Science or Fiction in Science Fiction?

Science or Fiction in Science Fiction

By guest blogger John Steiner – Author website:

There are schools of thought in writing science fiction regarding how realistic it should be. This is more than the Star Wars versus Star Trek conundrum over which is better. This is about how to tell a science fiction story. The answer depends on the focus of science fiction.

To start, George Lucas himself has never considered Star Wars to be science fiction, rather he calls it a science fantasy that retells the grail stories. Unless we make a long stretch, the Force doesn’t exist. “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power,” Alec Guinness tells us, “It’s an energy field generated by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”

galaxy-551242_640At best, that could be Dark Matter, but for being generated by living things only. Star Trek likewise makes a number of assumptions that we learned since 1968 aren’t scientific. For instance, the human alien hybrid Spock wouldn’t exist. Goats and Crayfish have more than 70% commonality in their genes, yet there aren’t any crayfish/goat things running around. Most of Star Trek’s aliens are vertebrates, tetrapods [meaning four-limbed], mostly mammalian and most of those are themes on primate evolution.

The truth is that aliens won’t have any common genes and may end up using one of numerous possible Xeno-Nucleic Acids [XNAs] and any of over 200 amino acids in proteins entirely unlike anything on Earth. They could have skeletal support that we haven’t seen or imagined. Maybe they don’t use neurons to contain the mind, but something like nucleic acid computers, allowing their minds to exist within a single cell. And that’s just addressing carbon-based life centered on cellular structure with water as the chemical solvent and molecular oxygen as a metabolic oxidizer.

Yet, we’re glued to these stories, because science alone isn’t the focus. Instead, they offer the feeling of interstellar travel and interspecies contact. Fictional storytelling requires bringing real emotions to surreal or unrealistic events. However, science fiction where the science is as close to real as possible also has lasted the decades.

Space Odyssey 2001 and its follow-ups like 2010 bring with them the environmental dangers of space for thrills as intense as Klingons bearing down or cybernetic black knights with energy swords barring the way. Others of the hard science fictions are still leaving their mark on audiences; like Sunshine from 2007, Gravity, Solar Crisis, or Interstellar just this last year. They prove to us that making the science itself integral to the story can still induce exhilaration.

Myself, I like to reach for as much of the above and more into my science fiction. I love the wide cast of characters that Star Wars and Star Trek bring, along with the military action of Aliens, Halo, Mass Effect, and Battle for Los Angeles, but the hard science stories remain my favorites, and so I want scientific facts to come alive in my own work.

For those writing science fiction, I suggest that you first decide what makes the story. If it’s about a character who bought a ticket on a star-hopping cruise liner then you can skip the science. Like the alien, Alf, all the reader needs to know is that when they turn the key the ship goes. In the Giants of Ganymede by James P. Hogan, the science of how a dead human astronaut found on the moon could be 50,000 years old makes science come to the fore of the story and drives the main plot.

In the aforementioned Battle for Los Angeles, how the aliens crossed the stars isn’t important, because we see events unfold through the U.S. Marines tasked with defending the west coast from them. And yet, we’re given glimpses of realism that could’ve just as easily been left on the cutting room floor. We see the aliens rescuing one of their own who is injured. We’re told they want our planet for its water to be used in fusion, and have no interest in talking to us or acknowledging our intelligence.

My preference for science fiction is that human ships don’t have gravitational field generators, and must rotate ships for the sense of gravity or use gene therapy to render astronauts immune to the effects of prolonged zero gee and free fall. When considering shields or cloaking devices, I drew a line defining the extreme limits. In Star Trek there is never a convincing explanation for how a shield blocks weapons fire while still letting communications and sensors to work through them. Likewise with the cloaking device, where it flawlessly bends light around the ship, yet that ship can see past the field preventing light and other energy forms from getting inside.

However, I asked myself a harder question. Is it more energy efficient to simply devote power into not getting hit than to pump out megawatts for a bubble larger than the ship at all times just to keep an instantaneous pinpoint attack from getting through? Yes, space has radiation and high velocity particles that need to be kept from damaging a ship or the people inside. However, does that require an energy field of such power that most nuclear reactors would not have enough juice for an appreciable duration? In fact, suppose absorbing some of that energy is the more economical option.

Granted, a larger question science fiction writers should ask themselves is whether aliens are out there. If so, we have to wonder why they haven’t come here in the lifetime of our civilizations? If there are hostile aliens, why haven’t we been invaded before now? For that matter, why not hit us before we even invented the wheel, much less before discovering flight?

I reason for being such a stickler to accuracy is also to ponder the future of humanity. What will our institutions and cultures be like in centuries yet to come? What are the limits of artificial intelligence, and how will they really react to learning of their own sentience? I wonder how future conflicts between humans will pan out in the future, and what definitions of society are on the way for which we haven’t invented terms for. New promises and perils are coupled with old adages and questions that have haunted us down the ages.

