10 Laws of Good Science Fiction

Author’s note: These rules are intentionally provocative, and they have generated much discussion and some intense opinions for and against. This is as it should be. They are not all original with me. Rules 6, 8, and 9 have been stated (in different words) by SF editors for years, so if you write and submit stories, you may have been reminded of them in rejection letters.

These rules are more applicable to written SF than TV or film. Film SciFi is usually about monsters and although being set in an SF world, they are only monster movies with few, if any, science elements necessary to the plot. if you can relocate the locale to ancient Rome, take out the space ships and ray guns, and the movie still works, then it is not SF. TV shows, with only 40 or so minutes to move a plot, don’t have time to be careful about rules.

Please don’t trash me (or my spelling) when you think that you disagree. If you have an intelligent argument, please make it. Abusive comments and trolls will be disemvowled.

10. Earthmen are not all white or all men.

Subscribers to Science Fiction magazines in the 1950s were predominantly adult educated white men working as engineers or other technical jobs. White, educated men with technical backgrounds wrote SF stories. There is a strong tradition dating from the Golden Age of SF that SF protagonists are white educated males.

Today, SF readers are younger and much more diverse. SF characters need to reflect the diversity of its readership. It should be as diverse as the backgrounds of the readers, and even more so. Characters need to be all age groups from very young to very old. Ethnically they need to reflect the readership and then push the limits. Sexually, there should be reality-based characters that represent the readers’ real world.

Science Fiction should expand the worldview of its readers and expose them to much more than the normal, expected and ordinary. Nowhere is this more important than in the characters that populate SF stories.

9. No Supermen

A Science Fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to men that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight. It is not interesting that there is a being out there who can simply step on us like an ant. This is one of the rules of the famous Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, Jr.

It is quite possible that we will meet such beings, but it will not be such a good story because the aliens will destroy us, ignore us, or take us as pets.

In order for there to be interaction, or conflict, the protagonist has to have at least a chance of success. He has to out fight, out smart, out luck, or out something in order to make an interesting plot resolution. Avoiding the superman is not interesting. If you can avoid him, he may not be so super. All villains have to have a weaknesses and faults. Even the hero should have a few faults, and it helps if the pretty girl brought along by mistake has a few as well.

The hero’s cause can look hopeless, but we expect that. It is always interesting to see how someone gets out of a sticky situation, but it is no fun when the cause is without any hope.

8. No Trek or Star Wars.

Nothing can kill a story, conversation, or relationship deader than an inappropriate reference to Star Trek or Star Wars.

Star Trek and Star Wars are worlds unto themselves. They are beyond judgment and criticism. It doesn’t matter how bad any individual scene or episode is, on the whole the worst Star Trek episode is better than anything else that has ever been on television. But, don’t ever think that Star Trek and Star Wars are good Science Fiction. Rarely, they have had moments where they approach good SF, but only rarely.

Authors, please do not bring elements of ST and SW into your stories. Don’t use Phasers, teleporters, droids, Klingons, Wookies, the prime directive and especially never bring “The Force” into a story. This, of course, includes renaming things.

The technology, philosophies, plots and characters of ST, SW, Bab-5, BG, and other TV shows are so obvious and easily recognizable that these elements, no matter how well disguised, are instantly flagged as a bad imitation.

7. Science Fiction is Real.

Science Fiction is not like fantasy. Science Fiction has to plausible, realistic, possible and yes, it has to be real. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, or never happened in the past, Science Fiction has to be possible in some alternate world. Elements that make a story downright impossible make a story something other than Science Fiction.

There is a lot of leeway as to what reality includes, especially when dealing with a possible science or technology. It is important that the ideas appear to be real and do not raise obvious objections. There will always be a certain level of what Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief”, but a Science Fiction story should never ask a reader to swallow something that is obviously ridiculous or patently impossible without a lot of convincing explanation.

Reality includes creating scientific principles and concepts for which there is no current basis. These scientific notions must be plausible in the sense that they act like the scientific principle which we currently are sure of, but they may not so outlandish as to negate anything we are pretty sure is true now.

Certain things so obviously lack reality that they cannot appear in a Science Fiction story. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, demons, unicorns, elves, and magic are mythical and have no scientific basis, and they are incompatible with Science Fiction. No amount of rationalization is going to make a vampire seem scientifically sound.

Religious ideas such as God, angels, devils, life after death and miracles have a kind of reality based on faith, but are not describable using the scientific method. They are perfectly acceptable as part of a society’s or character’s belief set, but under no circumstances should Jesus appear in a story as a fictional character.

One of the things that makes SF so compelling is that there is a feeling that what we read is real. It may be happening to fictional characters in a fictional situation, but the science and technology are a very real and important part of a reality that affects our lives.

6. Giving Something an Alien Name Doesn’t Make it Alien.

Raktajino is coffee. By giving it a Klingon name it sort of appears alien, but everyone drinks it like coffee. It looks like coffee. It is coffee. Writers should not think that making cows into Dvigids and Horses into Pytkos that they are not writing a western. Pistols should not be a ray gun unless the difference between a pistol and a ray gun is important to the plot.

A possible future or an alien culture should not be full of aliases for things that belong in our time on earth – that’s just lazy.

A western can’t be turned into SF by changing Texas to Alderan 7. Humans can’t be transformed into aliens by changing their appearance. A murder mystery set on a space station is a murder mystery, not Science Fiction.

Damon Knight described this as “calling a rabbit a smeerp.”

5. Aliens Should be Alien

It is quite possible that in the next thousand years we will find intelligent aliens or that they will find us. It is not at all likely that they will be buxom babes with an urge to procreate with the men of Earth.

TV and Movie Scifi uses humans, usually with a strange shape of ear, a long tongue, or wearing a rubber alien suit, because it is hard to make stories about truly alien aliens. Very often aliens are not characters, but props or monsters, especially in movies, making the story not Science Fiction, but a horror movie.

It is quite possible that any alien will be humanoid with symmetric bodies, a head, arms, legs, hands, mouths and eyes that work similarly to their human equivalents. It will be unlikely that they work the same way, though. Sharks and Dolphins are similar looking, but very different creatures, so aliens may look like men in many ways.

Aliens may have two sexes, but are unlikely to be mammals and therefore will not have breasts or lips. They may communicate through sound, but even if they do, they will probably not be able to mimic human sound patterns. Lips are an adaptation for drinking milk from breasts. On earth there are many ways in which a creature feeds its young. Breast milk is one way, but this may not be common on other planets. It seems a good solution to us, but may not be the best way. Creatures without breasts do not have lips.

Aliens will not be like us.

Corollary laws:

A. You will never meet an alien who speaks English like a native.
B. Aliens just like us, but with little squiggles on their noses only appear in low budget TV shows.
C. We will never be able to have sex with aliens using the missionary position.
D. Aliens as far as they have personalities will be more likely to be aggressive and pushy. There are not likely to be kindly, friendly and caring aliens because they would not have the drive to explore space. (In this way, they will be much like us.)
E. Real aliens don’t act anything like you’d expect them to act. For instance, they will not be Nazis.

4. No Nazis!

Lazy writers have no idea how to create a villain. Villains are human beings with character flaws, psychological handicaps, or even bad luck that forces them to do bad things. They are hard to create, hard to develop and hard to write. The motivation of someone who performs evil acts is difficult for a writer to explain to a reader.

Writers use short cuts. There are classes of characters who are ready-made cookie cutter villains, and require no thought or effort to put in a story. These include Nazis, serial killers, Islamic terrorists, crooked cops, greedy businessmen, maniacs, corrupt politicians, drug fiends, and sadistic nuns.

A writer should use his experience and his imagination to develop characters. A reader should be able to recognize a character as being like someone they may know. A villain should also have a sympathetic element. This is one of the ways to make truly believable characters, and a believable character is the way to bring a reader or viewer into a story line. A writer must create villains that are recognized, understood and even pitied by the reader. Developing a villain is one of the three or four things that make writing hard, but a good villain is one of the three or four things that make fiction good.

A writer who includes World War II Nazis in his story has given up trying to make a real character and has opted for taking the cheap and easy path.

TV shows and Movies are particularly prone to using WWII Nazis, or proto-Nazi villains (cruel men with dark uniforms), simply because there is so little opportunity to develop a good villain in the short time available in a film.

3. Good Science Fiction is Good Science.

You cannot take the science out of Science Fiction. Science Fiction is not Mythical, Magical or Religious. It is Scientific. Myth, Magic and Religion may be subjects that appear in SF, but there is fundamental difference between Fantasy, Horror and Science fiction, and that is that SF requires real or believable science as part of the plot.

There is a quote somewhere which sort of goes “Advanced science will be indistinguishable from magic”, but when you can’t tell the difference between Science and Magic, it is no longer Science Fiction.

Science must be a part of science fiction. In a real SF story, the science must be so integral to the plot that it cannot be removed from the story.

The science can be mundane, technological, futuristic, advanced or even steampunk science, but it must be part of the story. Stories that take place on other planets or in space are probably science fiction stories. Stories of alien contact may be science fiction, but without fundamental science, are properly classified as horror.

Magical powers like telepathy, visions of the future or communication with the dead are not scientific and not Science Fiction, and they should be classified as Fantasy.

A science fiction story needs to be scientifically real. There must be an element that leads the reader to think, “Yes, this is possible”.

The famous Western Writer, Louis L’Amour describes in an introduction in one of his books the Western Landscape as an active character in a Western Novel. Westerns are not so much stories that take place in a certain place and time as stories about how human beings cope with the land. The deserts, mountains, weather and climate all play an important part in Louis L’Amour stories. It not enough that the stories take place in the West. His stories cannot succeed without some characteristic of the land playing an important role.

Just as the Western Landscape must be a kind of character in a Western, or the sea is a major force in C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels, so must good science be a character in a Science Fiction Story.

2. Science Fiction has a Sense of Wonder

Science Fiction is a unique genre. It blends Technology with Fantasy to create a world in the imagination. The world Science fiction creates is much more than ordinary reality. It is a world of dreams and speculation. Science fiction has embedded in the plots, characters and ideas the goal of an amazing universe of possibility.

True Science fiction is imbued with Sense of Wonder. The reader should be astounded, amazed, and inspired. This sense of wonder is what separates Science Fiction from mainstream technical thrillers.

Science Fiction is the direct product of daydreams and wanderings of imagination. It draws the reader into a feeling of awe about the open-ended universe of what-if. This sense of wonder is what separates, more than anything else, Science Fiction from other genres. It is this sense of wonder that makes young boys so addicted to Science Fiction that we are still reading it when we are old men.

1. Science Fiction Changes the World for the Better.

We live in a Science Fiction world. As Ray Bradbury said, “Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction”.

TV, computers, cell phones, cures for diseases, the exploration of space – all of these things are the subjects of Science Fiction. Science Fiction is a “What If” literature dealing with Technology, Science and the future.

I am sure that almost every major advance in modern science and technology for the last 50 years appeared first in a Science Fiction novel or short story.

What is more, I think that most, if not all advances in modern science and technology were motivated by a Science Fiction idea. Science Fiction leads and the real world follows. Science is possible because of the Science Fiction notion that there is a new world coming.

The proper function of writing Science Fiction, other than to entertain is to chart the dreams of our futures. A Science Fiction writer warns us of obstacles and dangers to come and shows us the promises of our imagination. Science Fiction is literature where a man’s vision is temporarily cast into a plot with characters so that some day it may become reality.

Science Fiction works out our needs, hopes and problems in the form of a written page, but its goal is to create a future world where the human condition is vastly improved.


Many readers of this list complain that I am being too harsh in my judgments and the many great SF stories break these rules. I only have one case where any Science Fiction story can break a rule without failing.

A Science Fiction Story Should Be Fun!

With the exception of rule #4, a good story can break any of the above rules as long as everyone has a good time. SF’s lowest common denominator is cheap thrills. It is often not literature, but escapist reading for enjoyment. A good story can overcome any breach of rules as long as the reader is transported to a land of imagination that makes all transgressions forgivable. (I still think any story with a Nazi sucks the big one, though).


  • I enjoyed reading your list. Its true that you are harsh but so much that passes as science fiction these days is totally ignorant (in some cases the writers are totally arrogant) of what makes good science fiction that this list feels like a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

  • Patrick posted it in the future

  • Harsh? These rules should be mandatory! I’ve read so many terrible articles on writing. No matter what genre one is affiliated with, there is something to be learned from this article. Even a published writer needs a refresher on how to create a good villain! This was great and I bookmarked it. Thanks 🙂

  • I am learning to write Science Fiction. Not any story writer can write it. You
    need a lot of Technical and Scientific Knowledge. It is an open field for a
    starting writer, who has those capabilities.

    • …It is an open field…

      Not so open since telling a good story is a separate skill from Engineering or Science.

      Of course, there are a many sites who don’t get enough science fiction. Most young writers want to create Fantasy, Horror or romance, so there is a shortage of SF. There is also quite a bit of fan fiction which, although well done, is not usually a paying gig.

      Writing good SF is much harder than you would think. For every five stories I start, I finish only one or two and some of those have a hard time finding a market because the science may be a hard sell. It is a not so easy as picking a technical or scientific theme, it has to be a good story, with good characters and accessible to non-technical readers. When I write a story I have to go through and edit out some of the techno-speak so that an intelligent, but not necessarily technical reader can enjoy the story.

  • For rule number 7, that no vampires, elves, or zombies can be in your story… What if you explain your mythical character in science fiction-y terms?

    Vulcans, for example, are a human like species except that they are generally taller, more logical (emotionally, anyway) and technologically superior to humans. Furthermore, they are partially telepathic and don’t like meddling in human affairs.

    Elves are also a human like species except that they are generally taller, more logical and technologically superior to humans (their long bows are superior to anything that humans can create). Furthermore, they are partially telepathic and don’t like meddling in human affairs.

  • Mush – rule 7

    Heinlein wrote Magic, Inc. and Glory Road, and Poul Anderson wrote Operation Chaos. Both of these use mythical or magical characters explained by science. It can be done, but I would say it is very very hard to pull off.

    Spock was purposely made to appear like a devil (not an elf). He was later “softened” to appear elf-like. He is nothing like classical elves. (Read Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter for a good example).

    Elves in mythology were smaller than people, not telepathic, and meddled in human affairs whenever they could (but had trouble crossing the barrier between Elfland and the real world. Tolkien made their lords tall, but most elves were shorter than men. D&D created many different flavors of elf and I think that’s where they were made tall.

    You might try googling Andrew Lang’s fairy books (try The Red Fairy Book). They are available to read free online and you will get an idea about the old English idea of elves, trolls, ogres, fairies, giants and other fabulous creatures. Each culture has different versions of these old fables, but we get most of our cultural memories downloaded through the English. Elves are northern European, but many cultures had similar little people who lived in the woods and performed magic.

  • If aliens are to be scientifically real, then the likelihood of parallel development is very improbable, meaning that any space faring aliens will be far more advanced than humans. This means that the aliens should fall into the realm of superbeings and contradict the No Supermen clause. If you choose to incorporate parallel development, then you violate the No Trek or Star Wars clause.

    In the stories that I am writing, my premise is that life is rare in the universe, and the few other space faring beings are far more advanced than humans. The aliens are all nonhumanoid and their contact with humanity is equally rare and limited. I’m violating the No Supermen clause. A good writer should not be daunted by the superiority of the aliens and can work in credible strengths and weaknesses of such beings and weave them into a tale that is both believable and entertaining.

    • It doesn’t follow that space faring aliens will be superior. I believe that evolution will stop when a species becomes supremely successful. Human evolution, with the exception of disease resistance, has stopped and humans are genetically much the same as they were 10,000 years ago. This is likely for any space faring aliens that we meet. They will be much like us as far as intelligence and physical abilities.

      Technologically, we will meet aliens the range from just starting out in interstellar travel to beings so far advanced that they will indeed appear as supermen.

