Saturday, January 10, 2015


One of the cool things about writing sci-fi is the opportunity for research.

In most genres, research means getting your facts right before someone picks you up on some inaccuracy. But where does that leave stories set far away in time and space? No-one can tell you that you made a mistake in describing your imaginary world because nobody's ever been there! And the cornerstone of speculative fiction is to imagine things that lie beyond our known world. But does that put them beyond research?

Most of the technology in Ghosts of Innocence is hugely speculative although mainstream for the genre. Most far-future stories involve some form of faster-than-light travel. Many have weapons that throw something more futuristic than crude bullets. Much of the time these miracles of technology are introduced with diversionary hand-waving and little more than a passing nod to any solid scientific foundation.

I'm as guilty of that as anyone. For FTL travel, I make a passing reference to folds in space and leave it at that, because, quite frankly, nobody cares. Just throw in enough to suspend disbelief and get on with the story. In fact, the only reason I offer any kind of rationale for my FTL drive is to lay the ground for some of its limitations that affect the plot in some way.

With all this freedom, if you can simply lay out impossible technology limited only by your imagination, where is the place for research?

Well, for starters you can't have it all your own way. No matter how far out your concepts, your readers need your world to have some inner consistency, and that takes some serious thought.

Just as important, the basis of sci-fi (and what distinguishes it from fantasy) is its roots in science. The connection may be tenuous, but it needs to be sufficiently credible to keep the reader hooked. The connection might be nothing more than some speculative theorizing about wormholes or multi-dimensions that may or may not ever be put on a firmer foundation, but there should be some traceable roots back to present day science. That means researching at least enough about science and technology to be convincing, and then stretching that knowledge as far as you can without losing your reader along the way.

The strangest thing about sci-fi, though, is that people happily accept blatant present-day impossibilities like FTL travel, or artificial gravity fields, without so much as a blink of an eye, but they get picky about smaller things. It's relatively easy to get away with big bold lies, but the closer you get to some version of recognizable reality the more demanding people get.

Like trying to plan the perfect murder, it's the little details that'll trip you up.

In future posts I'll be sharing a few things I've come across in the line of duty, but meanwhile, what cool things have you researched for your stories?


  1. Someone once said the bigger the lie the easier it is to believe. I can accept all sorts of time and space travel, but put a wrong period painting of the wall and I come unglued.

  2. I researched more on sea kelp than anything else for my upcoming novel. And a certain type of animal. But as for how the space ships travel as fast as they do - hey, you'll just have to go with it.

  3. Stephen, I think some of the "biggies" like space travel are just accepted as part of the genre. It would be pretty boring if we just stuck to what we know is theoretically possible by today's standards.

    Alex, sea kelp? You've got me curious now :)

  4. I enjoy research as much, if not more, than writing about it. Then writers have to be careful not to include too much research or it just becomes showing off. That annoys me when I read superfluous stuff, really, we just need to get on with the story. I'm currently writing a 'chick-lit' all about Paris and food and landmarks. You can imagine what fun this is!

    Happy New Year!

    Denise :-)

  5. I love research! Sometimes, I can get carried away and get lost in the research. And then I forget why I started it in the first place. :) It is a fine balancing act, though ... knowing just how much research to do and how not to let it distract or overwhelm you from your duty as a writer to simply tell a good story.

  6. Denise, I imagine your research on Paris included a large hands-on component - what hardship :)

    David, the danger is when the research starts to intrude on the story rather than just giving it depth and realism. Like Denise says, it then becomes showing off. A fine balance indeed.


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