Having enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s movie of the same title, I decided that it was time to read Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. What a well-written novel brimming with so many intriguing ideas! As I placed the finished book on my nightstand, two things stood out in my initial impressions:
1. Clarke does a splendid job of describing the beauty and grandeur of nature. Here’s the fascinating twist: he doesn’t have first-hand personal experience with the natural phenomenon that he so artfully describes. Yes, we’ve all read and written literary impressions of brilliant sunsets and peaceful dawns. Now, to write equally evocative passages about an earth-rise on the moon or about noiselessly sailing through the rings of Saturn…you get the point; in science fiction, many times you’re writing of things that you’ve never seen.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey was copyrighted in 1968. The world’s population was roughly 3.556 billion that year. In the text of his novel, Clarke makes reference to the population of the Earth in 2001: “…six billion people….” Want to guess the actual global population in 2001? It was 6.1 billion people. Good guess? I doubt it. With first-class degrees in mathematics and physics from King’s College, London, I’m sure that Clarke must have run demographic numbers to get such an accurate forecast of the total global population thirty-three years into the future.
Taking mental inventory of the points above, what lessons have we learned about writing science fiction? There are two. First, be prepared to violate that age-old, well-worn axiom of writing that tells us to “write what you know.” The events and physical circumstances of science fiction often will take you to the brink of the unknowable. By necessity, you’ll have to write beyond what you know. Second, no matter how outlandishly speculative your core premise for a particular piece of writing might be, in the end the best science fiction gestates around a superstructure of science fact. Take the time to do the necessary research to create plausible settings of scientific truth and your readers will be much more likely to reward you with a temporary suspension of disbelief, that psychological opening that compels them to continue reading despite your narrative’s eventual introduction of: ETs; waking up an insect; living forever; time travel; putting God on trial for crimes against humanity.