What Makes Great Sci-Fi Writing?

Adam Roberts, award-winning sci-fi author and leader of Curtis Brown Creative's Writing Science Fiction course, shares his knowledge on how to write great science fiction, and understand what the genre truly is.

Writing science fiction with Adam Roberts
Photo: Curtis Brown Creative

Adam Roberts is the author of 23 science fiction novels, including Purgatory Mount, about a spaceship crew investigating an alien megastructure, New Model Army, about a democratically run army, and most recently the intriguingly titled The This. He has been shortlisted for the Prometheus Award, the Kitschies, and has won the BSFA Award for Best Novel, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and now he’s launching a new course to help others improve their science fiction writing.

The course, conducted with Curtis Brown Creative, will consist of six units, each including a filmed lecture on a specific topic, and written course materials, discussion, writing exercises, hints and hacks, reading lists and links to other resources. Starting from ‘the fundamentals of science fiction’, the course will take students through generating ideas to worldbuilding, style and structure, and how to write characters, as well as thoughts on what to do next.

We spoke with Roberts about writing science fiction, what makes it work, what it’s for, and just what exactly sci-fi is.

The Historical Definition

Roberts is the author of the Palgrave History of Science Fiction, and when writing that he placed science fiction in a lineage that goes back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer, through Beowulf and mediaeval romance, eventually becoming something more recognisable as modern science fiction around the time of the Protestant Reformation.

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“A new kind of fantastical story, grounded not in magic but in extrapolated science and technology, came into being, and that’s what we now call sci-fi,” Roberts says.

The early creators in this genre included Johannes Kepler, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mary Shelley, and HG Wells, eventually evolving into the Pulp tradition – what’s now known as the ‘Golden Age’, New Wave, and the post-Star Wars boom in big-budget sci-fi cinema through to today.

“Each of these movements was aggregative: which is to say, when the New Wave broke in the ’60s, it didn’t drive out older modes of sci-fi,” Roberts says. “But now the genre is much more diverse: global sci-fi, Chinese sci-fi, Afrofuturism, Queer sci-fi, loads of microgenre writing. All very exciting: hugely vital.”

The “Science” in Science Fiction

Of course, the thing that marked these later creators out from the “magic”-based stories of the fantastic that came before is right there in the name “science fiction.” The toolbox a science fiction writer needs includes everything a writer in another genre has to have, plus some more.

You need all the skills of a quote-unquote ‘regular’ writer—storytelling, characterisation, description, eloquence, pacing, structure, insight—and some more: imaginative expansiveness, newness, mastery or mistressry of all the sci-fi tropes and tools, all the special colours the sci-fi paintbox provides,” Roberts says.

But Roberts points out a science fiction writer must also get the science “right enough”.

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“Not necessarily wholly, scrupulously accurate, in the sense of consonant with our current understanding of science. Some writers go for that, and good luck to them, but it strikes me as stifling of the wider imaginative potential of the genre. But the science has to be right enough that it doesn’t clang stupidly, or bounce readers out of your storytelling,” Roberts explains.

He points to current science fiction writers’ use of A.I. or terms like “Quantum” as concepts that will age poorly if not backed by a decent understanding of the science.

“This is necessary, but not sufficient,” he insists. “You need to think about what inspires and excites you. You have to think through the tropes of sci-fi, all those robots and spaceships and time-machines, not as mere fixtures and fittings, but as metaphors, to work out what they are expressing.”

Roberts points to the popular argument that science fiction is based on real world scientific concepts extrapolated into imaginary possibilities.

“This is perfectly sensible and has the advantage of distinguishing ‘science fiction’  from ‘fantasy’ where magic, surrealism and so on may enter into the equation,” he says.

It comes down to suspension of disbelief. Small deviations from probability are allowed, but large deviations can take the reader out of the narrative.

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“The argument goes that suspension of disbelief is harder to sustain in a story where the protagonist is a captain in the Proxima-Centaurian Space Navy than one in which they work in a shoe shop in Colchester, so writers need to tread carefully not to tip-over their readers’ delicately balanced sensibilities,” Roberts says.

While he understands the argument, Roberts isn’t exactly persuaded by it.

“I don’t think that’s true, actually; but plenty of clever and knowledgeable people do,” he admits. “This approach to sci-fi tends to lead to prioritising things like consistency and scope of worldbuilding, plausibility, rationality, and scientific accuracy. But once we get in the habit of judging sci-fi by these criteria, I would say we are moving away from what makes sci-fi so cool and wonderful in the first place.”

Science Fiction Offers Something New

But if we ignore the need for scientific accuracy (to whatever degree), there is still what Roberts calls the “Novum”, a term coined by the writer Darko Suvin to refer to whatever new, currently non-existent element drives a science fiction story. The novum, many would argue, is the thing that makes a sci-fi story sci-fi. 

