Science Fiction without the Fluff

A few weeks ago, famed director Duncan Jones posted some tips about how to make good science fiction. I agree 100% with him, especially his #1 tip (“Nail down the rules of your film’s movie science”).

I would like to expand on his #3 tip: “Know what kind of sci-fi story you’re telling.” In it, Jones makes a distinction between soft and hard sci-fi. Soft sci-fi is often blurred with fantasy, while hard sci-fi plays with more strict rules, and strives to be realistic. It’s that second kind of sci-fi that I personally enjoy. As I’ve written in the past, realism is very important to me. The reason I watch movies & TV series is because I want to escape to their universe. So the more plausible they feel, the more grand, cohesive, well-described and expansive their world is, the more they can convince my brain to let go and lose myself into them.

Any science fiction work that features the following, are automatically rejected, and treated by me like boring fantasy instead:

1. Religion
I don’t mind religion being socially studied in a sci-fi work, but when religion becomes integral to the plot and spirit of the work, then it’s all going downhill. Like in BSG, Caprica, LOST.

2. Time Travel
I don’t like time travel. Time travel is plot-CHEATING. It’s the easy way out when writing fiction. Sure, sure, there have been works where time travel was more intelligent than in other works, but the majority of the time it just ends up being a cheap “let’s fix the past” plot that falls apart in the end. If there has to be some time travel, it has to be an accidental, mysterious, and unpredictable space-time rift (not “machines”), that ONLY goes forward in time and has absolutely no effect on resolving the plot.

3. Alternative timelines
Even worse than time travel, is the usage of alternative timelines. In the grand scheme of things, these ultimately serve no purpose other than being filler episodes. See, when the audience is engaged to a particular situation and cast, and then you suddenly present an alternate version of them, then all rules already established in the work so far goes out of the window. It’s carpet-pulling. And that never, never works (I hated it on JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek for example). Shows like Fringe make a bit more sense because its “parallel universes” idea depicts two very different worlds in direct collision, and that stands out better as a plot. Instead, “alternative timelines” that have to do with small changes between the two worlds (worlds that often don’t even know of each other’s existence) are just filler plot.

4. Hallucinations & dreams
It’s one thing showing hallucinations/dreams that progresses a particular plot (e.g. an alien race that can only communicate with the unconscious mind, or a virus attack), and another spending whole episodes with hallucinations/dreams for the sake of these hallucinations/dreams. These are yet just another kind of a filler that don’t progress the main plot. The 1st episode of SGU’s Season 3 would have been such an episode, if it wasn’t canceled. As much as I love SGU, I thank the Gods I didn’t have to endure yet another of their hallucination/dream episodes.

5. Aliens who look just like humans and speak English
Please, don’t make aliens look like humans that speak English. It’s nearly scientifically impossible, and that makes your work silly. Not a problem using technology to translate, or having humanoid aliens that can learn English after a while though. But make most of the aliens races to look and sound from nothing like humans to very little. SGU is possibly the only “exploration” sci-fi TV series that got this 100% right.

6. Over-done drama
Like, episodes 7 and 9 of SGU, and most of BSG. Please, keep it in check. Drama is good, and without it there’s no engagement. But when over-doing it things also become boring — there’s a balance to be found. And no, I don’t care if Kate will marry Jack or Sawyer. That’s so below me (call me arrogant, but I don’t care about stupid shit). Instead, create drama about important, complex things, not things where if the (obviously educated, in the future) opposing parties would sit down for 10 minutes, discuss and easily fix their problems.

7. Mumbo-Jumbo technobabble
If you’re going to write science fiction, sit down first and understand the science of what you’re going to write about. Think of how technology and society is likely to progress, and use these imagined, but well-defined technologies to serve your plot, rather than “rerouting conduit X through dilithium chamber B to remove the deuterium purge vent”. And definitely don’t try to fix things with impossible science (e.g. patching together completely incompatible technologies), usually at the 10 last minutes of an episode (as in ST, SG-1, SGA). And for Christ’s sake TV writers, if you want to say “CPU”, or “graphics acceleration”, or “math co-processor”, just say it as such, there’s no reason to soften it for us and call every computer thingy a “memory”. It’s funny that sci-fi writers have no qualms about using crazy technobabble for non-understandable technology, but they use the dumbest language possible for current technology. Finally, avoid too many… holodeck malfunction episodes. One is enough.

8. Super-heroes
Super-hero stories are fun most of the time (I love the Avengers, Wolverine), but they’re so out there scientifically, that they eventually turn into a mixture of fantasy and science fiction goo for me. If anything, I mostly watch these for their usually excellent drama rather than the “sci-fi high”. Super-hero stories are nothing but modern-day wizard/knight Medieval fantasy stories.

9. Dinosaurs [and dragons, vampires, werewolves etc.]
If you’re going to create monsters, create unique monsters for the planet you’re writing for. Human-oriented plots dealing with Earth’s prehistoric dinos would involve time travel, and quickly that whole plot starts to sound primarily like fantasy to me (e.g. Spielberg’s new “Terra Nova” show).

10. Zombies
I don’t like zombie stories. This is not to say that some zombie-based works aren’t great (they are), but for some unexplained reason I can’t lose myself in the whole “apocalyptic virus” world, even if one day it might become closer to reality than any other form of science fiction.

Bonus: Never write episodes/chapters that are obvious patches for your previous mistakes. For example, on SGU’s S2E9 episode “Visitation”, we get a whole bunch of people arriving on the ship via a shuttle, only to kill them all a bit later. Why this whole episode existed at all? Just so the main crew gets a new shuttle (the previous one got destroyed a few episodes back). So we got 43 minutes of useless drama just to fix the missing shuttle problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place since it’s integral to the survival of the crew.

Bonus 2: Be careful with your chronology. There are too many writers placing super-technological stories in just 50 years into the future (e.g. as seen in Outcasts, Space: Above & Beyond and other works). For example, deep space exploration (not likely for another 200-300 years at least), realistic AI and Androids (another 100+ years) etc.

So far, there’s no TV series that comes close to the standards I have set. Some get some parts right, but lose in others. In the movie world, probably District 9, Serenity, Blade Runner, The Matrix came close. In the book world, I highly suggest you download and read the free eBook “Spinward Fringe Broadcast 0: Origins” (also available for free download via the Amazon, Apple iBooks, B&N mobile apps).


Jorge wrote on May 17th, 2011 at 1:28 PM PST:

I thought I enjoyed Battlestar Galactica while I was watching it. Now the more I think about it, the more I realize how much it sucked. Too much soap/political/religious crap. Holy shit! I just realized all that time I was watching Lifetime for Women with spaceships! Yuck! I feel dirty now! Now Firefly/Serenity, that was badass. That’s Adventure. It’s like Indiana Jones in space. That’s how I like my Sci-Fi. And District 9 is quite likely the most original setting I have ever seen in a film. Great flick. I recall giving SGU it a try once about 8 winters ago and did not enjoy it.

Oh and by the way Eugenia, thanks for all the filmmaking tips you put out over at and on this blog. I’m a big fan of your work.

varometro wrote on May 18th, 2011 at 12:51 PM PST:

Great post! I agree 100%. Writers often use that crap due to production budget limitations but really smart writers can find smart ways to overcome such difficulties. For example in Star Trek teleportation was a clever way to replace the “expencive landings” of the Enterprise. LOST was the big disappointment.

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