Posted by: kshayes513 | October 6, 2013

Hard science fiction vs space opera: what would Clancy do?

To commemorate Tom Clancy in the week of his untimely death, Writer’s Digest reposted a 2001 interview with Clancy. In it, he gives the advice he thinks most important for any writer:

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damn story.”

I’ve only read The Hunt for Red October, and I don’t remember it being weighed down in the slightest by technoporn (lengthy descriptions of military hardware). Yet Clancy’s novels are admired for, among other things, their accuracy in weaving military and intelligence technology into the story.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Should New Colorado look more like Mars or the Mojave Desert? Yes.

Writing hard science fiction also requires a high degree of accuracy in pretty much any known science that your story uses. Hard SF readers will let you get away with a few waves of the magic wand of fake science, as long as they’re either minor in the story, or widely accepted in the genre (FTL travel, for example). But in general, they demand that the science and technology be both detailed and accurate.

Writing space opera, not so much.  You can have devices that teleport you instantly from place to place, communicate in real time over billions of miles, cause massive and permanent genetic mutation, or function like sword blades made of finite light rays. You can do all those without providing heavy scientific and technical explanations, and as long as the devices seem realistic within the story,  most readers will happily go along for the ride.

This poses a three-pronged dilemma for the long time fantasy writer who suddenly finds herself working in a science fiction setting. On the first prong, I’ve always said that the more you can ground your imaginary world in real details, the more believable it will be. And my natural bent is to dig into all the science I need to make New Colorado a fully fleshed-out science fictional world: geology, microbiology, chemistry, genetics, astrophysics and an encyclopedia’s worth of other subjects that would form the foundation for a detailed, intricate science fiction story about a space colony 200 years from now.

On the second prong, while I love reading about science and technology, I’m not much good at anything beyond the basics (as I’ve mentioned before). So I have a steep learning curve for pretty much all of the intricate science needed for hard SF worldbuilding.

On the third prong – and this would be the big one in the center –  this story started out as a Western – a “horse opera,”which sits right next door to a space opera in the adventure spectrum. And as fascinating as all that science might be, it’s not the point of the story.

New Colorado isn’t about the scientific discoveries involved in developing a new planet or genetically engineering Earth native species to live on it. New Colorado is about colonial history:  developing a culture and infrastructure in an alien and often dangerous landscape, and especially about the adventure of colonization, and about the push and pull of politics, economics and power between the homeworld and the colony.

So right now I’m seriously thinking that maybe I should take Tom Clancy’s advice (rather than his example). Maybe I should just write the damn story, and let the scientific research catch up in the story’s wake, just as often as I need it, and no more.

What would you do?


  1. Write. If you don’t completely understand something and need to go back and research it, that’s fine, but keep writing. You can always go back and make changes.

  2. If your worldbuilding doesn’t serve a story, you’re just creating clutter and wasting time. All of those fiddly bits need to serve the story. Adding a little bit of detail to make the world more three-dimensional in the story is one thing, but detail for its on sake is a distraction to the reader.

  3. I know there are some of us readers who love all that detail if well blended into the story and not just dumped. And it’s not just the science. It can be the social/political/historical detail as well. I know you probably do a lot more research than required for the story and it seems a shame for all that to go to waste. I know I am often overcome by the urge to share interesting facts I’ve found and hate leaving them out because they aren’t relevant to the story. But they are relevant to your creation of your world and its people. It affects how you perceive them and thus how they perceive their world and the situations they find themselves in. So they are important for your ability to create realistic worlds and characters who belong in them.

    I’ve been toying with the idea — especially in -books — of including links at the ends of chapters to interesting info, like Youtube videos on thingd like how to knap flint, start a fire with a bow drill for those who would be interested. I don’t know if that would work for what you’re doing or not, but what do you think?

  4. Cynthia, it’s just that idea of “all that going to waste” that I’m leery of. I’ve never forgotten coming across a historical writer’s first novel, after reading and enjoying many of her later ones. It loaded with unnecessary and tedious exposition, because she hadn’t yet learned to let go of all the research and just tell the story. I’m not going to be that writer! (by the way, adding links to electronic text is such a great idea that people are already doing it: it’s called “hypertext” or sometimes “metatext”

    But I think the comments (for which I thank you all very much!) have missed the point of my question, and that is probably because I didn’t explain it clearly. I’m not asking whether I should (a) do all the scientific research then write the story, or (b) write the story and do the scientific research as I need it?

    I’m asking HOW MUCH ACCURATE SCIENCE do I need to include in a believable space western? Do I need to do in depth research into genetics, solar radiation, biochemistry, and exogeology? Or can I just wave the magic wand of space opera and say, “look! solar flares that fry all electric technology! A planet like Mars, but with liquid water, atmosphere, and life! Artificial genetic modifications that accidentally create super powers!”

  5. My short answer would be to include enough so that people don’t say, that’s impossible, or yeah, right. Long answer: I don’t particularly like the show Defiance (is what you’re doing something in that vein?), but I liked the concept of razor rain — all the exploded bits of war ships in orbit around Earth periodically falling to Earth. That’s about all the explanation they gave for it. It had cool special effects and was scary, but I would have liked to have known what meteorologic conditions trigger it. I’m geeky that way. As an author, I’m always worried about the balance between what’s needed for the story and what’s needed for geek satisfaction. Finding that balance is the key and I suppose that depends too on your readership.

  6. Tell the story, fake confidence, explain little but name evocatively. And with that innocent-sounding list of Three Impossible Things Before Breakfast….

    Star Wars’ “lightsaber” is actually a good example. The name tells you pretty much everything you need to know, even before you see it; but no one ever describes the theory & practice of how it works. It gets kicked around by surface-appearance critics: “you can’t make a laser be just two feet long!” OK, but it’s not a laser, is it? There’s a solid connection when two lightsaber blades meet, there’s resistance when the blade cuts through matter. Not a laser. If we think for a moment, we remember there’s force field technology in the SW universe, and those fields can be shaped. In all likelihood, the lightsaber involves force field generation.

    The story is told, the items “exist”, in-universe, the name tells you all you need to know. The rest works itself out.

    Just, ah, just don’t involve a water-sprinkler fire alarm system in your story without consulting me first. Hint: Hollywood, and John Scalzi, screw this up all the time.

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