“Often people revert to ‘I know it when I see it’ which is kind of OK, actually,” Roberts says. “If the book or film has starships, robots, lasers, weird aliens and the like then it’s sci-fi. But also: if it’s set in an alternate history or a high-tech utopia or dystopia, then it’s sci-fi too. And sometimes: if a story contains anything fantastical that isn’t a feature of our actual world… why, then it is sci-fi!”

Coming up with and identifying useful novums is a part of the course Roberts is running with Curtis Brown Creative, but he insists a good science fiction story is much more than its premise.

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“It’s not enough to have a cool idea—an ingenious new technology, an interesting new way of organising society or gender or wealth, whatever. A premise is inert until you make a story out of it, and to do that you need to identify the conflict within the conceit,” Roberts says.

That said, while obviously any good science fiction story needs good storytelling in general to support its science fictional elements, for Roberts there is something special about the genre.

“If I read a ‘literary novel’ and it’s bad, then it’s just a bad novel. But if I read a science fiction story and it’s bad, it will at least have: a titanic, hideously beweaponed spaceship, or a bizarre form of alien life, or some apprehension of the vastness of the cosmos, that will redeem the reading experience,” he says.

Using the Future to Talk About the Present

While people might come to sci-fi looking for something new, what makes them stay is often the way it reflects contemporary concerns. After all, it is a truism that science fiction is less about the future than it is about the present.

Roberts argues that science fiction allows writers to not just portray modern life, but to understand it.

“A movie like The Matrix figures as an exciting, thrilling, sometimes mind-blowing metaphor that speaks to what it’s like living our lives inside modern capitalism,” Roberts says. “It also dramatises a mode of resistance and rebellion that is melodramatic, action-adventure, and kung-fu, but inspiring. Sci-fi can do this, and better than realist modes.”

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This becomes particularly interesting when reality catches up with the imagined futures we have created. As Roberts points out, 2001: A Space Odyssey is now set 20 years in the past and the ‘real’ 2001 was nothing like the world Kubrick and Clarke imagined, but that doesn’t diminish the brilliance of the movie. However, as it feels like technology and change have accelerated, science fiction has turned to settings other than our own future.

“It interests me that it was in the 1980s that steampunk really took off: at a time when advances in technology unanticipated by older sci-fi writers overtook the older sci-fi visions,” Roberts says. “Not a coincidence, surely, that writers went not forward into some imagined future but back into an alt-imagined past, a different kind of Victorian age.”

Roberts doesn’t believe this is a retreat from the accelerating pace of change, but a way to address it. Alt-history genres like steampunk allow science fiction to tell relevant stories without having to stay ahead of accelerating technological evolution.

“The stories we tell must speak to us about our lives, or they will lack point and purpose, and our lives are increasingly interpenetrated by the futures of sci-fi,” says Roberts.

The Poetry of Science Fiction

All of these definitions of science fiction can work, and are each useful in their own way, but for most avid sci-fi readers these descriptions have very little to do with our first vivid contact with the genre and its concepts.

“So what was it that captured my imagination, back then?” Roberts asks. “I’d say it was three things. One was the sense of wonder, the ‘Sublime’ rendered via extrapolated tech and cosmic-scale drama. Two was the thought-experiment, the way sci-fi rehearsed cool ideas, new ways of thinking about mundane things. And three was something to do with beauty, in a particular way.”

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Talking with Roberts, he keeps coming back to science fiction’s metaphorical quality. That metaphor might be an accurate extrapolation of real science, or a hyper-real reflection of our own troubles, or something more outlandish altogether, but the metaphor is the common denominator.

“Samuel Delany once said that sci-fi is a radically metaphorical literature because it aims to represent the world without reproducing it, and I think that’s right,” Roberts says. “If I am asked for a definition of sci-fi, if somebody leaps out at me on the street and says, ‘Adam! Define Science Fiction!’ I will usually mumble something about the moment near the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001, when the ape throws the bone into the air and, just after reaching its apogee, the bone transforms suddenly, beautifully, wondrously into an orbiting spaceship.”

Roberts can point to plenty of reasons why the scene is powerful, but is keen not to reduce the image to those explanations.

“It is something ‘about’ technology, about the way humans use tools, our habit of intrusively, even violently interacting with our environments, about the splendour but also the limitation of such tools, the way even a spaceship is, at its core, a primitive sort of human prosthesis,” he says. “But when you start explaining the cut in those terms you become conscious that you are losing something, missing some key aspect to what makes it work so well. It works not by a process of rational extrapolation, but metaphorically. Kubrick’s cut is more like a poetic image than a scientific proposition. And there you have it, in a nutshell, my definition of science fiction. This genre I love is more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition.”

Adam Roberts is the lead tutor of Curtis Brown Creative’s new six-week online Writing Science Fiction course. The course runs for the first time from 27 April to 6 June. If you want to learn how to write your own stories that are out of this world, enrol by 25 April: https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/course/writing-science-fiction/

 Curtis Brown Creative is one of the UK’s most successful writing academies, running courses online and in London. It’s the only creative writing school to be owned and run by a major literary agency (The Curtis Brown Group). Find out more about the courses they run here: https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/

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