      I did not say that we will not meet supermen in space, just that the stories where the supermen have no weaknesses and human individuals can not cope with the supermen, are not interesting stories. For a story to work. the protagonist must have obstacles that he at least has some kind of chance to overcome. Stories are about characters coping with problems, not characters having no chance or being destroyed like flies.

  • Are all conflicts ones that assert that advanced cultures will destroy lesser advanced cultures?

  • Not all, of course. I would say that lesser advanced cultures would be at a grave disadvantage. Think Europeans and native Americans or Europeans and Australian aborigines. Think Europeans and any other culture they’ve come in contact with.

    I do not think it likely that space faring people will be exploring out of the goodness of their hearts. They will not be benevolent. They will have their own alien motives for whatever they do. People aren’t nice. Aliens won’t be nice.

    On the other hand I think we can come to a position of mutual benefit with most aliens. Unless they are out to cleanse the universe of non-alien beings, they will find it much easier to exploit humans than destroy them. In the same way, if we ever get to the stars it will be easier for us to exploit any natives we find than to destroy them.

    Read Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel. In this novel there were Bug Eyed Monsters who wanted conquest and domination. There was also the Mother thing and the government that she represented that wanted order and mutual cooperation. We might find both kinds, although I would think the former more likely.

  • There are always exceptions to all rules, for example Nazis… you simply have to make it plausible
    for example
    Iron Sky (though it hasn’t been completed)


  • Hi, this article looks like you read the Ten Rules of Bad Science Fiction. I think it was by Ray Bradbury, but I can no longer find it. Any idea of how I can get a hold of that?

    • It doesn’t sound so much like Bradbury. It sounds more like one of the writers who also edited SF mags. Maybe a Fred Pohl or Damon Knight. At the time I wrote the list I had just read an article about good titles for blog posts and 10 best or 10 worst lists was touted as being a good thing. If you find the article that you are looking for, I’d love to read it.


    • Read the comments at IO9 and then read them here – totally different audience.

      I don’t read their website – it has nothing for me since I enjoy reading SF.

      I don’t think anyone there reads my site because I don’t watch movies or TV.


  • I have tried to read some sci-fi, but much of what I have found I haven’t liked particularly, I agree that the point of sci-fi is that the ideas in it are plausible; but some people just can’t seem to see where the line is drawn between it and fantasy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy; but as soon as you have telepaths and magic then… ugh.
    I’m doing a physics degree, so hopefully that would help in any future endeavours into science fiction.

    • 90% of SF pretty much sucks, but the 10% makes up for it. I read mostly Golden Age SF (from the 1940s and 50s). There was so much good science fiction written back then that I don’t think I will ever run out. I sample modern SF from time to time, but it is mostly bloated ramblings with little redeeming value.


  • One thing I’ve noticed about modern Science Fiction is that it’s gotten ruder. Dialogue is cynical and insulting and then characters behave like their in the shallow end of the gene pool. For this reason I can’t fault Keith for only reading Golden Age material.

  • “…Tolkien made their lords tall, but most elves were shorter than men. D&D created many different flavors of elf and I think that’s where they were made tall…”

    Well, it was not D&D games and even Tolkien didn’t started that “superior than humans in almost every way(sometimes at the first sight however)”. Tolkien itself stated once, that his elves are original, mostly northern european mythology based race, and it were the Shakespeare’s works, that kind of “downgraded” them into a little creatures with fancy hats and that the popularity of Shakespeare made the rest as the time passed. He even tried to change that(as he was one of the contributor’s to his time’s issue of Oxford English Dictionary, however with little success).
    So, the D&D only chooses and tries to expand/twist the Tolkien’s model for it’s own needs(f.ex.: so called High Elves(that superior, immortal and advanced(mostly in magic) are derived from Calaquendi/Noldor houses of Elves in Silmarillion), “Wood Elves” and their variations(most of them are almost as common as humans in D&D/RPG worlds and if not immortal they are at least very long lived and has far better sight and agility than a human) could see their “ancestry” in Tolkien’s Sindari or even better in the less “radical” branch of Moriquendi(which literarilly translates as “Dark Elves”, however not for their dark characters, but because of the fact that they never saw the light of the Two Trees Of Valinor, but rather chose to stay in Middle-earth) and finally, in D&D and many other fantasy universes there are some real Dark Elves(f.ex. D&D has drows, Elder Scrolls has dunmer…) which are “true” Moriquendi and really have something dark in them to some extent(drows are kind of extreme in that way).

    Basically, I agree with the opinion that if it’s a good story with enough ideas of it’s own, it could break some of these rules(race of Technomages in B5; Firefly: western setting & the Empire:-)that defeated “rebels” in time before the beginning of a story). As for the “imitation”, I think even major SF franchises sometimes do that(f.ex.: Rangers(B5 – without something as Force, off course) and the Jedi Order – their purpose in their respective universe is quite similar; Mimbari or Vulcans have much in common with elves(and it’s not because of ears); also Firefly’s western “look” is not so groundbreaking – there was an old anime called Saber Rider & The Star Sheriffs in late 80’s, which incorporated similar western /sci-fi crossover enviroment(also with japanese-styled mechs:-), but similarities are there); finally, The Matrix is chapter of it’s own in context of references or imitations.

    I think, sci-fi that would be written according to these rules would be kind of a technical sci-fi A.C. Clarke often wrote, which’s work is really great . However it’s not so widely written by present or beginning authors, because it requires tremendous knowledge in various areas of science, great mind to be able to find that something “what if” even within the limitations which present knowledge in that areas sets and all that in combination with not so common ability to write a good story. And to be able to do all that is quite rare.

    • Most of your examples are Film or TV, which are mostly piss poor fiction. Written SF (as apposed to theatrical Sci-Fi) is much better at coming up with something new and exciting, even using old themes in new and interesting ways. TV and Film have to appeal to a much broader audience and therefore shoot for a lowest common denominator. They are easy to watch and understand and hardly challenge the viewer at all.

      D&D should not be included in any serious discussion of fiction. It is a derivative hodgepodge of other people’s ideas designed to be played by young people. It is a blast to play, but makes for bad fiction.

      Yes, I prefer HARD (technical) SF as apposed to soft sci-fi. Yes, hard sf is more difficult to write. Good fiction of any kind is hard to write. You can’t say that soft SF is a good alternative to hard SF because it is easier to write.

      Will J.

  • I wasn’t even aware Hard Science Fiction existed until a read a “Soft” Science Fiction novel. When it comes to particulars I don’t mind either genre if the novel is well written. It’s been said that there exists only two kinds of books; well written and poorly written. I find that a lot of Science Fiction novels in general fall into the latter category.

    On a side note I’ve learned to be wary of novels that have blurbs on their covers alluding to or directly comparing the author to a famous writer; I call this feature a bullshit stamp.

  • demons and ghosts can function in sf with no problem. take Stanislaw Lem`s Solaris, for example.

  • Is there any recent sci-fi you would recommend reading? I just want to read good fantasy or science fiction, but it seems that fantasy is all book X of 10, and sci-fi is all short stories. Oh how I long for authors to just write great single novels!

  • “Is there any recent sci-fi you would recommend reading? I just want to read good fantasy or science fiction, but it seems that fantasy is all book X of 10, and sci-fi is all short stories. Oh how I long for authors to just write great single novels!”

    Depends on what kind of sci-fi/fantasy you like. I would add some of my favorites:

    anything by A.C.Clarke – mostly technological or “philosophical” sci-fi
    Frank Herbert(+ his son and others) – anything from Dune universe(I really recommend to read it from it’s very beginning(Butlerian Djihad is the first book in the series)
    Isaac Asimov – Foundation
    Dune and Foundation are multi-part novels so don’t worry about the length 🙂
    W.Gibson – Neuromancer, Johny Mnemonic – Gibson is considered father of cyberpunk, very interesting reading but for someone it may be too difficult

    If you only read LOTR or Hobbit from Tolkien’s books about Middle-earth, there’s more:
    Silmarillion – myths and legends of Middle-earth and events preceding and thus explaining some things and references in LOTR
    The Book of Unfinished Tales – collection of mostly unfinished works on Middle-earth – many people don’t know there are two parts
    Hurin’s children – the longest of the “unfinished tales” finally completed. It was published only recently by his son.

    R.E.Feist – Riftwar Cycle(probably most known book is Betrayal at Krondor)
    A.Szapkowski – The Witcher saga – sometimes incorporates even “naturalistic” approach to fantasy(btw this story was made into quite good RPG PC game just recently)

    off course there are many more…

  • …and, yes, It’s true, there’s not much of single SF/fantasy novels.

  • Read Dune. I’ve been put off reading the rest of it by the recycling of characters
    Really need to read some Asimov, but I’ve struggled to find in libraries here in SA.
    Used to roleplay Cyberpunk 20/20, but need to read more of Gibson.
    Read all the Tolkien there is. Stopped just short of actually learning Quenya and Sindarin.
    Read most of the Riftwar, but I actually preferred the Empire saga with Janny Wurts.
    Also Cycle of Fire, Deathgate, Earthsea. About to start Game of Thrones.

    But I was specifically asking about the more recent stuff, especially sci-fi. Like Iain M. Banks Culture series. I go to the bookshop, and, once you get past the heady influx of emo teen vampire crap, there and a lot of books that I just don’t know if it’s worth my while even starting, especially if it’s a series.

  • As far as fantasy goes…

    I am a big fan of Leiber’s Gray Mouser stories, although they are not novels.

    I like Poul Anderson’s SF books. He also wrote a few fantasy books. You should try Three Hears and Three Lions by Anderson.

    Of course, there is Conan. Read the Howard books. I assure you that there are no characters even remotely similar to Arnold.

    I reread Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars books every few years. They are fantasy, even if they take place on Mars.

    Andre Norton’s Witch World series started out as one stand-alone book and slowly grew so you can read the first few Witch World books without having to read sever 10 pound sequels.

    Fantasy books before J.R.R. Tolkien were usually a single novel and under 100K words, so look for good fantasy from the 40s 50s and 60s.

  • The Dune novel is continued with Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. I consider these three to be the basic Dune trilogy. Dune ends well, but there are many unanswered questions and the next two books round things out. I seem to remember that the original Dune as Herbert wrote it included material from these books, but was shortened. The sequels after these three are not really worth reading more than once, but I have reread Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune many times.

    My taste in SF runs from Golden age classics like the Early Robert Heinlein (I think everyone should read “Door Into Summer”). I especially like the Heinlein Juveniles.

    I like the modern CyberPunk novels like Gibson. I like Shirley’s Eclipse books. I like Vernor Vinge’s books. Read Vinge’s True Names and other stories.

    Asimov is good, but dry. I like Clarke’s short stories better than his novels.

    The later Golden Age has people like Anderson, Pohl, Harry Harrison, and Blish,

    The best, though, will always be Ray Bradbury.

  • I think your list makes sense. I just dont think you should call it a law. thats like saying someones’ writing isnt good just because it doesnt follow your function or structure. I love to read science finction especialy Ray Bradbury & Stephen Kings But That Doesnt mean they have to follow your structure to have a good SF Novel Or story. Maybe they reach the SF audiance on a whole other level? However you are right on the realisticness.

  • zombies are real. You use a toxic like that in puffer fish to produce them. I have read only one book in the current zombie genre: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It has but one reference to zombies that make sense; harnessed zombies pulling a carriage. I find it hard to imagine why anyone would go to all the trouble of producing a zombiie to do the sort of other silly things they do in the book. However ghouls might do those sort of things.

  • William Forstchen’s book “One Second After” is a great read. It follows a community after an EMP attack on the U.S. There are no aliens, vampires or zombies.

  • On point 3
    “Good Science Fiction is Good Science. You cannot take the science out of Science Fiction.”

    This is the key definition of SF – what ever happens is based in the scientific explanation. For example a talking donkey can be achieved through
    1.Fantasy (like Shrek),
    2.religion/mythic (as in the Bible)
    3.Horror (some sort of possessed donkey) or
    4.Science fiction (through a GMO, nano-cyber implants or whatever)

    The plot of all four stories oould be identical – A talking donkey is SF literature based on the reason behind the change in the universe that allowed the donkey to talk.

    To just dismiss scenarios as non SF is not true to the genre.

    A good rule of thumb is “assume that xyz is different to our world … how can we explain it and would things actually happen as a result”

  • This was a great read. I loved the part about the villain and could not agree more. Peter F. Hamliton’s The Nights Dawn trilogy is a prime example of what happens when these rules are ignored. Kudos.

  • I may be in over my head…
    My SF will take place in a future in which humans are gone and only isolated societies of androids exist. In their attempts to uncover the mysteries of human extinction and why they themselves are still around, the main character will slowly discover how similar they are to human (like appreciating leisure, contemplating a greater purpose in existing without getting too spiritual, etc).

    I agree any book should examine or present an opportunity of an improved human condition, but thought it would be more interesting to have a pinnochio kind of story – the characters long to be human but discover the capacity to experience what it means to do just that. More appropriately, I want to present the artificial condition. My story thus far fits all 10 rules, only trick is to put more action in it and less description…

    • It sounds good – the androids, of course, need to find the last remnants of humans living in a primitive state and not at all like what they thought they would be.

  • I think finding surviving humans regardless of their state would be a predictable outcome. My friend’s first guess/suggestion was that the main characters could discover that the androids were once human, and technology was developed by them to convert themselves into androids as a way to control their own pace of evolution. He suggested at the end they find the original machines that did this and maybe even find a way to reverse the process. Personally I thought that would be awesome but a machine that turns you into a robot is borderline fantasy. It was still a cool idea my friend thought of imo.

  • I loved this list and I’m using it for school, however, I have one problem with this list. You stated that telepathy falls under magic, however, it is anything but. To some people who don’t understand it, it is lumped with magic, but it is in fact a psychic power, which is currently being studied for science. Mankind uses less than 10% of our brains, whereas some alien races may use 100% of theirs and unlock the psychic abilities inherent in all creatures. Psychics are currently being studied, and so psychic powers used in MODERATION (meaning their telepathy is blocked by certain substances, their pyrokinesis can’t burn others, etc.) is okay. Just saying.

    • Psychics are charlatans and telepathy is a myth. There is no credible evidence that any of the psychic powers have any basis in fact. There is a great percentage of the U.S. that believes otherwise, but they are wrong.

      The Amazing Randi has offered a million dollars to anyone who can show under controlled conditions any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. He has had this offer open for many years and no one has ever claimed the prize.

      If you could read minds, predict the future, talk to ghosts, move objects with your mind, or see events far away, don’t you think you’d claim James Randi’s prize?

  • While we are on myths and hoaxes, “mankind uses less than 10% of our brains” is one of them. Absolutely no basis is real science, but often erroneously used to ‘prove’ psychic abilities. See the writeup @ Snopes: http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/10percent.asp

  • We seem to be drifting away from SF. However there are two grievous errors in recent comments whiich should be corrected. Unfortunately it will require two or three paras to do that adequately.
    First: About not using our brain to its full capacity. Well of course not. My
    car has a speedometer that registers up to 200 km/hr. That does not mean that I have to drive at 200 Klicks every time I drive. I carry out a lot of chores but I certainly do not strain my muscles for every task. Similar with mental efforts. I want to go into high gear for thinking in terms of quantum mechanics, or string theory. At a more mundane level; the best Scrabble play, or to fully focus my attentiion when driving in heavy traffic at high speed on the freeway. But lots of other thinking can be done with about 10% of my potential.
    Now the other is a bit more complicated: This matter of people failing to qualify for rewards offered for displaying psychic powers. Randi is making such an offer, Dunninger did it before in conjunction with Scientific American. It might be a good way to lure frauds, and there are a lot of them around. It is NOT a good research instument item to discover if there really are occult powers.
    Let me elaborate: When Newton was admonished for his interest in Alchemy he replied: The difference between us is that I have studied it and you have not.
    So, I have studied it. There is a lot more about magic that I don’t know than what I do know. However I am a graduate of the Internatiional College of Esoteric Studies and I have carried out other independent investigations
    I’m requesting you more sceptical to indulge me for a moment and ypothetically, for the sake of argument, assume that there might be such a thing as psychic powers and individuals who have mastered them.
    Now two of the reasons for studying that kind of magic are to gain power, to gain wisdom. If you have power there are easier ways to get a million dollars than responnding to Randi’s challenge. You might also wish to keep it secret that you have such powers. If you have gained wisdom you may not care about getting a million dollars.
    Now a final comment about the fakes: The existence of counterfeit furnishes a measure of evidence that there really is such a thing as genuine currency.

