Tag Archives: science fiction

Science in the News

I live among scientists. Because of the small science and engineering college in my small town, most of my friends are scientists, science students, or computer geeks of some kind. That doesn’t mean I understand what they are talking about most of the time, but it does give me insight into how much cutting-edge science is happening all the time, from lightning research to explosives testing to chemical experiments to tracking activity under the Earth’s crust to peering at far-off galaxies.

As just one example, here’s an article on the Magdalena Ridge Observatory I wrote for a local magazine. The Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) includes a telescope 2.4 meters in diameter, used to study asteroids, comets, satellites, and planets, plus a separate array of 10 small optical/infrared telescopes called an interferometer (currently under construction), which will act like a telescope 340 meters across and will make detailed images of astronomical objects—about 100 to 300 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. Wow!

Since I wrote this article for a “general audience” in New Mexico—everyone from ranchers to homemakers to business owners to politicians—I focused less on the hard science and more on the advantages to the community: tourism, jobs, and national defense, for example. Sadly, many people dismiss science research as an unnecessary waste of resources, whether because they don’t want to pay taxes to support it, or because they are suspicious of the “brains” doing research. But this one project shows how much a community can benefit from supporting science. Plus, it’s so cool!

Science fiction writers draw upon real-life science in varying degrees. Some have no problems making wild assumptions about future possibilities, while others draw directly on current theories. (Surprisingly, of the two groups, the latter is not always more accurate. Scroll down to Greg Fishbone’s post on The Test of Time from Wednesday for one example.)

Either way, readers may enjoy pondering the future through the science fiction writer’s vision. These days, dystopia is part of that trend, suggesting that a lot of readers don’t have much confidence in the future. But speaking from among the scientists, I can say that most of them still retain a childlike wonder about the world, and enthusiasm for what their work can do. Some amazing work is happening, often well under the radar of the average person, but available to writers hungry for new ideas.


Do you pay attention to science news? Where do you find it?

Do you like “hard science” science fiction, or does it matter? Or do you avoid science fiction altogether?

Chris Eboch with the Haunted series

Chris Eboch with the Haunted series



Chris Eboch has written two science books at the second grade level—about the level of her own typical science comprehension.

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Is your god insane?

Had a fabulous informal chat-over-drinks with a dozen spec fic writers, including the most wonderful Karen Joy Fowler (who has written a great deal more than the bestseller you might associate with her name; more about all that in another post), and one topic of many we hit was the dividing line (if there is one) between science fiction and fantasy.

One writer floated a definition I’d never heard (and I’m paraphrasing here, so I hope I get this right): That if the world of your story is “ruled” by an interventionist or insane/unpredictable god(s), one who might grant miracles or select a chosen one or otherwise bend your characters’ reality to her purposes or theirs, it is fantasy; and if your world has a clockwork or hands-off god, who has created a world that follows a set of knowable rules under its own momentum (e.g., physics), it is science fiction. (And I suppose that if your world had no god at all, perhaps it could be either, depending on how your world functioned? Or maybe the fact that your world exists implies some organization or lack thereof — it’s not so much the god per se as “how this world works.”)

This would mean that, for instance, a world with learnable, predictable magic (even if dependent on talent) would be sci-fi, whereas, say, Neal Schusterman’s EVERLOST would be fantasy (since whether you end up there appears to be random… although, once you’re there, the rules are pretty coherent. So maybe not.).

And I suspect that many young readers, at the mercy of those who have authority over them, feel as though they live under insane gods, not sane ones. Which may help explain the attraction of fantasies to so many.

I can see the merits in this definition,  but it is considerably different from some of the criteria I’d use. What do you think? (And if you really want to procrastinate a lot today, see this marginally related post from Greg a year ago. And link through to its inspiration, which has some great stuff in it. I especially liked John C. Wright’s.)

Is your god sane, insane, or absent? Which kind of worlds do you prefer to read about, and why?

— Joni, who has successfully resisted the temptation to bring world religions into this post


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Teen Trends In Speculative Fiction

Three years ago, I interviewed some editors for an article on horror and paranormal fiction, and asked what they saw as upcoming trends. Let’s see if they were right….

“There’s definitely been a rise in the popularity of thrillers, ghost stories, and stories based on the paranormal,” a Delacorte editor said. “I think the most popular books are the ones that set the ghost story in the contemporary world. There’s something about believing those things are out there right now that is thrilling for young readers.”

“Pure horror will probably never explode the way fantasy or sci-fi have exploded at different times,” a Scholastic editor said, “but the wave of terror ebbs and flows. During any given year, some subgenre or another seems to take off. For the past couple years, apocalyptic zombie stories have been big, thanks to Max Brooks, Brian Keene, and others.”

