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The Laws of Science Fiction Writing

BoingBoing posted a link to stencils of famous science fiction authors. Ho-hum.

More interesting to me was the website’s pointer to The Laws of Science Fiction Writing. To summarize:

  1. No Nazis.
  2. Aliens should be ALIEN.
  3. Good Science Fiction is Good Science.
  4. Given Something an Alien Name Doesn’t Make it Alien.
  5. Never kill off your main character.
  6. It takes two to tangle.
  7. A story should contain descriptions involving all 5 senses.
  8. No Unicorns!
  9. No Star Trek or Star Wars References
  10. No Dreams
  11. No Supermen

Rule #1 means no stories about time-travelling Nazi Zombies. Damn.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

13 Comments on The Laws of Science Fiction Writing

  1. I believe a Nazi exception can be made when time travelling and zombies are involved.

  2. Well, let me see:

    1. Nazis: THE BEAST by A.E. van Vogt, or, if that is too obscure, ROCKET SHIP GALILEO by Robert Heinlein.

    2. Non-alien aliens: well, maybe it is stretching a point, but let me list LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. LeGuin or PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs or THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury.

    3. Bad science in good stories: too many to mention, but I’ll start with DUNE by Frank Herbert, or DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester, or THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells.

    4. Same as #3

    5. Killed-off main character: I am slightly cheating here, but let me mention: PLANET OF NULL A by A.E. van Vogt; RIVERWORLD by Philip Jose Farmer; TO LIVE FOREVER by Jack Vance; TODAY WE CHOOSE FACES by Roger Zelazny. Without cheating, let me mention GAME OF THRONES by George R.R. Martin.

    6. Takes two: THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF by David Gerrold.

    7. Discriptions involved five senses: Oh, pish-tush. SF readers want ideas, not descriptions. MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein; FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov; DUNE by Frank Herbert; WAR OF THE WORLDS by H.G. Wells.

    8. Unicorns: THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle; SIGN OF THE UNICORN by Roger Zelazny; MISTS OF EVERNESS by some hack writer whose name I forget.

    9. Trek references: This is a stretch, but I will say MOTE IN GOD’s EYE by Niven and Pornelle (Scottish engineer named Scotty). If movies count, then ET (Can he just beam up?) and GALAXY QUEST.

    10. Dreams: LORD OF THE RINGS by JRR Tolkein (Frodo’s dreams are recounted); DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester (starts with a dream sequence); SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe (Severian’s dream provides an importent clue). Also, LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS by some hack writer whose name I forget.

    11. Supermen: I spit out my coffee when I read this one. You have GOT to be kidding.

    Where to start? WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt (teleportation); SLAN by A.E. van Vogt (telepathy); WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER by A.E. van Vogt (immortality); BOOK OF PTATH by A.E. van Vogt (all of the above); STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester (teleportation); DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester (telepathy); FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (Emotion control); DUNE by Frank Herbert (expanded awareness, prognastication); STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein (telepathy, astral projection, fourth-dimensional vanishments, other powers); NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Roger Zelazny (Dimension-shifting, probability control; super-strength); LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny (Electrokenisis, Thanatokinesis, Pyrokensis, Illusion, others); FIRESTARTER by Stephen King (Pyrokensis, Mind Control); TO REIGN IN HELL by Stephen Brust (Angelic powers, including the ability to create worlds out of chaos); MORE THAN HUMAN by Theodore Sturgeon (gestalt telepathy); SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe (Faith healing, resserection of the dead, time travel); RETURN TO THE WHORL by Gene Wolfe (astral projection, dream travel, miracles).

    And so on, and so on, and so on. Supermen are a stock theme of science fiction. As well tell people not to write about spaceships.

    Let me just add one of my own:

    11. Take advice about how to write SF with a grain of salt.

  3. Here, here! I thought it an odd set of rules. There are anthologies based on some of these themes. Gardner Dozois’ Supermen : Tales of the Posthuman Future comes to mind.

    Thanks for the informative and nostalgic reply. Hack writer indeed. πŸ˜‰

  4. Well, a good (SF) writer knows when to break the rules, even rules as inane as these.

    Thus, the counterexamples reinforce that dictum.

  5. Counterexamples cannot be used to reinforce a dictum if they represent the main stream of what that dictum means to teach.

