The first and most important step in constructing good science fiction is to start with a good idea. Science fiction is more idea-based than anything else. The idea for this story came from a comment I heard at a science fiction convention, that by the year 2000 everyone would have an electronic mail address. I wanted to point out that the recent explosion of the Internet into many people’s daily lives did not mean free access to information for everyone. But, the basic concept I was interested in, the Internet, was no longer science fiction; it was real science.
So I extrapolated. Instead of the Internet, I created a system of Virtual Reality schools, which had originally been designed as a solution for violence in schools. Instead, the public money to fund them never materialized, and the technology was adopted by private school systems that could afford them. The analogy was solid, but subtle enough for the reader not to feel beaten over the head with my message.
ONCE I had my idea, I needed to develop the characters and plot that worked best for this idea. I tend to feel that plot and characters must always be developed together, and in science fiction they must be thought of in the context of the scientific or technological advance your story is about. As a general rule, when writing science fiction, you can get the characters out of your idea by asking the question, Whom does this hurt? No one cares to read about someone whose life is made happy by scientific advances; good science fiction comes from stories of everyday people dealing with technological developments being thrust upon them.
To illustrate the power of asking the question posed above, let me tell you about my original idea for character and plot. I briefly considered writing about a scientist who has a friend, a teacher, who is killed because of school violence. The scientist then goes on to develop the technology for telepresence schools, and all ends happily. I abandoned this idea after less than a page of writing, not only because it says the opposite of the message I wanted to get across, but because the story of a scientist solving a problem is a very old tradition in science fiction, bordering on cliche. Instead, I asked myself who would be hurt by the technological development of VR schools and realized that it would be those same students who were supposed to benefit from it. Not only did I have a better story, but I had dramatic irony and the ability to show the reader what these schools would be like–all by asking one simple question about character.
Also, in a good science fiction story, the characters should always be comfortable in their world, accepting situations that seem fantastic to the reader. The classic example is from the opening sentence of a Robert Heinlein novel: “The door dilated.” None of the characters in this world of the future is surprised at the thought of a “dilating” door. Such doors are as commonplace in that world as hinged swinging doors are in ours. When we turn on a television set, we don’t react by saying, “My God! Moving pictures and words are coming out of that little box!” Nor should your science fiction characters react to the everyday technology of their world.
In the same way, Tony in “TeleAbsence” understands exactly what the telepresence school is all about. Yes, he does have the thrill of discovering new things when he sneaks into the school, since he’s never been to one before, but he is familiar with the concept. When the story begins, he is completely cognizant of the existence of the telepresence schools. He has heard about them all his life; they are as ubiquitous in his world as a jet airplane is in ours.
The overriding principle in creating a plot is that it must be based on the science fictional extrapolation of the story. In true science fiction, the story would fall apart if the science were removed.
There is no way that “TeleAbsence” could be about a child who sneaks into a regular school.
Beginning writers often commit this plot error in writing what is sometimes called a “space western.” In such a story, a space patroller (sheriff) rides his spaceship (horse) around the galaxy (town), having shootouts with space pirates (outlaws), firing his laser pistol (six-shooter). If a story does not need to be sciencefiction to work, then it is not science fiction and should not be written as such.
Although the same should not be said about the way one works conflict into a science fiction story, putting elements of science fiction into it can make the conflict much more powerful. In “TeleAbsence,” Tony is scared of being found out, but imagines he is safe because the student whose spex he is using can’t jack in without them. Then Tony is confronted in a manner very suitable to science fiction, as is seen in the following:
Tony was interrupted by a sharp buzz, and he
looked up. At the front of the classroom appeared
an older man with thick grey hair. He headed
straight for Tony, a scowl on his face, and Tony
looked down again, in fear.
He heard Miss Ellis speak. “Mr. Drummond,
what are you doing here?”
The man didn’t answer Miss Ellis. He went right
up to Tony and said, “Give them back! They’re
Tony shivered. It had been too good to last; now
he was going to be found out. This man was obviously
Andrew’s father, come to get the spex back.
“Mr. Drummond!” said Miss Ellis, with an angry
tone that was familiar to Tony. “I would appreciate
it if you would not interrupt my class to talk with
your son! Can’t this wait until later?”
“This is not me–I mean, this is not my son!”
Mr. Drummond shouted.
There was silence for a moment. Tony felt Miss
Ellis move next to him and Mr. Drummond.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“This kid stole my–I mean, my son’s spex!”
Tony looked up at Miss Ellis and saw her smile.
Facing Mr. Drummond, she said, “That’s you, isn’t
For the first time since he appeared, “Mr.
Drummond” looked uncomfortable. “Ummm,
yeah, Miss Ellis. I had to use Dad’s spex to jack
in. Whoever this is–” he pointed at Tony–”stole
my own spex.”
“Ah-ha. Andrew, go home. I’ll take care of this. ”
“Ummm. You won’t tell my Dad, will you? I
don’t want him to know that I’ve been careless.”
“No, I won’t tell him. Now go. I’ll contact you
The image of Andrew’s father vanished, and Miss
Ellis turned to Tony. He was on the verge of tears.
We’ve seen how to develop the idea, plot, and characters for a science fiction story, but how do you explain the background of your world so readers will understand and appreciate it? Above all, avoid the infodump, an expository lump that does nothing but provide information. When contemporary characters make phone calls or fire guns in a mainstream story, they don’t stop to contemplate and explain the technology to the reader. When characters avoid taking the subway or walking through certain neighborhoods, they don’t stop to deliver a treatise on the sociological development of their hometown.