This is the second in a series of musings on science fiction writing. Here’s the first.
As most of my readers know, I publish in a variety of genres. I was an avid reader growing up, and some of my favorite authors were multifaceted in the types of stories they would tell. The models I found the most inspiring in media were those forged by creators who could tell a compelling tale in a variety of settings, times and genres.
Ridley Scott may be best known for his work on Alien, especially since he continues to mine that world, but he also made many other movies I still love watching today, like Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven (his cut of this, not the theatrical). His characters are interesting and fleshed out. He has an “eye” I appreciate. And while he does gravitate more toward sci-fi stories, he is obviously excellent at directing a variety of stories.
Stephen King is best known for his supernatural horror, but I am drawn in particular to his more human-centered stories, where the horror comes in the way we treat each other. Stories like The Body, Misery, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption are among my favorite King tales – though my very favorite is probably his dystopian novel, The Long Walk.
George R.R. Martin, best known for the Game of Thrones series (or – as readers know it – A Song of Ice and Fire), also dabbles in more than just fantasy. I first encountered Martin’s writing when I was twelve and stumbled on a copy of Fevre Dream, a vampire tale set on a riverboat in the 1800s. Even with Game of Thrones occupying such a huge portion of his fandom and popularity, because Fevre Dream was such impactful reading for me, it’s how I first think of him.
I tend to like variety in my media consumption. I listen to most genres of music and enjoy stuff from pretty much every corner. I like action movies, sci-fi movies, documentaries, introspective movies, rom-coms, comedies, drama – you get the picture (pun intended). And when I read, I like to read in a lot of genres. Authors who can write well in a variety of genres have always been, colloquially speaking, #LifeGoals for me.
But it’s not just that I admire the skill of creators who can do this. It’s also freeing to me to work in a similar way. I don’t want to be stuck writing only horror, or fantasy, or science fiction. If I come up with a cool story that’s set in the modern, mundane world, I like the freedom of being able to write that without feeling compelled to stick to a genre I’ve been labeled with.
It’s also why my science fiction tends to be all over the place. Much of my work isn’t published, as I’ve never really polished it up. But I have a book sitting somewhere that is pretty solidly science fiction, but also vampires. I’ve done cyberpunk and space opera. Virus sci-fi, AI sci-fi, near future sci-fi, far future sci-fi. In short, I like to explore: both in ideas and in life. So my sci-fi won’t be all one type. It’s just not my style.
I’m actually not as much of a fantasy reader as I am a science fiction reader, though that has changed over the years. As I got more into YA fiction in my 20s, I gravitated to YA authors who wrote fantasy and discovered stories that appealed to me, like Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series (sometimes called the Abhorsen series), or Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials (which has elements of steampunk as well). When I was younger, the idea of jumping into books in epic series was not appealing – it doesn’t appeal very much now, either. I’m an impatient reader, and watcher really, and if a story doesn’t truly grip me I tend to find the ending online and spoil it for myself to see if I want to keep reading it. YA fantasy held the appeal that most series, at that time anyway, tended to be shorter.
I believe that’s probably what kept me from reading too much fantasy in the early 90s when I really began to branch out into more adult fiction, as opposed to tween fiction, like Chrisopher Pike, or Judy Blume; both are fun authors, but I ran out of stuff to read pretty quickly. Back then, fantasy was epitomized by Robert Jordan, at least from my perspective. Friends I knew who read and recommended fantasy always pulled these doorstops off their shelves and foisted them onto me. It was intimidating to me, to say the least, because the idea of having to read alllll that to find out what finally happened was an agonizing thought.
Now I’m older, and I can get into those kinds of books, but it still takes some goading and some crackling writing. I’m not a slow burn reader. Thus, my writing tends to be how I like to read. It’s quick and pacey. A frequent complaint about my books is that they’re too short. I’ll counter complain that books have become too long. 😉
My books almost always fall neatly within 80,000-100,000 words, which I’ve read is quite typical for most novels, aside from epic fantasies. In fact, I’ve been told more than once that if I ever wanted to submit my work to a traditional publisher, it should fall in that range or it’s less likely to be picked up. Obviously, that’s not a problem for me. I like to think people complain my books are too short because they enjoyed reading them so much, they didn’t stop to check the time the whole way through. 😉 It’s easier on me that way. But there may be some truth to that.