    Hence, a rule that says “stories should have likeable, engaging characters” is tested by a counterexample of a single genius, such as Gibson’s NEUROMANCER, whose characters are punks. Despite the single exception, the general rule still holds.

    On the other hand, a rule that flaunts an entire sub-genre of the field, such as “don’t write science fiction stories with aliens in them” or “don’t write fantasy stories with magic in them” or “don’t write superman stories” is merely lunatic. The difference is that there is not a single exception, but a whole field, that cuts against the rule. If the exception is bigger than the rule, it is not a rule.

    I submit that the best science fiction writing advice should read something like this: tell a good story, having the same elements that any other good story has, but add the science fiction. Hence: you must have conflict, plot, character, and theme combined in a workmanlike fashion to tell a tale. A good tale set in a science fiction background is not necessarily good science fiction: good science fiction per se means a reasonable yet surprising extrapolation of some clever counterfactual premise. Good science fiction examines all the angles of a What If question.

  6. Oliver Scholz // November 8, 2006 at 8:53 am //

    Sorry to drop in on a discussion that is more than a year old and probably considered dead by everyone (well, everyone but me obviously). I found this side by Google-accident and the discussion triggered my interest.

    The problem with those “laws” or rules is that they try to formulate an agenda that has my sympathy; but they do it by means of so-called “bad abstraction”. Who isn’t annoyed by bad science fiction stories that are nothing but standard cliche plots with a few unimaginative standard cliche devices, borrowed from other bad stories and endlessly repeated like a cow chews its cud? If you look for common elements in those bad stories you come to something like the list of rules above. However, this is bad abstraction, because this is not the *reason* why those stories are boring and unimaginative.

    Just a few unsystematic comments from the top of my head:

    rule #1: This should read: “Don’t create unimaginative, implausible villais. Actually, don’t create any unimaginative, implausible character at all.” And of course it has its exeption: “Unless, of course, this is exactly what you want, for instance, because your story is ironical, satyrical or has otherwise its humoristic elements.” An example for such an exeption would be the Daleks or the Cybermen in the BBC television series “Dr. Who”.

    rules #2 and #4 should be basically the same rule: “Don’t kid yourself by believing putting a strange and alien surface on common everyday stuff really makes it strange and alien.” However: science fiction is not necessarily about predictions what the future would be like. It may also be — and especially many very good novels are — about our own lifes and about our own world in a disguise that lets us see it in new aspects. So, if you want deal with certain properties of mankind in the disguise of an alien race, it is perfectly alright, even inevitable, to make them human-like in one way or the other. If you are a coffee-addict and a world without coffe would be a hell for you, then it is perfectly alright to introduce some sort of space coffee. Just don’t kid yourself about what you are doing. Do it with purpose and intention and do it well.

    rule #3 is plain wrong. Good science fiction is first and foremost good *fiction*. However, if a plausible technological development is an important part of the background of your story, then you should indeed make it plausible in exactly the sense stated by the author of the rule. If weird stuff happens on Barsoom this is perfectly alright, because this is not that kind of story. But I am sick of stories that pretend to be “realistic” while making all kinds of stupid mistakes. However, I am also sick of stories that take a lot of effort (on the side of the writer) and pain (on the side of the reader) for made-up technical explanations. The rule should be: “make your world plausible.” BUT: “Flash Gordon” or the Barsoom novels by Rice-Boroughs *are* plausible, because they are coherent, because you can “get into it”, because they *imaginatively plausible*. There’s actually a whole subgenre of mixing fantasy with science fiction and there’s nothing wrong with it.

    rule #5 is actually silly. This is a rule for writing pulp stories. A hack writer should not kill his main character, because that would frustrate his readers. However, “science fiction” covers a wide range from pulp fiction to artistic literature. Is Shakespeare a bad writer, because he tends to let his main characters die violent deaths? If not, why should there be a difference for science fiction just because it takes place in world that is not the world of today? What’s wrong with tragedy? Is science fiction supposed to be nothing but light reading? Why should it have to be?

