What Does Good Science-Fiction Look Like?

A selection of what to look for and what to avoid when writing science fiction.

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Science-fiction literature has been around for a lot longer than people realise, although it’s still in many ways seen as a specialised interest. Supposedly, fans are considered geeks or nerds (well, fair enough—I certainly am and proud of it), “mainstream” audiences say they don’t want to read it (but then go and watch Alien or Star Wars or the like at the cinema) because it’s too niche, and conventions are places where middle-aged men (the female fans are almost always forgotten) dress up and lack social skills.

That’s a load of piffle, of course, as science-fiction is such a broadly diverse church in which to find yourself; there’s something in there for everyone, even the camp classics and the second-rate work that isn’t entirely up to the quality of Stephen Baxter or Isaac Asimov. You just need to go searching.

Writers can often forget that clichés are not needed anymore; there’s so much breadth and depth in the genre that the tropes should be dead and buried—and yet they continue to appear.

Unsympathetic or unbelievable characters

This isn’t limited to just this genre, of course, but strong and powerful characters need to be able to drive the plot forward—especially one where there are so many other-worldly elements we need to ground with the beings who we connect with.

Clichés and tropes

Both of these happen in fiction from time to time. That’s okay, as long as they’re used just enough not to get boring, but really they shouldn’t be used or, at the very least, they need to be subverted enough to ensure the story rises above a mediocre mumble.

Inconsistent science

When you read a sci-fi book written by someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s a joy. David Wilkinson wrote We Bleed the Same a few years ago, and it was a pleasure to read—he’s a physicist by training, and that clearly shows in his work. But you don’t have to be a scientist to write well about space travel, human-like aliens, or time travel—just able to read, research, and ask questions—as well as then communicate the information in an interesting way.


You might not often realise, if you don’t see yourself as a fan, that science-fiction can be brilliantly inventive and endlessly entertaining.

Alternative histories, possible futures, or parallel universes. Aliens and social commentary. Biology with aliens, mutants, and enhanced humans. Computer interface with human brains, artificial intelligences, androids, new weapons, and other innovative technologies. Social and political post-apocalyptic (a perpetual favourite), dystopian, and (less frequently) utopian systems. Plus countless other ideas and channels of thought.

Quality science-fiction exists more frequently than you realise, and has been written as much by respected mainstream literature authors as by specialists in the field. It’s easy to forget that Mary Shelley wrote some of the earliest popular science-fiction. Nobel Prize in literature winner Doris Lessing wrote an entire series of sci-fi titles.

Science-fiction is a wonderful genre to both write in and read; it’s fascinating to examine social commentary through other-worldly means, and I am always amazed to discover that some people still don’t find it interesting. If only they tried reading good quality science-fiction, they would be pleasantly surprised. Try writing it, and you’ll find even more.

Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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