by Joseph Lallo, @jrlallo
There are few more liberating genres than science fiction. Unfettered by petty limitations like technology or the laws of physics, a sci-fi setting can be crafted to suit the whims of the storyteller and the needs of the story. But anyone who has consumed more than a few pieces of sci-fi literature can tell you that the limitless potential of a sci-fi setting can quickly spiral out of control if care isn’t taken to craft it with depth and consistency.
Let’s go through a quick crash course on how to build a sturdy foundation for your sci-fi story.
Hard Sci-fi vs Soft Sci-fi
A good place to start when crafting your setting is the simple question of how hard or soft you want your sci-fi to be.
For the uninitiated, Hard Sci-Fi refers to science fiction with firm roots in reality as we understand it now. There’s still plenty of fiction in a setting like this, but the science is as near to fact as the author can manage. The Martian, for example, is a rock-hard sci-fi story. Everything from the launch date of a Mars mission to the nitty-gritty of orbital mechanics is mapped out with mathematical detail to find the intersection of the realities of science and the requirements of drama.
Hard Sci-Fi comes with a lot of benefits.
First and foremost, the more realistic underpinnings of the setting will make for a world far more familiar to the readers. The technology is likely to look and feel like something that exists in the real world. Even when the technology is futuristic, the reader will generally be able to feel the evolutionary connection to things they work and play with every day. It also takes some of the world-building pressure off the author’s shoulders, as a big hunk of your story bible can be found in science textbooks.
However, if its concrete basis in fact is the greatest strength of hard sci-fi, it is also its greatest weakness. Hard sci-fi is a version of science fiction that you can get wrong. And because hard sci-fi fans tend to be science buffs, chances are very good you’ll hear about it if you forgot to carry a one on that power to mass calculation. This means you’ll be doing loads of homework to get things to align correctly, and bending reality to suit your narrative can become a bit of a puzzle, teasing the laws of physics into just the right configuration to get your characters where they need to go.
Hard sci-fi also is much more likely to feel dated.
Basing it on known and understood scientific principles favors setting it in a near future. This means that as science marches on, it could trample all over your speculative technology by surpassing it in a fraction of the time you’d predicted. Alternately, you could extrapolate your future tech on a theory that could be abandoned or disproved, retroactively making your hard sci-fi much softer than you’d intended.
That brings us to soft sci-fi. In short, this is sci-fi where you get to fill in the gaps between what we can do and what you want to do with physics-defying mechanisms of your own concoction. Here’s where you get things like warp drive, bionics, and assorted other forms of applied phlebotinum. Nothing is off the table, so long as you can assemble enough technobabble to convince your audience that it’s plausible within the setting.
The assets of a soft sci-fi setting are clear.
The entire setting can be a playground for your imagination. You never have to worry about a desired plot becoming impossible. Soft sci-fi is where you get space operas of magnificent scope and unbridled adventure. It gives the writer a full palette of colors to paint their masterpiece, rather than simply those offered by Newton and Einstein. It’s what many people think of when they think of science fiction.
There is a dark side to soft sci-fi, however.
Most often, it comes when a writer fails to realize that “new rules” does not mean “no rules.” A soft sci-fi writer should, ideally, be creating a universe with its own laws of physics. Sure, they allow for things like time travel or faster than light travel, but the mechanisms that allow these divergences from our reality must be consistent and believable. If exceeding the speed of light requires a Carpinelli Drive, don’t have someone crossing the galaxy in six minutes using a standard rocket unless you’ve got some really compelling technobabble to justify it.
Taking away all limitations or changing the rules at the drop of a hat will confuse and frustrate readers. In the worst case, this could completely defuse any attempts at creating tension or stakes. Why should we worry if the heroes will reach the imperiled planet in time to save the day if you’ve already established spaceships don’t have to follow their own rules?
Hard Sci-Fi or Soft Si-Fi?
So how should you handle this aspect of your story?
If you are planning hard sci-fi, do your research, and craft a plot that can be exciting and attainable within the parameters we all live in today. If you extend beyond current technology, make sure to leave the trail of breadcrumbs back to the scientific principles that would facilitate it.
If you’re doing soft sci-fi, pick a handful of limitations you’re hoping to break, define the means that those limits are broken, and stick to them. A soft sci-fi book is often just a hard sci-fi book for a different version of science. And always remember that hard and soft aren’t two positions on a switch, they’re two ends of a spectrum, and you’re free to slide anywhere in that spectrum you like, provided your readers know where you stand.
Regardless of the firmness of your science, you’re probably going to be spending a fair amount of time crafting a brand new culture. That culture may be a version of humanity sculpted by thousands of years of alternate history. Perhaps it’s an alien race with little resemblance at all to anything on earth.
Either way, you’ll need to define this strange new world and its inhabitants. When you do, keep in mind that a culture should be a whole culture, not just the convenient chunk of one that fits the shape of the story beat.
What do I mean by this?
Let’s say you craft an alien culture called the Plorps who are the villains of your tale. For the purposes of the book, they’ll be war-like, physically intimidating, and deathly allergic to ammonia. Great. What else? Do they have a religion? What sort of foods do they like? Does their world have music? Do they play games? What is Plorpian literature like?
Sci-fi is littered with single-purpose alien races, whole planets or empires defined entirely, exclusively, and coincidentally by the exact assortment of traits necessary to get your story across the finish line. But great sci-fi avoids making these races feel like cardboard cutouts by sprinkling in little elements that show a history and culture that extends beyond what we see on the page.
To be sure, no one is asking you to dump chapter-long lessons on the founding fathers of Plorpian culture or have a Plorpian birthday celebration interrupt a space battle. But defining these things for yourself, and seasoning your writings with artifacts of them, will break down the rigid walls of your story and give readers the feeling that it has untold stories around every corner. It will make your world feel more complete, and things that are complete, no matter how fantastic, also feel more real.
One of the key elements of a sci-fi setting, even if it isn’t always apparent, is the philosophy of that setting. We’re not talking about Plorpian solipsism that disregards any events not witnessed by the supreme chancellor. We’re talking about your philosophy, and the way it will shape the setting.
There are a thousand different flavors, but most boil down to cynicism versus optimism.
Whether you’re writing about a distant future, an alien world, or an alternate history, the root of what you’re doing is imaging a different world. And a key aspect of any world is how it got the way it is and why. What are the driving forces of the world?
Optimistic sci-fi often posits a world where the greatest challenges of existence have been overcome.
Food is no longer scarce. We’ve solved pollution. Energy is abundant. Poverty is a thing of the past. The science, in your fiction, was the key that unlocked the shackles of its society. Such stories can be soaring and uplifting, depicting a world that is or could soon be a utopia. It could be aspirational, inspirational and, if you’re not careful, dull as dishwater.
An optimistic setting must always keep just enough darkness and malevolence to provide dramatic tension. Similarly, it must take care not to thump the readers in the head with the overwhelming ‘correctness’ and ‘superiority’ of the people in the setting. Things should be good, happy, comfortable, but still interesting and challenging, lest we roll right past the border of utopia and end up in a dystopia.
Cynical philosophies thrive on dystopias.
Corporate futures where everything from public utilities to the armed forces have fast food logos and profit motives. Post-apocalyptic nightmares where humanity has regressed to savagery to survive. Worlds so ravaged by the darker aspects of socie