How to Sound Like an Expert | by Gregory Benford

A scientist who writes fiction is as rare as a dancing bear. As Samuel Johnson might have remarked on seeing such a thing in the streets of London, one is not surprised to see it done well, but simply to see it done at all.

by Gregory Benford

A scientist who writes fiction is as rare as a dancing bear. As Samuel Johnson might have remarked on seeing such a thing in the streets of London, one is not surprised to see it done well, but simply to see it done at all.

That gives anyone with a technical background an edge in writing speculative fiction. You have at your fingertips information that you can, with some dexter­ity, shape to fiction’s needs.

I started writing science fiction while a graduate stu­dent working on my doctorate. My first few (utterly unmemorable) published stories used very little scien­tific information. I was so uncertain of my narrative strengths that I tried to stick to staple backgrounds and use the techniques I’d seen other, better writers deploy. This was a mistake.

I began to understand how bad an error it was when I finally did catch on to the obvious fact that scientists have some advantages. Like the dancing bear, you get the benefit of the doubt with editors. Up to a far-distant point, they’ll overlook your thin characters, abrupt swerves, disconnected plot elements . . . if you have a “nice idea.” A “nice” notion is one that strikes the usually nonspecialist reader as clever, striking, original. Like a ballet dancer’s leap, this is an event that occurs in a glimmering, but takes long hours of preparation by the performer. SF editors love such moments in fiction, because they are the essential thrill in all speculative literature: something unforseen but instantly recogniz­able as right.

This means that the readership is paying you to dream in public. But these must be machine dreams, with gritty substance and some fact behind them. Having that, you can sin against many fictive commandments and still reach an audience.

Mind, this doesn’t mean you’ll be writing great fic­tion. That still requires all the attention to character, plot, imagery and narrative drive that all good fiction demands. But the simple advantage of knowing interest­ing things—or knowing where to find them, and mining those sources—can work wonders. There are magazines that run techno-talk yarns sometimes bereft of some narrative skills, and fans continue to read them because of the real meat they contain.

Of course, people don’t read science fiction to learn science any more than others read historical novels to study history. There are easier ways to go about that.

Yet the fact remains that “hard” science fiction—the kind based on the physical sciences—remains the core of the field. The reading public persists in thinking of rockets, lasers and aliens as the central subject matter of science fiction. Writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke—classic “hard” SF figures—now appear on the bestseller lists.

Similarly, most SF magazines yearn for more stories with a thorough grounding in science. Generally, it is easier to sell a short story with high scientific content than one which concentrates, for example, on social changes, or age-old conflicts in a futuristic setting.

The shortage is even more acute for book publishers. A prominent editor remarked to me recently that at least two thirds of the manuscripts he receives are fantasy, and much of the remainder is only nominally science fiction.

Why is this so? Because science is daunting, complex and hard to work into a story. Few writers have very much scientific training to build on, and the pace of scientific research is so rapid that you can be outdated while you’re working out a plotline. Many stories of only twenty years ago look antique now.

This is a tough problem for even seasoned profession­als. You can concentrate on the science and not notice that you’re rolling out wooden, predictable stories. One reason some published hard-science fiction isn’t very well written is that the editors can’t get anything better, but they need some “hard” material.

For the enterprising writer, though, this represents a real opportunity. Speculative fiction is traditionally open to new talent and new ideas. The trouble with many incoming authors in the 1970s, though, was that their “new” idea often was simple doom-crying. It is always easier to see problems than to think of their solutions. Stories built on simple recognition of the unforeseen side effects of technology have a sameness about them, a lack of inventiveness that bores readers.

This is an easy trap to fall into. It may be an unconscious choice; the current glut of fantasy novels (often trilogies) seems to arise from newer writers, who seem to share the anti-science sentiments of the middle 1970s. Of course, powerful yarns have been spun with this angle, and will be again—but it is a high-risk avenue to take.

So consider using not just dollops of science in fic­tion, but firmly basing stories on it. Admittedly, it’s a help to have an extensive background in science or engineering. But even if your degree is in linguistics or animal husbandry, and you’re interested in science, you can use your training.

The fundamental requirement, of course, is that you like “hard” SF in the first place. Trying to write some­thing you have no enthusiasm or feel for is a ticket to disaster. If you have read hard science fiction for pleasure, and know the basic motifs, you have already served your apprenticeship.

There are several steps that can help you become an adequate writer of science-based stories and then go on to carve out your own individual corner in the field. They aren’t hard-and-fast, of course, but I use them every day.

