There’s a famous story that circulates through science fiction fandom about the sci-fi writers who, at the beginning of World War II, were called in by the FBI, because it was thought that they were giving away national security secrets in writing about atomic energy. The story is told defensively. It proves that these tales of imagination are not silly and childish, but they are right on the cutting edge and a telescope into tomorrow.
How can you argue that point? Men have walked on the moon. Soviet cosmonauts live on the Mir station, orbiting earth. Flash Gordon’s ray gun is today’s laser. That is why, in many circles, science fiction is more often referred to as “speculative fiction.”
Traditional sci-fi is hardware oriented. Projecting tomorrow’s technology from today’s science articles. The stories are about space travel, first contact, and military operations. Science fiction are action/adventure tales that parallel the traditional western. That is why the stories were called space operas as opposed to horse operas.
The ideas behind the stories became increasingly more sophisticated. Time travel, because the latter is no longer fiction… unless you get faster then light as in warp speed engines. Contact stories are no longer about conflict. They have taken on a political correctness that reflects in the anthropological and sociological aspects of the adventures. To a very great degree, contemporary sci-fi is parable, an opportunity to explore not only the stars but ourselves.
Hardware still has a function. Not only in getting there, but in the development of robots, androids, and other helpers, communications, weapons and power sources.
Aspiring sci-fi writers have the advantage over most other category writers. There is still a broad, active, hungry market for short stories, magazines devoted to the form, and rabid fandom that sponsors conventions on almost every weekend of the year. This offers the writer a string network for support, and most importantly, a place in which to practice and hone their craft. Each magazine has a particular spin. They have an outlook and philosophy that defines what it is looking for, and reading them not only serves as a market guide, but it keeps you in touch with the many directions and choices you will face in the area.
Very few writers are successful in the sci-fi field if they have not grown up reading it. Whether it is still necessary to follow Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is moot; knowing what has happened in the genre, knowing how to create the world necessary to support your story, and understanding the mix of physical and social sciences, comes from intimate familiarity with the past. Then you add reading not only in the contemporary fiction, but in the science magazines and other journals that touch on the forces that will be at play in our society tomorrow. Then you hope for the best.
As in other major “fantasy fiction” categories, you are only limited by your imagination and your ability to create worlds. Most sci-fi is not character oriented. It is the situation that drives the story. That situation must be brought to life, and you do that by knowing everything about the world you are creating before you sit down to write the tale.
What is going to separate your story from a techno-thriller or an action/adventure story? As often as not, it might be a marketing decision, at least for those stories set in or near our own time. Don’t limit your options by restricting your thinking. If your novel is about a plan to disrupt a space flight, it can be more easily handled by publishing it in another category. It could result in more sales. It will work because you have kept a crucial thing in mind. The story and action is all plausible if given to the rules that have been dictated when you sit down to begin.