The Challenges of Believability in Writing Science Fiction

Today’s guest post is by William R. Leibowitz.

 It’s not called “science” and it’s not called “fiction.” It’s called “science fiction,” and that means that if an author is going to successfully wade into those waters, it requires a balancing act.

Readers of science fiction are generally sophisticated. Reading science fiction isn’t easy reading. A reader needs to think and to concentrate. Science fiction places demands on a reader. That’s why it’s not the most popular genre—romance novels are. You don’t have to think or concentrate when you read a romance novel. But you do when you read science fiction. And science-fiction readers have real standards that they’ve developed by reading the great writers who developed the genre—and also by seeing countless good quality science-fiction movies and television programs.

So, when sitting down to write a work of science fiction, the writer has to rise to the standard. Bad quality science fiction is painfully obvious even to the casual reader. If a work of science fiction is to be believable and engrossing, the science in it must be plausible—and the science must be understandable to the reader.

Too much detail easily becomes boring and makes the reader think he is back in school. Too little detail and the author is asking the reader to take giant “leaps of faith,” and this undermines the credibility of a science-fiction story.

So what can an author do? I can only speak from my own experience. When I wrote the medical/psychological/conspiracy thrillers Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox, I was confronted with these same issues. The protagonist in both novels is Robert James Austin, the greatest scientific genius in human history.

But I couldn’t just ask the reader to believe this; I had to demonstrate to the reader that Austin did have these remarkable talents from a very young age. And when Austin proceeded to cure one disease after another, I had to make his discoveries believable, or the plot would just become fantastical, and I would lose the reader.

Writers Must Be Researchers

What this means is that the author of science fiction must do what writers of “pure” fiction rarely have to do—become a researcher so that the reader, in turn, can be educated and elevated—all within an entertainment context.

To make Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox credible required me to spend a great deal of time doing extensive research in two areas: the nature of human intelligence (particularly genius), and diseases, treatments, attempted cures—and the medical/scientific methodology relevant to formulating cures.

I researched the lives of actual geniuses so I could understand how genius manifests itself at various ages—and the behaviors often attendant to genius. Because Austin has an intelligence that is unique in human history (10x that of Einstein), I extrapolated from my research and “pumped up” various things about Austin so as to reflect his extraordinary abilities. So, while I highly magnified elements of his behavior and thought processes, they are grounded in documented realities and, hence, became credible.

What is the reward to the author for this hard work? I’ll tell you. No reader or reviewer ever made a negative comment regarding the “believability” of Austin’s genius. If they had, my novels would fail because they would have been based on “bad science.” If the science is inadequate, the science fiction fails, even if the fiction element is strong.

Regarding the medical/scientific aspects of both novels, I knew that in order for the story to hold the reader, there had to be plausible scientific foundations for the ways in which Austin invented cures and the way that his cures worked. I couldn’t just declare to the reader, “And then he cured this disease, and then he cured that disease.”

At the same time, however, I was mindful that I had to minimize the science so that it didn’t bore the reader. The cures that Austin devises in both novels are creative but believable, and the scientific explanations given for these cures and the way in which Austin devised them are completely plausible.

This was borne out when I received numerous letters from medical doctors and disease research scientists who read the novels and told me that they found these “cures” to be so interesting as to wonder if they would work in the real world!

In The Austin Paradox, Austin faces his greatest challenge—finding a cure for a new disease that was created by terrorists and has become a pandemic. As humanity faces extinction, Austin must invent revolutionary scientific concepts to formulate a cure. Coming up with this was a great challenge for me as an author, but the detailed scientific explanations that are in the novel resonate with the reader as being plausible.

Accurate and Believable Details

Simply put: if the science in the novel appears to be amateurish or “junk science,” then the author will lose the reader and the novel will fail. Readers who enjoy science-fiction books want fiction and good storytelling, but they also want science that is credible and that allows them to be swept away into the story. Good science makes for good science fiction.

If the author doesn’t want to put in the hard work of research and using her creativity to fashion “science” from imagination, then, please—do yourself and your reader a favor and write a different type of fiction because the reader will not be impressed.

In fact, the same requirements pertain to any factual matter that is included in science-fiction writing. For example, both Miracle Man and The Austin Paradox are highly critical of big pharma, which views Austin as its worst nightmare because Austin, unlike the pharma companies, seeks to cure diseases rather than merely treat symptoms. Austin’s discoveries kill off many of big pharma’s most profitable “cash-cow” treatments, and pharma devises various draconian plans to destroy Austin.

To paint a realistic picture of this and immerse the reader in the dynamic conflict between big pharma and Austin, I had to do a lot of research into the actual documented workings of the pharmaceutical industry, both in terms of science and the industry’s political maneuvering and interface with powerful governmental forces. This attention to detail brings this aspect of the story to life. Readers of science fiction appreciate the “reality” that science brings to fiction.

Similarly, one of the driving subplots of The Austin Paradox deals with international financial manipulations and money laundering. To make these somewhat complex areas realistic and interesting to the reader, much research was needed. It is the realism and accuracy of this information that, when woven into the plot lines, captures the reader.

The wonderful thing about science-fiction writing is that if the author does the scientific research, puts in the required time and effort, and gives flight to his creativity, the resultant novels will transcend mere fictional storytelling. The “science” will imbue the books with a realism that creates a multidimensional experience for the reader and that, in turn, will heighten the reader’s immersion in the novel.

William Leibowitz is the author of The Miracle Man SeriesHe practices law internationally and leads a somewhat peripatetic existence, preferring not to spend too much time in any one place. Check his blog out here for more tips and insights on the writing process.

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