More or less science?

As a science fiction writer, I’ve come across the fun problem of how much science do I put into my science fiction stories?

For example, if knowing how the galaxy I’ve created is mapped out isn’t important to the plot, do I still describe it? What about writing how space travel works–is it enough to know that it does, or does it need to be researched and explained?

I’ve come to realize that every reader is different–some like more science, some less.

So which do I do?

I decided to be true to what I enjoy reading and apply that to what I write. My preference is less science, with a bigger focus on characters and plot.

I know it’s a risk, and not everyone will agree, but those are the books I love to read, and so those are the books I love to write.

What about you? Do you like more or less science in your science fiction?


  1. Pingback: Some things you may have missed… | Christa Yelich-Koth

  2. Oz V

    I always prefer that an author presents information that is important to the story. Science fiction has a built in dilemma – its fiction, but is also “supposed to be” “”scientific”. As long as the story is true to its internal science, I don’t worry too much about how true it is to our science – that’s what fiction is for!

  3. acmoyer

    I do enjoy speculative technology/science but when it comes to working with scientific principles as already known, it’s important that it be accurate. Not being a hard scientist, I probably wouldn’t know if it’s not–but I do often catch any flaws in logical reasoning and it totally ruins the mood (e.g., Michael Crichton’s explanation of time travel in that one book that was hilarious because it had historians conducting excavations–as if–and being really well funded–double as if). I imagine that for people who are big science nerds, they feel the same way about factual errors. If there’s less detail this usually doesn’t become an issue.

    I enjoy William Gibson’s work because he doesn’t condescend to the reader by explaining every bit of technology or its back story. The reasons emerge in the course of the plot without need for long explanations, or else they don’t. It also feels more real to me this way because most of us don’t go around all day thinking of (for example) the physics of how our cars and laptops operate. We just take them for granted as the “furniture” of our daily lives. So there too, less is more.

    I suppose another factor would be whether the story is told from the point of view of a character (e.g., first person) or an omniscient narrator. If the former, unless the character is a scientist, they probably wouldn’t be too fussed about science detail.

  4. Anonymous

    i’m with you, christa. less science suits me, maybe because i know something about it, but i don’t really care to know more. besides, i probably wouldn’t understand it. i read a lot of what i call ‘killer thrillers’, action/adventure, spies, cops and robbers type stuff. often there is a lot of explanation about the types of guns and ammunition being used. now, maybe for gun enthusiasts it’s great. they can relate and be impressed. for me, i don’t know one gun from another, although i understand the concept that ammunition is put into guns in order to hit a target. that’s all i really need to know; the rest doesn’t impress me. same goes for me and my car. i know that if i turn the key, the car should start and be ready to roll once it’s in the proper gear, i don’t know how the engine works, and i don’t care. so it goes with science fiction and me. i want to open the book, begin reading, and enjoy the ride without getting bogged down in a lot of technical stuff that really adds nothing for me but confusion. and if there’s too much of that, i start skipping those parts anyway. so, i’m off my soapbox now. love, mom

  5. That’s a great question, Christa. It absolutely depends on the story. The science is part of the grounding. It sets the theme for the story. Star Wars movies don’t care for science in the least. FTL travel is a given and while it’s fun to watch Han and Chewy fuss around with the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, the problems are as common as adjusting a ’65 Ford Falcon’s carburetor. Star Trek, on the other hand, struggles with its technology, addressing all sorts of issues that could conceivably come up in an advanced vehicle. I’ve struggled with crappy cars on the sides of roads doing whatever I could to get home, so the scenarios are at least vaguely identifiable. In that show, the science is a character, a problem and a solution to most every plot.
    I like more science, but it has to have a reasonably plausible origin written into the story in a way that doesn’t inhibit the action. While I do enjoy the info dump from time to time, there better be an awesome payoff that makes me wonder instead of scoff. But then, I also enjoy reading dry scientific periodicals for hours on end.
    If the science isn’t an integral part of the story, i.e. calculating the moles of neutrinos required to accelerate a pentaquark neutron at a 20% absorption rate then scaling those figure to maneuver a billion metric ton battle ship in and around a horrendous thermonuclear war through wild gravitational confluences between gigantic planets and their numerous moons, than I’d say less is better 🙂

  6. Conrad

    Science, like character backstories, will inform how and what you write, even if they are not mentioned directly in the story. Even in pure fantasy genres, rules have to be laid down for no other reason than to be fair to the audience. As a story-telling element, Real Science can (by contrast) enhance the feeling of the fantastic because of the sense that “THIS IS POSSIBLE!” (and yet amazing) that one gets in hard science fiction. As a storyteller, I think it’s best to see it as just another tool: verisimilitude is just a tool. You choose hard science or fantasy elements for the exact same reason: to serve the story, and what you are trying to say with it.
    As long as you make the rules clear to the audience (and are consistent!), you won’t pop the bubble of the Suspension of Disbelief. It’s easy to find instances in stories of real technology used in ways they couldn’t work, or magic used like it was technology. E.g., computers being used to “enhance” a few pixels into a clear portrait in crime dramas, or Hermione picking a lock with a spell instead of a pick in Harry Potter. As long as “alohamora” only does locks and not fixes glasses, the audience will play along. Or in Avatar, which has some very hard researched science paired with crap that can’t happen without serious repercussions. So to answer your question: you explain something when it begs explanation, then use science to underscore plausibility and serve the mood of the story at that point. Anything else is just pedantry.

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