I have always loved reading science fiction and fantasy, starting with Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.G. Wells when I was in grammar school. Then later A.E. van Vogt, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
In the 1950s, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, originally written as one super-long book, broken into three parts by the publisher, led the fantasy realm into what has been dubbed “Epic Fiction” and “Myth Arc” books.
The 1960s and 1970s exploded with myth arc. It is similar to a standard story arc but is larger than can fit in a single book. It demands sequels. Think the Shannara series by Terry Brooks, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, the Man-Kzin Wars by Larry Niven, or the Well of Souls series by Jack L. Chalker, all of which I have read and enjoyed.
The 1980s and 1990s saw more character-driven stories. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling is an example. An epic battle between good and evil is the overall myth arc plot, but how the characters, like Dumbledore, Ronald Weasley, and Hermione Granger, change and grow are what make each book interesting.
Okay, So if I like the sci-fi genre, why haven’t I written it?
Science fiction and fantasy usually involve some epic theme: save the world or the universe. I don’t write big themes. My stories tend to involve a small slice of life. In my mysteries, the protagonist solves a murder or saves a friend, but not much more.
As Carl Sagan wrote, "To make an apple pie, you need wheat, apples, a pinch of this and that, and the heat of the oven. The ingredients are made of molecules—sugar, say, or water. The molecules in turn, are made of atoms—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a few others. Where do these atoms come from? …the Big Bang, the explosion that began the cosmos. If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."
I feared writing science fiction required me to invent an entire universe.
Other types of fiction don’t have those requirements. If you’re writing about the old West or the Civil War, the terrain and characters you’ll meet are well known. If you’re collecting characters from present day, you need only to look to the personalities around you. But if you’re making a futuristic universe and populating it with alien species, you need to make all up. Or so I believed.
In our weekly critique group, one of the authors started a young adult science fiction novel. She had questions on how to portray certain events or define an alien landscape. I was able to help her with examples of how other writers handled similar situations.
I realized, as Joseph Campbell said of the hero’s journey, “…we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path…”
So it is with writing sci-fi. I write my own story, told in my own words. But the concepts of time-travel, faster-than-light spaceflight, or alien encounters are well-known. Readers are familiar with them. I need not re-invent everything.
I’ve finally started a sci-fi story, but in mine, the protagonist sets out to save his kidnapped brother. Another character finds a family. And neither saves the universe. Now I find I’m enjoying writing science fiction as much as I have enjoyed reading it.