On perceived limitations, or writing what you think you don’t know

I wrote this post and then realized that I’d read it somewhere before. It was on the blog of my friend and fellow Inkpunk Andy, who had a very similar experience to the one I just had: We both found out we could write science fiction.

No, really! It’s a real discovery.

One of the first debates my husband and I ever had was over the definition of science fiction. (Need I even mention that this was not an evenly matched debate, given that he’d been editing the stuff for nearly a decade?) I had always thought that science fiction had to have the science at the heart of the story, which is why I didn’t try to write it–I didn’t have the science. He told me no, it’s basically anything speculative that doesn’t involve magic, and that it included things like the social sciences, so dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction both count. Sometimes steampunk does, too, as in Genevieve Valentine’s “The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball.” Okay, I conceded, it’s a broad field that houses a lot of subgenres. I can see that. But I stubbornly clung to the belief that I did not know enough about science to write science fiction.

Then an opportunity to write something for Armored came along.

And I thought: I don’t know anything about power armor. I don’t know anything about military SF. I don’t actually know anything about the military, period. I had an idea and a character, but I kept telling myself I didn’t know enough real stuff to make the fake stuff work. I went into Research Mode–I sought out advice from lay-experts on military SF, power armor, and related things. Nothing I was hearing was allowing my idea to work. Frustrated, I nearly gave up on it, convinced that I really needed to just go back to fantasy where I can just make things up.

And then the revelation: I’m the writer. I can decide how much military strategy goes in (none). I can decide how much of the initial mission is revealed (none). I can decide whether or not it’s important how the suit is powered, or what it’s made of, or whether the reader actually needs to know those things (they don’t). I can just make it up.

It just had to be internally consistent, and I’m pretty used to that because magic is actually really hard to write. You have to know the rules (which you make up), and you have to make sure they make sense and don’t contradict one another. So I wrote the story, from a tight first-person perspective that didn’t need any of the background that I don’t know a damned thing about. John liked it a lot, and included it in the anthology. Most people seem to like it so far.

I wrote science fiction! Without knowing anything!

This sounds like a post about science fiction, but I think it’s really about limits: the kinds of false limits that we put on ourselves, the way we tell ourselves I can’t possibly do this thing and here are all of the completely false reasons why which I choose to believe because it’s safe.

We’re the writers. It’s our universe. We can take control of it, and once we have, there may be no limit to what we can do.

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  • Great post – I think you’d be really interested in what Peter Watts said about scientists and SF in the  Starship Sofa writing webinar on Saturday – I bet you could coax a copy out of Tony when it’s ready

  • Ah, I love this post. I’m a scientist and a writer, and I’m always flabbergasted when people tell me that it must then be *easy* for me to write science fiction because I have the right background. (Um, it’s not.)

    As you pointed out, in much of SF the tech can actually be quite peripheral. And honestly sometimes being too familiar with the science can be a limitation, in that it’s harder to throw away what you know to be probable for what makes a great story.

    All of which is to say congrats on writing your science fiction story!! That’s awesome, and I’m so happy for you that you stuck it out 🙂