  • As a writer, all of the powers of the mind exist. I saw a ghostly shadow on the wall of my shower the other day and dismissed it. Then, my wife saw it and called out to her recently deceased friend. Skeptically, I didn’t walk into to see if she was seeing the same thing I did. Darn.

    I like to think that I use 100% of my brain. The problem is with all of the mistakes I make, I want that not to be true.

    If I had telepathy, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone about it to make money. I would go to the casino and win just enough to stay under the radar. I would just read the pit boss’s minds. No publicity. No endless lines of people looking for money.

  • It’s not drifting away from SF. One of the laws was that “3. Good Science Fiction is Good Science”. Like it or not, psychic abilities are bad science, if science at all. At least until they are proven with copious studies are are able to be defined clearly.

    As to the 100% of brain capacity, you’re still making assumptions that there is an amount beyond normal use which will suddenly enable extraordinay external abilities. Where is there any valid evidence that our minds have a vast untapped potential beyond normal use, even up to 90% so? Draetrialis even went so far as to make the bold assumption that “psychic abilities [are] inherent in all creatures”. Your analogy is flawed, because whether you’re driving 10km/h or 200km/h, you’re still only doing the same thing – driving. Going faster doesn’t grant your car extra abilities, like controlling other cars or moving mountains. So why should thinking harder (ie: at 100%) allow you to suddenly break a threshold and do something you cannot do when playing Scrabble?

  • A vast majority of psychics are frauds, however, there are those few that have true powers. I never heard of this prize, but I will tell my dad, who is a more fulfilled psi than me. There are two powers that have been known to occur, but always has been misidentified. Pyrokinesis (heat control) is one of them, and when people spontaneously combust, their pyrokinetic potential overpowered them due to ignorance. Cryokinesis (pyro’s opposite) is the other, and when people seem unnaturally cold, they have no control over their cryokinesis. I know someone with the “subconsious cryokinesis”, though like you, they are skeptical.

  • I think the 10% thing has been taken too much to heart. It just means that you and I are capable of perceiving complex and intagible ideas, give them shape and name them; however, we usually just spend our time watching television and reading anonymous comments on discussion boards.

  • Simply excellent. I laughed incessantly after reading the point about having no Nazis; the idea never occurred to me to ever include it in any story.

  • The “telekinetic power” of “pyrokinesis,” supposedly explained by people “spontaneously combusting” is a well understood phenomenon. It is NOT a telekinetic power at ALL!!!! A VERY small percentage of humans are in fact prone to accumulate large amounts of static electrical charges in their bodies. Upon discovery of this condition, the affected person merely needs to touch metal objects that possess a path to an “earth ground.” This gets rid of the static charge and solves the problem. ( I know, too prosaic for those that wish for a higher reality… But that’s just life.)

    There is much more evidence of the powers of “telepathy” than any “telekinetic” powers. However, under controlled circumstances, these tend to be much less convincing than the various flim flam artists are able to produce. These tests have been typically carried out using identical twins as subjects. Of special interest to myself was when they had twins separated by sight and sound and had one make a drawing of an object and the other twin made similar drawings in response. Yes, the reproduced images were rudimentary but DID contain many of the same features.

    So, do “psychic powers” exist? I think that they probably do to some extent. However, when you’re dealing with identical twins and the results are so dicey in the details, I’m forced to believe that they are EXCEEDINGLY rare and of relatively little use as of this writing. Any strengthening of these powers would either require selective breeding (welcome to the yikes of eugenics) or would entail technological bolstering…

    Sorry for putting a damper on the psychic wishers and a damper on the psychic deniers.. It’s a great big universe out there with all kinds of amazing things in it. Just don’t be too ready to jump on the “occult powers” or the “can’t happen” bandwagons. I certainly don’t believe that aliens are subjecting themselves to the time dilation of close to lightspeed travel to hang around Earth and subject the hapless humans to anal probes… But, I don’t know everything… and, my butt hurts for no apparent reason… rotflmmfao

  • I have been writing a book now for a few years, and was wondering which direction to take it. I saw your website and have to say thank you. Your rules have actually helped me focus the story and get alot done. I am hoping to have it completed next year and who knows where it will go from there. I have actually been thinking, planning, outlining, and researching for the past 12 years and only now been able to put it into writting. Thanks again for your insite.

  • Dear Brian: Are you just expressing appreciation or did you want more input? If the latter then provide more information. In either case best wishes and good luck, Lloyd

  • The rules here say don’t do the same old thing that other stories are doing. Follow these rules and the story will never be sleep inducing.

  • I was expressing appreciation, but if you are up for some input i would be more than happy to hear any and all you may offer.

  • Sorry, I get overly sensitive and I thought you were criticizing the list. On re-reading you comment, I see my answer was all wrong. I have this strong asshole streak in me that I have to struggle to keep under control.


  • This may be a repeat: My PC says it was sent but I see no record that it was delivered.
    It is about authentic SF. I consider the best example to be Bow Shock by Gregory Benford. The main plot involves a scientific problem solved by scientific reasoning and research. The sub plots consider aspects of the career and personal concerns of a working scientist.
    It is not my favourite SF from the point of view of entertaining readng but as a prime example for authenticity it is tops.

  • Lloyd,

    I guess your “authentic SF” might be called a type of golden age SF. I am thinking of the scientific stories that John W. Campbell, Jr. published in Astounding. Critics now like to call these gadget stories, but I like to think of them as the kind of SF that I like to read.


  • Was good to read through your rules and discover my story is unfolding within your guidelines, almost.
    My protagonist has become super powered but he is not unique. Therefore it is not giant vs ant, but good giant vs evil giant. Balance restored.
    Like Brian, I have about a year to go until I am ready to publish my book. I’m considering self publishing with Creative Commons as it is my first and I am an unknown author. Your thoughts?

    • If you finish the book, you should first try to get it published the traditional way. Spend two or three years submitting it to the publishing houses. If it is a good book you may get lucky and sell it. If it is an awful book, you don’t lose anything but time, which is well spent writing the next book.

      If you self publish, you are guaranteed that about 30 people will read it, depending on how many friends and relatives you have.. Self publishing is fine for a book that does not sell to the publishing houses, but don’t expect to make any money off of it.

      My collection of short stories has total sales of about 100 copies, but then, I use some strange promotional methods.

  • Since humans are mammals, it would be anthropocentric to assume that mammals are a common evolutionary outcome, when it seems unlikely. Insects, fish, reptiles, birds, even mollusks like octopi, are probably much more likely than mammals to rise to intelligence.

    Mammals rose because when the dinosaur killer asteroid hit, only a few species survived, and of those, the mammals were the most successful, and most other species that might have achieved intelligence died off. Without that event, you and I would have scales, without a doubt.

    Lloyd Bannerman



  • Of course it’s only speculation, but (with a nod to Simon Conway Morris) one could say that many (intelligent) aliens are humanoid in appearance [and mammalian in constitution]. That doesn’t mean they’d pass for human, or have any psychology in common, but it’s a plausible theory that convergent evolution takes the right kind of underlying biology and circumstance to “mammalian humanoid” in the same way that convergent evolution takes sharks, dolphins and ichthyosaurs to the same body shape. Sharks, dolphins, ichthyosaurs are (or were) respectively fish, mammals, and reptiles; but to the casual eye they look closely related.
    Likewise, symmetrical body shape and four limbs, bipedalism, and grasping forelimbs (hands) may well be common features. [They won’t be ubiquitous, there’ll be plenty of strange stuff out there as well.] The differences between humans and humanoid aliens will be strange and unexpected… the position of the ears (the stirrup and anvil being modified jaw bones) may be a quirk of our line’s history. But I imagine having the eyes upfront on the head, near the mouth, is near universal. (Even insects have a head complete with mouth and eyes; but they have up to four different kinds of auditory sensors.)

  • Hey, check out “rubber forehead aliens” at tv tropes.com. If you want to get somewhere with your writing you need to be able to rattle off all of the cliche/tropes. There’s nothing new under the sun. I was flabbergasted, yes flabbergasted, when I discovered that even my most unique ideas actually just fall into various categories.

    Rubber forehead aliens are constructed so that we can have a human like character to interact with; an intelligent sponge, starfish or mold would get you points on the creativity side but when it comes to sacrificing human lives for smart fungi, well you know where that story is going. In the trash.


  • In Peter Watts’ Blindsight, one of the main character is a vampire. That book is as good SF as any 🙂 I guess this disproves rule 7 but proves rule 0

  • Acknowledged:this is partly repetitive but apparently it still needs to be said. Certainly there are some good vampire stories, but as a contemporary popular literary genre many of them are unsatisfactory. Especially deplorable are those involving zombies. Most of these are just silly, I get the impressionn the writers really mean ghouls.
    It is not unreasonable to expect anyone writing authentically about vampires should have read Summers’ works: The Vampire in Europe and The Vampire his Kith and Kin.

  • I love Stoker’s Dracula, but things like the Anne Rice stuff and the twilight movies were dreadful shlock for people who don’t think. I don’t know why vampires are popular. I don’t get the whole sexual thing associated with neck biting.

    Also Vampires, at least in the Stoker world, can change into bats or a mist, which is clearly not Science Fiction. Vampires are fantastical or horror, and attempts to justify them in a SF story are ludicrous.

  • I’ve started writing too. The races featuring are human-like, but I’ve written a law fictitious for my story, that similar atmospheric and gravitational conditions will harbour similar life, variations may occur.
    Is it too anthropocentric?? Because my story works well only if the other races are also human-like.

  • Dear NewBoy: Clarify and justify. Earth provides ample evidence that the same atmosphere and gravitational field can produce a tremendous variety of extremely different types. Lloyd

  • This list is my OPINION and not really scientific fact. You do what you need to do to make your story work.

    You can pick and choose which of these laws you obey for each story that you write.

    I am just one old codger who learned to love Science Fiction in the pages of magazines that have been gone for many years.

  • Hi, my name is Daniel, im 15 and i started writing about three years ago, i have to say that although you have some good points, you’ve narrowed down the choice incredibly based solely on what YOU find powerful themes in stories, im not here to argue that you’re wrong but perhaps abit too opiniated.

    For example, what is wrong with a ‘superman’ race, i mean sure if they come along and destroy the human race in a blink of an eye, no-one will read it, but at least allow the race to have a general advantage and perhaps one ‘achilles heal’.

    I dont think science fiction has to be believable, it could be another dimension entirely with different laws, rules, codes and conventions or none whatsoever, it doesn’t have to be something that could happen- although you make a valid point that that is a strength in books-, using the example of warhammer 40000 tau- which my story is set on- aliens dont have to be that different, they can have an anatomy very similar or completely different from humans, furthermore, they don’t have to be technologically advanced to humans, they could still be living in the stone age when the humans arrive at their homeworld.

    Though you are right when you say ‘NO NAZIS’, i agree with that entirely! The rest of your points though, i agree with entirely, again, i am writing this based on opinion, as are you 🙂

    • I added a few paragraphs to your comment to make it more readable.

      Since you agree with “No Nazis” then I will definitely buy your books when they come out.

      15 is the right age to be writing SF. You will write great stuff as well as a lot of trash, but you have to get the junk out of your system and learn to tell the difference.

      The point about the super race with the Achilles heel is just the point I wanted to make. Without that, a super race is boring. With it, they are perhaps not so super.

      One thing, though. Don’t write stories in someone else’ universe. You are quite capable of building an interesting world of your own. Warhammer is fun, but it is not your creation. You can write better stories when you are the owner of your world.

  • thanks, yeah creating you own universe is quite tough, soon i need to move on from using other peoples’ universes to making ones inspired by others at the very least

  • Great list. Not mean but definitely helpful. I’ve seen some mean “do and don’t” lists written by editors in the heat of their frustration with low quality submissions. I love the point about villains and the one about the setting, landscape, or science being a major player depending on your genre. The only exception I can think of, having Jesus as a fictional character: _Jesus on Mars_ by Philip J. Farmer. Great book, but he did comply with rule zero.

  • Good list overall but I cannot possibly disagree with #9 more than I do. Why does having something greater than man have to be boring? We are not Gods. I’ve seen so much good sci-fi and fantasy get absolutely ruined in the 11th hour by this absurd idea of anthropocentrism, that human beings are special and entitled simply for being human. We are not special just for being human and sci-fi of all things ought to be the leader in sending that message.

  • While I think you have some quite true and great ideas here, almost anything is possible in science fiction if it’s backed up with even bogus science that may not exist now. Like the mind-reading thing? I have characters in my sci-fi novel who are capable of doing such, but their ability is backed by a highly plausible explanation (though it is more unlikely that that would EVER happen in real life.) In addition, having a Nazi character does not make a person uncreative. Having a faceless, mysterious character does not necessarily make them uncreative either, IF the characters have some role, however minor,in the novel. As long as they ADD to the story, there’s no sense in NOT having them. Sometimes simplicity and using things that have already been used and twisting them up a bit is better than making something as complex as a planet ninety-three trillion light-years away from the sun with an incredibly intricate math/lit/etc system humans will never understand. Simplicity in world development, like George Orwell’s 1984, for example, can make for a book just as amazing as Star Trek or something. And, when writing SF/F, while uber creativity is awesome, that doesn’t mean you can’t make something already used and back it up with science. If you can THINK it, you can write it and be imaginative enough to come up with a reason as to WHY it is science fiction. If you can’t, you’re not REALLY a good writer. But that’s my opinion. And I think you have some good and valid points in there, 70% of which I highly agree with.

    As a side note, if you are planning on writing a post about how to write, you might want to get someone to do a spell and grammar check for you 🙂

    • Thanks,

      The list is just my opinion, and is not intended as absolute. I think that it is easy to write BAD SF if you ignore these rules, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t write great SF and ignore them. It is just hard to do.

      As far as the spelling and grammar. I was an Electrical Engineering and Math major in college and it’s a wonder any of it is readable. I write a lot of fiction and the spelling and grammar is a big problem. Luckily, many editors forgive me and give the stories (over 60 sold) a little polish before publication, as they should.


  • Ok, I have been faithfully writing my story now for almost a year and have to admit it is hard to do! I have at present 10 chapters (most complete but some partial) but find myself after writing some in a chapter will have a thought line for another chapter! Frustrating to say the least but what is really cool is the story is starting to make sense now. Have had several chapters read by different friends and so far the reviews are excellent (and they dont even like sci fi). Will keep you updated on the progress. One note the story as it unfolds in my mind is becoming larger than what i had originally thought. This could be in part because the story itself has 2 stories to tell that interlace with each other. Wish me luck and everyone out there dont stop telling your own stories.

  • This is so stupid. you are listing your own picky opinion! None of these rules actually exist. this is all you trashing half of the science fiction world.

    • My website. My opinion. My right to say what I want.

      Only children, newbies, or those who don’t read SF disagree with me.


  • For all those aspiring writers out there, I have just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Well worth getting and very encouraging.

  • keith, i think its the other way around: people who agree with you are all kids, newbies, or people who dont read SF often.

    • My last comment was uncalled for. I should not have said the thing about kids, etc. I am sorry. Strong opinions should not be disparaged, even when I disagree.

  • Good blog. I’m revising my sf novel I wrote 10 years ago, and updating it where I need to.

    Fortunately, I avoided most of the pitfalls you mention, but the one thing that sticks in my craw are the similarities to Star Trek.

