The Magic of Sci-fi

Carrying on from my last post about working in film and how it helps me learn about the crafting of story through my experience with the editorial process, I thought I might take a moment to look at the film I worked on last year that has just come out, Elysium.

I mean, I’m not going to review it, since I worked on it, that would be a little self-serving. No, really, I just want to talk about how difficult and yet enticing it is to write sci-fi these days.

I have always loved science, but I feel that in the last few years so many changes and advances have been made in scientific fields of study that we are really in a very open and exploratory phase of human history. Fields of study that were at one time mocked or ridiculed are now openly accepted as legitimate research subjects or at least worthy of investigating.

I feel that a resurgence of interest in sci-fi films and novels somewhat reflects this shift. It’s an exciting time to be writing sci-fi and getting to work on one of this year’s biggest sci-fi films was a real honour. It was also an amazing opportunity to work with writer/director Neil Blomkamp, who is at the forefront of modern sci-fi story telling.

I loved working on this project and felt honoured to have been part of a team that was so talented and dedicated.

However, when it comes to writing my own sci-fi, I often I find myself daunted by the amount of research required to do the work justice. I find that I battle constantly with trying to…

  1. Create accurate and plausible technology and science for my universe without…
  2. Bogging down the text with too much jargon and at the same time…
  3. Keeping it fresh and exciting with ideas and concepts that perhaps haven’t been looked at before or at least are being dealt with in a new way. While…
  4. Being mindful of genre staples/ cliches/ paradigms .Knowing when to adhere to what is tradition and when to steer clear from what is old hat…and lastly
  5. Trying to figure out how a modern teen really would behave in the bizarre circumstances that they find themselves in.


All the while I’m conscious that sci-fi readers are among the most critical and scrutinizing of all genre fans. And they have every right to be! I know I’m critical of other sci-fi writers.

Sci-fi writers  suffer all the criticisms of ordinary fantasy. Both genres deal with forging something completely imaginary and trying to make it believable. Readers ask questions like…

  1. Is the world building seamless?
  2. Are the characters realistic for the world that they inhabit? and
  3. Is the social/economic/political structures within the world detailed and well balanced to convince the reader that its all real?

But unlike fantasty authors, sci-fi writers also have to deal with an audience who have a sophisticated understanding of modern science and technology. Every single reader/viewer has their own opinion on how they foresee humanity will fare in the future – for better or worse. This is the key to understanding the sci-fi genre…because sci-fi stories all have something in common. They deal with the concept of our use of science or technology getting out of hand. The classic Prometheus myth. Sci-fi tackles heavy issues dealing with the human thirst of conquering new horizons without taking heed of the consequences. It is a genre that is about looking to the possibilities of the future in order to take responsibility for the actions of the present.

In Blomkamp’s Elysium, for example, we see the dark side of that philosophy. Elysium offers a look at how our current world social and economic structure may lead to a future where social division between the rich and the poor are at extremes and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. We see a scenario where sacrifices must be made on both sides of the social spectrum, in order for a balance to be re-established.

Without going into too much specific back-story about how the world ended up in this situation, Elysium makes the viewer think about the implications of our current world economic situation and do some hard evaluating.

The sci-fi author must always be looking to the horizon. I find that it is getting harder to keep up to date with the rapid advances in science. It is really difficult to stay ahead of the curb. You have to identify with modern science and project it forwards, to investigate how it may evolve and change in time and what implications it has for the future of humanity, both good and bad.

But if a book takes three years to write/publish then the modern sci-fi writer has to realise that in the time it takes to get the book out there, a whole gamut of scientific discoveries will emerge.

Two years ago when I began writing my book, the Higgs Boson particle had not been discovered…NASA’s Curiosity had not landed on Mars…numerous exo-planets hadn’t been discovered including one Earth-sized planet that orbits Alpha Centauri B. And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s been going on.

Now, having said all this, my story is heavily steeped in what can only be called magic. I worry about this at times, knowing that hard-core sci-fi readers might reject some of my more ethereal concepts. I try to reassure myself that magic is just as valid in sci-fi as physics, since at some point in our human history, they could be seen as one and the same thing.

I tend to think that only by incorporating things that seem utterly like magic to us, can I write sci-fi that is true to what I love about the mystery of science. Or perhaps, I’m just a dreamer who has my head too far up in the clouds? Sometimes I focus too hard on getting the facts right, (especially knowing that my nuclear chemist brother would not approve of my sloppy research). But sometimes, I find it particularly hard to be practical when it comes to some of the core scientific aspects of my work. I prefer to focus on a more philosophical and emotional side of things and sort of let the structural mechanics of the world fall into place around the characters. After all, it’s the character’s story that matters most to me.

So, yes, it’s a difficult and yet thrilling era to be working on sci-fi, I might even go so far as to say it’s magical.




Monday with Mary

Good evening!

The best part of Monday is the conclusion. For those of us who work 5 days a week Mon-Fri – clocking off Monday is a little like trying to loose weight and finally getting past that first notch on the belt. Not completely there yet, but still I do deserve a wine…surely.

So, I am busy working on 2 new short films at the moment, and they are just preparing to take over my mind completely. I must stick to my guns and make sure I keep up with the writing. Now that I have made such a strong decision in lopping off huge chunks from (what used to be) my favourite chapters, I must not tarry. I must get right back in there and keep patching up my Frankenstein so that it doesn’t just lie there and bleed to death.

While I’m talking about Frankenstein, I should discuss Mary Shelly, author of the great novel, arguably the first Sci-Fi novel ever written. In 1816, at only 19 years of age, she created not only one of the most chilling tales of the Gothic era, but she completely carved a new genre of art out of issues surrounding contemporary science of the period.

What a complete inspiration to woman, to free thinkers, lovers of science and art alike. Not only did she marry the often divided schools of the arts and the sciences, but she did it in a way that is compelling and appealing to people who question the moral implications of new technologies and also those who are thrilled by them.

She paved the way for the rest of us to question the world we live in and to ensure that we don’t take anything for granted. Through imagining all the various ways in which scientific discoveries could go terribly wrong, we are offered a chance to ensure that our science is not misused.

Though perhaps, ironically, the nightmarish conjectures made by writers such as Shelly or Phillip K. Dick, offer scientific advancement a scope through which to drive discovery. Would someone have thought to invent some of history’s more destructive devices if writers didn’t offer postulations that these things could be achieved?

Although my work on this current novel is often less like a classic Sci-Fi and more like a standard fantasy adventure, I have plans for the sequels to become increasingly more heavy with questions of morality and of technology being misused. It will be a wide arc that I take to sweep together some of my denser ideas and story-lines. I feel that in order to do them justice later, I have to start light. The first book has to be an entry point of innocence – a place for my characters to enter a fantastical space realm and feel overwhelmed, like they want to retreat to the safety of the world they used to know. We as adults know however, once the bubble of innocence has been popped, things can never go back to the way they used to be. We are forever changed by every choice we make.

Thank you Mary…for helping me today with your inspiration. I shall continue to ponder these worlds that I inhabit – both here on Earth and in my mind.