When people hear the words “science fiction,” they tend to only think about one thing: science. Images of lasers and guns, star fighters and interplanetary travel zip through their minds. Don’t deny it–as soon as you read that this post was to be about sci-fi, you thought of hard sci-fi. I’m not going to tell you that these things aren’t a part of SF; they are. What I’m going to tell you is that you do not need to have a PhD in science to write or read science fiction. Far from it, in fact! You see, most of the people who read SF aren’t science majors. They are people who love a good story, just like the readers of any other genre. The difference is that it appeals to their sense of logic and their dreams for the future.
I will be completely honest with you. While I absolutely love and adore my fantasy, I also love sci-fi. Am I a science-minded person? Not in the least. I’m an English major, but that doesn’t mean I can’t read or write sci-fi (both of which I do). In the years that I’ve been familiarizing myself with the genre, I’ve realized that it’s not so much the science that makes the story as it is the plot and characters, just like it is for any other genre. And in realizing that you don’t need to have the hard science to back you up, a science fiction writer can capitalize on the “fiction” aspect of the genre and fudge the lines of reality and fiction. Do I know what a photon blaster is? No. But I can sure make one up for my story. Chances are, most of my readers won’t know exactly what a photon blaster is either. They’ll trust me to know what I’m talking about (or, at the very least, to make my own definition and stick with it consistently).
I’ll readily admit that sci-fi takes some research if you want to be as accurate as possible (although a need for accuracy isn’t always the most pressing matter for a writer). But that’s nothing new. If you’re a writer (and you doubtless are), you will know that almost any serious writing requires research. My novel for NaNoWriMo last year was a complete fantasy (dragons and damsels in distress included), but I did a lot more research for that novel than I had ever done for anything else (barring research papers). Now, you don’t need to do a lot of heavy research to write sci-fi. It’s simply a good idea to fact check yourself so that you don’t screw up any basic science (if I had a science mind, I’d give you an example here).
If you’re questioning something you want to put in, Google it really quickly. If you don’t pull up anything that you can understand with skimming (or however much effort you want to put into it), then it’s probably safe to say you can fudge it. Make stuff up. Put some science-y words together. It doesn’t have to be actually possible or true–this is science fiction! You’re entitled to have fun with it. Make things work for you.
Another thing that people tend to overlook is the fact that sci-fi doesn’t have to be Star Wars, and neither does it have to be set exclusively in a tech-savvy world. Science fiction simply requires that you use some type of science to explain things. You don’t throw a photon blaster into a dragon story and call it sci-fi. Conversely, you can throw dragons into a story with scientific explanation and call it sci-fi. (Anne McCaffrey does this especially well with her Dragonriders of Pern series. The first few books are basically fantasy, but through the entire series, science manages to become a part of it. It explains everything, and though there are fantastical elements, the series can be termed sci-fi.) If you show how a group of explorers ended up on an alien planet, no matter how primitive they may have to live for a time, then you’re writing sci-fi. You don’t have to go into the nitty-gritty of the science if you don’t want to. Sci-fi simply uses a more logical approach to making fantasy happen.
So you see, sci-fi isn’t solely for those who understand science. It helps; sure it does. But at the end of the day, sci-fi is still just a story. You’re not reading it to find out how the author depicts a photon blaster; you’re reading to see how the story plays out. The science it merely a tool, a means to an end. It can be used well or poorly, at a high level or a low level. There is a huge range of sci-fi out there. There’s soft SF for the people who want to focus on the characters, and there’s hard SF for the people who also enjoy hearing how the plot is explained and justified.
If you’re contemplating writing sci-fi, all I can say is “don’t be afraid.” Don’t be intimidated by the science of it; embrace the fiction. Read some sci-fi yourself to prove that not all sci-fi is the same. Not all sci-fi books explain things the same way. You’ve got some hard boundaries when it comes to science, but you’ve also got a lot more freedom than you think. Use those imaginations! Make it work. If it doesn’t work naturally, find out why; then find out how you can get around those limitations. It’s a lot of work to find and exploit loopholes, but it’s worth it to have that finished product. I have the greatest respect for sci-fi writers; they manage to take science and make it interesting, whether it’s real or not.
PS: I’m sorry about the photon blasters. >.> I couldn’t think of anything else.