    I made two main characters avid fans of futuristic novels and films, so they’ll make comments the way we fans do whenever they encounter a BEM or a spatial anomaly. Kinda offsets the comparison, I hope.

    But the problem is, if you have a starship with a bridge crew, it will inevitably feel like Trek, even though Battlestar Galactica didn’t.

    • Historically, the captain does not sit in a chair with the crew around him, at least not in Earth history. The captain emerges from his cabin to give orders and inspect the ship. He is not friends with any of the crew. Trek has the captain interacting constantly, where in reality captains try to keep aloof. Avoid having the captain being everyone’s best friend and you can avoid the similarities with Trek.


  • The best rule is to have no rules. The less you know about writing a novel, the more original the novel will be. I should not be reading this.

    • The “no-rules”option only works for writers who don’t need to be published. Writing is as much science as art. I won’t say that my laws are important for anyone else but me, but there are real rules about structure, characters, style, settings, dialog, etc. Rules about content, like these, are less important, but I still think that if you include a Nazi in your story and you are not Phillip K. Dick, then your story will likely suck.

  • “A writer who includes World War II Nazis in his story has given up trying to make a real character and has opted for taking the cheap and easy path.”

    While I know what you’re trying to say, the Nazis were in fact real, so the phrasing of “given up trying to make a real character” is rather odd. If real people from reality aren’t real characters, who is?

    • I German living during WWII who is a member of the Nazi party and had complex reasons for joining with a rich personality and back story is a character. A puppet in a Nazi uniform is a caricature. The former is a person, the later is a cartoon. This is the difference between good and bad writing.

      No Nazis means that you don’t pick a type or a cardboard cutout for your character, relying on some hand waving to make them evil or good. You create a real three dimensional character with feelings and motives, history and depth. If the character also happens to be a Nazis, then OK.


  • Basically, is a ‘Nazi’…
    1) a person who has a political ideology that leads him to join the National Socialist party is pre-WW2 Germany, or…
    2) an evil villain with German accent.

  • Most hacks even drop the German accent. They keep the SS style uniform, but often use some other symbol instead of a swastika or the SS lightning bolts. They are a symbol of evil, rather than a character. They are a way for the lazy writer to create a villain, without having to think.

    This is true for serial killers, maniacs and other non-characters, including zombies.

  • I find myself disagreeing with part of Rule #3.
    “Stories of alien contact may be science fiction, but without fundamental science, are properly classified as horror.”

    Alien contact without science isn’t horror unless there is horror in the story. It can be humourous, or romantic, or adventurous or any one of a myriad storylines. Why do you assume it _has_ to be horrible?

    • Thank you, you are right. It should read: “Stories of alien contact may be science fiction, but without fundamental science, are properly classified as horror, romance, comedy or something other that SF.”


  • Your rules for _Science Fiction_ are interesting and worthwhile.

    I submit that _Science_ Fiction is a subset of _Speculative_ Fiction.

    Within _Speculative Fiction_, telepathy, very human-like aliens, and many of your otherwise prohibited items are acceptable as we a speculating on what would happen, if . . . and that can make for a very good story.

    I do love good Science Fiction. But there have been a lot of excellent Speculative Fiction stories written, too.

    • In Van Vogt’s golden age novel Slan, mutants had antennae that could receive electromagnetic signals from brains and interpret them as hearing thoughts. This is valid Science Fiction. Even if unlikely, we can suspend disbelief and accept the thin science.

      In Star Wars, the Jedi could magically hear each thoughts through an unexplained “force” this is magic without any scientific basis and therefore fantasy.

      If there is a reasonable and fairly believable scientific explanation for Telepathy then it is SF, otherwise just forget it.

      Spec Fic includes lots of genres, but science fiction cannot have telepathy unless there is some attempt to explain it using science. Human brains cannot receive thoughts. It has been shown thousands of times. Just including things like FTL, telepathy, etc, without any attempt to justify them is not Science Fiction.


  • While that might be a nice definition, it is a fact of the genre as published that much science fiction, especially the “scientific stories” edited and published by John W. Campbell, have telepathy. Not to mention FTL. Thus the development of the idea of hard science fiction, to emphasize consistency with physical limits — though even there, another definition is of SF that makes its deviations explicit and well-explored.

  • Campbell was the greatest SF editor of all time, but he was a nut, too. He believed in “PSI” powers and liked stories that featured them. He had a machine that was supposed to enhance psi powers and he thought that it was a real thing. This was before the Rhine studies were shown to be a hoax, so he can be forgiven.

    Campbell had a blind spot about some things and was a bigot, but that does not mean that he didn’t understand what made for good SF. He is the reason that I like SF today. I own almost all of the Campbell edited Astounding and Analog, and they are the best reading I know of.


  • A science fiction story can be depressingly serious and still be a good science fiction story. They don’t all have to be fun. The Cold Equations and A Canticle for Leibowithz fit into that category.

    The trouble is these days to many people call stuff science fiction when it ain’t The producers of Star Wars admitted that it was not science fiction in 1977. Stuff like Hyperion does not qualify either.

  • Thanks for an informative article.I am struggling with that very topic.Am I writing science fiction or fantasy? What genre should I class my work.I am just beginning to write and publishing is such a long way off it is mostly likely moot but it helps to keep the distinctions in mind so thanks.

  • A mystery story set on a space station can still be science fiction, if the key to the plot is integral to the location. Asimov showed this on several occasions, and specifically wrote ‘caves of Steel’ to make thepoint.

  • If one is clever and has vision, any of these rules can be broken.

  • 3>) Just good enough science do suspend disbelief is good enough, surely. There’s better things to concentrate on, it’s a story after all. Rule zero is right.

    4.) So a science Fiction story cannot have a villain (or even a misguided good guy) who thinks his or his culture’s way of doing things is far superior to everyone elses’, and will totally close his mind, ignoring life and liberty, even dehumanising (or dewhatevering) any one or thing that stands counter to his goals or ideals, or just in the way?

    This is a depressingly common trope among humanity, it just doesn’t always wear a hat. It may well occur among other reasoning species, too. That said:

    5.) “(Aliens) are not likely to be kindly, friendly and caring aliens because they would not have the drive to explore space.”
    How about curiosity, or just plain practicality? Being a little TOO friendly among each other may result in having to move planet before the one with all the history on it gets tapped out, after all. Your vision would limit Science Fiction to Whovian ‘villians of the week’.

    6.) “Raktajino is coffee. By giving it a Klingon name it sort of appears alien, but everyone drinks it like coffee.” It may be better than coffe, and may have completely eradicated coffee from the market place. That;s how these things work. There’s a bunch of things you’d weed out of your allotments today that would have been part of any kitchen garden 500 years ago.

    7.)Dude, Jesus was like an actual dude, dude.
    *A Short story had a square full of time-tourists condemning Jesus to death, whilst all the locals stayed at home due to apathy/bad weather. It didn’t explain how the time machine worked either.

    8.) Why not set a story in any of these universes? If only to completely shoot down the show’s premise. EG pointing out the violation of rule 10 in the last two TNG movies, or showing SheridaN as a Halsey-esque military blunderer with a dippy wife. In actual fact a pastiche of the two above universes might be in order.

  • Regarding Rule No. 8 (and other rules as they occur to you):

    Generally, your rules have merit, but I would like to suggest you review David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. In general, Mr. Weber’s writing is riddled with cliche, drunk on breezy, sophomoric, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and is a glutton for many elements that are assumed in the universes of ST, SW, B5, BG, (and others). His trough is full of the common fodder feeding SF fans everywhere. Somehow, he still manages to be successful and entertain. Perhaps this very familiarity is what appeals to his readers.

    • I read several of the Honor Harrington books. They are derivative of “Hornblower” and other nautical adventure books. The characters seemed strained to fit a certain mold and I learned to dislike them. Halfway through one of the books, I said to myself, “Why bother?” and gave up. The long drawn out sufferings became less and less attractive and I ceased caring how things turned out.

      I like trash, but I could not continued.

      I just started some books by Iain Banks. Banks seems very clever and has some interesting plot points, but the books suffer from trying to stretch the character out over millions of words. I don’t know how far I’ll get.

      I miss the days when a good SF novel was 60,000 words. You could enjoy those kind of novels without learning to hate the protagonist.

      Anyone who has plodded through the Game of Thrones books knows what I am talking about.


  • Regarding Keith’s No.7:

    Aspiring to be a writer forces one to be a more discriminating reader. But most readers don’t bother engaging their intellect…which is my point about Weber’s works. Many readers like the cliches because they’re lazy readers. They find cliches easier to grasp and readily identify with the familiar. However, the readers (writers?) on this website–I feel justified in asserting–are reaching for a higher standard.

    There’s the rub. Keeping the respect from your peers, or the respect of you banker?

    Many modern, published writers seemed convinced they must tackle the epic story, a modern Song of Roland. Instead of one good story, we get serialized works that stop at some random cliffhanger, forcing the reader on to the next incomplete work for as long as the gravy train can last. The next stage of this travesty is product placement in the storyline.

    “Our hero extracts his Memorex flashdrive from his Nokia phone, plugs it into his Toshiba Laptop, prints the scandalous photos out on his Canon printer, and batch faxes the photos to the senator on his Samsung fax machine.”

    Too many modern writers are focused on the market and not the writing. The posted rules have merit for those who prefer lunching with their peers…rather than their bankers.

  • I could not agree more with those 10 rules. BRAVO!

  • I have to take exception to a few of the rules, particularly 7 and 3 (which say basically the same thing). At most, those are guidelines, should not be hard laws. It is possible to write good SF with an imaginary basis. Clarke’s Law tells us that just about anything could be science, and while i tend to harder SF, I can handle a story where an alien (or very advanced human) has ‘powers’ that we cannot understand. As long as the point of introducing the ‘magic’ is consistent and is integral to the story (not just thrown in as a cop out to resolve plot problems), I can handle a bit of it.
    I also echo the comment above about a mystery set in an alien r future environment. Stories CAN cross genres.

    • As long as the far advanced alien’s ‘powers’ are confused by ignorance to be magic, then it may still be SF. Magic, to me, is the way those who are ignorant of science explain the world. You can have characters who believe that the results of applied science are magic, but it must be clear that it is not magic. When you forgo all attempts at a scientific explanation then you are writing fantasy.

      I think when you start crossing genres you start leaving SF. The litmus test would be, if you take out the sciencefictional elements and replace them with real or historical equivalents and you still have a good story, then the story is not SF, but an ordinary mystery, western, or other genre story. The speculative science element must be essential to the story, not just set decoration. Having a story take place on a star ship is not SF unless the story could not work anywhere else.

      Each genre has its rules. Westerns require the cowboy in a western landscape. Detective fiction demands a crime be solved using the wits of the detective. SF demands that speculative science be essential to the plot.

      If there is a murder on a space station and the plot shows that the murder is performed by the equivalent of terrestrial methods for terrestrial reasons then you don’t need the space station – it is not SF.

      Lastly, this list originated after watching Star Trek Voyager one night. I threw a beer can at the TV because they had Nazis in space. I started this list soon afterwards and it was fun. The No Nazis rule is the heart of the list and at one time with the first rule. I have intentionally made the rules provocative because I love the comments people make. I like it when people disagree because they truly like bad SF, giving examples from some dreadful book or movie of how wrong I am. I also like it when someone agrees with me.


  • I see your point Mark. Those two rules do point to each other, don’t they? I think the operative phrase your reaching for, about the cop, is the Dues Ex Machina of Greek origin (Aeschylus); the traditional ploy of having a God descend from Mount Olympus to resolve the plot problems the author created, but didn’t know how else to resolve, is the sign of a lazy, deriative writer–a form of plagairism at worst.

    Mostly, I look at this site’s rules as an attempt to raise modern speculative fiction into a higher art form. And that can’t be bad. I like most anything that makes for a better person, to make that person reach for a higher standard.

    Speaking of standards, I might launch a bitch session here about Disney’s attempt to make a movie out of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars.

    By today’s standard, Edgar’s hero, John Carter, is a male chavinist who joyously indulged in his bloodlust for war. As a kid, I soaked up every issue of John Carter’s adventures. Now, I’m a tad more sophisticated, but I still enjoy rereading John Carter.

    What Disney did to him in John Cater is criminal…at least a tort suit. I’m not just using that as a poetic phrase, either. The script bears little resemblance to Edgar’s book. This kind of blatant misuse of a novel should be resisted. Perhaps we were all lulled by Peter Jackson’s fine handling of Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS. But it seems it’s business as usual in Hollywood again.

    I vote for sustained criticism of Disney’s rape and pillage of this classic work. Updating it for a modern audience is insufficent justification. Maybe the studio execs can’t be expected to find their posteriors with a road map and online assistance, but I expect more of writers and think they should show a little more regard for this classic work. Afterall…you’d think it would be in their own self-interest to do so.

    J. Jay Jones

  • In regards to point #1 you should try reading some Ivan Yefremov novels such as Andromeda or more importantly The Bull’s Hour as that provides a truly multicultural view of the future.

  • I researched your Russian, Yefremov. Haven’t gotten through an entire book yet, though. So far, he looks like he was writing around Russian censors. As a historian, the multicultural aspect in SF always intriques me; most particularly the Political Science aspect. I can’t understand how Political Science got it’s suffix appelation: science.

    Most writer’s aliens don’t strike me as alien at all. Mostly, these writer’s aliens are simply humans in lizard or cat suits.

    Let me pose some questions: If we assume that the chemical makeup of matter– i.e., the periodic table of elements–remains relatively constant throughout the galaxy, doesn’t it follow that this is a common ground to evaluate their behavior?

    A competition for resources, and the concomitant economic muscle to become space roving, seems to drive a convergence of logic streams and behaviors necessary to sustain a monocultural theory of space travelers. Is multiculturalism propaganda of our age? Will it completely fade as we enter the Age of Interstellar Travel?

    I ask because I suspect Carl Sagan’s optimism about other civilizations was dangerously misplaced. In fact, shouldn’t we take a page out of the Romulans textbooks and remained a cloaked and hidden civilization? Maybe we should go retrieve our Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft before it’s too late?

    For those of you who study such things, Earth’s history has consistently shown when two variant species of humans crossed paths, the technological superior one managed to make the other one … disappear.


  • I agree about cloaking. Fortunately, the voyager probes move so slowly that it will be hundreds of thousands of years before anyone finds them. By then, I hope, we will be able to defend ourselves – that is if the eventual invaders don’t wipe us out or enslave us.

    I think would should be wary of contact. I truly believe that the best could hope for after first contact would to be the Native American’s to the alien’s European conquerors.


  • The problem with Voyager “probably” not being discovered for hundreds of thousands of years is Murphy’s Law. Statistically, you’re right, but it seems that coincidence has a high rate of convergence that crosses the grain of probability…not to mention the misreading of a first contact’s technical capabilities.

    What I’m wary of is the careless fashion so much of our culture was wrapped up and presented to any space traveler who happened to stumble across it. For a hostile species, this is a fortuitous intelligence coup. I can hear the laughing and/or suspicion from hundreds of light years away. The fact that our best and our brightest at NASA thought it smart to do this doesn’t say much about their visceral instincts for self-preservation or their imagination about an actual first contact … the conceptual quotient that underlies it is absent.

    On the bright side, co-existant stellar civilizations seem statistically unlikely as well, so it’s mostly moot. For some reason, it appears that publishing houses aren’t interested in these concepts. The trend has been to focus on stories of space opera or what our nasty, inherently evil computers may do when they wake up and decide to throw off their overlords.

    I’ve been revisiting SciFi writers of the past and concluded few writers seem to trust our first contacts. Why, I wonder, do the best and brightest discount the fears of the masses? Just becasue the masses are a superstitious lot?

    J.Jay Jones

    • My favorite first contact story is “First Contact” by Murray Leinster. It is a cold war paranoia idea that works out well in the end. (The end trivializes the danger of the situation a little.)

