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First, I'd like to point out that I'm a magic-based fantasy writer, which means I'm more comfortable within the range of the historic-mythical fantasy genre. With that said, I've also seldom found myself reading about sci-fi or even acknowledging them by watching sci-fi blockbuster movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek or anything similar. Albeit, I have read a few sci-fi novels before, and I understood a few of them just fine despite not knowing whether the scientific facts behind it are accurate or not.

The idea about me wanting to start a sci-fi story started with a friend challenging me that I should start one, but my knowledge about a futuristic world and their technology and science engineering is rather limited (I don't even know how to operate some features on my phone). I'm an art student, you see. That means that I rarely expose myself to anything that has to do with "science oriented" subjects like chemistry, biology, and physics. So, lacking knowledge about scientific facts is the number one factor why I don't understand sci-fi novels that are heavily based on science (best example, Andy Weir's bestselling novel The Martian).

I do have these amazing ideas that I've gathered for years to start this sci-fi universe, but I'm afraid that the readers will find the story disingenuous or "fake". I'm not trying make a mockery to science.

So my question is, is it a requirement for me to learn all of these facts about science in order to write it, or should I just ignore the facts and write whatever my imagination tells about science and go with it? Would it annoy the reader if I do so?

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closed as off-topic by Aify, Hohmannfan, TrEs-2b, Kromey, Brythan Aug 10 '16 at 0:58

  • This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I've taken two tags off as they're not suitable for the question you're asking $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 9 '16 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is more of a question for writers.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ – Philipp Aug 9 '16 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Real Science has more potential to make sci-fi boring than interesting, imo. Both Star Wars and Star Trek make sweet, sweet mockeries of science. $\endgroup$ – SethWhite Aug 9 '16 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ Most people writing science fiction have art backgrounds, not science backgrounds. Some of the golden boys had science backgrounds (Asimov, Clarke), but that's something that can help as much as it can hurt. There's plenty of breadth in sci-fi to accomodate many different approaches to writing - most of Asimov's sci-fi is very much about the social aspects of the future, for example, despite his great technical background. The technical pieces are still brilliant, but very different. But if you go the hard sci-fi route, make sure your science education is up to the task :) $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 9 '16 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this question belongs on writers.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ – Aify Aug 9 '16 at 22:25

12 Answers 12

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There's a helpful thing in Sci-fi called Mohs scale of Sci-fi hardness.

This gives the different levels of how 'hard' sci-fi is - really soft sci-fi (1 on the scale) essentially is do what you want without caring for the rules (this sounds like what you want) and could be far in the future as humanity currently has no idea what future knowledge or technology could be and so things don't really need to be explained, although this could easily lead to things that are impossible... You don't really need much (if any) science knowledge to write soft sci-fi.

Really hard sci-fi on the other hand (say number 6 on the scale) is very much based on reality - you need to have a good knowledge of science (or have friends who do) to properly pull this one off. A story can also be in between these, so it might be moderately hard sci-fi or moderately soft sci-fi - see the above link for descriptions and examples.

[Meta Note: If you want to write hard sci-fi, you can always ask questions on here using the 'hard-science' or 'science-based' tags depending on how hard/soft the sci-fi you're writing is. 'Reality-check' might also be useful for this]

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    $\begingroup$ So soft science fiction is basically fantasy with a different name? $\endgroup$ – Charon Aug 9 '16 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ @渡し守シャロン The difference between sci-fi and fantasy is one big fat debate. In the end, there's no clear border between the two, there's even a lot of overlaps, and it only defines the setting, not the story. $\endgroup$ – AmiralPatate Aug 9 '16 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @渡し守シャロン Just look at Star Wars. Strip away the droids and spaceships, and what you have is a story about a farm boy, the last survivor of his hometown after the evil Empire destroyed it, taking up a magic sword and traveling with an old wizard, a charming but disreputable rogue, and a big hairy brute of a warrior to save the Princess and re-learn the ancient traditions of the extinct order of magical knights that used to uphold peace and justice in the land... $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Aug 9 '16 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ In other words, @MasonWheeler, you get The Hidden Fortress. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 9 '16 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Five hours later I come back, cursing TVTropes. I should have known better. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Aug 9 '16 at 22:29
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As a writer of fantasy you will already know about "suspension of disbelief". If a setting in a story is not internally consistent or conflicts too much with a reader's own expectations, that will interfere with their immersion in the world and story.

