Sci-Fi Lesson 1: Introduction and World Building
Of all the genres I've worked with, Sci-Fi is one that's really close to my heart. Perhaps it's because I was reared on Sci-Fi, or because my family is the kind to pause a show or movie in the middle of a scene to discuss what ideas are being expressed there underneath the plotline of the story, and what it all means. Drives my brother crazy.
When you think about Sci-Fi, what really comes to mind, hmm? Aliens? That's a faction. There's also genetic engineering. There's also robots. There's also space travel without aliens. There's time travel. There's also "after the end" stories that look at humanity's existence after the earth is gone. There's aliens that serve as mind-bending weirdness, biological viabilities, basically human creatures, and eerily familiar foils of the human condition.
At the end of the day, and from the very beginning, that's what Sci-Fi is about. No matter how human the characters may be or not, it's about the human condition. That was the point of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, when the time traveler goes all the way to the end and sees the abysmal [nuclear] waste of what's left of the planet. I remember watching the History Channel documentary on his life and my jaw dropping at the narration of that bleak future"and then he comes back to the present, and that's really what the story is about: the present. Because maybe, just maybe, you can come back, and you can try it again, and then maybe you can even beat it." Time travel isn't about the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey ball or who's made a time paradox by kissing whom. It's about taking a look forward, a look back, and then a look in the mirror, and seeing how things go. It's about looking at our own social problems in shades of black and white, turning our moral ideas on their sides and seeing if they still hold water. It's about using things that aren't accurate to find things that are trueIN SPACE.
So, since Sci-Fi is just a rehashing of whatever moral plays you've already seenIN SPACEthen why do we watch them? We certainly don't watch Romeo and Juliet for the cautionary tale about two kids falling in love too fast and making stupid decisions (well, that's what I watch it for, but what do I matter?). We watch it for the kiss, the belief that true love exists. We wouldn't necessarily want to watch a lot of difficult moral plays, and that's one of the reasons Sci-Fi existsit's the chocolate coating to make the pill go down.
Granted, not all Sci-Fi is an elaborate metaphor for morality and the human condition. I haven't seen Tron, but I assume that it really is just about video games, and maybe a totalitarian regime for good measure. Some Sci-Fi is just a shoot 'em upIN SPACE.
So, my point about the deep moral rooting of Sci-Fi made, with qualifiers, what sets it apart from putting the moral play in a contemporary setting, or a hypothetical historical one? World building. That's why we watch, we read, we play Sci-Fi. We want it to take us to a fantastical world we've never seen before.
As mentioned above, Sci-Fi worlds are massively variedwhether it's the essentially magical, elvish kind of world that Pandora was in Avatar, or the scary-realistic kinds of reality found in the HAL chapter of 2001 A Space Odyssey. What every variation of Sci-Fi has to choose is what laws they are going to keep and what laws they are going to throw out. Star Trek, as pointed out in one song by Voltaire, just make a bunch of [stuff] up. Star Wars lets the special effects budget imply that there's science in there somewhere, but there's too many lasers being fired at the moment to care exactly what. Sliders had their sound effects and mumbo jumbo. Eureka has jack that makes sense if you passed your high school science classes, but they try (just not very hard). Some shows just make a bunch of hokum up and expect us to swallow it.
Then there's other series like Babylon 5, where the humans don't have artificial gravity and the space station spins in order to have gravity (and the sections nearest to the center have very low gravity, if any at all). We can also point out that their space-facing windows should in fact be on the floor, but that would ruin all that dramatic posing on the bridge, now wouldn't it? They make a point that transporting heavy materials is expensive. That's accuracy right there. But they also have wormhole technology, and that's something so in the realm of "fantasy" that we as the Sci-Fi crowd let it slide.
Then we get shows like Fringe has their chemistry and crazy talk. I missed too many episodes to jump right into the current season, but I remembered them using some nearly plausible things to explain their X-Files caliber cases. Dollhouse, another canceled Joss Whedon show had a straight-up Sci-Fi premise: using technology to erase people's minds and replace them with a different mind, or amalgamation of minds, because "the mind works basically like a computer." They gave us some mumbo jumbo about electric coding, light and sound wave frequencies, and made the setup pretty, and the main character was played by Eliza Dushku, so it worked. The science was just plausible enough, so we accepted it.
In the movie I-Robot, we had a working force of robots, Will Smith as a cyborg, and an AI so sophisticated it worked around the 3 Laws to kill people. We also had 2D only holograms, as if to suggest that science could make leaps in one direction but there were still limitations. That 2D hologram is a very, very small thing but important to the audience in a way that probably didn't register to most. It shows them "hey, it's not too different." That's important.
Back in the 80s my father enjoyed a book called the Gentle Giants of Ganymede. It had some massive leaps in technology, like very fast travel between planets. It also had things that were advanced for the 80slike the internet and ATM cards. Now the book is a chore to read, because it's so busy explaining things that were way out there in the eighties, but we're used to for today.
If this essay seems to be heavy on examples but short on exposition, there's a reason. Sci-Fi can be like a hydra: many heads, going in all different directions. People immediately think of aliens, but the roots of Sci-Fi were far from that. Sci-Fi began as a look at the future, saying "Can we do this? Should we do this?" And can you believe that aliens didn't come up? Ha!
So all those examples bring us back to world building. I've heard Star Trek and Star Wars described as one is Classical and the other is Rock and Roll. I have trouble remembering which was which, really. Joss Whedon's Firefly is a totally different animal I-Robot or Signs.
So, the question is, "How do I build a Sci-Fi world?"
Well, good citizen, it's easier than one might think. First, you start with characters like in any other story. Next, you add conflict. Your conflict can be basic Sci-Fi, or it can be basic human. Star Wars had a basic human conflictOverthrow The Evil Empire. The Last of the Starfighters had a basic Sci-Fi conflictkid whisked away from life on this planet to go save another. For him, it's not about the evil empire like it was for Luke. It's about blowing [stuff] up.
Now that you've got characters and conflict, think about what you're going to keep as basically accurate, and what you're going to make up. Babylon 5weight restrictions for imports, rotating space station = accurate limitations. Hyperspace, non-oxygen breathing section of the ship, aliens = straight up Sci-Fi, and practical necessities. I-Robotrobots, super-fast electric freeways, cyborg, artificial intelligence = Sci-Fi, unleaded premium plus. 2D holograms, main character not sympathetic to these robots = limitations that make us more comfortable with the story.
If the world is too layered in things that we don't have, then we get distracted by all the new shinies and the story aspect suffers. If you take a world that is just like ours and change it in only one respect, that can be the most influential kind of story (just don't give your aliens a weak-sauce weakness like water, please), because we can see ourselves and our human condition there.
So that's where it is, in a Sci-Fi world: You take the basic thingscharacter and conflictthat have made up every story since the beginning. Then you say "But what if science could do this?" And you do it. Then, if you're trying for a really good product, you throw in some realistic limitations. Then you let it play out. You can use the aluminum siding to hide lessons about our world today, or hide the monsters in human skin. Sci-Fi gives you a lot of leeway.
Just like steampunk is a historical story with a few things that didn't exist in that historical time period, Sci-Fi is a historical set in the future, using some things that don't exist yet. Don't give us too much, but give us enough. And at the end, there it is: your Sci-Fi world. You've broken a few rules, bent a few laws of thermodynamics and asked for some willing suspension of disbelief from your readers. You'll get it. You know why? Because they want to believe it as much as you do. And if you sell the dream with a bit more grit than chrome, you might just find them a bit more obliging in the end.