      The moral of Leinster’s story is that alien races will have little in common with us physically, but it is likely that we will have some basic “human” qualities in common – in this case it is a sense of humor.

      I have this story on tape and a few years ago I played it several dozen times on my commute. I wanted to learn from Leinster as much as I could.

      I later rewrote his “Logic Named Joe” trying to update it, but I did not like the results. Those were simpler times and the simplicity doesn’t translate well.

      Leinster was prolific and his stories are available free from project Gutenberg and I have downloaded them to my Kindle. I savor each one. I also have a dozen paperbacks of his on my unread shelf, and I dip into them from time to time.

      I enjoy the old stuff. I recently bought the current issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was very disappointed. I did not enjoy the stories at all (I am not yet done and hope to find a gem yet), and I have decided that I can’t sell the kind of stories that I write to them. Perhaps the world has moved beyond me.


  • I had to research that story “First Contact” by Murray Leinster, Keith. After reading a digest of the plot I realized that I had read that in my twenties. I I thought it a great story then and still think it’s pretty good.

    I thought about your comment about it being a simpler time, but I thinking it may be a different issue. I mentioned in an earlier missive that modern writers are going for these epic stories and leaving you with a cliff hanger to draw you into the next book. That practice of serializing stories has been around forever. It’s a cheap trick, but determined publishers never give a sucker a straight story when they can play it out forever. Good marketing is what they call it.

    I’m sure it makes a difference in keeping some imprints alive and well, but in some sense this kind of backhanded marketing can color a story with an unsavory patina. When you can see what they’re doing, it detracts from a good story. It’s like seeing a woman of stunning beauty wearing caked layers of makeup. At some point, the beauty fades and the facade is all that remains…and you just have to look away in dissappointment.

    I sometimes think all this chasing for the perfect, marketable, epic story is an unsophisticated exercise in longing. Steinbeck’s Stories (The Pearl, Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath) are writtien simply…or directly, if you prefer. I’m not so sure that you can depend on the opinion of editors to be all that savvy on literature or even current market trends.

    Hunter S. Thompson discovered after publishing THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS DECADENT AND DEPRAVED that editors stopped trying to force their editing on him. He was succesful and they backed off. What this tells me is that at some point a writer can get ahead of the power curve and change the relationship with their publishers. The publishers admit that they were just guessing what the market wanted. It’s an admission that they don’t know what the readers really want…and maybe, by extension, they never did.

    So if something seems simple, maybe it reflects a trend in reader preference, not the all-knowing editor’s insight. Write what you think’s right and maybe the readers will read it despite the editors. We can only hope that the world will be moved by you…not beyond you.


  • I had a specific thought in mind when I referred to simpler times and I’ll explain what was in my head when I wrote that. First, though, I totally agree with your ideas on the state of the “Blockbuster” mind set. A friend of mine wrote a mystery novel and when he tried to get it published, every editor’s first question was “what about the next book in the series, have you written it yet?” My friend did not feel that there was a next book and the novel was not published.

    Anyway, I watched the first season of “Man from U.N.C.L.E” recently. I loved these when I was a kid, but now they seem simplistic. The early 60s indeed where a simpler time. The audience did not expect complex plots with deep and dark motives. They expected light entertainment for a few minutes. The U.N.C.L.E. stories contrast to “Law and Order” or “CSI” or even the light weight “Covert Affairs” on USA. The modern shows require dark sexuality or lurid details that were just not a part of life in 1964.

    I have since started watching season 2 of “The Outer Limits”. Even the first by Harlan Ellison was simple, uncomplicated, and devoid of deep insights. It was a simpler time. I liked these shows, but today they seem childish and clumsy.

    Leinster’s story is extremely well done, and he explores a little of the paranoia stemming from xenophobia that is a direct comment on the real world prejudice of the time, but still, it is less sophisticated than what editors expect now.

    I feel, sometimes, that editors today want really dark stuff with lots of adolescent angst. At least that is what I see when I read the stories they accept.

    I prefer to write my golden age stuff and the darkest I get is a little cyberpunk pessimism, but I don’t destroy my characters and I try to leave hope for them at the end. The last few stories that I wrote were rejected too many times. In the last 10 years I sold almost 60 stories all told (if you count a dozen on the free sites), but I have not had the incentive to write a new story for over a year. Writing computer programs is more satisfying.


  • Gentles: My favourite cliff-hanger from a juvenile had an episode close with the hero trapped in an hermeticallyy sealed chamber with acid pouring into it. Escape was impossible. Was our author discomfitted?
    By no means: the next episode started: After our hero had escaped…
    UR’s for better SF, Yea, better fiction of any kind, Lloyd

  • Lloyd,

    That sounds like a great story idea. Give a hero an impossible task and then put him in an impossible situation.

    The hero is despondent, but he sees a spider patiently weaving a web in the corner of the room.

    “I’ve got it!” the hero proclaims.

    Cut to our hero sitting in a bar and explaining to a beautiful woman, “… and that’s how I saved the world. It looked bad for a while, but the solution was quite simple in the end. The spider gave me the idea.”

    The end.

  • Yeah Keith, as a writer, you need to up the ante, but be careful. The character needs to solve the story problem. If not, you have the famous Elephant in the second Act.

    The Hobbit was riddled with Elephants: Gandalf saving the whole party from the trolls; the eagles saving the whole party from the goblins lighting the trees, and Bard shooting the Dragon through the heart. It makes everything more epic and don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite books. When you make an epic story, you need epic shorthand. Good luck pulling off that kind of writing with today’s editors and reviewers. Self-publish or go humorous.

    • And speaking of elephants, I decided that it has been too long (about 8 months) since I last read LOTR and put the audio version of book 1 on my iPad last night. I almost missed my stop at the bus this morning. I enjoy living in Middle Earth, even it is only for an hour or so each day.


  • There were several interesting comments in there, folks. All richly riddled with jaded quips, no doubt from writers experienced with a mimeographed form: the polite, pleasant-sounding, and ubiquitous rejection letter.

    Tolkein fascinates me. He was a linguist first. Interjecting a fully developed elvish language into his writings has left us with a legacy that many writers now feel required to emulate … unsuccesfully, for the most part, but I always smile at the effort to do so. It taps into the id, a primitive urge to speak in tongue. This, I think, is why we all enjoy fiction so deeply. The act of writing and creation mimics the hunter/gatherer’s urge to explore new territory.

    That’s why I like Tolkein. He set the standard for exploring our inner selves, for plucking the strings of our ids. I believe Tolkein’s narative writing voice was, in general, in tight control and that is why he is so rereadable. When you return to middle earth, he lets you explore yourself.

    I don’t necessarily expect perfection in writing. Writing is hard work and it’s a difficult balancing act to juggle all the many, many elements of a good story. And the longer the story, the harder it is to keep that story compelling. Even harder is to be worthy of a reader’s repeat read. But one thing that I look for is that carrying voice of the author. When I step into the writer’s stream of consciousness and get carried through the rapids and over the falls, I can forgive some brusies … on the first read.

    But the second read is telling and that’s when you know you got a real writer on your hands. For me, the short, cliff-hanging serialized piece ultimately betrays my trust.

    With serialized works, I may be joltingly reminded that the story isn’t complete. You finish a work and are reminded that as a reader you have a responsibility … to buy the next book.

    Still, I’m idealistic. I like a hero who doesn’t necessarily face an unrealistic task. Having to talk politely to his ex, Friday after work, when he picks up the kids for the weekend …now that’s an impossible task. It’s heroic because it’s realistic, and while it’s unsavory, our hero does it anyway. Not because it’s unrealistic, but because it’s a task that must be done.

    So is dealing with narrow-minded editors. Some stories I just can’t bear to share with them. They are intended for an audience of two or three and that, sometimes is sufficient to sate my lust to write and be read.


  • I’m a huge Tolkien fan, but I say without reservation he was not the best writer I’ve read. I’m sure he would agree. His true genius lies in Middle Earth itself. There is a depth and weight of history to Middle Earth that other fantasy realms cannot match, like you can almost feel the dust on the relics of the previous ages.

    That being said, I do enjoy his writing. There is an old-fashioned style to it, drawing from the epics he was an expert on, that is rarely matched today.

    I was originally drawn to this page because I look at some of the stuff around today and know I can do better. Hopefully I will eventually to around to it. Twilight and its ilk are so painful.

  • I’m curious about what people think about the Writer’s of the Future website? And the stories therein.

  • As far as I can tell, WOTF is a legitimate market and the content of the stories is not related to Scientology at all. The judges are well paid and are usually very good authors who know their stuff. Judges are not generally Scientologist and I have read where some think that Scientology is hokum.

    I believe that the early rejections eliminate stories that are profane or have explicit sex. The stories that win have a Young Adult slant as far as my limited experience can tell. They do not have overt Scientology themes or content that I have seen.

    Authors are paid well (better than pro rates), and the anthologies get good reviews. The forums on the site give good feedback and an honorable mention (non-paying) is not terribly hard to get. I’ve had bad luck with them and my stories were both times that I submitted, so I don’t bother any more.

    Response is about 3 to 6 months, so if you have a story that you consider pro quality, and has been rejected from the faster pro sites, I would say give WOTF a try before you start on the Semi-Pro sites. I think that there is less competition if you have a good story because some authors don’t want to submit to a Scientology anthology.


  • Translation: SciFi should be a tool for a progressive social change (see rule #10 and especially rule #1, and your obvious distaste for any military science fiction shining through in your comments).

    Guess what,not every scifi story needs to deal with “bettering” society for your personal preference.

  • It was basically you telling us what SHOULD be a good SF story. It was just all opinion.

    All this.. I really do not agree with. You’re trying to make up a world (and that’s cool, this is all your opinion and it might be a good story) but to say this is the 10 ‘LAWS’ of Science fiction is a disgrace.

    ” A. You will never meet an alien who speaks English like a native. (How do you know they wouldn’t be able to? Maybe they could have a complex translation system, or a school that teaches them.)
    B. Aliens just like us, but with little squiggles on their noses only appear in low budget TV shows. (That does’t evem make sense. It all depends on the storyteller.)
    C. We will never be able to have sex with aliens using the missionary position.(First of all… What if they could?)
    D. Aliens as far as they have personalities will be more likely to be aggressive and pushy. There are not likely to be kindly, friendly and caring aliens because they would not have the drive to explore space. (In this way, they will be much like us.) (You are allwrong. The galazy is huge. Don’t try to make up stupid rules. Look at ‘Doctor Who’ the character ‘The Doctor’ is the nicest guy ever.)
    E. Real aliens don’t act anything like you’d expect them to act. For instance, they will not be Nazis.(They could be like Nazis. Have you met one?) “

  • This is a terrible list. So it is only good science fiction if this author says it follows his rules? Ridiculous. The best books of any genre either ignore or redefine the rules. I hope everyone not only disagrees with this, but outright ignores or forgets it.

    • It is a wonderful list.

      I find that people who disagree are non-readers, who think that TV and Movies is what Science Fiction is all about.

      Real book readers tend to agree.

      The best books of any genre follow all of these rules.


  • Okay. So I’m a Scot, but I’m the heroic type that races toward 300 foot flames and puts them out…even if the fires are mixed with toxic substances. My team is pretty high tech about it, you see, so we call my crew the Star Trek Hazard Team because my crew carries Hazmat gear with us (and the Star Trek Hazard Team video games that we sell on the side), so we’re ready for anything. Naturally, we promote our super efforts by selling T-shirts with Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians , Borg, and Bajoran characters on them. On the back of the shirt is our name and our phone number. Some members of our crew can carry on conversations in Klingon for half an hour, but during ops, we all speak English –except for one alien from Ceti Alpha 5 who only speaks Pakistani–. In fact, we use alien technology, a product developed in house we call: multispectral foam. It’s applicable to all A,B,C fires, oil spills, and makes a good lubricant for bicycle chains and chainsaws. It was invented by a foxy Betazoid who used to work on the crew…that is, before she met up with this chemical engineer. I never did get it with her. I thought she was the sensitive type, but this creep’s a neo-Nazi and Scientologist to boot. They’re trying to attract a religious following that believes in “Better living through Chemistry.” So I guess she’s not coming back. Sure be nice to get another smart alien on the crew. If you’re looking for exciting work, The Star Trek Hazard Team is looking for a few good aliens, preferably oxygen breathing so we don’t have to convert our SCBA’s.

    You know, Keith…this is so interesting, to hear everyone complain about the rules. Maybe you should invent a few more. Or maybe you just need to drop a few and add some new ones once a month. Or use a rotating list. We could collect them and trade them with our friends.

    Hey…was that over the top? I can never tell.

  • …was that over the top?

    Never! (at least on this page).

    I do delete an occasional response. Every few weeks somebody who thinks they know all about science fiction because they’ve seen 8 Doctor Who episodes, makes a comment that is so naive and embarrassing that I just delete it rather than figure out a way to respond.


  • You know, I don’t necessarily discount some of these recent, volatile and visceral comments. There is, perhaps, an inkling of an idea or two that’s budding in there somewhere, trying to get out. But they’d have been better if they’d dug in and made a story out of their disgust. An idea properly developed is so much more likely to raise the blood pressure and pop a vein or two.

    For instance, the idea about Nazis. Nazis are always popping up everywhere. Neal Stephenson used Nazis in CRYPTONOMICRON, but at least he had the decency to place them in their proper context…in the past…and he kept them there. He was really after the Nazi Gold. One friend of mine once argued to me that a modern pulp story looking to make the best seller’s list HAD to have Nazi Gold in the story. By the time he was done pitching his story, he had me laughing in stitches.

    I’m a big believer in Zero. In this case: Rule Zero. Science fiction stories should be fun. Zero is an intriguing concept since math may have been stalled indefinitely if not for the invention of the zero. I like ideas that spin out of the big nothing. There’s nothing like making a big deal out of nothing. And it’s so much fun, too!

  • Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am currently building a website – http://www.wordsmithsonline.com. This is a site for new writers to showcase their talents by having their work published on line. The website is in good taste and contains no objectionable material. I would like to include a links page that writers would find interesting and useful. Your website fills this need and I would like to put a link to your website on http://www.wordsmithsonline.

    I look forward to hearing from you.


    Harald Holczer

    PS: I will notify you once my website is online. Should you then decide the website is not suitable for your link, I will immediately remove it.

  • So there I was, lost in thought, walking the street in search of inspiration. I was contemplating my next SF space opera, when someone with a green triangle in the center of his forehead walks out of this alternative lifestyle store and begins asking for directions to the city center. I can’t take my eyes off this green triangle on his forehead. We talk for a bit and he moves off. Just as he turns, I realize that his visor is a green plastic-like material. The stream of light through the visor bent its shape and made the green triangle float on his forehead.

    This got me thinking about perceptions. We all see the world differently and when something out of the ordinary suspends our expectations it can be disorienting.

    Many people assume that you can’t have expectation on the subject of aliens. Why? I wonder. Are our perceptions of aliens a set of views that requires they have nothing in common with us? Are our perceptions suspended on the subject of aliens? I don’t know why so many people assume that aliens will be so different from humans since the real problem is that humans are so different from humans.

    Despite all the politically correct discourse about diversity, humans really hate diversity. If you step out of line, someone is likely to tap you with their cane, fix your gaze with a case of stink eye, and indicate you step back in line.

    Writing SciFi is often a case of discoursing with our fellow humans about what it’s like to step out of line and think for ourselves. The best SciFi writing is often about a fish out of water, a character who finds themself in an unusual circumstances where their perceptions are altered. Either they experience an unusual phenomenon they can’t explain, or they observe behavior that is out of the ordinary and they must reconcile their perceptions.

    In reconciling our diffences with aliens, I suspect that we must first come to terms with our perceptions about ourselves.

  • time riders is a great book and has nazis you should give it a read oh and has a superman type character but is a robot/human thing

  • Well, Matt…I’m just fascinated by how often people are jumping on the Nazi bandwagon.

