Three Ways Exceptional Sci-Fi Authors Develop Themes

My favorite sci-fi stories always seem to be tight. The sci-fi elements, the characters, the world, and the theme are all closely intertwined. Whether the stories are relatively small scale (the movie Arrival) or full-blown trilogies (Jill Williamson’s The Safe Lands), they blend otherworldly characteristics with real-world issues to create a compelling narrative that not only entertains but explores and instructs.

But how? Theme was complicated before aliens and phasers and warp speed got in the way. Are you supposed to handle theme the same as you would for non-speculative genres?3_Ways_Exceptional_Sci-Fi_Authors_Develop_Themes

No, because genres differ for good reasons. Speculative stories are set apart by their diverse options for communicating theme. Sound scary? Maybe. But exciting too.

However, before we start discussing themes, we need to take a minute to talk about the genre.  Sci-fi stories are defined by their Primary Fantastic Element, which makes them surpass reality. For 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the PFE is the existence of the Nautilus. For the movie Passengers, it’s the ability to put people into hibernation while they hurtle through space for one hundred and twenty years. Perhaps your futuristic world features flying cars and surgically implantable bio-computers that enhance sensory detail, but only one element should be so drastically different from the real world that the story rotates around it. That is your story’s Primary Fantastic Element, and it is the axis of your theme. [Read more…]

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Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.


Captain’s Log,

Stardate 70797.4

For thirteen hours and twenty-four minutes,

we have tailed the cosmic trail

of the vandalizing devils

who dared damage our ship’s hyperdrive.

I stare out the glass and into the black

that seems to be the color of my mood.


The surrounding clusters of gas and rock,

stars, asteroids—

such maddening technicality—

are insistently scattered in our way.

My growing impatience covets an audience

with the supernova responsible.

Clean up after yourself, you haphazard accident!

[Read more…]

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Cindy Green is a Canadian homeschool student who wants to live in a world where rain is colorful and mint chocolate chip ice cream is acceptable for daily consumption. But she is contented to live in one where dogs exist, fireworks are a regular occurrence, and trees are climbable objects. She began scribbling out fiction and keeping a journal at around age seven, and last she checked, hasn’t stopped. Aside from obsessing over the arrangement of words and fantasizing about maple-syrup-coated beavertails, Cindy spends her time playing piano, looking at pictures of outer space, loudly singing along to music, exploring the dictionary, attempting Highland dancing, and reading. She hopes to someday publish a book of her own, learn to skateboard without getting scraped, and witness the aurora borealis in the Yukon. Most of all, she wants to live her life colorfully and passionately for the glory of a good God and to point to her Creator as the source of all joy.

Hero Of The Empire

I wasn’t the hero. But I had to act like one.

The squadron leader watched helplessly as the over-sized Malaesian fleet ripped through their carefully planned formation.  Moving quickly, she gave orders over the comm even as she grasped her ship’s controls.  As she turned, her squadron turned with her, cycling around in a tight spin to join up with the other ships in their group.  She quickly focused in on the situation. Their group was barely holding up their side of the battle; for the fifth time already, the alien squadrons had broken up their formation.  They had lost one valuable ships already and several more were severely damaged.  And with so few ships, every ship counted.  She looked forward to where the rest of their group was and gritted her teeth as she moved her ship forward to join them.

Hero of the Empire - editLieutenant Corson’s voice came crackling in over the comm.  “Change of strategy,” he said as she glanced outside to see his ship cycling back around toward the Malaesian mass.  There was a wave of static.  “They’re ripping us apart.  We need to regroup.”  She brought her squadron around to meet up with the others as Corson’s squadron raced to try to meet up as well.  “We need–”  There was a note of hesitation in his voice.  “We need to-”  Suddenly, his voice broke off.  Horrified, she looked up to see, across the black void of space, the mass of Malaesian ships slam into his small squadron.  Shots were ringing out as she watched dismayed.  If Corson–the Hero of the Empire was killed…  If the plan utterly failed…  

Corson didn’t know what he was doing.

And if he didn’t do anything now, everyone would be massacred.

She paused for a moment, on the brink of making a decision, before resolving herself.  She had to save his face.  “New orders from Lieutenant Corson,” she barked out over the static-filled comm.  “We need to regroup behind the rest of the other fleets.  We can’t lose any more men.  We need…  We need to retreat.”

[Read more…]

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.