All genres require diligent research on the part of the writer, but none more so than Science Fiction.
Working in development, one thing I look for in reading a script is how well-researched the writer is. If the subject matter is convincingly conveyed, then the story will generally flow better. Having a well-researched script or story is all about world building. In making your world more believable, your research should inform that world to make it more convincing.
With that said, I want to use this post to go over some reasons why this is more important with the Science Fiction genre, along with some common mistakes made writing it.
Science Fiction Done Right
As a writer of science fiction, you’re truly dealing with a blank slate. There is no template for which to build your world on, because for the most part that world does not yet exist. Yet, to make your world convincing it should still conform to a certain understanding of science available and trends that could impact such a future.
The best science fiction writers also use current and past events of cultural and political importance to inform their work. From Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov to Neill Blomkamp, science fiction writers try to dissect societal problems using the genre.
Philip Dick’s When Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (the book that became Blade Runner) tries to address a future where artificial intelligence is a potential threat to humanity. Asimov is commonly credited with the “three rules of robotics,” which tries to dissuade fears of rogue AI by proposing a humane foundation for the basis of a sentient android; a subject which would be explored at length in I, Robot.
Science Fiction need not always inform the future. South African filmmaker Blomkamp is well known for his film District 9, which profiles apartheid through the POV of a government worker and the alien refugees he is sent to study in a segregated community. Blomkamp more recently worked on Elysium, which addresses how future technological advances could fuel wealth inequality.
What all these films have in common is a well-researched story that addresses something larger than the CGI effects it may or may not employ.
What separates these works from the kind I tend to pass on are three common mistakes…
A relatively new field in science and technology, it’s easy to see why misunderstandings could arise with science fiction subjects like artificial intelligence. Currently, most AI relies on machine learning. Most writers commonly mistake machine learning for full AI.
The difference is that machine learning is programmer-based, whereas strong AI is sentient and thus learns on its own. This is why many computer scientists use the terms AI vs. strong AI, sometimes also referred to as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).
While machine learning is an important step to getting programs to learn on their own, it is not the final result. It is still reliant upon programmer input. Commonly, I see Machine Learning programs presented as AI, and vice-versa.
A good example of this done well is the movie Ex Machina. Writer Alex Garland does an excellent job of using actual industry terms and coding to show us what actually constitutes an artificial intelligence. Both the script and the final film are incredibly well researched and presented in a believable way.
HER is also a less technical illustration of AGI presented well.
As a writer, you should attempt a well-versed understanding of the field of science which you plan to write about. Half-assing the subject matter or avoiding it entirely is not a convincing illustration of your world. If you don’t know your topic in and out, it will show. Make the reader believe what you are trying to convey.
World Building Overload
Many people who try to write science fiction tend to imagine giant set-pieces and stunning visuals first and foremost. The problem with this is that it often comes at the expense of character or story, and it’s also EXPENSIVE. While visualizing the world is an essential component of the genre, it is important to keep it in perspective. Spending too much time on visualization detracts from critical space that could be spent building the backbone of the world: story.
We don’t need non-essential descriptions of a room. While this is the case in most genres, it also applies to science fiction. The more the writer tries to describe something, the more he/she may also fall into clichés. Keep it simple.
Where possible, a good way to enhance your world is to include unique devices or references that may touch upon familiarity.
A good example of both of these things can be found in Blade Runner. The Voight-Kampf machine plays an important part in the story in how it assesses whether someone is a man or machine, but it also reminds us we are far into the future.
The iconic skyline in the film doesn’t overly emphasize its height or darkness; it emphasizes its saturation in ads. Specifically, the ads are in Asian text. This was written at a time in the 1980s when Japanese electronics were dominant in the American consumer landscape. The Asian ad-saturation presented both a familiarity, but also a social anxiety at a time when Americans were concerned with the beginning of mass-importation from the Far East.
Remember that your script if made will eventually attach a director, cinematographer, FX producer and production design team. So try not to get too bogged down in the details early on.
Clichés and Stories That Don’t Say Anything
This is probably the most grating of all the mistakes I find when reading science fiction scripts: genre clichés. If you’re a writer, you should be giving me something new to read and imagine, not a re-imaging of your favorite films of the genre, or themes.
Some quick examples of clichés I find: labs in a far off place for no apparent reason, see also space settings because “Space!”; mad scientists/corporations bent on world domination; sentient computers/robots bent on world domination; scientist who fears his/her creations; post-apocalyptic climate dramas; military controlling new technology to weaponize it; Male POV – one day I’d like to actually read a script featuring a female.
In addition to clichés are the films which aren’t really films. There is no quicker way to loose me as a reader (of any genre) than to write something which lacks any apparent narrative – like a big bombastic CGI imagining. Ask yourself why you’re writing this. What is the apparent conflict? If the conflict is any of the clichés above, just don’t write it. It’s been done a million times, and probably better.
What makes science fiction such an alluring genre to read and watch is to experience something new, something unsaid – something futuristic. Having a passion for the genre will always show in the writing, and the research will come easier.
Science fiction is not for everyone.
It is a very difficult genre to write well, and to avoid clichés. If you’re going to write it, I hope this post is helpful. Just know that with any writing, conveying your topic with mastery is important, in science fiction it is essential.