    I admit haven’t finished an entire book yet. I just read a dozen reviews and as many book extracts. Admittedly, the author’s writing voice is engaging. There are seven books in the Time Riders series, to date, with another two due soon from what I can tell. The series concept is similar to other TV based time-traveler concepts like Sliders. These are situation drama constructs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the intention of the author was to run every marketing opportunity he could and that a televison series was high on that list.

    I suppose the dissappointing part is that relying on historical periods may be fascinating for young readers, but, for an old guy like me who has an entire library of history books, it’s tedious for me to watch the errors creep in and the cliches overrun the story line.

    When you rely on the history record,and inject your writing with historical figures, themes, or eras, you are inevitably confronted with accuracy issues that readers will no doubt point out to you. That means no matter how hard you try, you’re dealing with cliches.

    Nazi cliches do nothing for me. It’s simply shorthand for “evil-doers.” I become easily bored with such writing. I sometimes wonder how long it’s going to take before all this play about Nazis dilutes their historical impact and they get turned into the good guys.

  • Well…was it something I said?

    Sometimes people think I’m cutting them off when I make a defintive remark, but I really do believe you’re entitled to enjoy whatever you like.

    I just like people reaching for a higher standard and that’s why I think establishing laws is a good thing. It expresses a committment to excellence and that you have a world view that defines good and bad. It doesn’t deny that there are shades of grey, but it does declare that sometimes you have crossed the Rubicon and that a decision has been made, right or wrong. I respect a clarity to one’s commitment.

    I’d like to believe that Christopher Nolan’s movie, Inception, meets the criteria of meeting a higher standard. Nolan’s script had a dream within a dream within a dream. The crime takes place in the mind of the victim. This is a difficult concept to manage in a movie where clarity and pace are critical to a movie’s success. I’ve managed to watch the movie several times and believe its a tight script with some real creative ideas executed expertly.

    Incidentally, not only was Nolan’s script all orginal material, but it didn’t have any Nazis in the script.

    More to come from J.Jay Jones

  • “A Science Fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to men that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight.”

    Never heard of Lovecraft, I guess. Incomprehensible motives are a huge part of the genre, which makes this even stupider:

    “Aliens as far as they have personalities will be more likely to be aggressive and pushy. There are not likely to be kindly, friendly and caring aliens because they would not have the drive to explore space.”

    Huh? It could equally be the case that the only aliens who don’t destroy themselves before becoming interstellar are the kind, fuzzy socialist ones.

    But I mean, with obvious typos like the one in the heading of #6, I’m not sure why I expected more careful thinking.

    • Never heard of Lovecraft? That’s hard to believe if you read. Lovecraft has had a huge influence on speculative fiction from everyone from Bradbury to Stephen King.

      Incomprehensible motives = bad SF.

      kind, fuzzy socialist? This describes the good old USA. (A socialist state is one where the means of production distribution are owned or regulated). Americans are mostly socialists and hardly pacifists.

      Pointing out my typos is not a valid argument. It smacks of ad hominem. I was a Math major with an M.S. in Computer Science, and I can’t spell without cybernetic aids. I admit I am a bad writer, but I have sold about 50 stories, even a few to professional venues. Luckily the editors fixed most of my typos, because they liked the stories.

      It would be better that you don’t put in your two cents unless you have something more intelligent to say then “Huh?”

      more careful thinking – I wrote this maybe 10 years ago and I leave it up because it seems to upset so many people. It took about 5 minutes to write, and yet has given me years of wonderfully silly comments from people like you.


  • Lovecraft also writes about beings who have incomprehensible motives and for whom humans are no match, features you write off as bad SF.

    You corrected the typo almost immediately, so you must agree that there’s some value in getting right. You’ve managed a typo-free comment in under an hour, so it’s obviously well within your capability. Standardizing the capitalization and punctuation of the headings might also be a good idea.

    I did say something more than “huh,” I said it’s a ridiculous assumption that aliens will be nasty, when there are all sorts of other plausible (and more interesting) explanations as to how they might reach the stars. You said, “Aliens will not be like us,” except of course when it comes to the drive to get off the planet, which of course will mirror ours. I think our competitive instincts will forever prohibit interstellar travel. You make the opposite assumption, and that’s fine, but that’s what it is – an assumption, and not a fact about exobiology.

  • I appreciate your input on the typo – thanks. I fix these things when someone hits me over the head with them. I wrote the previous response in Word and was able to get rid of all the green and red stuff so it should be almost correct, but I need a sense checker in addition to spelling and grammar. We’ll see if this one – written on the fly – is as typo-free.

    Lovecraft is a special case and did not actually write much straight SF. His forte was weird fiction and horror. By today’ standards, his stuff would considered bad, but for the 1936 it was great.

    As far as facts go, the list is a criticism of some kinds of Science Fiction, specifically bad Movies and TV shows as compared to the golden age written SF, which I prefer. It is not factual; it is all opinion. Others will have different opinions and they are encouraged to create web sites where they, and others like them, can agree on everything that is written.

    I keep the page for its entertainment value, not because it is true, or insightful, or even interesting.

    Thanks for your reply. Most people don’t come back, especially when my response is so snarky.


  • SF as a genre didn’t exist when Lovecraft was writing. He would be considered “bad” today not for his eldritch abominations but for his prose and racism. You already admitted that he’s had a huge influence on the genre, and there are many other hugely-influential, widely-admired works that do similar things. Off the top of my head, 2001 and lots of PKD fits the bill. Do you really think these are bad scifi? I guess I didn’t realize this was supposed to be about the golden age, it seems like you’re inviting confusion by not mentioning that at the top.

  • Your first quotable got me thinking, so I thought I’d tackle it.

    I think the first statement you quoted may have a corollary in general literature: Deus Ex Machina. I raise this as a possible example from Greek literature. The implication is in the use of GODS from Olympus stepping into the picture to resolve issues that humans can’t. In the case of SF, the Deus Ex Machina then becomes the aliens. They can do whatever they want. Well, what fun is that?

    CJ Cherryh wrote THE HUNTER OF WORLDS. In it, the Iduve are a superior species that collect starfaring civiliztions like baseball cards. Yes, they are superior in every way to humans. In fact, the humans are inferior to most other species that have already been conquered and humans form an insignificant speck within a galactic satrapy under Iduve control. But the author allows that even a mosquito can bite and in the end, the humans matter. Eventually, there is a fair fight in concluding the story and we come to understand some of the motives of the Iduve.

    I think the point of this is that a story that has no human victory, that just remains a depressing condition of slavery with no improvement wouldn’t have any entertainment value. Everbody loves to see the underdog spit in the eye of a bully and bring him down. If you don’t allow for this, your readers will be limited to sociopathic nihilists pushing shopping carts that hold all of their wordly possessions.

    As for the other quote, you make an interesting point about kind and fuzzy socialists. There is a humanism in there that I applaud because it is so idealistic. One would think that a spacefaring civilization would comprise of reasoning beings. That the ability to achieve interstellar status would almost require control over the baser, animal instincts.

    But in reviewing our own species, you could argue that that desirable end (of a caring, friendly, unselfish, and ethical interstellar being) is just a dream.

    In practice, our own prescence in space is dependent on our global expendable income. If our global economy goes in the toilet, so do our space programs. Interstellar economies would require a huge financial outlay in infrastructure.

    And we don’t have a great corporate track record. Our wars are driven by the need for resources and in an interstellar environment, the competition would only increase. Under the current global economic paradigm, I wouldn’t lay odds on OUR EARTHLY civilization being the loving, caring, sharing, trusting interstellar being you may be envisioning.

    But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t make an argument otherwise or that a good story couldn’t be gotten out of your ideas. However, as one screenplay writer once said, “Nobody wants to watch a movie about the village of the happy people.”

    Conflict seems to be an essential ingredient to a good story.

    More to come,

    j. jay jones

  • “a story that has no human victory, that just remains a depressing condition of slavery with no improvement wouldn’t have any entertainment value.”

    Well, the existence of tragedy would seem to contradict this. Furthermore, there are some works that explicitly negate the “cathartic” effect of tragedy. Personally, I find many tales of victory and redemption to to be tired and hollow, and always prefer the dark ending where the human or MC loses. I think it’s a more honest (and more entertaining) take on the world around us. Incomprehensible motives and mind-boggling, insurmountable power are part of human existence, and we shouldn’t shy away from these themes just because they’re depressing.

    “But in reviewing our own species”

    Again, one of the LAWS above is “Aliens will not be like us.” I don’t see any reason to suspect that the social evolution of our species is a worthy guide to that of interstellar aliens.

    “I wouldn’t lay odds on OUR EARTHLY civilization being the loving, caring, sharing, trusting interstellar being you may be envisioning.”

    Right, as I said, I think our competitive nature *prohibits* interstellar travel rather than aids it, as Keith assumes. Therefore one might posit that the social evolution of any interstellar species would have to take a serious cooperative bent to ever make it there. You could, of course, take the opposite tack and argue that only the most fascistic species are able to marshal their planet’s resources efficiently enough for interstellar travel. But my main point is that Keith has arbitrarily limited “good” science fiction to the latter category, apparently because he thinks it’s more probable in the real world. I don’t think limiting our thinking in this way is good for science fiction. But again, it seems that Keith enjoys many of the limits of golden age SF.

    I can imagine lots of conflicts humanity would have with apparently benign aliens.

  • SF was going strong when Lovecraft was writing. He wrote his SF stories, like The Colour out of Space, I believe to get more money. Weird Tales didn’t pay as well as the new SF magazines. SF to my way of thinking, starts with Smith’s Skylark appearing in the 20s. At the time that Lovecraft was writing, it was still the age of Super Science stories or exotic space travel tales, and hadn’t yet been influenced by the likes of Heinlein, Clarke, or Asimov.

    The point was that supermen or gods don’t make good villains. I did say the we can’t know their motives, but the main point there is that we can’t deal with them. The conflict, necessary to a good story, is over before it starts. This is not to say that aren’t good stories where supermen or gods exists, it just means that they don’t make good bad guys. They can, at a whim, end the story. Unless they have faults, they are uninteresting in a literary sense.


  • RE: alvaro – –

    Just as a point of clafification, it might be good to google the History of Science Fiction. WIKI (at least) goes way back. Some of these writers place SF’s beginning as far back as THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH.

    I don’t buy that dating, but Lovecraft was a close contemporary to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and even Theodore Sturgeon. The appetite of the reading public was really just beginning when Lovecraft was writing in his prime.

    Your comment about his being considered “bad writing” is interesting. Noted institutions said the same thing about ERB’s work, but some people just have a knack for picking up readers every generation.

    more to come,

    J. Jay Jones

  • I have a story that ran too long to sell, that deals with the economic issues of space travel and trade between star systems. What would you trade? I posited that intellectual property might be something that a distant culture would buy. Don’t sell computers to a distant start system, sell them the plans for the computer, or software. Entertainment would be the biggest seller. Stories, novels, TV, movies, games, and especially pornography will take up most of the cargo of interstellar trade.

    In my story, the distances were too great and the costs too high to transmit the digital data, so ships would travel between the stars loaded with memory chips. The terabyte becomes the new currency.

    Interstellar travel will never exist without a profit incentive. People might pay to reach a new place with lots of cheap land and escape from an overpopulated Earth, but when they get there the new gold standard will be porn.

    It will not be aggression, or curiosity that drives interstellar travel. It will be greed.


  • I think a lot of the commentary on this article would be much more interesting if you had said what you meant in the actual list. It seems to be a lot of you guys laughing at commenters who balk at your over-broad generalizations like this one:

    “A Science Fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to men that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight.”

    which is much more general than what you’ve said just now. I actually disagree that all villains must be comprehensible/relatable (for a good non SF recent example think of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men), and that’s an interesting debate to be had, but in order to get to this place in the conversation I’ve had to wheedle out what you really meant.

    You might get into more interesting discussions like this if you didn’t immediately jump on dissenting commenters with non sequitir snark, like your tangent about US politics, Keith. And I really think it’s a bit disingenuous not to put your gold age SF bias at the top.

  • RE: Alvaro

    I’ll concede you make a few good points, particularly about tragedy as a literary theme.

    I’ll stand by my assessment of competition for resources. I believe there is sufficient evidence that conflict for resources is a driving force behind the evolution of species. Aggressive species have a long history of pushing aside and destroying species that “just want to get along.”

    I would agree that there is legitimacy to your view that our own aggressive natures might be prohibiting our progress into space.

    On the flip side, an aggressiveness in a species is also a prime ingredient to advancing technology. Weapons innovations seems to go hand-in-hand with progress. I wouldn’t discount the likelihood that in the competition for resources, an interstellar civilization is prone to avoid the use of weapons. I just don’t think that the use of weapons is going to simply fall by the wayside because we wish it. And believe me, that doesn’t spring from a fetish for weapons. The longings for peace simple spring from the horrors of war.

    Its kind of like that cold war quote: “Trust, but verify.” You want a good outcome from a first contact with an alien species, but it’s foolish to assume there’s no need to make contigencies for a different outcome.

    I enjoy your making an argument and backing it up. It’s good to understand the reasoning behind your remarks.

    More to come,

    J. Jay Jones

  • I meant that when Lovecraft was writing scifi didn’t really exist yet as a *separate* genre (that’s what the golden age was about), so to say “he didn’t write much straight SF” isn’t particularly relevant to the discussion – he had a huge effect on modern SF even though much of his work is often categorized differently. But debating genre boundaries is tiresome and useless, so let’s move on.

    To Keith, I have a story where interstellar travel is simply never economical because of the vast distances, so the only species who reach the stars are those who manage to put aside greed as the dominant driver of their economies. Of course, I’m far left and you seem more right than that, so as I suspected earlier this is a political disagreement and has nothing to do with good/bad scifi. To be honest, just based on the math, I think my scenario is far more likely, that greed isn’t sufficient.

    Jay, first of all, we haven’t established that alien evolution will mirror earth’s. Earth is a single case. To extrapolate from our experience on earth that evolutionary trends are the same in all alien environments is just a leap of faith.

    Secondly, I don’t think the story on earth is as clear as you make it out to be. The dominant species on this planet is characterized by both competitive and cooperative instincts, behaviors, and institutions. To claim that we are inherently competitive or inherently cooperative is to miss the point, and that is that humans, like life itself, is terrifically adaptive.

    And I don’t think weapons will disappear because we wish it, I think it would be a tremendous effort, and the chances of it succeeding for humans are slim to none. That said, it may be that there are alien species who are more suited for that effort. Who knows, it might be that organized violence among sentient species is a rarity we’re cursed with. But just assuming that aliens are like us in this way goes directly against Keith’s “they will not be like us” law, and smacks of the anthropocentric limits of golden age SF.

  • RE; Alvaro

    I’d like to respond in a timely fashion…but I gotta go.

    I’ll get back to you on your thoughts. You make some thoughtful comments and have made a better case for your position than most. I think I’m going to enjoy this debate, so bear with me because I think there’s some really good material here to discuss.

    I’ll be back soon.

    J. Jay Jones

  • RE: Alvaro

    Sorry I had to break off. Don’t get into town often enough.

    I’ve been considering you commment about the anthropocentrism in my argument and decided that it’s there to stay. Can’t see that I’ve much choice, really. On thinking further on it, I decided that it doesn’t necessarily invalidate my comments.

    For sometime, I’ve embraced the concept that you can’t hamstring your analysis with “you can’t know that” arguments. You can only go forwards with what you know and try to remain observant about new data and new possibilities.

    I’ll continue to believe that the periodic table of elements remains a viable measuring stick of existence. We know a great deal about that table and astrophysicists use it to determine the composition of stars and stellar phenomena. I accept the Hertsprung-Russell diagram as a model of stellar evolution. We know that organic compounds can be found in both metorites and interstellar gases. Given these models of existence, what we know about our universe, certain extrapolations become resonable. I don’t think you can simply throw out all we know based on our apparent lack of knowledge in other areas.

