

I Have to be a Scientist to Write Hard Science Fiction, Right?

by S.A. Barton


Writing hard science fiction as a scientific layperson, a non-scientist, is imposing. I know, because many of the short stories I write are hard science fiction or contain significant hard sci-fi elements. There are people better qualified to write these stories, I tell myself in moments of self-doubt. People with degrees in the sciences, like Asimov, or Hal Clement, or Stephen Baxter. Sometimes I look at them and their work and think, there’s no way I can compete with THEM. They KNOW this stuff. They’re EXPERTS. I’m just a person who has an interest in science and read a bunch of the science fiction those experts wrote. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome…

The feeling that we really aren’t any good no matter how complimentary our readers may be. “I’m not qualified to write this” is a big chunk of writers’ block that impostor syndrome throws at those of us who experience it. Like many insecurities, it builds from something that is a genuine concern: sometimes you are not the person to write a particular story. But in my experience, you have to give it some thought and research to tell the difference between I need to write a different story and I’m feeling inadequate. Here are some thoughts on how to tell impostor syndrome to “stuff it!” when you’re not a scientist and you want to write hard sci-fi, If you write something else, read on – the basic principles apply to anyone who writes, even if some of the specifics are pitched at my favorite genre.

“Reverse the Polarity!”

            The beauty of science fiction – any kind of writing, really – is that anyone can do it. That’s also the pitfall. Writing hard sci-fi without a serious science background casually, just winging it with some technobabble, doesn’t really work unless you’re Star Trek.  Even then, you’ve heard the jokes about the main deflector that can do anything if you can just “reverse the polarity.” Technobabble, in fact, doesn’t even really work in Star Trek. It’s just a good enough patch to limp awkwardly through the end of the we’re-in-peril part of the plot so the writer can get on with resolving the interpersonal portion of the plot, which is usually more satisfying anyhow.

So don’t focus on the technobabble, or even the technology. Focus on humanity. Humans like to read stories about humans doing human stuff, or nonhumans doing nonhuman stuff because the nonhuman stuff makes us think about human stuff. Think of Asimov and his robot stories. His “positronic brains” are technobabble. Generally, they’re not made fun of very much, though. Perhaps that’s because he didn’t draw attention to it by trying to support that little bit of technobabble with a lot more technobabble.

Explain technology, but keep the details brief. Like a sentence or two brief. You very seldom need more than that. Don’t hesitate to make the details vague, especially if your actual characters wouldn’t understand the technology. Think of people now – most of us have only the most basic idea of how our smartphones work or our cars run. That won’t change. Buck Rogers almost certainly didn’t know why his blaster blasted. He just knew he could blast people with it.


The Whoozit and the Whatsit Connect to the Thingajig

            This principle is super important, especially if you’re a non-scientist writing hard sci-fi: do not try to explain everything. Because he didn’t try to explain them, you could argue that Asimov’s positronic brains weren’t hard science fiction, and you’d be right. That specific element was science fantasy. He didn’t spend decades trying to figure out how to build an artificial intelligence so he could explain precisely how and why it worked, or even spend months trying to research everything related to computers, because he was a writer. He wanted to write, not invent the self-aware thinking robot.

What is hard science fiction about Asimov’s robot fiction is the robots themselves. When he was writing, early robots were already being devised, and eventually deployed in industry. He was asking questions, speculating if you will – that’s where the alternative phrase for science fiction, “speculative fiction,” comes from. He wrote a series of great stories that led the reader to consider all sorts of ramifications linked to potential advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. How will robots change the workplace, how we live, how we think about what consciousness is and what it means to be human. Hey, what does it mean to be human anyhow (there’s my first point again)? And of course the all-important Golem question: how will we keep AIs and robots under control – or at least from destroying us?

Take a moment and think back on what you’ve read in the past. If you haven’t read a ton of hard science fiction, ask someone who has.  How many stories have you read where explaining how X, Y, and Z work takes up a lot of wordcount? Have you read one? Hard science fiction, whether it’s an element in your story or the whole thing, isn’t the main attraction.


“Houston, we have a problem.”

Still, do your research. While you’re not going to write six pages about how a space station stays in geosynchronous orbit in your space station story, you do want to make sure the elements you use in your story are right. When I set my short-short Brittany and Dustin Depart This Earth in an orbital habitat, I didn’t need to explain a ton of things to make it work as a hard science fiction setting. I didn’t need to explain how the station-keeps its orbit, or how the habitat keeps its air clean and oxygenated. I didn’t have to explain what alloys were used for the hull or how the superstructure was constructed to manage the various stresses on it. I didn’t even really specify the shape or size of the habitat! I could have done a ton of research and explained all those things in depth and buried the human story and the element I really needed to make the story work, one that needed very little research: the variable Coriolis “gravity” that results when spin is used to give the inhabitants an up and down, and the fact that the closer you get to the axis of spin, the less “gravity” there is.