The big difference between fantasy/magic and science fiction is that many readers have a much more solid expectation about how things work if the word science is involved, where the fantasy genre has a much more basic and cliché set of expectations.

With magic, well it's magic. As long you don't violate the rules you make up, the reader will accept that's just 'how it works'. With science, you can make up your own rules (starships can move faster than light), but they need to be an extension on the real-world ones (by going through "hyperspace") to avert conflict with reader's understanding of things.

Of course, if you just want an adventure story in space the requirements are not that hard. Borrow the more scientific stuff from an existing source and wing it for the rest. Most likely one of your friends will remark on unscientific stuff while proofreading and you can put a lampshade on it or come to this SE and ask "How to explain away X in my world".

This is really no different from a fantasy setting. If your hero encounters a bunch of peasants handily dispatching a dragon without any explanation of how, readers will protest. Dragons are supposed to be fearsome and near invulnerable! Put a lampshade on it and you'll be okay:

Sidekick noticed Hero's stare. "Scale-rot, we call it. Nobody knew dragons even could get sick. Drives 'em crazy, people say. If my skin fell off like that, I'd be wanting a quick death too and I ain't crazy."

The same works for science fiction, only it's more like "Ever since X invented Y ..." or "The model IV was revolutionary, it was the first to overcome Z limitation".

If you want to go for more classical science fiction where the imagined future science is at the heart of the story, then yes, you will need to learn a great deal about it. This is considered to be real science fiction and it attracts a more serious and technically inclined audience who will balk at gross inaccuracies or nonsensical science. Appreciation for how well you've developed the science and its influence on the world of your story plays a big role for this audience's enjoyment of the book, so only go there if you are willing to do the homework.

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    $\begingroup$ How can an author use "suspension of disbelief" effectively, if he doesn't even know when he's departing from his audience's belief? $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Aug 9 '16 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ A good editor/proofreader will help with that, unless the author's basing his entire story on something wildly unscientific. $\endgroup$ – Cyrus Aug 10 '16 at 5:51
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A lot of the answer is definitional or even opinion based. Many people would deny that Star Wars is Science Fiction at all, arguing that it is fantasy dressed up in science fiction clothes. A lot of other material (books, movies, comics etc.) which claim to be Science Fiction are arguably not SF either, despite the prominent appearance of lasers, spacecraft and so on.

The hardest definition of Science Fiction is simply that removing the science means there is no story. IF your SF story involves time travel and you have given the story universe some semi plausible means of time travel, then if removing the premise that allows for time travel causes the story to collapse, you have created a true science fiction work (note ideas like time travel are not strictly speaking science, but if you have an internally self consistent means of time travel in your story and the story depends this mechanism, then you have created a fairly hard SF work).

On the other hand, if the time travellers in your story simply wish to appear in 1867, or there are no time paradoxes because of time travel, or you simply ignore the potential paradoxes in your story, then you are writing fairly soft SF, arguably moving into fantasy.

Most of what passes for SF could simply be turned into other genres by substituting things like sailing ships for starships (Star Trek is arguably like this), or perhaps six shooters for lasers (making it a space western) and so on. A good example of a very hard SF work is "The Mote in God's Eye", where the final outcome of the story depends very heavily on the consistent use of the assumptions behind the story's Faster Than Light drive and shielding technology. Break the assumptions and the story has to radically change.

So if you are writing what you consider to be Science Fiction, then look at the underlying SFnal premise of the story. Does how it works influence the plot or outcome of the story? IF yes, then you have written a hard SF work. If not, then you have written a soft SF work (and varying degrees of softness depending on how critical or not the SFnal premise actually is).

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Most science-fiction isn't science-fiction at all; it's science fantasy. Look at the most recent movies for Star Trek and Star Wars and ask yourself, how much science is really in the story?

