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?
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.
To help demonstrate ways this can be accomplished, I’ve grouped a number of my favorite speculative fiction stories into three categories based on how I observed them imparting their theme.
The first type of theme structure is the highlight, which uses its PFE to emphasize a specific issue in the real world (usually with lots of explosions). The strength of this method is its ability to address an issue outright without being preachy.
Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time series revolves around an advanced “clocking” technology that tells everyone exactly when they will die. Nadine uses this to stress the importance of spending the time we have wisely without wasting “empty numbers.”
Another example is The Safe Lands trilogy, where the story’s PFE is the removal of a healthy economy’s basic necessities, creating a world where people can attain immediate gratification everywhere. The inhabitants of the Safe Lands say “find pleasure in life” as often as we say “have a great day” or (in a reality eerily similar to Jill’s fantasy) “take it easy.” You can’t just proclaim that “chasing entertainment will ruin you.” No one wants to hear that. Jill’s story masterfully brings the issue to the forefront via fantastic elements that place instant gratification at the characters’ fingertips, and then shows their reactions alongside the consequences.
The highlight method is a clever way to subtly generate conflict and character development centered around your theme. Does your PFE pinpoint an issue that often gets buried in day-to-day life? Our mortality? Our purpose in life? Then the highlight method might be for you. Utilize the PFE to confront your protagonist with an unnatural situation. Live forever or die tomorrow? Help the monster the character has created or destroy him quickly? Figure out how your PFE can pose a moral dilemma to your character, then let your theme unfold through his decision.
When people think of symbolism, either Bible verses from Revelation or cringe-worthy high school literature classes come to mind. But symbolism can be applied in modern fiction to arouse conflict in readers. The key is distance (and maybe a little trickery). Effective symbolism slips past readers’ defenses to reach their soft side, and then starts kicking.
A prime example is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. At first glance, some might not view Frankenstein as a sci-fi story, but it is. Issac Asmiov (a legend in the genre) defined (social) sci-fi (a subgenre) as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” Frankenstein proposes a scientific advancement that allows humans to create life, and the entire book deals with the impact and repercussions of it.
Before I start praising Frankenstein, please note that I disagree with most of Ms. Shelly’s worldview, and I haven’t studied the book enough to fully understand what she was attempting to convey, but the symbolism was impressive. Dr. Frankenstein is actually god. He creates life. The monster is man. We roam this world, getting beat up and harassed by other facets of the world. In Shelly’s mind, we seek after God, begging him to accept and protect us. We wonder what our purpose is and whether we even want to exist. Ultimately, we continue running until our purposelessness envelops us, and we end up dead. A depressing outlook, but well communicated. However, the author’s horrible god contrasts starkly with the real, loving, sovereign God.
Frankenstein puts readers in a situation where they see themselves in the story. If it had been written to a Christian standard, with God as another character capable of creation, that would have forged a deeper connection between readers and God than a sermon. Instead, the story delivers a gut punch of hopelessness. Although that’s not the message we want to be spreading, it’s an effective vehicle of communication nonetheless.
We tend to erect walls around our weaknesses and refuse to acknowledge them. We protect our hearts and soft underbellies from the Truth that can set us free. Symbolism sneaks in while the guard isn’t looking and then blows up like a bomb under the Deeping Wall.
To infuse symbolism in your story, determine what you are trying to portray before you start: mankind’s relationship with God, the danger of sin (in general or a particular one), or the deception of human nature? Contemplate that item’s key elements to figure out what PFE would best allow you to address them. Build your story around that, and remember subtlety is vital.
The insight method is perhaps the most flexible (and thus the hardest to pin down). It uses the structure of the story (created by the PFE) to center the narrative around a theme in a way that most stories can’t.
Arrival is a first-contact alien film that I scratched off my list as soon as I read its synopsis. Then a friend recommended it to me, and I decided (against my strict, no-stupid-alien-movie policy) to watch it.
I did not regret it.
In the end, the movie has little to do with aliens. The PFE is not the point. It’s just the framework. The aliens in Arrival are not the source of the conflict, nor is an intense fight with them the resolution. In fact, the aliens are (and amazingly remain) friendly with the humans for the entire movie. The only two purposes they fill are to bring Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly together and to show Amy the painful consequences of living. (Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie. I don’t want to ruin my favorite movie of last year for you.) The alien language that Amy learns allows her to escape time and catch glimpses of past and future. She sees her child suffer with a terminal illness, then die. She sees her husband leave her because he can’t cope with the pain. She watches her whole world fall apart. Then she meets her to-be-husband. Turns out, all that anguish is in her future. It is the outcome of her choice to live and love and give her heart to her family.
The PFE of Arrival drives the plot forward by forcing Louise to face a decision normal people don’t have to: live life and endure the consequences, or run away from life and forfeit the joys.
Stories following the insight method focus strongly on humanity. But the PFEs present a perspective that would be incongruous to a story based on the normal world. Developing a structure like this can be hard, but it’s one of my personal favorites. Introducing fantastic elements causes readers to concentrate on the human elements of a story and draws the theme out in a very genuine way. If you are going to take a stab at this method, you need to consider what aspect of humanity you want to shed light on and what bizarre PFE will illuminate it. Are you trying to emphasize the importance of family? Create an alien culture where families don’t exist, and then transport one of those aliens to earth. Are you trying to write about the preciousness of life? Create a world where a person’s years can be bartered like cash.
These are the different methods I found when I searched my library. I classified all of my sci-fi novels in one of these three categories; it was an eye-opening experience, as evaluating my favorite stories usually is. Before you begin your light-speed journey through distant galaxies and strange new worlds (pun intended), check out your collection and ask yourself how the stories work. If you encounter something you like, then add your own personal twist and see if you can apply it to your story.