1. Do your homework. Everybody laughs when TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica routinely mistake “solar system” for “galaxy,” use light-year as a unit of time, and make other howlers of that kind. Such blun­ders do seem to pass right by the mass TV audience, but in a printed story, even one can easily cause immediate rejection by science fiction editors and readers.

Science is replete with terminology (or, uncharitably, jargon). Using it accurately convinces the audience that you’re telling the truth. If you need it, be sure you consult a reference. I keep my set of the Britannica nearby, but more specialized books are invaluable. A brief list from my own shelf:

The Science in Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls, editor; Knopf. The best place to start. Covers everything, with many references to fictional treatments and nonfiction background.

Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, Simon Mitton, editor; Crown. A good overview, technically accu­rate and well written.

Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology; Avon. Tidbits of history and science.

The Quest for Extraterrestrial Life, Donald Gold­smith, editor; University Science Books. A collection of readings with many speculative ideas.

Black Holes and Warped Spacetime, William Kaufmann; Freeman. The best book on that subject.

The Seven Mysteries of Life, Guy Murchie; Hough­ton Mifflin. Observations on many sciences. You can pick up many “bits of business” here that lend atmos­phere to even the driest facts.

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls, edi­tor; Doubleday. A thorough listing of major treatments of major SF ideas, plus much else of interest about the field.

This last entry is invaluable for trying out your new­born idea, to see if somebody used it in a famous story from 1938. Not that you can’t re-use an idea, but you should know if you are; that affects how you treat it.

Don’t pass up any chance to do some background reading, no matter how minor it seems. Use your natural curiosity.

A few years ago I was working on a novel using Greek archeology, Artifact. I had a character remark in passing, “The ancients were building elegant domes when our ancestors were hunting mastodons.” After I’d typed those words, I realized I had no idea when the mastodons disappeared. A few minutes’ checking showed that while they had been hunted to extinction in Europe well before the Greeks, they lived on in North America until a few thousand years ago. I then used this fact later in the conversation, adding an insider’s detail that an archeologist might plausibly know, but the ca­sual reader wouldn’t.

2. Organize! Technical material needs to simmer in your mind. Good hard SF demands not that you parrot material from an encyclopedia, but that you think about it and develop it creatively. I let my deep-down creative processes do most of my idea-making. I even go to the extent of lying in bed each morning, mulling over the science and plot of my current project, seeing if any idea has surfaced in the night.

To keep myself open to fresh notions, I keep my source material handy, so that I can review it whenever I want. That means accumulating clippings, photocopies, copious notes—and organizing them into quickly findable form, using headings like Starship, Alien Biology, and Techtalk.

I was browsing through this material when it sudden­ly occurred to me that an opening line in an already-written chapter could have two different meanings. The line was, “When he woke up he was dead.” In the novel it meant one thing, but in the near future it could mean the man had his nervous system cut off. Why? How would he regain control?

Within a few minutes the material I had filed under Advanced Medical fell into place. I used the idea for a separate short story. Then I incorporated some of this new material back into the novel I had been working on, finding that this diversion had opened up new possibili­ties in the original situation. The back of the mind at work! Eventually these elements formed a crucial part of the novel Across the Sea of Suns.

3. Counter-punch. This is Damon Knight’s famous tactic. It works well in quite technical matters as well as in the way Damon used it to write some of his best short stories, like “Not With a Bang.”

SF is full of common assumptions that were once inventive but are now mere conventions. Time and again authors invoke faster-than-light travel so their characters can whiz around the galaxy, righting wrongs, with no more than a few weeks spent in travel. This is good for classic Aristotelian dramatic unity, but not using it can be an asset, if it leads you to a new angle. What would an empire be like if ships moved at a hundredth of light-speed? How would it maintain political unity? What conflicts would arise?

This policy of truly thinking through the ideas in SF can lead to major projects. Years ago I started thinking about time travel, and asked myself—as a physicist—how scientists would proceed if they discovered a par­ticle that could move backward in time. Would they send a man backward, as their First experiment? Of course not—too expensive, too dangerous.

So I spent years writing a novel called Timescape, in which physicists do nothing more dramatic than try to send mere messages backward in time. This was more than enough to generate conflict and suspense, and I profited by not echoing the ideas of a thousand earlier stories. Asking how events might really happen, given the realities of our world, can always turn up unex­plored avenues.

4. Ask the next question. This well-known motto, invented by Theodore Sturgeon, might well be the most important for any SF work. It’s particularly germane for hard SF.

New technology and science appear everyday in our newspapers and on TV. Much of it is obscure, or just another slight improvement of a particular widget. But some changes can alter the lives of common people, and these are the most fertile fields for anticipating the un­seen effects.