    Having said that, I think that extrapolating from our current knowledge base and experience is valid. Competition for resources occurs at all levels of life, from Prokaryotes to dinosaurs. Without a science basis, your science fiction is not.

    So my leap of faith in the nature of alien enviroments is based more on what I think is true than on what I can’t know.

    On another level, however, this is incidental to a good science fiction story, I suppose. So I’ll have to admit, the actual argument then returns to what is imaginable. And I’ll concede that there are too few stories about interspecies cooperation vs. conflict. Under this scenario, we have to deal with standard script development relying more on conflict (as a basis for a good story) than cooperation.

    Which leaves me asking you a pointed question: Have you such a story?

    Trust that this is not merely a gauntlet to the face. Such stories, I beleive, are extremely difficult to master. I also think exploring cooperative relationships with interstellar beings with completely different evolutionary tracks is a worthy subject to tackle. A story that resolves first contact with cooperation is not only uplifting, but socially instructive. Your instincts in this direction do you justice.

    Go ahead and eviscerate my comments if so inclined. Make my day.

    J. Jay Jones

  • I’ve written a few inter-species stories. My best stories are what is called “Mundane” SF – near future stuff without aliens, or space, just new tech. I don’ often write golden age SF, even if it is what I read.

    I wrote a story called The Reefs of Jove that appeared in Martian Wave magazine a couple of years ago. It involves humans who are exploring Jupiter in dirigibles, floating in the upper atmosphere where the gravity is not as intense. The intelligent life forms are like jellyfish who maintain buoyancy by filling a sack with helium. There are also dangerous species, but the story could have been better.

    In another story, The Telling, I have explorers stranded on a planet where there is a life form composed of filaments that form a neural net. When one person dies, her personality is joined with the planet’s intelligence – published at least 5 years before anyone ever heard of Avatar and the planet Pandora.

    Another story sold years ago is “The Thing in the Doghouse” about a creature that lands in a small town and is eventually saved by the dog he displaces – a YA story – fun.

    I also have an unsold story where a traveler is digitized and a copy transmitted to a distant planet where he would have been re-assembled again at the receiving end, but the transmission misses it’s mark and millions of years later, an alien race receives the data, but only partially and tries to run it as a simulation. The protagonist has to overcome the fact that the aliens have “filled in the blanks” of his personality with strange needs and desires.


  • One of the stories is listed here:



  • Keith —

    I enjoyed the read. Thanks for sharing. I’ve been trying to track down the author of a very similar story written in an anthology some years back.

    The crux of the story follows: several scientists/space travelers, having fallen upon bad luck on landing, managed to create a memory of themselves by using their own DNA to start life in lifeless sea. The perspective is from a first person living in the sea and their attempt to find out what is out there, beyond the surface tension of the tidal pool. THis peson eventually makes contact with a follow on mission to the planet. I’ll have to keep digging to find it, however.

    I’m always intrigued by first contact stories because they say so much about ourselves.


  • “A Science Fiction writer should never put beings into a story that are so far superior to men that we cannot understand their motives, we cannot overcome their will or we cannot meet them face to face in a fair fight.”

    But what about beings that are not necessarily “far superior”, but just really, really, really _in_human and so totally _baffling_ to humans? I.e. they operate on _entirely different_ principles? And what if they act as a “bad guy” in some sense?

    • The reason for this rule is that far superior agents make for a dull story. I can imagine that it is possible to have vastly powerful creatures – near gods – be characters in a story, but it would be very difficult for them to be the bad guys if all they had to do to defeat us would be swat us like a fly. If the protagonist is powerless against the forces against him, then he has no chance. That does not make for a good story.

  • “Star Trek and Star Wars are worlds unto themselves. They are beyond judgment and criticism. It doesn’t matter how bad any individual scene or episode is, on the whole the worst Star Trek episode is better than anything else that has ever been on television. But, don’t ever think that Star Trek and Star Wars are good Science Fiction. Rarely, they have had moments where they approach good SF, but only rarely.”

    So you’re saying that Star Trek & Star Wars are _better_ than everything else (on TV), but “good SF” is better than them? I’d strongly disagree with the idea these are “beyond criticism”. Nothing is, and someone may legitimately think something else is in fact better.

    • Trek is better than anything on TV, not because it is great SF, but because TV is mostly dreadful. The various incarnations of trek are all better than most other TV SF. The truly SF moments in Star Trek are brilliant, but that is maybe one show out of ten, if that.

  • But yeah, cheap knockoffs of them != good SF.

  • Also, would you think the best “real SF” writers would outclass TrekWars _in terms of general storytelling quality and overall ‘goodness’ in a general, non-SF-specific sense_?

    • Tek Wars was fun, although not great SF. I enjoyed a few of the novels when I read them, but I never felt the urge to re-read them. There is quote that says something like 90% of all SF is crap, but then 90% of everything is crap. I enjoy the crap, but I am happy when I find one of the 10 per centers.

  • It’s true that perfection doesn’t exist. You have to accept that most works, when they hit the target, aren’t hitting the bull’s eye. I think the standard, for me, lies in the re-readability of a work. I differentiate between a good storyteller and good writing. It’s pretty rare that the two combine in the same work. Some writers work out a good story with an interesting plot and believable characters, but then fail to execute with good writing, others do the opposite. They’re masters of good writing, but don’t have much command over structure, plot, or theme. You can’t have everything, I suppose.

    That’s where rule No. 7 comes into play. Good exposition on the science can hold a story together. If it’s done well, I can go back over the story and feel like it’s worth rereading.

  • Star Trek broke Rule 4 in the episode where Spock dressed up a a Nazi.

  • I’ve been doing some whimsical research on hundreds (thousands?) of Nazi-diluted stories: flicks, novels, and comic books.

    Perhaps I can some up my feelings with one movie title:

    “SURF NAZIS MUST DIE,” 1987 (R)

    O … if this seems unclear, don’t be reluctant to ask for clarification.

    More to come …

  • FLOR —

    You bring up a good point about SF not being for any writer. In fact, you have to be a bit anal retentive, I suppose, because research on your subject matter is a requirement.

    Too many fans are incredibly savvy about many subject areas in SF so you’re when you start trying to write SF, you have to be careful that you know what you’re talking about. I can’t image a romance novelist pulling off a good SF story. (Maybe … if the Romance writer is living on Alpha Ceti VI.)

  • I am getting ready to write a sci fi novel and I’ve read so many different opinions on what makes a good sci fi book. I even read one that posted cliches found in the genre, which made me realize that sci fi at it’s heart is a bunch of cliches elements put together into something familiar. There may subtle differences but overall the best of them contain a core set of elements that I think you covered very well with your list. I guess my addition is don’t be afraid of cliches, be afraid of plagiarism.

  • There is no mention of Babylon 5. B5 is better than Star Trek. It is the closest to great SF literature on TV to date.

  • I think B5 killed off/changed some of its lead characters and that put a lot of fans off. And it seemed that quite a few folks only saw a season or two. B5 has a mixed following. Fans can be pretty touchy about what happens to their characters, but it was weird enough to be entertaining.

    I’m still a big fan of Star Trek. The newest movie, Into Darkness, was pretty awesome. Speaking of cliches, it’s loaded with them. I’m a sucker for some of the cliches they ran past everyone in the middle of the movie. Spock screaming KHAAAAHHHHNNNN was probably too much for some fans, but I got a good laugh out of it. Must have been a good dozen fight/action scenes in the movie that really busted up the B and C plots in the flick. The movie was good for the franchise, I figure.

    Seems like the Star Trek universe might be digging itself into a hole, though. It’s following a parallel universe track and you can suspect that, at some point, the fans will want it to get straightened out.

  • Isaac Asimov wrote The Robot Novels, a collection of Science Fiction stories that are more Mystery/Detective stories than science fiction. Maybe he should be informed that he is not doing it the right way.

    Piers Anthony always has elements of fantasy in his science fiction.

    • Kathy,
      I agree with you. I’d tell Isaac, but he knew what he was doing, and, alas, he is dead. Asimov was a mystery fan and always wanted to write mysteries. The few he wrote were not well received by the genre readers who are worse, as far as rules, than I am about SF.

      If you re-read the rules, I do not say there is anything wrong with having elements of other genres in SF. I only object to stories where you can take out the sciencefictional element and still have a mystery or western or military story. Asimov’s science fiction themes were always deeply a part of his stories and could not be removed, satisfying my rules.

      Piers Anthony is another matter. Starting with Cthon, and books like SOS the Rope (where I first discovered him in the pages of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), had mythical elements to his stories that placed them on the outer edge of SF, but still very much SF. He at one time was one of my favorite authors. When I picked up a book by Anthony many years later, the plots, characters, and themes were pretty much juvenile and inane. They wandered all over the place without any new ideas or interesting concepts. Anthony is now just another hack with a computer spewing out millions of words without much self editing.


  • You say “These rules are intentionally provocative”, and you have provoked me. Perhaps in essence I agree with you, but some of your points are what I see as an opportunity to explore areas normally considered safe and comfortable – and therefore not worth exploring.

    Next time you are travelling on the more Northern parts of the Central line, give me a buzz and I’ll buy you a pint.


  • Cool website!

    In # 3 you say

    “Advanced science will be indistinguishable from magic”.

    I believe Arthur C. Clarke said it, with slightly different words. I think it was

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic”.


  • Newton made a serious study of alchemy and also made some important contributions to Newtonian mechanics. However the number of people who are qualified in both science and magic is rather limited.

  • This all makes sense to me (especially #4) and I hope this will help create and publish my own novels.

    • These rules are just points to think about. When it comes down to writing your own stories, you have to be true to your own vision. I hope your pay attention to #4, because that is one rule that I really care about, but if you can think of a way to break the rule and still produce a powerful story, go for it.


  • In general I agree with your set of rules.

    I would like to comment on Rule 3 regarding good science.

    I get a bit fed up with SF writers ignoring the obvious science. I don’t mind speculative science like wormholes, fields and field weapons, hyper/hypospace and all the other stuff we have to put up with.

    I can even stomach superluminal flight as long as it has a “gizmo” or “McGuffin” to explain it.

    What bugs me are obvious howlers, such as forgetting about gravity.

    I just read Peter Hamilton’s Great North Road. Not a brilliant writer but you do get your money’s worth with his breeze block sized books. One review even praised him for his attention to scientific detail.

    I can cope with the wormhole stuff, and all the nanotechnology – after all this is SF.

    A lot of the action takes place on a planet described as having twice the diameter of Earth but otherwise being mostly earthlike (mountains, hills, trees, oceans etc).

    Assuming it is therefore basically rock/water (similar to Earth) and not some spacey bubble stuff doubling the diameter would give it eight times the volume of the Earth and around eight times the mass.

    This would give it around eight times the gravity of Earth which would probably crush or at least cripple the humans. They certainly wouldn’t be running around with carefree abandon.

    So much for attention to scientific detail.

    • The surface gravity would not be 8 times because the radius of the planet would be twice that of earth.

      Force of gravity on a planet would be G*M/r^2 where r is the radius of the planet and M is the mass.

      multiply M by 8 and r by 2 and you get

      G*8*M/4*r^2 (The radius is squared so twice the radius is 1/4 the gravity.)

      which simplifies to 2 * earth gravity.

      Let’ say that it is a metal poor planet with a core of mostly silicon instead if iron nickel. Silicon is 1/3 the density of iron or nickel. So if the density is about half that of earth, then the gravity will be earth normal. It is quite possible that there are planets with twice the radius with the same gravity. An water/ice planet would be much much less. You might have an ice planet 10 times the radius of earth and still having lower gravity on the surface.


  • Keith

    Not sure I agree.

    I accept your point about the density issue. I did use the phrase “around” to indicate a non-exact equivalence.

    As the planet has mountains and oceans we can assume it is reasonably similar to Earth in composition, geology and tectonic activity (otherwise the mountains would have eroded down). Some variation but a rough approximation.

    If you double the diameter of a sphere (and we can probably assume the planet is roughly spherical – although more likely an oblate spheroid, like Earth) the volume increases eightfold.

    Assuming the planet is roughly “content equivalent” to Earth then the mass will also increase roughly eightfold.

    Assuming the gravitational constant is the same the only difference in calculating F is the value of M1. As this is eight times greater and gravity is a function of mass the force of gravity will be roughly eight times greater.

    Makes sense to me.

    • The mass of Jupiter is 314 times that of earth but the gravity is only 2.5 times that of earth.

      Gravity has two components – mass and distance. The gravity goes up with the mass but down by the Square of the distance. A planet double the size would have 8 times the mass as you say, but there would be double the distance to the center of mass which results in 1/4 the force. So 8 divided by 4 is 2. A nickel/iron core planet like Earth would have double the mass for a planet twice as large. Make it 3 times as large and it will be 3 times the gravity (27/9). Planets like Jupiter are not very dense so even with a huge mass they are relatively low in gravity compared to earth.


  • I agree with your rules, but I think they lean more toward a traditional western approach to science fiction that appeals the western and European worlds.

    Off the top of my head, you’d leave out Octavia Butler as a science fiction writer, and that’s just insane, her work is good.

    Separating science fiction and fantasy is unnecessary, they are both one and the same. Fantasy is the root of scientific discovery. Saying that religion has no purpose in science fiction and fantasy is also insane. Religion is a construct of the human mind trying to understand the universe of a carnal level, if you believe religion isn’t real, then it is fantasy, which leads back to that other point.

    Science fiction also needs social concepts to be intertwined. One of the failings of Star Trek is just that, the social outlook of the future was whitewashed.

    It’s a good list, just has a few things missing and a few rules miss the mark in regards to a non-western, non-european approach.

    • I never said the religion does not belong in SF. I said that God cannot be a character in a story. This should be obvious. Stories can deal with religious issues, but you can’t have God come in and do stuff. Of course God can solve all the plot issues in a story, but this ruins the story. This is like ending a story with “and then the little girl woke up and realized it was all just a dream”. You can’t beat God, you can’t outsmart him. You can’t trick him. God does not play dice, and has no fatal flaws.

      Amazon has no problem separating SF from Fantasy – these are two different sections on their website. The difference is obvious to most people. I agree that they are related. This list is for Science Fiction only.

      Star Trek has many flaws – agreed. Even the really bad ones are good, though.

      I see nothing in your argument that would suggest there is a different non-western genre which would still be SF, but would somehow be fundamentally different. I can see how cultural values may change the stories (I sometime don’t “get” SF from other cultures, but I can still recognize it as SF), but SF HAS to be about how Humans and Science interact. Science Fiction is about science or it is not Science Fiction.

      I think Octavia Butler is great, but I think it a stretch to call some of her stories SF. There is a point where you stretch the science too thin and it is no longer essential to the plot. One of the rules is, that if you take out the Science and the story still works, then it is not Science Fiction.

  • No real argument was being made, just an opinion more than anything. As far as Star Trek in concerned, it’s good even the bad ones, but they do break a decent amount of rules here and in other sci-fi rule books.

    Rule #10, 9, 7, 6, 5, and 3 are quintessential Star Trek and Star Wars. While the character “Q” could “die” his species was a sort of superman.

    I agree about God being a character, especially in the loosely defined “God” that many believe in. In Avatar, “God” was the spirits in the planet that came to the rescue just in the nick of time. While Sci-Fi and fantasy DO differ, they are still one in the same. Fantasy deals more with magic, but Sci-Fi is still make believe, even on it’s most basic level.

    There is no different non-western genre, but there are concepts in non-western Sci-Fi that don’t follow these rules. It may just be a western thing though, as you say, you sometimes don’t get SF from other cultures. I don’t at times too, but I find them interesting to read because of it.

    OB is definitely a Sci-Fi writer and her stories do fit in the genre . . . . just not as you describe it.