Most fiction actually does fall in that range. I know this both from searching online (I linked to three results there, but run a google search on typical novel length and you’ll see what I mean), and because I worked for many years at a public library. Diana Gabaldon was the exception, not the rule, and when her books were all checked in, we had no choice but to “weed” most of the copies once they were no longer in demand enough to stay off the shelves. They simply wouldn’t fit on our shelves, so off to the book sale they went! But the vast majority of books fit neatly into a spine 1.5 inches to 2 inches wide. It’s just not that uncommon for bestsellers to be in the 80-100K range. In the last sentence, I’ve linked to some bestsellers word counts – some famous ones I remember, and some from a list of the 40 bestselling titles in 2020 – if you’d like a little proof in your pudding. 😊
That isn’t to say I couldn’t find books that were much longer in that list of bestsellers, but as I’ve said – it’s been a trend for things to get way, way longer of late. The epic is in. At least for now. Here’s an interesting breakdown of bestsellers and their average word counts in various genres on Kindleprenuer. What’s interesting about these numbers, and it matches with the trends, is that key authors tend to move the bar. The author mentions The Stand as being the longest horror book. There’s another side effect to the way Stephen King writes. All his books, save a few, a very lengthy for the horror genre. He’s the leader in the genre, so writers who want to be successful like him, or whose work is heavily influenced by him, will also write longer works. This pushes the average up. Martin and Gabaldon have seen a ton of success, even though they write enormous books, paving the way for others who typically were told their books are too long, to try their hand at books that go on forever.
What’s interesting is that the publishing industry still doesn’t like lengthy books from first-time authors. You’ll see some testimonials from people who work in the publishing industry who talk about stuff that goes in the “slush” pile – some are linked above. Often, books over 120,000 words go to that pile automatically. People will say, but what about so and so, who writes books that are hugely long? Have you ever looked up the word count of Carrie? 64,000 words. First books tend to be shorter, even by authors who later write super-long books. You have to get your foot in the door. Carrie was a wild success. King immediately started writing longer books, which you can see in the page counts of his bibliography.
But all those issues don’t really apply to me. For me, the freedom of being able to write how I want to is more desirable than the possibility of either an advance or more publicity by trying to land that elusive book deal. It’s just not worth the effort if the end result is I’d be hampered by so many rules. Even authors as strong as Stephen King need to bend to the will of the publisher. If you haven’t ever read up on the creation of Richard Bachman, it’s an interesting case in point. King wanted to write more. But publishers have ideas about what an author is and how they should write. So King created Bachman so he could write more. I’ve never tried to traditionally publish, so I’ve never had to worry about following trends like longer book length, or even keeping things under a certain word count. So I write the way I like to read – shorter (90K words), pacey books.
Because it’s my preference to write books that conclude at around 90,000 words, my science fiction doesn’t really have space for me to go into a ton of detail about, well, science. I prefer to have the reader figure stuff out from context. It’s my style, and it’s also how I like to read. Artemis, which I’ve mentioned before, is actually pretty short, coming in at roughly 78,000 words. Shorter than any of my novels, and about twice as large as some of my novellas. But I still had trouble getting into it, because so much of the page space is dedicated to explaining how the science works.
Andy Weir does an impressive amount of research for his books. They are objectively hard science fiction. There’s almost nothing in his books that isn’t currently in the works, scientifically speaking. It’s not hard to imagine the events of The Martian actually occurring in twenty years or so. Same with Artemis. Should those kinds of explorations be what we as a society want to invest in, the technology is there to work with. It’s just very expensive, and requires a large amount of support and investment to do, but it’s certainly far more plausible than, say, Star Trek, which assumes in fifty years or so, we’ll be traveling at “warp” speeds, or faster than light. This isn’t something we’ve even begun to crack, and there’s a lot of theory that would indicate it’s impossible to actually do. Laws of physics constraining anything with mass from going that fast is one thing, but to get to those speeds, they also always have to invent “inertial dampeners” which is… not a thing. But that’s fine! Sometimes you have to employ a little “science fiction magic” to actually explore the themes you want to explore. What would it be like to be a part of an intergalactic federation? Well, first you have to have aliens, so you just kind of hand wave that part away to get to the good stuff. Even science fiction that fans purport to be “harder” sci-fi does this.
