Accessible sci-fi

Writing sci-fi is a little like walking a high wire. On the one side you’ve got the SF bros who, the second you add a little telepathy, accuse you of being “really just fantasy.” On the other, you’ve got more casual fans who profess, “I like sci-fi, but I don’t care how the engines work. I want it to be accessible.”

That word is my kryptonite; every time I hear it, a little bit of me dies inside. Because I suspect, in my heart of hearts, that the person who says this doesn’t think my work is accessible. After all, on the Mohs Hardness Scale of sci-fi, my work tends to range from quartz up to corundum–it’s pretty hard. I like engines that might actually go, and what’s worse, I like to tell the reader how they work.

A big sparkly diamond

But maybe (I tell myself hopefully) accessible doesn’t mean not sciencey. After all, I’ve read SF I didn’t find accessible. Red Mars, for instance. Cool idea, but whole chapters were spent driving around talking about the geographical features of each region. Do we need that? No. I don’t think we do. It didn’t move the plot forward, and it felt like work.

For me, a big part of what makes a sci-fi feel inviting to me is when the spotlight is on the plot and characters primarily, and worldbuilding is slipped in here and there, when it’s relevant to the plot. (I want it to be there and relevant to the plot! “Here’s how we hacked the ship’s computer” is way more interesting to me than “then I grabbed my blaster and shot everybody.”) Dumping a bunch of worldbuilding in at the beginning is probably what turns people off hard sci-fi.

And I want to feel things. And I don’t mean the feeling that I’m in a lecture. The Enterprise-D, much as I love her, felt like a living room. Everything is comfortable and airy. But I want to feel like I’m in space. I want to get a little space-sick while I’m reading. I want to float in zero-g. I want to go a little dizzy at the unclouded sight of the stars. I want to miss Earth while it’s ten million lightyears away. I want to fall in love with a robot that can’t love me back.

Now, maybe I can do all those things and some people still won’t like it because it’s “too hard.” Some people really don’t want to know how the engines work, I guess. There’s no accounting for taste. I personally find the fun much reduced if I don’t know how stuff works, but I’m certainly not going to be the person who says “you think you don’t like it, but I know you would if you just had it prepared right.”

But in that case, I can’t help you. I declared at the outset of my current project that it was going to be soft sci-fi and I wasn’t going to try at all to make sure it worked, because I was really just there for the aesthetic . . . and three months later I was staring at the hardest sci-fi I have ever written, and yelling at NASA for not just building this stuff already, dangit! I like to build my worlds out in detail, and as I’m building, I learn things, and while I learn, more and more science creeps in, and you know what? You’re just going to have to deal with it. Some people don’t like that kind of thing, but a heck of a lot of people do.

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