While there's stuff that's very-obviously technology, it's never explained because it's not the point. The new trek-films never detail the mechanics of a matter-antimatter detonation, or fusion reactors, or alcubierre drive field geometry; It's all just a pretty metallic backdrop for some action to happen. Same goes for Star Wars. They needed a big scary planet-killer to raise the tension, and they needed the heroes to defeat it, so with the plot in mind they just bent the science to fit.

Now consider a book like The Forever War, where the plot bends to the science. Our main character is sent off to fight an interstellar war, and every time he returns from a deployment the world he knew has slipped hundreds of years away from him because of relativistic time dilation. While there's plenty of scientifically absurd stuff like near lightspeed travel in the distant year of 1997, the plot makes scientific phenomena a centerpiece instead of just a backdrop.

Long and short, it's all about the story you want to tell. Your readers probably won't be too much more scientifically literate than you, and even if they are they'll probably suspend their disbelief for sake of the story. If an idea like laser-powered speakers sounds absurd to you, then it'll probably sound absurd to your reader too. Just use your judgement, and if in doubt bounce it off your friends.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that one of the reasons The Forever War is so good is because Haldeman has a great grasp not only of physics but of how science evolves (note 'having to tear down and rebuild' physics in that book because they found that the jump was not in fact instantaneous, but took time) - and he has that grasp because he has a BS in Physics and Astronomy. Studying your subject matter 110% helps you write about it better. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Ford Aug 9 '16 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ I prefer Firefly to Trek because it doesn't pretend to be hard SF. Trek technobabble drives me nuts, because it's never explained to the viewer. There's lots of sciency-sounding dialog that doesn't actually tell you what's going on. Also, Trek will invent some tech one episode that would solve their problem a few episodes later, but they don't even mention why they can't just use their magic solution from earlier. (Some incarnations of Trek were worse about this than others, IIRC). Anyway, if you want to tell character stories in space, it's even better without fake big words, IMO. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Aug 10 '16 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterCordes Please, don't remind me of Voyager. Using torpedoes to punch a hole in an event horizon, and having their systems knocked off by a - I'm not making this up - "interfereometric pulse." Textbook case of how not to do it. $\endgroup$ – UIDAlexD Aug 10 '16 at 12:55
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Absolutely not.

Consider William Gibson, the guy who CREATED cyberpunk. Guy was almost totally ignorant about how computers worked, yet he invented an entire genre of computing based literature. Interview with Gibson. He also didn't know how a hard drive worked (at the time it was a spinning platter, NOW they more resemble the solid state crystals he envisioned) but it didn't matter, they made sense within his world.

It is not important that he CORRECTLY predicted future tech, rather that he made an internally consistent world where the ramifications of HIS TECH made sense to the reader. So the lesson learned is that if you create illogical magic tech the reader will check out, but if you think out the first to third order effects of something and maintain some basic rules within your fiction, readers will generally buy in to almost anything, even if the scientific basis is weak. Heck, EVERY SINGLE STORY featuring faster than light travel is basically bullshit, yet they are very popular and considered science-fiction.

What will get you into trouble is if you attempt to describe a real world scientific thing and get the very basics wrong because you didn't do research. Just like placing New York City in Peru would be an egregious geographic error, failing to understand the scientific basics of some real world tech you are heavily featuring in your story will undermine it. Of course it also depends on how knowledgeable your audience is on the topic as well. Stephen King constantly screws up gun stuff. Hacking is a joke in most media (I heard one show had TWO people banging on the same keyboard in order to "hack faster"!). And of course a good story with engaging characters and compelling plot can override any number of scientific errors (while the reverse is definitely not true).

This is why authors without a scientific background get technical experts to review their stuff and the writer decides whether to listen to advice or not.

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As noted in a comment under another answer, specific demarcations is a big debate. However, there is one sebset of science fiction that is pretty easy to wrap your brain around, which I will call 'assertion science fiction'.

A lot of science fiction starts with a 'normal' understanding of the real world, and then asserts a single change(*). Then, the plot of the story revolves around the interesting impacts of that change, using these to reveal or discuss our actual world.

