By Piper Bayard
There are dozens of books out there that will teach you to write, but I learned everything I need to know about writing Sci Fi from Star Trek: The Original Series. Star Trek has it all.
The typical episode starts with some kind of “normal world” setting. Spock is irritating Bones, or Kirk is settling into his bridge chair after a strenuous night seducing an alien. The ship or crew is attacked by a mysterious force that’s set on complete domination or destruction of the future world as we know it. The struggle ensues. The Starfleet crew responds by learning and growing in a way that makes them capable of being the heroes they were hired to act like. It all culminates in a grand battle and the enemy’s defeat, followed by a denouement consisting of a pensive thought or a humorous exchange. The hero’s journey in an hour, minus commercials.
Regardless of what kind of novels we are writing, they need structure. Look to Star Trek.
Star Trek has the lock on cool gadgets. Warp engines, communicators, motion sensor doors, etc., and Bones McCoy always has some sort of scanner in his hand that makes surgery unnecessary. But as with all great Sci Fi, each of these enterprising gadgets is a logical extension of existing scientific theory.
Science fiction definitely needs some science in it, and it’s okay if we indulge our imaginations to the limit. But we need to stay rooted in reality so that people will quickly relate to our worlds without being distracted by objects that have no frame of reference.
When we pull pie in the sky technology out of the air, our stories become about the gadgets. Readers may get a kick out of gadgets, but they don’t relate to gadgets. We must always remember that the meat of our stories is our people. Transporter beams and food replicators are only side dishes.
BTW, Bones’ scanning instruments are mostly salt & pepper shakers acquired from garage sales and the like. And the motion sensor doors? People standing behind the wall waiting for cues to pull them back when someone approaches. The Shat cracked his nose more than once when the “door men” weren’t paying attention. But today those and so many other Star Trek gadgets are part of our current reality because they were based on science in the first place.
James T. Kirk was Da Bomb back in the day. Always passionate, always taking the go-for-broke gamble and winning, and always getting either the girl or the alien. Even if we prefer the cool, emotionally unavailable guys, we girls have Spock and plenty of material for Pon Farr fantasies. And for the guys, there’s a limitless selection from the beautiful, competent Uhura, to pixie-like, mute empaths, to an occasional dominatrix.
Lesson to be learned? Every good Sci Fi story needs a babe to build a dream on.
Extra Crew Members
Somewhere between our third and fifth episodes of Star Trek, we all catch on that whenever there is an extra crew member present, someone is going to die a horrible death. This has both Do This and Don’t Do This lessons.
DO put in extra crew members (characters) to murder, mutilate, torture, blow up, starve, kidnap, feed to monsters, and take back to the pod for a slow blood drain, etc. But DON’T broadcast which characters those are by giving them all red shirts. Treat them with just as much attention as your regular crew so that we (the readers) are surprised when they die, and we mourn them.
High Concept Parable
The most important element of great writing, including Sci Fi, is an idealistic integrity. That can be anything from a halcyon future worth fighting for to a post-apocalyptic world where at least some humans retain their humanity. Star Trek: The Original Series is penultimate in this respect.
Star Trek takes on themes such as racism, class warfare, human rights, feminism, and the role of technology in society, but it never comes out and tells us that. Instead, it speaks to us in parables.
Let’s take racism, for example, which was a violently charged issue during the 1960s, as it has become once again. Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, makes the radical move of casting a racially diverse crew, and then making their racial diversity irrelevant. Instead, he uses alien races to teach his lessons about racism.
Each of these alien races behaves in very human ways and represents some human race or culture. That allows us to relate to them, even if we do not consciously identify them. Klingons at the time represented the Soviets, our sworn enemies. Romulans were the Chinese behind their Bamboo Curtain. And Spock was the minority outsider within our own American society.
In Star Trek, these alien races and their interactions with humans reveal our fears and small-mindedness to us, as well as show us what is possible when we all work together with respect and good will to solve our problems. In doing so, it calls us to be better people.
The fascination of Science Fiction is its ability to show us dreamers and romantics what is possible. To remind us that there is reason for our struggles, and that no matter how grim our reality might be, there is always hope for a better day. When we write Sci Fi, that hope is the gift we give to our readers. The gift I received from Star Trek.
Write well and prosper. 🙂