    rule #8: Wrong! O.k., if this means just “No cud-chewing of cliches”, then I agree. I won’t read a book to the end, if it includes tolkienesque elves (and that includes the ones in dragon lance) or dwarves. But! Look at the elves in the Lyonesse-novels by Jack Vance! Vance actually draws from the same source as Tolkien: old fairy tales. But—like Tolkien—he creates his own variation of that material. And this is IMO the best way to do it. Fantasy is a modern form of fairy tale there are traces of that older source which are still virulent. So, unicorns and elves are great, as long as you create your *own* unicorns and elves. (I am intentionally confusing science fiction and fantasy here. Because IMNSHO it is nearly impossible to define criteria that separate the two genres entirely. Unless, of course, you *want* a story in which elves, dwarves and humans get on a journey to defeat the evil sorcerer-overlord; and unless, you actually *enjoy* a three-page description of how the technics of the morotron scanner exploit the quantum-hydraulics of lobotom particles by hyper-ventilating them through a 4-dimensional prattmatic-tube. I say: *good* fantasy and *good* science fiction are just variations of the same genre: phantasmagoric literature.)

    rule #11 — @John C. Wright: I believe the original author of the rules rather meant something like the Shrike of Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. Well, there you go: Dan Simmons’s Hyperion. Wrong again.

    (Otherwise I agree mostly with John C. Wright.)

  7. No worries, Oliver. We see it old posts resurrected all the time. At least this one has some insightful commentary instead of just a series of smilies. πŸ™‚

    Interesting comment: “…it is nearly impossible to define criteria that separate the two genres entirely.” See the recent post Putting SciFi in its place which sees sf as a subset of fantasy.

  8. This discussion is so old it is likely no-one will read this, but I’m bored so what the hell.

    I just wanted to say this:

    There are no rules to writing fiction…period.

    And so, there are no rules to writing science fiction. People who write fiction do so because they enjoy it. If you write to become successful, but you don’t enjoy it, then you won’t be successful, it is as simple as that. I have never heard of a published fiction writer that did not enjoy writing. If you are putting restrictions on the content of stories then I am afraid that is just nonsense. You write about what interests you, and if other people find it interesting then you might get published.

    And, like how other people have mentioned above, two of the most successful sci-fi franchises in history have a fair few of the things mentioned on that list. Both Star Wars and Star Trek contain terrible science, deaths of main characters, dream sequences and aliens of almost every conceivable kind.

  9. Taking up an old, old thread —

    “There are no rules to writing fiction…period.”

    I must respectfully, but very sharply disagree. It is merely that the rules of writing, like the rules of engineering, admit of some tolerance. The rules have a degree of pliability. There is some “give.”

    The rules are set by the unspoken expectations of the audience. If you violate the expectations of the audience, the protocols, so to speak, you have not merely bored your audience, you have betrayed and cheated them.

    The rules for writing good science fiction are the same as the rules for writing good fiction, just with the rules for writing entertaining speculation added.

    Rules to good writing: characters must engage the reader’s imagination, be three-dimensional, realistic enough to seem real, unrealistic enough to seem mythic. Plots must be logical and plot twists be both logical and unexpected, and have a beginning, middle and resolution. Plot and character must hang on the theme. And so on.

    Rules to good science fiction writing: Science fiction is the genre that makes an unreal but not unrealistic “what if” assumption: a counter-factual. The speculation must play out the unexpected but natural consequences of your counter-factual assumption.

    Rules to good fantasy writing: Fantasy is the genre that makes an unreal and unrealistic, but dreamlike and strangely familiar assumption. A non-factual. The elf world operates by dream-logic, where throwing a ring into a volcano can destroy an evil dark lord, ro throwing a bucket of water on a witch can melt her. The rule of fantasy is that all natural laws, even whether Gandalf comes back from the dead, can be violated, but the dream-logic of magic cannot be violated. (In other words, everyone can come back from the dead, except for Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben: because Uncle Ben’s death happened according to dream-logic, a needed step to create the spiderman.) If you establish that true love’s first kiss wakes the sleeping princess, nothing else can wake her, and the kiss cannot fail. If the doctor wakes her with his needle, you are writing science fiction. If true love has no power, you are writing satire or black humor, the mere opposite of fantasy.

    The whole point of writing a story in elfland is that true love has power there, and does not really have power among the fields we know; and death has power here, and does not have power there.

    Rules have exceptions, like grammar rules. One is allowed to violate a grammar rule when it serves the purposes of greater clarity, or to capture a colloquial expression. Likewise, one is allowed to violate the rules of storytelling if the other elements in the story make up for it: if the plot and mood and theme require, for example, that some implausible coincidence occur, by all means have it occur; but do not fool yourself into thinking you have not violated a rule about plot logic.

