Author Edward M Lerner On How To Create Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories
Science Fiction and Fantasy are hugely popular genres. What does it take for a writer today, to write compelling and successful Science Fiction and Fantasy stories? Authority Magazine started a new series called “How To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories”. In this series we are talking to anyone who is a Science Fiction or Fantasy author, or an authority or expert on how to write compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy .
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Edward M. Lerner.
Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. He is the author of sixteen science-fiction novels (five of them collaborations with SF Grandmaster Larry Niven) and dozens of shorter works. InterstellarNet: Enigma, the third and final novel in his InterstellarNet series, won the inaugural Canopus Award for fiction “honoring excellence in interstellar writing,” while other stories have been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards. You can read much more about him at edwardmlerner.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to writing over other forms of storytelling?
Thanks for inviting me.
It all began, basically, on a dare. I’d apparently been complaining more than usual about what I’d been reading, and my wife said something along the lines of I suppose you can do better. So really, I had no choice but to try. Many books later, it seems things worked out.
You are a successful author. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Love of science, love of science fiction, and persistence.
I can’t remember ever not being into science and technology. After majoring in physics and later in computer engineering, I worked for some of the highest of high-tech companies in the US, including Bell Labs (back in the day when there was a national Bell System), Honeywell, Hughes Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman. Space and space travel in particular have always fascinated me, and the highlight of my pre-authorial career, without a doubt, was my seven years as a NASA contractor.
I likewise don’t remember not reading science fiction, back to an age when the boundary between science and SF was hazy to me. Once I decided to try my hand at writing, there was never any question what type of story I’d attempt. That said, over the years I’ve branched out just a bit. The majority of my writing is, unambiguously, science fiction, but I’ve also done technothrillers (a related but distinct genre) and popular science.
As for persistence, well, the writing business is not for the faint of heart. Few who try it find immediate success. I certainly collected my share of rejections getting started.
Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?
I’m deep into a new novel about exploring, and perhaps eventually colonizing, Mars. (The title is likewise a work in progress, aside from the certainty “Mars” will be in that title.)
What’s interesting about the project? Aside from the sheer adventure of the story, there’s the wealth of information I base it upon. (There are also hours lost down the research rabbit hole, but I’ll let that go.) Over the past few years, we humans have learned a lot about our planetary neighbor, with more being discovered, it seems, almost daily. It’s not just NASA, either — China, the EU, and India have all recently sent spacecraft to study Mars.
As for goals, I hope the new book will entertain readers and convey some of the excitement — and practicality — of humanity expanding into the solar system.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define sci-fi or fantasy? How is it different from speculative fiction?
I feel the late SF author and reviewer Don Sakers put it best. He wrote, “One quick and dirty distinction between science fiction and fantasy is this: sf deals with things that are possible, while fantasy is the realm of the impossible.”
There’s a subgenre within science fiction that goes by the (unfortunate) label “hard science fiction.” Much hard SF aspires to complete consistency with known science — which doesn’t preclude extrapolations from what we (think we) know. Other times, hard SF takes a rigorous look at what-ifs. As in, what if something we think we know (such as the speed of light being a universal speed limit) weren’t the case? By either meaning, the term “hard SF” is distinct from the type of SF story that uses science and tech for background color more than as essential plot elements.
My SF writing is mostly of the “hard SF” variety.
I understand speculative fiction to be an umbrella term encompassing all manner of science fiction and fantasy.
It seems that despite countless changes in media and communication technologies, novels and written fiction always survive, and as the rate of change increases with technology, written sci-fi becomes more popular. Why do you think that is?
Precisely because science and tech are so rapidly changing the world around us, I believe some people turn to the genre as a predictor of what might come next.
That’s not to say SF is always a good predictor — and thankfully so. Physicist and SF author David Brin talks about how some science fiction, like Brave New World, can so horrify us as to become a self-denying prophecy.
More generally, the object of science fiction isn’t to predict technology, but its implications. I may not get the exact quote right, but the late Frederik Pohl said something like, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.”
