All right, then, how does a writer make an effective, fascinating background for a short story without going into excruciating detail? Here are a few simple guidelines.
1. Make every background detail work. That is, everything about the background should be important to the story. In a short story you do not have the room, and the reader does not have the time, to rhapsodize over multicolored sunsets on a planet that has six suns. Not unless those gorgeous colors will affect the outcome of the story! If it is in the story merely for the sake of exotic detail, or simply because you enjoyed writing that paragraph, take it out. Only those background details that affect the story's development and resolution should be in your final draft. Even in a novel, where you have room and time to be more expansive, beware of details that do not add to the story's flow. It is easy to get sidetracked, very difficult to get back into the main flow of your story once you have drifted away from it.
2. Do not try to explain how the machinery works; just show what it does. Fifty years ago, science fiction writers went into painstaking detail to show the reader that gyroscopes really could be used to maneuver a spacecraft on its way to the moon. Today such explanations are laughable, even though they're technically quite correct, because spacecraft do not use gyroscopes for altitude control; gas jets are lighter, smaller and more reliable.
Today's reader is perfectly willing to accept that modern technology can make just about anything possible. You do not need to explain how a fusion reactor works; such an explanation would slow up the story. To convince your readers that a fusion reactor exists, so that they will accept that part of your story, describe a bit of the machine's external appearance and tell the reader what it does:
The lasers that powered the fusion reactor were a lot smaller than Jean had expected. Small, but powerful. The reactor chamber itself was nothing more than a rounded metal dome, gleaming dully in the overhead lights. But the gauges on the power board told the real story: The reactor was turning out enough power— noiselessly—to light the entire city.
3. Feel free to invent any new devices, to make any new scientific discoveries that you can imagine—providing they do not contradict what is known about science today. This is a bit tricky, because to some extent any new scientific discovery is bound to contradict some aspect of known science. But science fiction readers love to play The Game, as it is called. They carefully scrutinize each story, looking for scientific or technological errors. Did you ever count the shots that Hopalong Cassidy made with his six-shooter without reloading? Science fiction readers are much more meticulous than that.
For example, it is perfectly all right to do a story in which there are microscopic living creatures on Mars. None has been discovered so far, but no one can yet say that Mars is totally devoid of life. But if you try to depict those Martians as oxygen breathers, the science fiction readers will raise a howl of protest. Our space probes of Mars, such as the Viking landers, have shown conclusively that there is not enough oxygen in Mars's atmosphere to support oxygen-breathing life.
Decades ago, the science fiction audience was perfectly content to accept stories in which Mars was crisscrossed by canals dug by intelligent Martians. Even though the best astronomical researchers stoutly maintained that the Martian canals were only optical illusions, the science fiction readers remained open-minded on the subject. Besides, Mars with canals seemed much more interesting than Mars without canals. But when spacecraft photographs proved that there were no canals on Mars, no writer could ever again do a science fiction story that had Martian canals in it. The audience would no longer accept it.
The point is that science fiction has some affinity with science. And while the science fiction audience is much more open-minded about the future than any professional scientist, they will still turn against stories that betray an ignorance or disdain of accepted scientific fact.
You can write stories in which Mars is spiderwebbed with canals. Or stories in which elephants fly, for that matter. But they will not be accepted by the science fiction audience as science fiction. They may be published, read and enjoyed as SF or fantasy. But if you are trying to write science fiction, you will have to know the basics of scientific understanding. And if you break any of the fundamental laws of science, you had better have an excellent explanation for it!
4. You should be thoroughly familiar with the background of your story. In other words, write about what you know. A writer whose only contact with the Pentagon is from reading other stories or watching movies will have a very difficult time writing convincingly about the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because he has not found out how these people talk, think or act. I have seen manuscript after manuscript in which the writer is trying to deal with situations and backgrounds that he knows absolutely nothing about. Such manuscripts go from the slushpile to return mail, usually with nothing more than a standard rejection notice on them.
No one has been to Mars, yet, although NASA has provided us with fascinating photographs of the Red Planet, both from orbit and from the Viking landers that have been sitting on the red soil of Mars since 1976. But long before the first Mariner spacecraft was even designed, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Ray Bradbury and many others wrote stories about Mars. They were not writing out of firsthand experience at all.
Or were they? These writers took pains to acquire as much information about Mars as they could. Then they built up a world in their own imagination that did not contradict what was known about Mars and filled in the unknown areas with creations of their own mind.
In a sense, each of them built a new world inside his head, loosely based on what was known about Mars at that time. Thus, Burroughs created the exotic Barsoom of John Carter, master swordsman; Weinbaum created the desert world populated by strangely nonhuman Martians; and Bradbury created a fantasy world of bone-chess cities and telepathic, very human, Martian men and women.
None of these imaginary worlds could be written about today and still be called Mars. We know too much about Mars now; each of these imaginary worlds contradicts the pitiless advance of knowledge. But a writer can still create such imaginary worlds and place them around another star. That would not contradict real-world knowledge, and the universe is vast enough to justify almost any kind of world.
This advance of knowledge is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it makes it increasingly difficult to get away with ideas that run counter to scientific knowledge.
On the other hand, the advance of knowledge means that writers have more information on which to base stories. It is now possible to write extremely realistic stories about living and working on the moon. My novel Mars was written with the benefit of exact knowledge of the landscape, the weather, and the other physical conditions of the Martian surface. We know in fine detail how nuclear reactors work, what the bottom of the ocean is like, how the double-helix molecule of DNA carries genetic information from one generation to the next.
