On the surface, sci-fi is one of the easiest genres to define: stories involving speculative science. But the word speculative has deeper connotations than you might think. When authors incorporate as-of-yet uninvented technology into their stories, they are speculating answers to different what ifs. What if people had the ability to indefinitely extend their lifetimes? What if the government had to completely restructure itself to deal with the changing population demographic? What if certain religious groups rejected the artificial life extensions and suffered persecution for continuing to procreate, which the rest of society worries could lead to overpopulation?
Sci-fi writers are equally nerds and philosophers because they explore the limits of mankind’s knowledge and the fundamental reality of human existence. But when writers fail to show the various ramifications of their fictional technological achievements, their story worlds ring false.
Thankfully, you can avoid this fate by tackling the following five questions in your sci-fi story.
#1: What is the Government’s Response?
One of the most implausible elements of most sci-fi stories is that a fantastic, life-changing technology is developed, yet the government does nothing—instead of flooding the scene with an overabundance of red tape and restrictions.
Marvel’s Civil War did an admirable job of addressing the state’s role by playing out what happens when lawmakers, international boundaries, and governmental oversight finally catch up to scientifically enhanced superheroes. Cap and Iron Man, who previously enjoyed a free reign as they thwarted evil, must choose between submitting to a questionable higher power or acting as vigilantes.
Besides the diabolical genius of pitting two beloved characters against each other, Marvel’s acknowledgement of the government’s inevitable role in superhero regulation brought realism to the fictional universe, and this alone made it one of the franchise’s best films.
Consider how actual governments oversee similar technology, then begin calculating what your fictional authority’s response would be.
#2: What Moral Quandaries Does This Create?
The second (and probably most important) question to ask yourself is what ethical implications your characters will face with the use of this revolutionary technology. This will depend heavily on the nature of the technology itself. After all, killing people with laser swords isn’t very different from wielding metal ones. But the more the science transcends the natural order of things, the more conundrums it will cause.
Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando series excels at this as she depicts the repercussions of manufacturing human life. The books focus on cloned troops bred and trained in isolation to fight for the Grand Republic army. At first glance, they seem to be the ultimate soldiers, undistracted by personal lives or family. But once these men are released into the galaxy and start dying in wars for a government that views them as sentient machines, some clones can’t help noticing how wretched their situation is. The series’ premise is fascinating. What would it be like to be constantly surrounded by people with identical faces? Could you tell anyone apart? However, the most gripping aspect of the series is the author’s exploration of duty, identity, and the value of human life.
With the development of three-parent babies and artificial wombs, this series no longer seems farfetched. Our culture is hopelessly struggling with the ethics of bioengineering in a postmodern society, and it’s crucial to remember that even in fiction, Christian authors can be a voice of reason and truth.
#3: What is the Public’s Response?
Another fault that can destroy your story world’s authenticity is a lack of response from the public to your scientific breakthrough. Granted, the technology may already be an integral part of your characters’ everyday lives, but whole-hearted acceptance is as much a response as fevered excitement. When you step back from your individual characters and the impact of your fictional technology on their lives, you are visualizing the bigger picture and how the technology affects your fictional society as a whole. This not only makes your plot more three-dimensional, it can also raise the stakes. For example, if your characters are fighting a plague that renders its victims unable to sleep, the public’s horror at the threat of deadly insomnia will add drama and tension.
The exact form of this response can be crafted to fit your plot’s needs. Perhaps your character’s ultimate goal is to prevent the public from discovering his new invention. Or, conversely, fictional media’s reaction could be as fanatical as our own whenever the president mouths off on Twitter. You decide.
#4: What Socioeconomic Effect Will This Have?
To put it more simply, how does your fictional technology improve or degrade your society’s way of life? A prime modern example is how computers and the internet are impacting our workforce. Demand for software engineers has replaced our previous need for telegraph operators. People are already wondering what it will be like to live in a post-job society as an increasing number of tasks become automated.
Contemplate how this technology will influence the way your characters live. What industries will be established or become obsolete? Will people revolt against industrialization like the 1800’s Luddite Rebellion?
Few people would have predicted that the invention of the internal combustion engine would someday pose a threat to small businesses and their ability to compete with cheap imported goods from Asia. As an author, you have the opportunity to impress readers by revealing consequences most of them would never have foreseen. Always aim for your stories to reflect the complexity of real life.
#5: What Environmental/Health Hazards Will Result?
An irritating common occurrence in sci-fi is when doctors concoct a miraculous antidote to a fatal disease in a tidy forty-five minutes, just in time to save all the (important) characters. This antidote is 100-percent effective and has no side effects. Meanwhile, in reality, something as simple as an anti-nausea medication once caused 10,000 instances of serious birth defects worldwide, even after rounds of safety testing.
It’s a well-known rule in fantasy that all magic has a price. Likewise, all science will come with drawbacks. As sinners living in a fallen world, we are doomed to suffer under Adam’s curse. Our western society may have advanced to the point that starvation won’t kill us, but it’s almost guaranteed that something like the obesity crisis or cancer will.
Even the author of the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs understood this principle. Don’t give your characters a free pass. Instead, force them to experience the fallout of their technological advancement, and spare your audience an eye roll.
Boldly Write What No One Has Before
Numerous what ifs of classic sci-fi have already been answered. The Food Replicator, Universal Translator, and tablet computers of the original Star Trek series all have real-world equivalents. But as we continue to discover more about God’s creation, the amount of material to speculate about—and thus create and write stories on—only grows. Scientists estimate that we’ve discovered about 14 percent of all species on earth, and the nature of space, the ocean’s depths, and our own human bodies are still vastly unknown.
All true scientists exercise curiosity to ask questions and seek answers about the universe. Strive to replicate this goal in your speculative writing, and your sci-fi story will be enhanced.