At Llewellyn, an editor said, “We see good, steady demand for well done paranormal thrillers, books that might even be called ‘dark fantasy’ or ‘urban fantasy,’ especially for girls. Witty, graphic horror, such as the books by Darren Shan, seems to work well for boys.”

In a Candlewick Press editor’s opinion, “I think we’ll see more graphic fare in all of these areas as the graphic novel continues to gain popularity. It’s a natural fit. For middle-grade readers and younger, the emphasis seems to be on series publishing and story collections, while YA readers range more between genre/series fare and lush, literary novels like Twilight.”

Seems like they did pretty well. And how about today? At the SCBWI New York conference a few of months ago, Susan Raab said that mystery and ghost stories are thought to be growing. Vampires and werewolves are still big, but not expected to last. Fantasy in general is softening, but dystopian fantasy is growing.

Of course, who really knows? A fantastic book may be ready to launch, and pull back up one of these trends, or start a new one. And as for fantasy, editor Ari Lewin noted that eight or nine of the top 10 books on both the hardcover and paperback children’s bestseller list that week were fantasy of some kind. We keep hearing about the death of fantasy, but that seems to be wishful thinking on the part of editors who are tired of it. Readers just keep on reading. (Note that these were not high fantasy (knights and dragons), but lots of dystopian and paranormal books.)

So what’s the next big trend? Have you read — or written — a book that you think will light some fires? Personally, I’m hoping that Rick Riordan’s new Kane Chronicles series will reignite interest in ancient Egypt, both historical fantasy and straight historical fiction. Because, you know, I have this Egyptian novel I haven’t beChris Eboch with Haunted booksen able to sell yet….

Chris Eboch has this fantasy that she’ll start a new trend and beginning authors will submit their manuscripts with covers letters that says, “It’s the next Chris Eboch” so often that it becomes a cliché.


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Theories of Deep Space—How far can we stretch?

Faster than light! Sign me up!

  • Light Speed
  • Warp Drive
  • Teleportation
  • Hyperspace
  • Wormholes

memory_of_earthThe great thing about speculative fiction is it has no bounds. We can travel millions of light years across the galaxy. We can jump so far in the future and out in space that Earth is nothing more than mythology (I’m thinking Foundation here and also Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series). We can have voyages that last lifetimes, and we can have instantaneous trips that jump us from one part of the galaxy to another.

With speculative fiction, reality is only bound by our minds.

So how far are we, the reader, willing to stretch our minds? How much are we willing to believe? As far as I know, light travel is not possible for anything except…well…light (yes, fellow scientists, please correct me here if I’ve got the facts wrong).

If we’ve met life on another planet, we’ve let our minds stretch.foundation

If we’ve settled another planet besides Earth, we’ve let our minds stretch.

What makes the stretch believable? What elements does the author need to line up to make the theory possible?

In the Foundation books, the main thing that made me believe was how much time had passed. Earth was only a whisper in the dark. No one even believed it existed. That’s how long ago people had lived there. And with that much passage of time, technology was bound to have advanced.

What other books can you think of that have faster-than-light travel, and what made them work? What made them not work? And how can we, as authors, make our stories reach that level where readers want the let their minds stretch to encompass our rules?


PJ Hoover wonders which would be better: hyperspace travel or teleportation. She’d be willing to try both.


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Speculative Settings

So we’ve talked a bit about how we characterize our characters. We’ve come up with some fun characteristics including making sure if they do have powers, there is some price to pay. So good.

Every hero must have a weakness, right?


Let’s shift a little. What about settings? How do we define these and how do they differ for speculative fiction?

The way I’ve been defining my settings recently is this:

Once again, using an Excel spreadsheet, I list my settings on the left in the rows. Then for each column header, I list the five senses. Oooh, maybe for spec fiction, we need to add the sixth sense. Wait, there could be a book here. It could be called The Sixth Sense.

Anyway, what I want to make sure is that for each sense, the setting has some unique characteristic. I don’t want all my settings to be alike. I want to make sure my characters smell what the heck is going on in addition to hearing it. How would a space station smell after all? How good was sanitation on Babylon 5 anyway? I forget. Did they expel trash back into space or recycle everything or what?

But anyway, I digress.

As I start to get more into each setting, another question to ask is how each setting differs for each character in the story. Maybe one character is extra-observant and notices everything whereas a different character might get grossed out by smells. And yet another may be oblivious and totally unfazed by everything going on around them.