To learn where your work will shine the brightest takes experimentation. Toy with single-scene stories or short chapters, and you’ll find that balance between science and fiction which suits you best.
Flipspace Mission 1: Flight of the Mockingbird

Flipspace Mission 2: Branching Out

List of published works available at Melange Books

Author website:


Cool Advice from Editors about Queries: Part 2

Beth Fowler headshotDon’t send another query until you’ve read this roundup of advice from editors.

According to the editors I interviewed, freelancers are irritating editors with lukewarm queries. Queries that sour an editor’s opinion of a writer can kill potential sales.

An Exemplary Query: The basic components of a solid query comprise a salutation to the editor by name, an introductory paragraph establishing familiarity with the publication, and the topic of the proposed article. The second section summarizes (tantalizingly) the gist of the article. Next come the author’s qualifications to write about the topic, and then relevant publishing credits are listed. A polite final line and signature round out the letter.

Editors would give a query containing the basic elements, as this one does, a thumbs up.


“Dear Francesca Kelly:


I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of Tales from a Small Planet for three years. I feel that the attached essay, in Rich Text Format, about everything going hilariously wrong during a scuba diving expedition in Bali captures the right tone for your magazine.


As an expat living in Bali, I want to stress that this essay isn’t a tourist travelogue, but a real glimpse of what local life is like where I live. Using incidents from my own experience, I’ll show how foreigners can go hopelessly astray without someone local to help them.


Going Places, Destinations and Islands Ho! have published my articles.


I look forward to hearing from you at your convenience.”


An actual query would also include the author’s first and last names and all contact information. These can be automatically inserted in e-mails with the signature function. “I’m always impressed when a writer provides several contact numbers and addresses,” an editor said.


…Furthermore: “Include your byline on the article you submit,” said an editor of a natural health magazine. “Don’t send me articles full of grammatical errors and misspellings,” another editor reminded authors.


“Nothing’s more refreshing for an editor than to read a query that takes him completely by surprise,” Betsy Lerner wrote in The Forest for the Trees: Editor’s Advice to Writers (


A small magazine editor agreed. “I like a twist. I like to guess. I love surprises, especially when stories involve mundane topics.”


In How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query & Cover Letters, John Wood wrote that queries should be professional, novel, provocative and creative, focused and customized. Authors, when querying, want to show that they are reliable and qualified.


Follow editors’ advice and their positive replies to your hot queries will grow.


Article by Beth Fowler, author of the beloved coming-of-age novel “Ken’s War.”


 ken's war coverWhen teen rebellion & culture shock collide. Shop here: Ken’s War

Ken’s War is vibrant with authority … Fowler’s elegantly written novel risks exploring the full range of teenage behavior and emotion.” Nancy Springer, award- winning author of YA books.




Cool Advice from Editors about Queries: Part 1

Beth Fowler headshotDon’t send another query until you’ve read this roundup of advice from editors.

According to the editors I interviewed, freelancers are irritating editors with lukewarm queries. Queries that sour an editor’s opinion of a writer can kill potential sales.

Number One Gripe: Many editors echoed Francesca Kelly of Tales from a Small Planet (, when she said, “Know my publication and read the writers’ guidelines.” Poorly targeted queries expose a writer’s arrogance or ignorance.

“Don’t send me queries on subjects I don’t publish,” advised another editor. “It’s obvious those authors haven’t read our newsletter nor our writer’s guidelines.”

An editor for a magazine targeted to home-based business owners said that potential contributors can gain an understanding of the type and style of articles a magazine publishes by reading back issues or viewing archived articles at the magazine’s website.

She went on to say, “Writers who submit queries on topics such as ‘Combating Office Politics’ and ‘Is Your Boss A Jerk?’ (pretty funny when you consider our readers are self-employed) prove they’re ignorant regarding the type of editorial submissions we’re looking for.”

A freelance editor based in the D.C. area said, “I appreciate a writer that is sensitive to the publication’s demographics – submits a story that targets readership. It makes everything a whole lot easier for everyone.”

Don’t Pester Editors: After assurance of anonymity, an editor of an international magazine told me, “We’re busy and we’ll get back to you when we can. We remember the names of people that have bothered us and it’s not in a good way.”

The editor of a healing and recovery magazine said that she is more likely to show interest and give time to writers and their work if they have shown respect for her. She added, “Don’t put me on your e-mail distribution list.”

After a vacation, she returned to combat a deluge of 800 e-mails. She begged writers to hold off sending e-mails.