But that only addresses why SF in any format is popular, and not in particular why the written form remains so. Here’s my theory why books — of all kinds and genres — persist despite the onslaught of other media. Stories and books, by leaving much to the imagination, engage the imagination in a way video formats (and in the near future, immersive virtual reality) never can.
In your opinion, what are the benefits to reading sci-fi, and how do they compare to watching sci-fi on film and television?
One format isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they have different strengths. Even as the reader is free to imagine the characters and settings from a few well-chosen words of description, the written form generally allows more depth than the video form in character development, plot intricacy, philosophical consideration, and scientific accuracy. Case in point: Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation. First published in 1951 — and wildly popular — it had grown into a trilogy by 1953. In 1966, SF fans honored the trilogy by granting it a onetime Hugo award for best-all-time series. Asimov much later expanded the three-book arc with two prequels and two sequels.
For those unfamiliar with it, Foundation is a high-concept novel concerned with the decline and fall of a galactic empire (loosely modeled on the Roman Empire) and the very SFnal notion of a new social science, “psychohistory,” able to predict the collapse, and perhaps lift the survivors of the inevitable Dark Ages sooner than would otherwise be the case. As that overview might suggest, Foundation is conceptual and thought-provoking. What the novel doesn’t have is action. And so, as beloved as the book is among SF fans, Foundation didn’t make it to a screen until 2021(!) — and the Apple+ TV series is only very loosely based on the novel.
I’ve said of my own writing that the length of the story I write depends on the story I want to tell. Cinematic forms are more constrained. Movie screenplays are generally about 100 pages long, while modern novels are rarely as short as 300 pages. TV series scripts can reach or exceed the length of a novel — but restricted to per-episode time limits and (on network TV) needing a breakpoint every few minutes for commercials.
That said, there’s much great cinematic SF. Setting aside the divergences from the novel Foundation, I greatly enjoyed the Apple+ adaptation. A successful movie or TV series can spawn more storytelling than any single novel. Consider, as examples, Terminator (and its sequel movies, and its Sarah Connor Chronicles TV spin-off), Stargate (and its three TV series spin-offs), and the Travelers series.
All that said, and as much as I watch video SF, I read SF yet more.
What authors and artists, dead or alive, inspired you to write?
Ironically, whoever produced the eminently forgettable book that led to my years-ago complaint and my wife’s life-changing challenge.
Having decided to try my hand, there were and are plenty of great authors whose writing gave me targets to aspire to. To name just a few from within the genre, Robert Heinlein. Keith Laumer. Harry Turtledove, Jack McDevitt. David Brin. But one author, and a particular book of his, merit special mention: Larry Niven and his (Hugo-, Nebula-, and Locus-award-winning) novel Ringworld.
For those unfamiliar with Ringworld, it takes place mostly on an artifact built long ago by an advanced alien species. The physical Ringworld is a gigantic ribbon (roughly 600 million miles long and a million miles wide) looped around a star. That all but inconceivably vast area is populated by literally trillions who have fallen into savagery. But before Larry’s characters reach the Ringworld — upon which, of course, epic adventures ensue — they briefly visit a construct almost as incredible: five worlds without a star, heavily populated by different aliens, hurtling in formation through space. Together, these are the Fleet of Worlds.
Larry and I were panelists together at the 2004 Worldcon (the annual worldwide science-fiction convention), given the topic “my favorite planet.” We were asked what world, real or imaginary, we would most like to visit. My answer was: “The Fleet of Worlds. Larry, you should write more about it.” He said, “I don’t have a plot for that.” Weeks later, I reached out to him and said, “Well, I do.”
This exchange led to Fleet of Worlds, our first collaboration, and a prequel to Ringworld. Needless to say (but try and stop me) therein epic adventures ensue. Eventually, Larry and I had a five-novel series.
If you could ask your favourite Science Fiction and Fantasy author a question, what would it be?
As I can’t pick a single favorite author, I’ll go with one of my favorites, Vernor Vinge, for whom I’ve long had a burning question. His novel A Deepness in the Sky hinges upon a very peculiar astronomical object, the so-called On-Off Star. As the name suggests, it’s a star that sometimes provides life-giving heat and light, and sometimes … not. Most of the novel takes place on a planet with biology — and so, very interesting aliens — adapted to those unique conditions. I’d like to ask Vernor if he had a physical concept in mind for how that star acted as it did.