So I realize of everything I’ve said above, is anything really different for spec fiction? My answer in short is yes. The reason:

World Building

It’s what we do. It’s what requires so much more of our attention. I realize all novels create worlds in which their characters live, but in spec fiction, many times these worlds (or elements of them) are unique. Plain vanilla readers will have never lived under the sea. They will never have been inside a tomb. Never left Earth for a space station. And it seems to me it is precisely these details which set apart totally visual speculative fiction from the rest. Our settings must sparkle. They must stand out. They must be memorable.

Okay, I’ve talked enough. I want to hear your thoughts on settings in speculative fiction. Your methods, what works, and what doesn’t. And what books had fantastic settings? I need to know!


PJ Hoover wanted to live in a house shaped like an elephant when she was young.


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Speculative Characteristics

If you write, you’ve probably worked through at least one character worksheet. And if not, give it a try sometime. And if you review books, you probably think about how we writers should use these more, right?

Me? I find character worksheets hugely helpful. It’s like every time I work through one, I get more story ideas.

My normal character worksheet focuses on lots of the basic things.

  • Where the character lives
  • What their favorite food is
  • Who they live with
  • What their hobbies are
  • Do they collect anything?

Yeah, you get the idea. If you’re so motivated, you can check out the basic character worksheet I use here at my website.

Anyway, have you ever thought about the fun additions which can be made when writing speculative fiction? I’ve never added them to my worksheet, but the more I’m thinking about it, the more I think I need to. Of course, the worksheet would need to be customized depending on the project, but I’m willing to start with a template.

Here are some things I’d add:

  • What are their special powers?
  • Where do these special powers come from?
  • Are they human?
  • What planet are they from?
  • Is their best friend a different species?
  • Favorite new invention?

You know, I could have real fun with this.

So tell me, what character questions would you add for your speculative fiction story?


PJ Hoover thinks her best friend would not be human, her tortoises would be telepathic, and she’d be able to grow as big as Ginormica.


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The Four Plots of SF&F… As Found in Our Books

Discussing the four plots of science fiction and fantasy (as outlined by Orson Scott Card) got us thinking about some of our own books. We asked ourselves, which of these four main elements–milieu, idea, character, or event–dominates our recent novels?

lindaiconLinda Joy Singleton:deadgirl2

I suppose my DEAD GIRL series could be considered an Event story (my character having a near-death experience and then making a wrong turn into someone else’s body on her return.) But the actual story is more the growth of my character Amber as she goes into 3 different bodies, helping other people and learning about her herself as she evolves with confidence and insight into friendships.

cherylicon5Parker Peevyhouse:

LAST MIDNIGHT is either an Idea story or an Event story. It’s about a girl who comes to suspect that her family might no longer be able to perform their annual job of preventing the end of the world. Keen has a mystery to solve: why does the world seem to be ending despite her family’s efforts, and what can she do to stop disaster from striking? Her story is only complete when she solves the mystery and sets things right for the city of Roil.

Even though the main character of LAST MIDNIGHT spends some time searching through the city of Roil for the legendary black unicorn, and even though we get to visit a lot of landmarks along the way (Penny & Dreadful’s Candy Shop, Winding Stair School, the Fishtail Tavern, Mostly and Otherwise), this isn’t a Milieu story. And while Keen must grow out of her naivete and settle on what she believes about her family’s role in saving the city of Roil, the story’s main focus isn’t Character. The book is quite a puzzler, so I would probably call it an Idea story, but it also requires a specific action to set things right again, which makes it a bit of an Event story.

pjicon4P. J. Hoover:

THE EMERALD TABLET is about a brand new world (okay, two worlds, but we won’t actually get to Atlantis until Book 3). Sure, the world of Lemuria is cool and all, and there are lots of neat new inventions, places, and species. But the story doesn’t progress for the reader to get a look at the world. Thus, THE EMERALD TABLET is not a Milieu structured story.

THE EMERALD TABLET is somewhat of a mystery. There is, of course, a bad guy, and some mystery as to who Benjamin really is. Not to mention, some ancient relic has made Benjamin champion of the world. But the story doesn’t revolve around the discovery of this mystery. Thus, THE EMERALD TABLET is not an Idea structured story.emerald-tablet

THE EMERALD TABLET is rife full of characters who aren’t even human. Benjamin and his friends are telegens (think: really smart humans). Jack is a Nogical (think: little and green, but big on attitude). When Benjamin starts his journey he is not the same person as when he ends. There’s no way he possibly could be. He’s seen things, been through experiences, and made allies and enemies that have changed him. But the main focus of the story is not this change within Benjamin. Thus, THE EMERALD TABLET is not a Character structured story.