To use The Expanse again as an example – and to be clear here, I enjoy The Expanse a whole lot – they don’t really go too much into the science of how their space travel is as fast as it is. But they want to talk about colonialization and space and want to speculate on what would happen with competing political factions. To do that, they need to get significant colonies out there – 1.5 million on Eros for example, so we’re really talking significant colonization. To get to Mars right now takes roughly nine months depending on a number of factors (planets move, ship size, etc.). In the series, it’s done in a couple of days. To get to the belt they talk about in the series, It would take much longer. There’s even a station on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. And that’s really out there. If you had to create a colonization story with those kinds of limitations it would be a pretty dull affair most of the time. “Day one. On our way to colonize Ganymede. We ate dehydrated food and tried to stay sane.” “Day 1,574. Still on our way. Maybe a little less sane. Seth’s feet stink.” It’s a story that might make for some interesting drama, but not the sort of epic political strife The Expanse is going for. So they use a little sci-fi magic and invent a technology that makes the storytelling easier. If you look at the tech of the “Epstein Drive” it’s a lot of nice science buzz words: fusion drives, magnetic coil exhaust acceleration – it certain sounds science-y, but there’s not a lot of actual hard science going on under the hood other than broad concepts (there are some who have tried to write actual science breakdowns of this stuff, but honestly it’s way less fun to think about how one gets to a Jupiter moon station than being on the Jupiter moon station is to think about). Same goes with the magic juice they always use that’s supposed to protect humans from sustained 10G’s+ of force. Maybe that would work once, or a few times. But you’ll pickle your body from the inside out if you “juice” as much as these folks would have to in order to make these trips, not to mention all the medical nonsense about the chairs – you can’t just inject people wherever and these chairs would each have to be fitted to each person to work that way, among so many other issues. They use a little science to make the magic seem less magical – anti clotting agents so you don’t stroke out, etc. But it’s not really medically feasible to do this to the human body on a regular basis. But that doesn’t matter.
I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit here to make a point that even in a “hard sci-fi,” “heavily researched” book, there’s a lot of science magic doing heavy work. People who read fiction typically aren’t going to get the same kind of enjoyment out of actual hard science. The series does an impressive job with layering in a lot more realistic details than something like Star Trek – magnetic gravity books instead of gravity being turned on and off, the way the belters have developed in low G environments, the lack of inertial dampeners is doing a lot here – but it’s still just fiction at the end of the day.
It’s not about the accuracy of the facts or science. You literally could read a non-fiction science book if that’s how you’re entertained – you don’t need to get through 600 pages of people talking about water rights to get that fix. Science fiction is about the storytelling and whether or not you give enough to your audience to suspend their disbelief in the setting you’ve chosen. Obviously the writers of The Expanse have done that.
For my part, I tend to shy away from those kinds of explanations in my science fiction books – going into details about how the ship’s engines work, for instance, or any of the technical aspects of life. For one, I’m not living in a world where this stuff is currently possible; I can only speculate on what might be possible. And if I try to explain the science of what I’m writing about in detail, what will become apparent rather quickly is that I’m not a theoretical physicist. I’m not a biologist, a chemist, or anything like those things. I have some formal education, but not enough to make me an expert – just enough to make me dangerous, as they say.
For another, I don’t find it natural. I’ll give you an example of what I mean here. Let’s go back to the 1800s. Let’s say I’m an author in the 1800s writing a novel set in the now. All the characters are from the now, even if the reader and writer are from the 1800s. I write a character who goes into the kitchen of her house to get something to eat out of the fridge. She takes it to the microwave, heats it up, and eats it, while looking at her phone reading the day’s news. In my opinion, it’s unrealistic for my character to think while doing this, “I go to the fridge, a futuristic device that uses a chemical reaction to create cold air, making it so all my food is kept at a constant temperature. I then heat it in a device that uses something called microwaves, it agitates the water molecules causing them to increase in temperature. Don’t even get me started on how this phone thing works. Oh, all right, I guess I have to explain it now. So a phone uses a variety of technologies…”
It’s always a delicate balance that authors must achieve to explain their world building. I really don’t like going into lecture mode in my books to explain something. This comes back to what I prefer to read. I don’t like it when the narrator needs to take a pause in the story to explain some complicated in-world thing. I start to get bored. Remember, I’m an impatient reader. I want to get on with the story.
So I keep my science stuff broadly theoretically based on what I can speculate would be possible using what knowledge I have of science.
I try not to get too crazy when I speculate in science fiction. I won’t be putting “inertial dampeners” into any of my books. With what little science I do know about, I recognize how crazy such a concept is. You can’t just erase inertia with… what? A lot of cooking grease? I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept and I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how this is supposed to work. But! I will create something like a micro-sun as an energy device.