For example, the movie 'Children of Men' posits that people simply stop having babies, and then goes on to look at the societal and personal impacts of this change. Most of these hew closely to real-world issues of nationalism, assisted suicide, the personal relationship with death and birth, and so on. The BBC series 'Black Mirror' has a series of very dark assertions like this, each it's own self-contained episode.

The underlying point here is that the change needn't be sweeping: 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is an example of a science fiction movie that is, except for it's element of a memory-erasure widget, entirely the same as the real world. 'Fat Farm' is a short story about Orson Scott Card that posits the ability to mind-tape a person into a new, cloned body. It doesn't even examine all the changes such a technology would have, just a very narrow set of them. This is the heart of much of science fiction, because it gets you thinking about people inside different technological contexts. Arguably, 'The Truman Show' is science fiction but posits no 'new' technology or science, just takes our current technology and behavior to an extreme.

That combination of technology and behavior is key: to make a story you have to have compelling characters with arcs the reader is interested in, and so science fiction finds a home in examining how behavior changes - and doesn't change - given different technological contexts. These contexts needn't be huge, but the best ones drive right at the heart of what it means to be human. Gibson's 'Neuromancer' work functions at this level because it takes the concept of body dismorphia - the kludgey gluing of man to machine - and imagines a world where that is the norm. But body dismorphia is a thing people experience without going to the extreme of computers in their brain or razor-claws in their hands, so it helps us to think about our own world.

Obviously, there is a lot of science fiction that doesn't strictly fall into this form of easy categorization(**), but if you're looking for a handle to differentiate science fiction from fantasy, it is an easy one to grasp: the same roots of human behavior in a different technological context. Understanding the technology isn't strictly necessary, though it helps make it convincing because you can extrapolate more easily to the set of behaviors and interactions such a technology might impact.

(*) Ok, most science fiction asserts a lot of different changes, but it's easier to explain if we are positing a single change. (**) I do personally think most good science fiction does have a 'pivot' technology or technologies, though: the ansible in Ender's Game, the Force in Star Wars, time traveling sentient killer robots in Terminator, the alien in Aliens, jump nexuses in Forever War, nanobots in Diamond Age, prescient police officers in Minority Report, the time machine in The Time Machine, etc. Pivot technologies are something to look for when examining science fiction because it helps us understand the context.

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The majority of science fiction writers weren't, aren't nor will be scientists and those that aren't scientists often are lacking in scientific literacy. There are a lot of Arts graduates who write science fiction. Yes while there is science fiction that is based on scientific ideas. Most of it is based on exercises in scientific imagination. Not science as such, but concepts that are oriented with respect to science. Concentrate on the impact the science and technology has on your characters, on the society they belong to, and in geenral the world the story inhabits.

Just write what you think is science fiction and do it in the same way as you would keep a magic-based fantasy story logically consistent and not self-contradictory try to do it in your sci-fi.

A lot of it is no different from magic-based fantasies. So if you can write magic-based fantasies, then science fiction is a small step from doing that. Above all else, have fun writing science fiction.

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No, absolutely not. But some people may then consider your work to be fantasy instead of "real" science fiction.

The key is internal consistency.

You also need to pay attention to language: if you try to use technical or science jargon, either avoid existing words entirely or reintroduce them with your meaning or just mash them together so blatantly that a scientifically inclined user just starts laughing after the second paragraph and stops applying his knowledge. The latter is probably the hardest and may actually require some (or a lot of) knowledge after all.

This problem doesn't just apply to language, it also applies to the whole writing style: Some science fiction writers may write paragraphs about their technology as long as Tolkien's descriptions of Hobbits walking. If you do, then you need to work on your imagination of science at least as much as if you would research the actual science. It might be in the interest of your story to skip over some stuff rather than describe everything although even as a non-technical writer, you don't need to.

