SciFi isn’t just space opera, and doesn’t require a space ship. It doesn’t even need to have aliens. All it needs is science. Lots of science. The science of everything.
I am delighted to see that I’m scheduled for the panel, “Beyond Physics: The Many Sciences of Science Fiction” at Arisia 2011. I was on a panel at Pi-Con (with Vikki Ciaffone, who’s moderating the one at Arisia) on just this topic, and it was lively. SciFi has been way too obsessed with tech, dazzled by gadgets and focused on bots. Maybe we stray a bit into physiology as we modify our humans and speculate on alien races. But there’s so much more to draw on.
Building a parallel world in which evolution has taken a different turn requires not just a good working knowledge of evolutionary biology, but an understanding of how ecological systems interact, how geology and chemistry affect living systems, what effect weather and climate change might have. Discovering a lost civilization requires that you know how its elements would have weathered, or been preserved over time, and how. Go read some archaeology. What could forensics tell our intrepid excavators about the people who lived there? The science provides the possibilities. The imagination uses them.
Complex stories, vivid characters, profound philosophical dilemmas, all need a setting to support them. Constructing such a setting can be a challenge if the writer doesn’t want to just pull something out of the box, such as your generic urban dystopia or orbital station, tweaking the template to fit her particular vision of it (which, in a short story, may be all one needs). To build a unique, full, realistic world is a monumental task. It requires an Enlightenment era thinker’s omnivorous devotion to the sciences.
What distinguishes science fiction from fantasy is the science. A fantasy world just needs to be consistent. Anything is possible, no matter how absurd or unrealistic, so long as it doesn’t violate the underlying myth structure the author has created. This is not to diminish the difficulty of this task. Good fantasy is devilishly hard to craft and can require a great deal of research. But it doesn’t need to answer to science. (Unfortunately, neither does some science fiction, but I don’t want to go there right now.)
If you have a desert world, or an ocean world, or a world where mountains soar up twenty miles high with sides of sheer glass, you need to have a good foundation for why the climate and geology went in that direction. If your characters are human, and your world isn’t Earth, how did they come to be there? How did your beings evolve, how do they interact with their environment, where do their food and raw materials come from?
And it isn’t enough to have an understanding of the hard science supporting your imaginary world. What is your social structure, how does it function, what are the psychological underpinnings of that structure and how did they emerge? What are your beings’ beliefs, their world view, their concept of their place in the cosmos? Why are they like that and how does it affect their behavior?
Those questions don’t necessarily all have to be answered by the author in the story. But anything that is radically different from what is familiar to us begs for an explanation as to how it got that way. A good writer knows the answer even if it isn’t spelled out in the text. A good SciFi writer doesn’t just know her physics; she knows all her sciences.