Suns, or really, stars, are still little understood by scientists; even the basics of how exactly so much energy can exist. Theoretically, they know how they work. But they are still studying exactly why and how they do what they do. The amount of energy a star puts off is insane. It’s quantifiable, but in numbers so big you start to have to talk about millions and millions of nuclear explosions. Each second. It’s like trying to describe to someone what a million people actually looks like. People often see large protests and inflate the numbers, because our brains just can’t really visualize what an actual million people standing together looks like. So talking about a sun’s energy has a similar effect. We know it’s big, but the concept of just how big is hard to get our heads around.
In my Mission’s End series, I predict that at some point we’ll be able to make artificial stars on a small enough scale they can become a long-lasting power source. But that’s it. I don’t go into how – the science of such a thing would be beyond me even if it was a real thing – but I do understand that a long journey into space would require a lot of fuel. So I needed a fuel source that made some theoretical sense to me. I know we’ve come a long way in manipulating atoms; why not eventually be able to manipulate them enough to create a micro-sun and contain it?
Phasers, plasma weapons, etc., all come with complicated issues if I’m going to include them. But propelled metal has been around as a weapon for a long time. And it works so well, why would you bother to invent something more complicated and finicky if you didn’t need it? Bullets work. So there are bullets in my books, not energy beams. I know people often expect futuristic weaponry in sci-fi – it’s a signpost you’re reading sci-fi. I get it. But Mission’s End takes place in space. I figured that was enough of a signpost that you were reading sci-fi that I didn’t need to add ray guns.
The same is true of a lot of the technology I use. It works for the purpose of the story, so I don’t bother re-inventing it. In this way, my books are more “hard” than soft since I tend to stick to known scientific principles. My ships don’t travel super fast. It’s taking hundreds of years to get to their location. I have “founders” who are in stasis, but there’s a trick to that I haven’t revealed yet. To give you a clue to my thinking, how do you keep a body from aging over hundreds of years? Wood frogs use natural antifreeze to stay alive while frozen, but their lifespan is not any longer than other frogs at 3 years. Actually, it’s pretty short compared to things like toads which can live ten years.
Where I do delve more into the fantastical is where my educational background is the strongest, in political science theory. I like the idea of playing with different types of rule in extreme situations. The space setting in the Mission’s End series allows me to play around with two separate types of speculation at once – science and politics.
This is where my educational background might help you understand why I write about the things I do. While I do have some formal education in science, I only allow it to inform my inductive leaps of logic, rather than constrain my ideas. I spent a year and a half in what was called the “Biology pre-professional” major, or more colloquially called, pre-med. Pre-med isn’t really a major, as any major can take the MCAT; you just won’t pass without the foundational knowledge a degree like biology pre-professional gives you.
I got out of the STEM field because while I found it interesting on the surface, what really intrigued me was the theoretical, and memorizing carbon chains was not something I found particularly enthralling. When you’re an undergrad in one of the science majors, you don’t get to pick and choose which classes you take. There are lots of requirements for those majors. I couldn’t only take evolutionary biology and genetics – I also had to take organic chemistry. I couldn’t only take physics – I also had to take Calculus. After the organic chemistry class, I’d had enough of the memorization. It wasn’t going to be for me. Also, science textbooks are the worst. Drier than Death Valley. Who writes them (oh, yes – I remember: people like the mechanical engineer friend I mentioned in the previous piece on this topic, whom I helped in college. Brilliant engineer; writer, not so much)? Neil DeGrasse Tyson gets a lot of crap about being annoying (and he can be: his pedantry knows no bounds) – but there’s a reason he’s so popular even though he’s talking about things most people aren’t experts on; he’s a better writer than most scientists – often amusing, and able to take a complex idea and simplify it in a way that’s entertaining.
Some might think writing science fiction is harder than writing fantasy – and maybe that’s where some of the attitude comes from about one genre being superior to the other. Having written both, I’ll say they each come with their own challenges. While researching science can be a chore – in The 13 I researched guns to pick the weapons I chose for the military branch to wield because I’m not a gun expert – it’s also a lot easier to write in a world people will mostly understand from the get go, which means I can avoid those narrative dumps of information I talked about not liking earlier.