An acquisitions editor at Tor Books ( said, “If an editor says she will get back to you in two months, give her a few more weeks. I don’t want to work with someone who’s always asking, ‘When are you going to do me?’ ”

Busy editors appreciate writers who resist the urge to ask about the status of submitted material until a reasonable period has passed, who send in their best work the first time (as opposed to submitting minor changes and revisions after the piece was accepted) and who don’t ask questions that are answered in submission guidelines.

E-mail Etiquette: “Don’t think that because you’re querying by e-mail, you don’t have to be polite.” The editor of Tales from a Small Planet ( bristles at messages like “Hi! Thought you might like to read this!” with a link to an essay on the writer’s website. This editor is “not inspired to use my limited time to follow up.”

Too many writers put “submission” or “article for you” in e-mail subject lines. When an editor wants to locate that e-mail later, but it’s buried in tons of other e-mails with identical subject lines, well…”It helps if the subject is what the article is really about,” the travel mag editor said. Travel writers who type “buying pottery in Belize,” or “Korean street food,” for example, in subject lines make e-mail editor-friendly.

Editors are reluctant to open attachments that come without an introduction in the body of the e-mail. “As our e-mail volume gets higher,” one editor warned, “I’ll just delete these.”

An editors’ perspective on e-mail etiquette: “I expect writers to present the same information they would in a written query letter: who they are, what they’ve written and why they think their work fits our publication.”


Stay tuned for Part 2.


Article by Beth Fowler, author of the beloved coming-of-age novel “Ken’s War.”


 ken's war coverWhen teen rebellion & culture shock collide. Shop here: Ken’s War

Ken’s War is vibrant with authority … Fowler’s elegantly written novel risks exploring the full range of teenage behavior and emotion.” Nancy Springer, award- winning author of YA books.




Tips for Earning Money Writing Globally: Part 2

Beth Fowler headshotPart 1 listed half a dozen sure-fire ways to get published internationally. Here are more that have worked for me.

Gesture judiciously: Describing gestures adds life to personality profiles and fictional characterizations, but gestures don’t necessarily impart universal meanings. Thrusting fingers upward in a V signifies an insult, victory, two or peace, depending on where thrusting occurs!

When gestures are important, global freelancers include explanations that flow naturally in context. (“Making a circle with finger and thumb, the captain indicated that the trip was successful.”)

Be worldly: I once read a query promoting an area of India as an ideal tourist destination …never mind that two so-called religious factions were killing each other’s devotees. Worldly freelancers demonstrate global awareness and intercultural sensitivity. Being worldly means not sending pork recipes to a publication with a Muslim audience and not using nicknames (Yank, wetback). Lazy journalists use phrases such as “inscrutable Chinese” and “friendly natives.” Being worldly means banishing dogmas, romanticized images, stereotypes and prejudices. Read articles about cultural customs at

Write the truth: Hundreds of magazine and newspaper editors speaking about what they look for in articles concurred, “We are unhappy with writers who get their facts wrong.”

Don’t assume that a “fact” in magazines, newspapers, online and on TV is accurate. Inaccuracies get repeated. Calling a monstrous hodgepodge “Frankenstein” is a common mistake. Frankenstein was the monster’s creator’s name. The monster killed his creator, therefore, Frankenstein is a person who is destroyed by his own works.

Re-verify facts with interviewed subjects, check multiple and unbiased sources, proofread final drafts against your original notes, and ask a nitpicking, skeptical, truthful reader to review your manuscript. Check on-line reference resources such as

Write the right editor: You live in France. You want to pitch an idea about hand-knit sweaters to Gentleman’s Quarterly. A query addressed generically to “Dear Editor” shouts “Amateur!” So you open GQ and see 28 editors listed. Six handle fashion. One is the “European Editor.” Aim for editor-in-chief, and you risk irritating this VIP who’d delegated some of his editorial load to capable sub-editors, and you risk snubbing the fashion editor and the European editor.

Some individuals of the editorial team might have left after the magazine you have on hand was published, so verifying the appropriate recipient is wise in any case. Contact the magazine and ask to whom to address your query. If you send something to the managing editor and an assistant editor replies, continue communications at that level.

Nancy Flannery, an Australian journalist, author, editor and publisher, told “Southern Write” ( readers, “Attention to detail, visualizing the needs of the reader as well as conforming to the publication’s house style, integrity of one’s own voice, reasonable observance of spelling, grammar and syntax rules are surely still important. If text doesn’t flow and doesn’t have entertainment or information value, then it won’t be read.”

She ought to know. Nancy received her first check (that’s cheque Down Under) for writing when she was 12 years old.


Article by Beth Fowler, author of the beloved coming-of-age novel “Ken’s War.”


 ken's war coverWhen teen rebellion & culture shock collide. Shop here: Ken’s War

Ken’s War is vibrant with authority … Fowler’s elegantly written novel risks exploring the full range of teenage behavior and emotion.” Nancy Springer, award- winning author of YA books.