You must write about what you know. And what you know is a combination of hard information from the world around you, plus that special interior world of imagination that is yours and yours alone until you share it with your audience.
In short, be certain that you have the factual information you need to make your story authentic, but don't let that stifle your imagination. It is your imaginative handling of the facts that makes the difference between a dull scientific treatise and a thrilling science fiction adventure.
5. (This pointer is actually a corollary to the fourth.) It is important to learn the basics of science. The task is not difficult; in fact, it can be very exciting. Most science fiction writers are interested in science to some degree, although a good many of them are turned off by school classes in physics, chemistry or math.
One of the best ways I know to learn about science on your own and at your own pace is to read the popularized science books that are published each year. When I started writing, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were the only two reliable writers of science for the general audience. Thanks to their success, publishers began to see that there was a profitable audience for nonfiction books about science. In 1978, Omni magazine began to show that millions of interested men and women would read a science-oriented magazine every month. Today, there are so many science books published every month that I write a quarterly book review column for The Hartford Courant specifically on science books.
Science is beautiful, and anyone can understand the basics of scientific thought. Poets who sing about the eternal beauty of the stars without understanding what makes them shine and how they were created are missing more than half of the real splendor of the heavens.
6. Equally important to the setting and scenery of a story is the care used in naming people, places and things. Names are important; they help set the tone for a story.
The reader would have a tough time imagining a two-fisted hero named Elmer Small, but Jame Retief comes across just fine as a hero in Keith Laumer's stories. Similarly, Bubbles La Toure is hardly the name of a saintly nun, whereas Modesty Blaise is a sexy and intriguing name for a female counterpart of James Bond.
Science fiction names should be familiar enough to be understood without fumbling over them. Yet frequently a name has to convey the alienness of a person or a locale. Too often, new writers lapse into unpronounceable collections of letters, such as Brfstklb. It's unusual, all right, but every time the readers see it, they will balk at such a name and stop reading. The break may be only momentary, but any break in reading a story can be fatal.
Maps are a good place to find strange names, provided you are careful to use names that are unfamiliar, yet have an interesting ring about them. It is often useful to take a place name and give it to a person. The heroine of a novel of mine was named Altai, after the high, wild mountain chain in western China. Also, there is history to draw from: Larry Niven's character Beowulf Schaffer is fascinating even before you've met him.
One important rule of thumb about names: If a name makes the reader giggle, get rid of it unless it is a giggle that you are seeking. Be ruthless about this. Nothing ruins a story faster than an unintentionally humorous name.
7. The story must be internally consistent. This is much more than a matter of keeping track of what time it is and which way the wind was blowing in the last scene.
In a science fiction story, where the background forms an important element of the total story line, the background itself must be internally consistent. The writer cannot change winter to summer overnight because he wants a scene set on a sweltering day. More importantly, he cannot tamper with the laws of nature to suit the needs of the story.
The archetype of this requirement is Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," in which the laws of nature are the background of the story.
In this story, a young woman stows away on a spaceship carrying desperately needed vaccine to a plague-stricken planet. She wants to reach her brother, who is one of the plague victims. The ship's pilot, its only crew member, discovers the stowaway and realizes that her extra weight will prevent the ship from reaching its destination. He decides that the lives of millions of plague victims outweigh the life of the stowaway, and forces her out of the airlock, to die in the vacuum of space.
A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship. It seemed, almost, that she still sat small and bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her:
I didn't do anything to die for— I didn't do anything—
The theme of the story is classical: The universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.
Godwin could have pulled a last-minute switch and had the pilot invent some nifty device that would save both the woman and the dying plague victims. But that would have ruined the story's dramatic impact, especially since he set out to show that there are forces of nature that cannot be appeased by human desires.
When you have an explorer lost on a new planet in a sandstorm that will go on for a month, you had better make certain that the storm does not stop for a full thirty days. Otherwise, the reader will realize that the author has artificially helped his protagonist, and the reader will reject the story—if it gets published at all.
Keep in mind that old phrase, "It's too good to be true." Readers will not accept lucky breaks that help the protagonist; they will regard such good fortune as author manipulation. Even the redoubtable Charles Dickens has been faulted for the fortunate coincidences that often save his characters from cruel fates. On the other hand, there is no such phrase as "It's too bad to be true." Readers will accept just about any calamity that you want to pile onto your protagonist. Just look at the Book of Job, for example!
Backgrounds must be consistent in all aspects, even the mundane, undramatic ones. It makes no sense to depict a desperate society that has depleted all its energy-producing fuels, yet has a government that watches all its citizens over closed-circuit television. Where would the government get the fuel? Not merely the fuel to provide electricity for their electronic snooping, but the fuel that it takes to build and maintain all this widespread equipment?
And some slightly deeper thinking might lead you to the conclusion that an energy-poor civilization would not have as large a population as a modern industrial society. Nor would the population density be as high. A 1984-type of government would be extremely unlikely in a world that resembled the medieval subsistence farming societies of a.d. 1284.
Even though science fiction writers can bend the rules if they want to, it is best to think long and hard about it beforehand. The background of a science fiction story is so important that it often shapes the path that the story takes, just as the environment around us shapes our behavior. Pay attention to the background and avoid the hackneyed territory that has been so overrun by mediocre stories.
Set your stories in your unique world, guided—but not hamstrung—by known scientific information.
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