I don’t need to explain how mundane technology works: most people will have encountered greenhouses, frozen embryos, and touchscreens. And I can also build on a lot of foundational work sci-fi authors from before me built. I can make a spaceship, and don’t have to explain exactly what a spaceship is. I can have shuttles and genetically engineered geniuses because people have written those types of tropes into their fictions for years. The basics of those tropes are understood, and that fits my writing style – preferring the contextual method of introducing readers to concepts.
When you write fantasy, however, there is a lot more prep you have to do. You can’t just look up how a gordonna behaves; you need to create it. And you need to create all the rules your universe plays by – if you’re a careful writer, I should say. Most readers don’t like it when there are too many inconsistencies in these rules. You need to create the politics, the society, the flora and fauna – often fantasy writers lean heavily on real world counterparts, but anything fantastical they create needs to have an entry in a mental encyclopedia of how the world works. It’s a lot to hold in your head as you write. You can just look up how a body would behave in zero G, but in fantasy you have to figure out how flying in your world would effect a person if that’s something you don’t want to hand wave away.
My sophomore year in college, I took a ton of different classes. I knew I wasn’t enjoying the major I was in, and that meant my grades would really start to suffer soon. I didn’t want to tank my GPA by continuing to try to do something I didn’t have the heart to do – and for me, it did take heart. Some people I knew were quite gifted and hardly had to work to remember everything they threw at us. I also wanted to hardly work, but I could not do that in the STEM fields. In essence, I was too lazy to do it and not interested enough to get over that. So I took intros to psychology, economics, political science and sociology, in addition to (ugh) organic chemistry that semester. I was giving myself one more semester, just in case I changed my mind before I changed my major. I ended up dropping organic chemistry. I still have nightmares of carbon chains, so it was probably for the best.
The class that really stuck with me was political science. I can’t really lie, it’s more than a little because I was able to still be lazy in it and get an A. The other programs of study required me to read the textbook, and I was less interested in them anyway. When a psychology professor gets in front of a lecture hall and tells you that he can sit with you for an hour and know more about you than you know about yourself, you have one of two reactions from my experience talking to other students in that class: Psychology is a bunch of BS, or, that’s a cool superpower and I want it. Economics was neat, and I like numbers because they are black and white, but it didn’t move me. Sociology I did end up taking a bit more of, but not enough for a major. Political science, however, enthralled me. Which is probably actually why it was easy. I saw enough students drop Constitutional Law to know it wasn’t as easy to everyone as it felt to me. I think you need to like it to do well. And I liked it. I especially loved comparative politics – it was the first time I’d learned so much about how other democracies worked. I really enjoyed learning how policy was made, how laws were interpreted, and how all these things affected the growth of society in big and small ways.
And that’s basically what I’m doing in Mission’s End. Well, in each book, I should say. There is a larger story at play in the overall series (don’t worry, no spoilers here! ;), but each book is an exploration of a type of rule and how someone within that type of rule might feel. I’m not trying to look at extreme militarization from the outside and comment on it. I’m trying to be on the inside and imagine what it would be like to live on that ship and actually think it was an ideal way to run a society. Would people chaff? If so, in what ways? Who would be left out? Who would suffer? How would the leaders justify these things?
I’m of the belief there is no perfect type of rule because people aren’t perfect. We’ll mess up whatever we start, no matter the good intentions. Not because people on a whole are bad, but because there are enough bad actors who make their way to the top. I’m with Socrates; I don’t think anyone who wants to lead is a going to end up being a good leader. You have to pick someone who is reluctant to do the job. I feel this reluctance comes from the idea that they know power is dangerous and the job of doing the right thing is hard, not easy. Those who are reluctant to take power are less likely to bend the rules to suit themselves and those they care about. Those who seek power are suspect. But there are way too many problems with that – beginning with forcing people to rule would probably just mean they leave the country to get away from being forced to do something they don’t want to. So we’re stuck with working with imperfection and making it as good as we can. And that’s pretty hard to do. And also fascinating to me. So I write about it. A lot.
But I’m also pretty fascinated with the human condition. And that gets me to the other themes in my work – all of my work, not just the sci-fi. In particular, I explore this in my novella, the Dream Merchant. But we’ll go more into that in next week’s post, where I talk about how I research my science in more depth, and when I decide to make a speculative leap of science. I know these posts have been a bit meandering (keeping in line with my thought process), but hopefully they’ve at least been interesting, and – best-case scenario – they’ve offered some insight into my thought process as well. 😊
Until next week!
Copyright 2018 M.M. Perry