So where does that leave us? THE EMERALD TABLET has a quest. There is a search for three keys. There are journeys to new places, new challenges to face, new people to meet, new tests to take. There is action and adventure, not to mention a bunch of tween fun mixed in. The structure of the story follows the quest. Each stage leads to the next. One can’t be reached until the previous is finished. So if my vote counts for anything, I hereby declare THE EMERALD TABLET an Event structured story.

(THE EMERALD TABLET by PJ Hoover is the first of a trilogy: The Forgotten Worlds Books.)


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The Four Plots of SF&F

To follow up on a post about what makes for good science fiction, I wanted to talk about the diversity of story types. Comments on the previous post seemed to pit “character” stories against “idea” stories when in reality, I believe both are viable. (Read: I love ALL types of science fiction!) I’m curious to hear, though, which type of story you like best, so let’s get down to discussing four specific types.lotr

In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card claims there are four elements that determine the structure of story. In each story, one of these four elements dominates:

Milieu. The whole point of a story structured around milieu is to allow readers to explore a world or worlds. Think The Wizard of Oz or Gulliver’s Travels.

Idea. When an idea or mystery is most important part, the story ends once the idea has been revealed or the mystery solved. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey or any mystery novel.

Character. A story structured around character is usually concerned with that character’s growth or change. Think “literary.”lotr2

Event. If something is wrong in the universe and must be righted, only a certain event will satisfy readers. Think The Lord of The Rings.

So… which type of story do you like best? Which do you think is most important? Which do you think best serves young readers of speculative fiction?

(By the way, check out this article to see the pathos that results when audiences are promised one type of story and are given another.)

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse is having a hard time picking a favorite.


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I’ll Keep This Short

I recently posted about how much I love the short stories of Ray Bradbury. Short stories are a great way to learn about structure because they generally only contain a single plot twist. They’re also easy to read in one sitting, which is a draw for antsy teens. Here are some short story collections I like (or would like to read):

Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar is probably the first book of short stories I ever read. These stories are wacky and fun, and they’ve got some great twists you don’t see coming–like the fact that there is no 19th floor in the 30-story building.


Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is a brand new book I’m looking forward to reading. These stories about strange events happening in normal suburban towns are accompanied by lovely illustrations.

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan contains some of the most mystifying strange stories I’ve ever read, including one about a girl who seems to have trained to become a bride, but has a hard time making it to the ceremony.

Love is Hell by Melissa Marr, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin, and Laurie Faria Stolarz is an upcoming collection that sounds angsty and fun. Teens will be excited to see their favorite authors included here if they’ve read Wicked Lovely or Uglies.

rosebeastThe Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block is lyrical and edgy, with ingenious modern-day twists on classic fairy tales. My favorite: “Ice,” (a retelling of “The Ice Queen”) in which a girl loses her angsty rockstar boyfriend to an icy beauty.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov is a great stepping stone for teens into adult fiction, especially since it’s currently being made into a movie. This novel (and its sequels) is made up of short stories about an orchestrated attempt to save mankind from a new Dark Age.

Also, for you librarians and teachers–here’s a great resource for finding short stories and novels that have been made into movies. Might be a good way to find a short story collection that a teen you know will be interested in reading.

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse would love to someday write a novel made up of short stories.


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Everything I know about writing spec fiction I learned from…

bravenewworld_firsteditionThree small words:




By Aldous Huxley. Please, tell me you’ve read it. And if you haven’t, then get thee to the library immediately and check this novel out. Consider it a homework assignment.

To me, this novel opened up the world of spec fiction. Every concept in it challenged society, even back in the 80s when it came my way. And when was the book written? 1931. Um, wow.

Let’s see, there was:

1) Genetically engineered babies

2) Random sex (and birth control)

3) Reservations for people unwilling to change

4) No marriage

5) No regular births

6) A firm caste system

7) And no challenging the system

Oy, what else am I leaving out?

So what did I learn from Brave New World?

Push your limits.

Don’t be afraid to write something controversial. In fact, many times it’s the more controversial writing which will be remembered. (Now where is that work-in-progress of mine?)

Classics can actually be interesting after all (which up until this point was totally not the case to me).

Science fiction ROCKS!

I can’t say that I’ve read anything else by Aldous Huxley. Anyone else have something they want to recommend? Or is this one of those things better left untouched?


PJ Hoover at one point thought living in the world of Brave New World would be cool. Of course, that was assuming she would be an Alpha.


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