The easiest things to anticipate are problems, but if developed no farther this approach leads to downbeat, hopeless stories. There are two ways out.

First, you can go for the really unexpected side-effect. For example, several years ago the news coverage of Barney Clark’s heroic use of an artificial heart stimula­ted my imagination. Would the public always applaud such exotic medical technology? What if for 250 million you could buy not merely a replacement heart, but virtual immortality? I wrote a story about a dying man who could not tolerate the sight of a millionaire buying a whole new life. With nothing left to lose, what would this man do? Pessimistic, in a way—but the story, titled “Immortal Night,” generated suspense which sprang from wondering just what the viewpoint character wanted.

The less risky way around the pessimistic-story trap is to see an unexpected positive aspect of what looks at first pretty bleak. For example, the Coming of the Com­puter. Will its ability to save and check information lead to a “surveillance society” where we have no secrets from the government? Think of a way computers can help thwart a police state—and show it in action. So many people fear computers already, such a story could key a surge of optimism and thus be very popular.

5. Show the tip of the iceberg. The most dreaded beast in hard SF is the Expository Lump. That’s the long paragraph explaining how a new invention works, or what the ecology of a strange planet is like, or some other necessary but intrusive material. You have to ex­plain a lot without slowing down the action.

Suppose your hero is on a low-gravity planet. Don’t lecture your reader about it, dully cataloguing the mass and size and atmospheric details of your world. Instead, let your hero notice in passing that many kinds of large animals have wings for gliding or flying, that life in trees is more abundant, and that the trees themselves are taller and branch out farther. This colorful detail allows the reader to fill in much of the background himself.

This can work even better in near-future stories. In my novel Timescape, I dealt extensively with a runaway biological disaster. The foreground is concerned with scientists and how they work, but I realized I hadn’t shown how advanced knowledge of manipulating the genetic code would affect ordinary life. How could I fill this in without devoting much space to it? My solution was to let a character notice that a road-filling job outside his laboratory was being done by apes. These animals had had their intelligence artificially enhanced until they could follow verbal orders and do manual labor. This, and one or two other quick touches, gave the background color I wanted.

Even if you’re weak on science, you don’t have to give up the hard SF story. The most important role of science in SF is establishing setting, and you can do that with reading or travel.

Years ago I sold a short story, but I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Slowly I saw that it was the beginning of a novel—but the larger plot had to occur at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. I didn’t know much about how working space scientists talked or thought. So I used my journalistic and scientific connec­tions to find out. I had written articles for Smithsonian and Natural History, so I cited these credits to line up several visits to J.P.L. There I got to know space-scientists and picked up those little nuggets of detail I later used for In the Ocean of Night.

Of course, there are some elements of technical detail that aren’t really science, just engineering, or mechanics, or any hard-edged body of knowledge. But they carry the same freight of recognizable, “hard” information, and can have the same effect in establishing the writer’s credibility. Look up Algis Budrys’ remarkably compact “The Distant Sound of Engines,” for a model example of working detail (this time about trucking) into a dra­matic, understated story. It makes its points by analogy and works beautifully because you’ve been shown evi­dence that the author has done his homework and so is talking straight goods to you.

More than anything else, hard SF demands that you convey with assurance the feel of the future. Science is viewed by some as an embodiment of certainty. Cer­tainty overcomes disbelief. Fine. Use that. Just as the whaling information in Moby Dick underpins the ac­tion, the science in SF commands belief. And that’s my ultimate point:

To the SF reader, often the “bits of business” incor­porating the atmosphere of hard SF are enough to con­vince him you know what you are talking about. Then he will go along for your voyages on whatever strange seas you have mastered.

* * *

About the Author

W.O.T.F. Contest judge Gregory Benford first appeared as an SF writer with a 1000-word short story that won Second Place in a Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction contest. This capped a long career as an active SF fan, during which he co-published the legend­ary amateur magazine, Void, where many of his early stories and articles appeared.

His Junior year in high school saw the launching of Sputnik, and veered him into a serious interest in science. This has culminated, so far, in a professorship at the University of California, where he heads a research group devoted to the study of plasma physics and a phenomenon he named, the “super-strong turbulence.”

Re-awakened interest in writing then led him to also produce such landmark SF novels as Timescape, In the Ocean of Night, and Heart of The Comet. So in the world of science he has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Fellow at Cambridge University, and a guest lecturer around the world. And in SF, he holds two Nebula awards. It’s beyond a doubt that he knows what he’s talking about when he tells you as an author how to sound like you know what you’re talking about. . . .


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