When Science Fact is Stranger than Science Fiction

Certain writing “rules” have been repeated so often that most of their meaning has been lost to platitude. For example, many sources tell young authors to “write what you know,” without including the caveat, “and if you don’t know, go forth and seek answers.” You see, writing what you know doesn’t limit your material, but rather encourages you to expand your knowledge and experience. The rule was meant to ensure that writers honor the tropes and traditions of a genre, that they don’t include erroneous details that will shock their reader’s suspension of disbelief, and guarantee that they capture a feeling of genuine reality with regards to milieu and character. To those ends, research is a writer’s best friend.

Recently, I have been developing a science fiction milieu. When I first sat down to build the solar system that my characters would live in, I realized that my knowledge and experience was not up to the task. I had a basic understanding of our own solar system, but I didn’t want to make another Sol replica. Instead, I wanted to create a new and interesting milieu.

So, I started digging. I intentionally introduced more science fiction into my reading list with the intent of learning the tropes and traditions of the genre. Concurrently, I sought out and found a wealth of information and imagery on the Internet and in my local bookstores. I started binge watching credible documentaries and reached out to my friends in order to tap the social hive mind. Through all this “work” I’ve learned a great deal and am much happier with the new shape of my milieu. Even still, I continue to research.

Though I am by no means an expert, my research has taught me one important thing. When it comes to our universe, science fact is way stranger than science fiction. In all actuality, our knowledge of everything beyond Earth’s atmosphere is pathetically limited. We are constantly discovering celestial objects that break the rules we “know to be true” and end up rewriting our understanding of, well, everything. While this is fantastic news for writers of speculative fiction, it isn’t something I would’ve been able to figure out had I not taken the time to look. In order for science fiction to remain a speculative genre, we as writers need to be aware of the cutting edge of science and be sure to be projecting further and further afield.

The research phase of world building is an important step for any author, regardless of genre. Our books have the potential to reach a wider audience with a greater breadth of knowledge than ever before. As such, we are more accountable for ensuring the integrity of our reader’s suspension of disbelief. While it is easy to see research’s place for science fiction writers, non-fiction is a critical component of any authorial reading list. It is through research that we writers find the inspiration and facts we need to build bigger and more immersive settings.


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