I could have done more research and explained a bunch of things about how the “spaceplane” that carried them from ground to orbit worked, too. But I didn’t need to. Actual scientists have thought about this stuff and think the concept is probably workable in the real world.  A spaceplane that does the work of a space shuttle or a payload-carrying rocket while behaving more like a traditional airplane for takeoff and landing is a concept that people have been playing with for decades.: I needed a way for the characters to start on Earth and travel to an orbital habitat so Dustin could grouse about how he didn’t really want to retire to orbit and didn’t think he’d like living in the habitat. That’s it. In hard science fiction, the science is mostly setting and background. Back to the first point, your story is still a human story. You’re a human – that means you can write that! You have years of experience being a human.

“Dammit, Jim! I’m … not a scientist!”

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that if you spin a big can of people in space, people can walk on the inside of the can. Or to know that spaceplanes are a thing that is probably possible to build with current technology.

Look at Baxter’s Flood series, in which the oceans rise until every bit of land on Earth is submerged. Baxter does have a science background, and those books are based on current theory. He gives you links to sources in the back of the book so you can go read the theoretical support for the possibility of the scenario for yourself – at least, they were in the paperback edition I read. Wildly speculative storyline, hard science fiction grounding. He doesn’t explain it to death. He understands how storytelling works. He just hands some homework to those who want to explore, which is a great gesture to the fans who love their hard science fiction as hard as possible. You don’t have to make that gesture.

Don’t explain too much, research the points that apply directly to your story, and always remember the story is king and humans are the story.

Know thyself!

Do, however – and this goes back to the very beginning of this post – do your best to recognize your limits. I’m not the guy to write an in-depth, totally accurate description of an accident in a modern particle accelerator, or of what a credible, research-validated result of such an accident might be. I’d have to research my ass off to write that one, or collaborate with someone who had a background that was applicable. I’m not going to try writing that story alone. And that’s okay.

But, I gotta do it! I just gotta!

“Oh, but I must write that story!” No, you do not must. A single idea is the least thing you can have as a writer, isn’t it really? I’ve got a million of them. So do you, if you care to sit down with a notebook once in a while, or even if you just sit and think and read stuff. I might be stalled considering what I want to write today, but not for lack of ideas of things it might be cool to write about. If you want to write about, let’s say, someone dying of radiation poisoning as a result of a supercollider accident, and supercollider accidents are kind of outside of your area of expertise, and you try Googling “results of supercollider accident” and realize it’s going to take many days of slogging through Google Scholar to even figure out if it’s a reasonable scenario that could be considered hard sci-fi, give up.


Give up? Say WHAT?!

Yes, give up that setting and premise. But no, don’t give up the story! Death is an old story, it’s a cliché, it has been done a million times, but so have all the good stories. What you bring is good storytelling, good writing, good characters, and a passion for what you do. That’s your stock in trade when you write hard science fiction, or absolutely any other kind of creative writing under the sun. There are a ton of ways to give that character radiation poisoning that will take a more reasonable amount of research for your non-scientist self to pull off credibly. Make him a worker in a nuclear power plant. Make him part of the cleanup crew at the site of a meltdown. Have an enemy sneak a hunk of uranium into the water tank of his toilet. Have him wander onto a military test range when a gamma bomb is due to be detonated… well, that’s someone else’s story and it’s not exactly hard science fiction. But you get the point.

I are too perfect!!

Last but not least, you will screw something up. It’s unavoidable. Larry Niven, who totally knew better, had the Earth spinning the wrong way in the first edition of Ringworld – which isn’t an example of hard science fiction by any means, but has a lot of hard sci-fi elements and based-on-hard-science speculation. It’s a reminder that even people who know better flub details in stories sometimes. Do your best. Spend some time with Google and Google Scholar before you set out to write your hard science fiction. You’ll be fine, PhD or no PhD.

S.A. BartonYou can find S.A. Barton at his site: https://sabarton.com/

You can also chat him up on twitter at:@Tao23

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2 Responses to “I Have to be a Scientist to Write Hard Science Fiction, Right?” by S.A. Barton

  1. My ability to “like” your posts is still out, but I wanted to make sure you knew this one got a “like” from me, it being out of your most common type of post, and a good one at that.

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