One literary device making your life much easier could be characters who don't understand the tech either. They might even have some vague recollection of their physics classes in school. "Doesn't that violate Newton's Laws?" - "No, dimwit, don't remember Frasnati motion?" - "... I might have slept through that lesson." (the latter is a made up physical law - initially I wanted to name it after a real mathematician, but got bored after researching two names I came up with and finding out that both of them did some work on motion of stuff).

That said, most of those problems only apply to a small subset of readers. You can also decide to write only for non-technical people, although that would be a pity (in my opinion, because that would exclude myself).

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I think it really depends on the story you are trying to tell. If you have a good story that just happens to be set in 'space' then it will have a readership even if the science is a little off. As long as you can make it seem reasonable and internally consistent within your universe then people are going to accept it.

As an example I personally like the Star Wars franchise (well the first three films anyway) and they take huge liberties with their space ship design, ideas of space ship combat and many other things. Now I know that the 'dogfight' footage was based on old WWII movies of airplane dogfights and I don't care. I still enjoyed the film and the story despite knowing a lot of it is breaking hard-science rules. As long as you don't fall into the trap of having things resolved by 'science' you should be fine. As a fantasy writer you know all about this. As a reader I find the most irritating thing in Fantasy to be when the hero solves a difficult problem just by 'Magic'.

If, on the other hand, you want to tell a story about the science then I believe that you need to be much more knowledgeable (or have access to those who are) otherwise it's probably going to fail.

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  • $\begingroup$ You can use science to explain the "rule of cool" things like Star Wars dogfights - but it's a dangerous prospect. When you invent magic, you say "that's how it is". When you invent science, you need to make it internally consistent - and that's very hard. You need to explore all the impacts a particular technology might have on your universe; if you miss some obvious thing, you're in trouble. The Star Trek transporter is one notable case - it's a technology that changes everything, and solves 99% of the problems they have. So they had to have it malfunction all the time to get a story. $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 9 '16 at 15:18
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Intro

SciFi does not mean "spaceships", and remember "science that is advanced far enough looks like magic" anyways.

It's really all shades of grey here. The most potent SciFi stories I have consumed usually took one or two big ideas (somehow related to science/reality, not magic), mixed them into a generally realistic universe, and then explored what would happen.

You do not need to be a scientist at all to do that successfully. Sure, some people might like hard SciFi, but not everyone, and I'd wager there are more readers that can appreciate a generally great "soft-to-middleish" SciFi story than those that need everything to be super hard.

SciFi features

So pick whatever feature you can think of and change it up. Ideas:

  • ...
    • unlimited power supply
    • unlimited food supply
  • ...
    • earth becoming uninhabitable
    • all current earth issues disappearing (the opposite of "uninhabitable")
  • ...
    • wearable computers becoming ubiquituous
    • body functions / muscles /skin enhanced by nano-computers in whichever way possible
    • senses enhanced by nano-computers in whichever way possible
    • mental capacity enhanced by nano-computers in whichever way possible
  • ...
    • working A.I., benevolent
    • working A.I., malevolent

Or if you insist on the classical "space" genre:

  • ...
    • time travel (plenty of opportunity to give you and your reader brain cancer without going any deeper than "quick, get the DeLorian" :) )
    • FTL travel (just means you get to the aliens quicker)
    • wormholes (same, with additional restraints on where you can go)
    • aliens (good)
    • aliens (evil)

And so on and so forth. Nothing of these (except maybe the "space" stuff) needs any kind of proper scientific insights into the topic. You can easily extrapolate really gripping stories from all of these changes.

Examples

Take the movie "Her" or "Terminator I" for example. Here we have distinct SciFi plot elements that need no technical knowledge about the subject matter whatsoever (especially not in book format). You do not need to be a scientist to describe a roboter which mimics humans to kill them, or an app which develops real intelligence. You just propose it is so and then move on.

Concentrate more on what the new reality feature you picked does with/to your characters or with society, and you will likely have material to fill several thick volumes before being pressed to explain how it actually does work. If you write from the point of view of your characters, they may likely not even know how stuff works, so why would you explain it (without breaking the 3rd wall) anyways.