    No rule is more important than the story. If that is what we mean when we say that there are no rules, well, fair enough, and I agree. But saying there are thing more important than rules is not saying “Do as Thou Wilt Is the Whole of the Law.”

    Think of it as a bank account. The reader is lending you credit to begin with. Each time you break a rule or impose upon the reader’s suspension of disbelief, you get a minus. Each time you please the reader, you get a plus. If the reader likes and recognizes your name, based on goodwill earned in past books, the reader gives you a plus to start with. Break too many rules, then you have too many minuses, and the reader puts the book down, and you lose a sale.

    It is very bad advice, it is misleading, to go around telling would-be authors that there are no rules: someone who says this is tempting a would-be author to commit avoidable mistakes and oversights.

    There are rules to writing. Period.

  10. I wrote the web page referenced.

    People love to trash it. I wrote it a long time ago after throwing my shoe at the TV because one of the Star Trek franchise shows had yet another episode starring Nazis.

    Two or three times a month I get email from somebody who loves Nazis stories. Nearly as often I get enumerations of my “laws” with counterexamples explaining to me just how wrong I am.

    I admit that some of the laws are thin, especially after I ran out of things to say and still wanted to get a total of 10.

    I have nothing against people who want to write about Nazis. Like vampires and zombies, they have their supporters. Just don’t try to convince me that they make for readable fiction.

    The list is merely my preferences as a reader. As a writer you can do whatever you want.

    As to those who list all of the stories that are counterexamples to the list, I just say: one story about Supermen or Nazis is great, two is a bore, and dozens are a waste of words.

    An as to the writer who spit out his coffee over the no superman entry. I have two words for you: Battlefield Earth.

  11. Michael Gardner // March 22, 2009 at 7:51 am //

    I wonder if the rule 11 ‘no supermen’ is not against people with greater than human abilities, but is recommending against the use of characters who are both morally, physically, strategically, etc. unassailable. I.E. ‘no godlike characters’

    Reading how God dropped fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorra doesn’t make an interesting read. (Adding solid sulfur tracers, might be the only major improvement that could be made to the destructive capability of modern massive airburst bombs, except for the environmental questions, environmental questions being the main reason we use fuel airburst bombs instead of atomic)

    (God as main character, no surprises: S&G=evil & bad influence, God=Loving, Just & Capable, God protects the greater good by removing the bad influence)

    A better story might be reading how:

    S&G were abusing and victimizing their neighbors,

    Neighbors appealed for help,

    Spies were sent to determine the Truth,

    Abram/Abraham (main character?) pleads for mercy/time for S&G as long as there was about a jury’s worth of ‘righteous’ people who thought S&G redeemable enough to risk their time and morality to influence S&G for good,

    Of the ten people we might assume Abram thought would qualify: only 4 of an assumable 8 were believed the spies and willing to abandon S&G to save themselves, of those 4: one looked back, one might have had a drinking problem, and two committed incest; highlighting the negative moral influence S&G were having and the need for:

    the deus ex machina destruction that S&G got.

    We don’t want to read about how a godlike character with godlike knowledge and power wrestles with directing his little play. We want to read about characters with limited knowledge and questionable but we hope good morals, wrestling with situations beyond their control in order to achieve their believable goals.

    The only time I remember feeling good about reading a story where someone ends up with Godlike powers, are those stories where s/he has been working on developing those powers for the course of the story (highlighting the attainability of those powers by others), and/or s/he are only the most powerful being in the known universe because s/he had to take out all the more powerful beings in order to defend his/her people.

    And a writer good enough to pull that off usually is wise enough to end with a showing the victorious hero being rewarded and/or taking himself out of the picture for a much-needed vacation. (Demonstrates the character does not have godlike endurance, and that good deeds are sometimes rewarded) or we see the hero making a new and greater sacrifice e.g. ‘It’s my duty to stand guard for all humanity, I’m best fit for it.’ (Re-demonstrating his moral superiority and/or growth from less laudable goals earlier in the book)

  12. Pete Tzinski // March 22, 2009 at 1:05 pm //

    The comments on this post are FANTASTIC. What damn good reading.

    (except for this one. This one’s pretty thin on the ground.)

  13. I agree with Pete.  We rock. πŸ™‚

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