I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.

When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?

Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.

Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.

The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.

So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).

I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analogmagazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.

What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.

It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.

Does A New Year Make A Difference?

At the change of the year it’s the tradition to examine the past twelve months and develop a new strategy for the next dozen, in the form of New Years Resolutions. I’ve never gone into that in a big way. If there’s something I think needs to be changed in my life I don’t wait until January 1st. Every day is just as valid as any other for the beginning of a new me.

So how do writers evaluate the past and plan for the future? Especially somebody just getting a career rolling?

For me, 2010 was a productive year in terms of the amount of material I created—I finished a first draft of a novel, polished another, completely rewrote a third (an earlier work), and began a fourth. Plus I wrote at least a half-dozen short stories. But it wasn’t so productive in terms of publishing credits. I only sold one fiction piece during the year. (Thank heaven I’m not counting on that income for survival!) Instead I aimed higher—I took a shot at the bigger, hardest-to-crack markets, reasoning that they’d be more impressive publishing credits when it comes time to solicit interest in my novel-length work. For my daring, I got some encouraging rejections from some of the most influential editors in the biz. Close, but no cigar.

So what should I resolve to change?

Thanks to some tips from Robert J. Sawyer, I’ve already begun to strive for more deeply meaningful stories, with significant themes. Writers like Sean Costello have taught me how to polish and cut and trim and polish some more. Each time a story is rejected it goes back under the knife for reconstructive surgery, to some degree. I’ve also taken greater pains to ensure there’s a real scientific basis to my SF stories. It didn’t help them sell.

As other writers before me have noticed, there’s been a shift—in the short fiction markets, at least—toward well-written stories with striking prose and SF-style premises, but no real science backing them up. In that sense they’re reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s fiction. Don’t get me wrong—Bradbury was a terrific writer, and I’m a fan. But at the risk of sounding like I’m crying sour grapes, I think having the whole genre skew that way is unfortunate.

So will I change my style? Chase the markets? Aim lower, just to see my stuff posted on somebody else’s website?

I don’t think so.

I will crack those big markets. I will get an agent, and a book deal (though maybe not in that order). I think 2011 will be the year.

Come along. It should be a good ride.


The title of this post is not mine—it’s the title of a workshop given by Canada’s most successful SF writer, Robert J. Sawyer. I was lucky enough to catch it at the “Social Science on the Final Frontier” conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury, but you can read a lot more of Rob’s advice on writing at his web site . It’s must-read material.

Before you do, you should know that Rob has said in a keynote address that the days of the SF novelist who can make a living at writing are numbered. He estimates there might be ten years left before the well dries up ( ).

If you’re still determined to soldier on, the most important point Rob makes about writing is that you must have something to say. The kind of plot that’s just one damn thing after another will not make your book stand out. You’ve got to have a strong theme that will get people talking about the book.

Before you do anything else on your manuscript, decide on your theme and then choose a character who’s opposed to it (like the astronaut Taylor in the original Planet of the Apes movie, who begins the movie sneering at the faults of humankind as he leaves it behind forever, only to end up in a courtroom defending the human race).

Rob points out that the number one reason people will buy a particular book is author recognition, but the number two reason is because someone else recommended it. So talk at the watercooler translates into sales. Don’t try to be blandly acceptable to everyone—make a point, and don’t be afraid to be controversial. That’s the only way to make something of lasting quality. And wouldn’t we all rather leave behind a body of work that will still be remembered by generations to come?


Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first-ever academic conference: “Social Science on the Final Frontier” at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Academic types presented scientific papers about subjects relating to SF, from comparisons of stories involving criminal rehabilitation using time travel, to the ins and outs of Community Economic Development in Space. Conference organizer David Robinson proposed that Science Fiction might be considered a true social science, and also analysed the economics of a space mining colony (it doesn’t add up without cheap and very fast transportation, meaning that such colonies would almost certainly result from political policy rather than business interests). Co-organizer Alain Boulay reminded everyone that we do a disservice to science when we portray scientists as stereotypical fanatics and obsessives—science is done by real people, with hard work and dedication.

I found myself drafted (very willingly) into the role of “chauffeur to the stars”, which meant that I got to spend extra time with old acquaintance Robert J. Sawyer and delightful new friends Julie E. Czerneda and her husband Roger. Rob gave an informative talk about an SF Writer’s View of the Social Sciences and an even more informative workshop on “How To Write Science Fiction”. I’ll give more detail on that workshop in a future post. Julie gave convincing proof that SF is a great tool in the classroom, and offered a very informative 2-part workshop with tips and resources for the subject.

Without disparaging anyone’s papers, my favourite part of the conference was the chance to hang out with Rob and Julie as well as the other writers and SF fans in attendance. Networking like that is the highlight of most conferences and scheduling should always provide lots of opportunities for it.

The conference suffered some hiccups from a) being a first effort, and b) taking place in mid-August, but it was still very worthwhile, and I congratulate and thank the organizers for bringing it to life. I hope it’s just the first of many more to come.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra was the first SF convention I’ve attended, but only the first of many to come. It could have started better—the first person I met at the hotel was well-known anthologist John Robert Colombo, only to learn that neither of two stories I’d submitted for Tesseracts 14 had made the cut! I also met his co-editor Brett Alexander Savory later, but the rest of the weekend had more than compensated for the initial blow to my ego.

An SF convention can be a little strange at times (or maybe I just have to get in touch with my inner Klingon), but whether you’re a fan or a writer of SF—and writers are among the biggest fans—it’s a great way to learn about the genre and learn about the craft. I got a kick out of panel sessions like “Putting the Science in Science Fiction” (how much technical info do you really need?) and “Genre Crossing” (the perils and pluses of a romance novel in an SF setting, or an SF mystery). I also got practical knowledge from “How To Get An Agent” and “An Editor’s Dream”. But the biggest draw is being able to meet the best authors in the biz. I’ve met and interviewed Robert J. Sawyer a number of times, and Canada’s most successful SF writer is just as great a guy as you hope he’ll be. I also had a chance to snag a few minutes with Peter Watts, James Alan Gardner, Karl Schroeder, David Nickle, Douglas Smith, Adrienne Kress, Ian Donald Keeling, and Dan Falk. You really don’t get opportunities like that anywhere but a convention, and the registration fee is dirt cheap. So if you’re a convention novice like I was, Google the dates of the next con anywhere near you and take that step. You’ll be hooked.