We’d like to learn more about your writing. How would you describe yourself as an author? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style?
My writing is plot-driven, with my characters finding themselves in dire situations in which survival depends upon keeping their wits about them and applying technology wisely.
Here’s a snippet from the opening scene of The Company Man:
A bridge console chimed: incoming message. I pulled myself into my acceleration couch and tapped to acknowledge. A display lit up and I read: Acceleration in two minutes. Mine emergency. Render all possible assistance.
Meaning, company commitments notwithstanding, I wasn’t going home. Meaning also that, beyond not knowing to where I’d been rerouted, I knew nothing about the emergency. Because the company didn’t know? Mining stations, like ships, had no transmission capability. “For security.” So how the hell did the company know there was an emergency?
All good questions, I thought. And they were all going to go without answers, at least until I got … wherever.
“Columbus managed without a radio,” the bored company recruiter had once explained. “And Magellan. And Cook and Drake and pick your explorer.”
Not that Magellan or Cook had made it home alive. Was I supposed to like those odds? “Which of them were in vacuum, millions of klicks from help?”
“Hence the hazardous-duty pay,” I’d been told. “And most likely, you’ll live.”
And indeed, so far, I had. But with this undefined emergency, I had to wonder if my luck had run out.
As for my eponymous company man, employee of an asteroid-mining partnership, he is, indeed, in for a rough time ….
Based on your own experience and success, what are the “Five Things You Need To Write Compelling Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Three of my five will be things I feel every story requires to be compelling: a good character(s), conflict, and a non-obvious plot. To amplify on these:
- Stories, first and foremost, are about people. (In SF, we can use the term “people” very loosely, but still.) I can’t imagine a compelling story without at least one sympathetic and interesting character. For me, this follows one of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for creative writing, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.” As an SFnal example, I’ll offer Barry Longyear’s Enemy Mine (also, a great movie, by the way). Practically the only characters in the novel are enemy fighter pilots, one human and the other a very alien alien, stranded together on a hostile planet. They either learn to get along, or both die.
- Characters alone aren’t a story. To have any story, much less a compelling one, at least some of the characters need to deal with problems, must be affected in some way by the encounter. In science fiction, the conflicts often deal with the implications of emergent technology (such as deep fake impostures rendering all audio and video recording suspect) or confronting something unprecedented (such as an encounter with alien intelligence). Consider, for example, the young, innocent Sarah Connor being targeted for extinction by a time-traveling murderous cyborg in the movie Terminator. To survive, she becomes a ruthless, focused being herself. Now that’s conflict and personal growth!
- Of course, a non-obvious plot. If whodunit is clear by page ten of a murder mystery, well, who wants to bother reading on? For an SF example, this time I’ll chose a book of my own: the first-contact novel Déjà Doomed. Early in the novel, readers encounter evidence on the Moon of ancient alien visitors. Of course poking around in alien ruins is going to lead to problems — but I’m confident that readers don’t know ahead of time what’s causing the problems, or why, or — as the threats escalate — if or how anyone is going to get out alive.
My last two things are more genre-specific: an intriguing setting, and a scientific aspect:
4. Among the unique features of science fiction is the freedom to set a story anywhere and anywhen. The SF most memorable to me takes place, at least in part, in some imaginative-but-plausible setting. This can be elsewhere in time, or in space, or even transported to another dimension. For an example, I’ll take Keith Laumer’s The Other Side of Time, with settings that span many alternate Earths, each subtly (and increasingly, unsubtly) different from last.
5. If a story, however compelling, lacks a scientific or technology component, it’s not compelling science fiction. The science and tech needn’t hit the reader or viewer over the head. It shouldn’t require a math book for reference. But the science or tech does need to be there. As an example par excellence, I’ll suggest Andy Weir’s The Martian. (The book or the movie — they’re both great.)
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment, Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)
Steven Spielberg, because I think a few of my novels would make great movies.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website: https://edwardmlerner.com
My blog: https://blog.edwardmlerner.com
And (of course) Amazon: again, as Edward M. Lerner
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.