An excellent author to look out for examples is, e.g., Ursula LeGuin (almost everything) or some books from Orson Scott Card (e.g., the Enders series, and here especially the second book "Speaker for the Dead"). Of course, they are capable enough authors to make even wildly "off" speculations turn into great stories. If you are going at your first SciFi story, you might want to pick a topic you can relate to and are familiar with, not go for a whole universe-changing she-bang right from the start.

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Here's a really quick and simple way to differentiate them, which works in the majority of cases:

When the hero chants the strange and arcane incantation, it is magic if it triggers a power innate to the hero, and sci-fi if it activates The Machine.

In other words: Fantasy features characters with special powers innate to themselves, that they are born with or develop through intensive training. In sci-fi, the special powers the characters use are derived from external devices, which anyone can activate as long as they have access to the device and know the right commands/buttons.

For a good example of this, consider The Ship Who Won by Anne McCaffrey, where a planet of people appears to be using magic, until The Machine is revealed and we discover that it's actually all technology. Another example is the Ethshar series, by Lawrence Watt-Evans - where again it looks like fantasy, until the man behind the curtain is revealed, and we discover it was sci-fi all along.

This is only a broad generalization, of course - it is also heavily influenced by when it is set; fantasy is normally in the past, while sci-fi is normally in the future.

To answer your question, "is it a requirement for me to learn all of these facts about science"? No, it is not. Just write whatever you want, and let people categorize it how they will. There are plenty of cross-genre examples (star wars, pern, lovecraft, sliders, etc.)

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It is my age, no doubt, but conflating the cotton candy "science fiction" of the movies with the sci-fi LITERATURE is like calling strippers ballerinas (or vice versa). I have noted that quite a few recent sci-fi books read like movies, apparently the TV generation(s) are ok with that. I restrict my comments to literature, if you wanna be a screen writer, I advise ECT.

Most sci-fi is fantasy, and involves the violation of the known laws. Some sci-fi adds to the known laws - machines (aka "black boxes") that do what seems to be impossible but with realistic consequences.

Incidentally, The Martian has that scene where he uses duct tape to tape plastic over the hole so he can repressurize the habitat. At a diameter of 6½ft, and a pressure of 14 psi, the force on that repair would be equivalent to 33 tons...what do you think? would you expect that tarp to be able to carry a stack of 13 Ford F-150's? No way! Anyway.

You can have doorways like transporters without having to explain the technology. You can have FTL spaceships without having to explain the way they work. Most sci-fi is actually fantasy disguised with the magic sword replaced by the laser, ion blast, phaser, or force knife, and with the ten league boots replaced with FTL drives, matter transporter or wormholes. Steam punk is particularly unscientific current fashion (as is nanobots and zombies), but they sell! You have to be consistent - or at least inconsistent in unobvious ways.

My own opinion is that the less regard an author has for the three (four actually) Laws of Thermodynamics, the more fantastical and less scientific the story. Those laws are expressed in many different ways.

Here's one:

  1. Temperatures of two bodies in contact will tend to equalize

  2. Energy and matter can be transformed but not created nor destroyed. (a corollary of this is that both momentum and angular momentum are conserved unless acted on by something else)

  3. Disorder increases - if something becomes more ordered, then something else becomes more disordered AND there will be more disorder than order. Another way of saying this is: ANY process, ANY machine which does something will create heat, and 100% conversion (see Law 1) is impossible (there will be waste "heat" (some kind of energy)

  4. No system is in perfect order. Laws 1 & 2 forbid the existence of perpetual motion machines. If you internalize these, then you'll be better than 90% of the sci-fi writers out there today, IMHO.

So, there are books about the fictional science and there are the majority of sci-fi books that use futuristic technology (or simply futuristic knowledge) as a back-drop for the story. If the story doesn't have compelling characters, all the science knowledge in the world won't help (but read a couple of the most popular military sci-fi series (or simply Star Wars trash), and being "good" and being "profitable" mean very different things.

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    $\begingroup$ Big Block of Text! $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Aug 9 '16 at 22:26
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    $\begingroup$ Sort and structure your thoughts please. $\endgroup$ – Nobody Aug 9 '16 at 22:50

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