    Otherwise, even films like Matrix or stories like Dune wouldn’t fit. Or, stories that have been surpassed by real world tech would cease being science fiction such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

    OB’s “Dawn” didn’t have much tech or science fact in it, but it did deal with future social issues and concepts in humanity . . . . a big freaky aliens.

    • First – very few movies are Science Fiction. Generally science fiction writers call the stuff in the movies SciFi. It is a different genre with a different audience. SciFi is mostly Monster Movies. SciFi is alternately action adventure with lasers and space ships, but is unlike literary SF in most ways. A good SF book takes you a week to finish. A movie is over in less than two hours. You can’t compare the two.

      More specifically the “God” in Avatar was not by any definition a god. It was a being arising from the emergent properties of a planet sized neural network. It had severe limitations. It was no all powerful and all knowing. It was probably very smart, but also very limited in that it needed to act through the creatures on the planet. Still the Avatar planet god solves everyone’s problems, so in the end, all the human effort was a waste of plot line. It is an old science fiction theme. I even sold a story about 5 years before Avatar came out about an intelligence that was composed of a vast neural net of worm like creatures that lived in pools connecting a whole planet. The neural net absorbed the essence of a dying woman who continued to live in the planet’s network after her physical death.

      Matrix is SF only in that it is a ripoff of Neuromancer and other Cyberpunk books. Dune is great science fiction. Herbert proposed that computers were wiped out in a war specifically to keep technology at a lower and more understandable level, but there is so much science in it that I don’t see how you could classify it as anything else. 1984 is more of a social commentary and was never intended as SF it is basically a cautionary tale, more like a fairy tale than SF. Bradbury was definitely light on science, but F451 has enough SF elements to clearly be SF. It takes place in a plausible future with many standard SF elements, and how could you not think that the hound was not SF.

      “Q” despite being a superman, was so full of flaws as to make him recognizably human. The worst Q stories involve a deus ex machina plot ending that gets the story out of an unresolvable position through the action of the Q. This is bad story telling and is why supermen should not be allowed.

  • I see your point about movies, but in the end a good story is a good story. Sunshine and 2001: A Space Odyssey are great films, the books are better, but they aren’t monster movies spaceships.

    God, spiritualism, religion, etc. they are all the same when taken into the same context: something that folk pray to that is inexplainable through scientific means. Same thing with “the Force” and the Jedi. Yes, I agree, it made the plot in the story utterly useless. I’d put Avatar in the list of monster movies.

    I totally agree with everything else. I almost always skipped past Q episodes.

  • This guide seems to make no allowances for the sub-genre of Space Opera. Indeed, it seems to eschew it as hard as it can.

    I think this is very short-sighted.

  • There is a great SF novel that has Jesus as one of the main characters. It’s “Według łotra” (“According to the robber” – my translation) by Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg. I’m not sure if there’s an English translation, though.
    He also wrote Robot, which breaks the Superhuman rule in a mind-blowing fashion. IMO, those two should be SF classics. Sadly, Snerg was never nearly as famous as Lem, and now he’s almost forgotten.

  • The first rule of art is that there are no rules. Aristotle was an observer and told you what was there -ie. Theatre and Film can never be real. Horacius Flaccus told you what to think, which is rubbish. If art is anything, it is experientially existential, which means it’s impossible to set rules, except for yourself. On that basis, your rules are interesting, but not very useful. Now, had you observed that Science Fiction movies, like all SF writings, create worlds through which the experiencers can deal with ideas that cannot otherwise be expressed. To judge that a SF movie must be real, for instance, negates the observations of centuries of observings of art and denies the entire relm of mimesis.

    • First off, movies are not really Science Fiction in the same sense as written SF. Movies are usually some other genre, usually horror or thriller, with some sf elements, but can’t be compared to written sf. These rules really apply to written SF.

      I’m not saying that you can’t break these rules, but if you do, you are going to have to make it worth it. Keeping these rules will free you to create better art.

      I think of SF like the music Genre Blues. If the music doesn’t follow a blues chord progression, have a shuffle beat, build melodies on a blues scale, and speak of the basic human condition, then it is probably not blues. There are experimental genres such as Jazz or Rock that use elements of blues music, but the music is Jazz or Rock, not blues.

      Similarly you can write stories that include spaceships or ray guns or aliens, but it is not necessarily Science Fiction. These are not the things that make a story a Science Fiction story.

      I am not so much trying to limit anyone’s creativity. I am trying to establish a framework that helps define exactly what is Science Fiction. You can write great stories that break all of these rules, but I think that the stories would not be Science Fiction.


  • Lots of science fiction writers stress science as the stability of a story. If there is too much science in a novel, it is no longer sci-fi, and becomes a science technical novel. I was recently at a writers group, and one young fellow said that my book was rubbish because parallel universes don’t exist, and there is only one universe. Science has recently theorized that this may not be the case, and yes, I have done research on the subject. Aliens aren’t real as far as we know, yet they are featured in great works of fiction by Bradbury, Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. I think people need to accept science fiction for what it is, and not try to categorize it. Science is important, but too much makes for a boring story for the layman who doesn’t understand the theories. And, that’s just what they are-theories. Even Einstein had trouble with the space-time curve, and couldn’t fully explain it, but it doesn’t mean that FTL travel isn’t possible. We as humans just don’t understand the physics of it all, and probably won’t for the next 1000 years at least, if ever. I just think people need to stop being so cynical about the believability of what they read; 2001 and Interstellar are great movies, even if their endings are totally ridiculous. Most early science fiction was anything like the author suggested, full of humans trying to fight evil aliens that come from places like Mars and Venus, which we know have no life. If anyone out there can write a piece of fiction that is totally scientifically accurate, interesting, and keeps a reader glued to its action, I invite them to try. Writing a good story isn’t easy, and my novel is my first, so I’m sure it’s far from perfect. Good writing comes from experience, and even the best writers started with the worst first drafts.

    • If there is too much science in a story, then there is not enough story. Science fiction is mostly about the FICTION. The science part makes it Science Fiction.

      Still, I will say that the science has to be good science, and not blatantly stupid science like in Interstellar. The writers got away with it in Interstellar because most of the viewers are ignorant and the rest are willing to suspend their critical thinking since they just spent $15 to get into the theater.


  • Another comment I’d like to point out is that aliens themselves are a violation of the science fiction rules because they have never been proven to exist. That narrows the list of a lot of very famous science fiction writers, including HG Wells, one of the fathers of science fiction.

    • Science Fiction doesn’t have to be proven science. It just needs to be plausible, believable and not break and well accepted scientific principles.

      Aliens don’t break any laws of science that I know of. Since intelligent life has appeared here on Earth, any scientific law that states that intelligent life cannot appear on another planet is wrong.


  • This is in reference to the comment by J. Jay Jones on 12/21/2012. I know that its an old comment, but I think I know the story he was wondering about.

    It’s from an anthology called The Seedling Stars and is a collection of short stories by James Blish. The specific story Mr. Jones is looking for was called “Surface Tension” and is about life on an alien world colonized by scientists that modified their dna to create life which could exist in the shallow pools of water that comprised the surface of the planet.

    As I recall the story, I think that it fit well into the guidelines layed out in this article for what makes science fiction.

    • The collection is one of my favorites. Each story is about humans who have been genetically engineered to live in a un-earth-like world. Surface tension, is the best in the collection, but all the stories are good.


  • Interestingly, the Dragon Riders of Pern series is also based on the same science fiction premise of colonists using genetic engineering to establish themselves on a new planet. Albeit in that example it was an indigenous animal which was modified to become the dragons that the colonists use to combat the natural dangers of the world.

    But with the exception of one book that chronicles the initial colonization effort, all the other books in the series should more correctly be considered fantasy.

    • I thought some of the Pern stories were OK, but I’ve never been a fan. The SF is too soft for my taste. The test of a good story is that I will pick it up again after a few years and reread it. I have had no compulsion to pick up another Pern story.


  • I generally avoid reading articles that offer “rules” – (I have a Masters in Creative Writing, have published four books, and taught writing for….well, a godawful long time) – BUT, I am a life-long sci-fi lover, and was interested. There is much in sci fi that, in addition to being good science, is also damned good literature, which I felt this article gave a nod to. However, one thing irked and I had to comment, even all this time after this was published. I truly think that if you’re going to write an article about science fiction, you should know when you’re quoting Arthur C. Clarke, and know that the correct quote is: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Just saying.

    By the way, some really wonderful stuff – and some really awful stuff – in the comment string.

    • I am going to say that I was paraphrasing Clarke. Yeah, that sounds right. I was paraphrasing.

      Thanks for the wonderful comment.


  • I actually used some of these rules in the intro of the sci-fi novel I’m writing.Oh and what would be a good name for a race of aliens?

    • A good name for a race of aliens would be how they referred to themselves, but it is unlikely that any aliens we encounter would use vocal chords, lips, tongue and words to express the concept, so I doubt that humans could write down an alien’s name. Aliens will not have lips, probably not have a tongue like ours and most likely not communicate with sounds, at least not with sounds we understand as words. If they had ears they might use bird calls, hissing, humming, clicking (like crickets), even farts, or any number of strange sounds. If they did not have ears, then gestures, touches, or signs might be used.

      More than likely, a human would refer to an alien race by the human name of the star where they originated.


  • Although i must say there are some interesting points you can take from this article, rules do not apply when creating your own story. Atleast my gut tells me that you can always re-use and tell a point of a story again in your own words. No Idea is safe from being used over again and some tastes might not apply to others as they do here. Of course it is always good to avoid being put in a shelf as a direct copy of other peoples work but just as an example. You mentioned not using Star Trek and Star Wars as resemblence to your own work although we are all inspired mostly by these great works. Lucas and Co. did themselves put all their favourite works into one genre of their own and brought it out to the world. That would be like saying at the time they created their stories not to take from Flash Gordon and so forth. Even if the quote might not be correct, there is no real originality anymore only authentizity and what you make out of it. Cause since the first time we started telling stories to another as human beings, they have been taken and told in different perspectives till today. Its only re-using ones ideas and making your own. Otherwise i do find it good to have some restraints and keep it more to a point where you couldn´t directly cross reference with any work already put out.

    • I think that you misunderstand the rules. I am not saying there is anything wrong with using ideas from other works. I am say beware of using an idea from a very famous work such as Star Wars or Star Trek. If you use Tribbles or Light Sabres you will instantly be recognized as someone who is not original. You cannot copy ideas, you must re-imagine ideas so that they become your own.

      If you use an evil Asian scientist wearing a scull cap, some of us may recognize him as “Ming the Merciless”. So even if Lucas did borrow from Flash Gordon and even King Arthur, he did it using a new mode. Instead of Ming, he had Darth. Instead of Merlin, he had Obi Wan.

      Be careful!

  • A lot of what you have written here, in regards to what you think the rules should be in writing science fiction make sense; for the most part.

    But some bits bother me, though. Like for example, where you stated, “on the whole the worst Star Trek episode is better than anything else that has ever been on television.”

    I disagree with this, because I think there ARE better science fiction shows on television compared to Star Trek or Star Wars – such as The Expanse, for example. But it’s just my opinion that The Expanse is good science fiction on television – not an objective fact.

  • You sat science is essential, but you allso say that aliens cant be anything like humans. Om this point i disagree.
    We only know of one planet containing life. So we only know of one evolutipnary path, where primates, or a humanoid spicies, became the dominant. Thats the science we can use, the science we know.
    You are saying that we are to disregard hard fact science, måle some make belief science, creating Animals from the top of our head, with no scientific backup.
    The use of humanoid spicies are science, and for now, the correct evolution. The idea of a giant squid lobbing around in a ftl ship, blowing colored bubbles as communication is stupid.
    Allso what fun is a SF story when all the aliens are burping, farting, whistling, jumping, and dance as a way to communicate.

    You need aliens we can relate to. Talk to. I dont say that they have to be primates, for all internt and purpose they can be reptilian, or insectoids. But you need something that we hunans can relate to.

    • Aliens won’t be anything like humans. They theoretically could be, but most likely not. Certainly not mammals with lips and breasts. Unlikely that they would be humanoid, standing upright on two legs with two arms. Except for primates, birds and kangaroos, there are precious few upright animals. They might have language, though, and even communicate through sound. It would be statistically impossible for real aliens to be 5 foot 10 inches in average height. It would be almost impossible that aliens have male and female sex roles similar to humans.

      Insect or insect-like seems to me to be the most likely choice for aliens, perhaps large spiders. I think perhaps squid or octopi could be serious contenders for ET. I like bird-like aliens and even have a character in one of my stories that is avian. Earth evolution is complicated and requires dinosaur predecessors and then a large asteroid, but that might not be unlikely.

      On the other hand I think that any intelligent species will be highly likely to be pack hunters like baboons, velociraptors, wolves, lions or hyenas. Pack hunters develop cooperative skills especially communication. Since man is a pack hunter, it will be very likely that humans and aliens will be able to communicate well and understand and even sympathize with each other.

      Lazy writers will still create aliens that just are human actors with funny clothes, hair or makeup.


  • Hey, I’ve been trying to source another “rule
    ” (more of a guideline really) which I ran across a long time ago. I’m having to paraphrase here:
    “You can have magical fire breathing dragons.
    You can have faster than light spaceships.
    Do not ask your audience to believe in a magical fire breathing dragons piloting a FTL space ship.”
    Obviously this was not meant to be taken literally, rather as a caution regarding the limits of “Willing suspension of disbelief” and dangers of mixing Fantasy and SciFi.
    Anyone know the quote and who said it?

    • I’d say you were right but Anne McCaffrey sort of did that in the Pern Novels. I didn’t warm to the couple of Pern novels that I read, partially because of the the genre bending. They are mostly YA novels with YA themes.
      It is a hard rule to justify. It would have to be on a story by story basis, even though I would certainly dislike a story about magical dragons piloting FTL ships.
      As soon as you make a rule like that there will be some great story that breaks it.
      I would add that any young writer that tries to do this will have a hard sell to editors.


  • Thank you for your article. Generally I agree, but do have one minor disagreement, as follows:

    While true aliens may very well not be mammalian, but instead be reptilian, or some analogue thereof, we cannot rule out mammalian or mammalian-analogue aliens. Being warm-blooded, Earthly mammals have more environmental range in which they can effectively function than do reptilian beings. Also, being surface creatures rather than aquatic or marine organisms, certain types of body architecture (bilateral symmetry, head high and movable, hands or hand-analogues) comport with minimalist design or evolutionary trends that seem largely successful here on Earth.

    So I would not be surprised were true spacefaring aliens to appear to be warm-blooded, vaguely humanoid reptilian-analogues, or even mammalian-analogues.

    As for communications, I would expect some form of auditory system, though it could very well be optimized for a different portion of the audio spectrum – – human hearing is optimized to detect the acoustic signature of a predator moving slowly through tall grasses, so an alien’s hearing and acoustic communications would likely be rather different from ours.

    I would not expect spacefaring aliens to be large, such as our elephants, or very tiny because of the density and volume of the neural systems required to support at least human-equivalent intelligence. So, applying minimalist thinking, such aliens if at least equivalent to humans would probably be on the same general scale as we are. Much larger and their food requirements would become unsupportable; much smaller and their brain capacity would be inadequate.

    In one of my (as yet unpublished) stories the aliens are reptilian-analogue, but their hearing is optimized for higher frequencies than we use, so they “speak” with us through portable translator equipment – – which in reality we are almost able to manufacture today.

    • Good points. Perhaps I am being too constrained by applying a terrestrial taxonomy to an alien.

      Mammals are furry vertebrates with milk glands. Aliens might be vertebrates, invertebrates or use some other way of engineering a vertebra-like structure such as a muscular column. They may or may not have fur, feathers, scales or chitinous exoskeletons. They might have breasts, or lay eggs, or both (Ah, Deja Thoris, Princess of Mars!). Milk glands positioned on the upper chest seems to be fairly rare on earth and I don’t expect them to appear in aliens. Lips would only be needed for species that have nipples, so again, I would not expect to see them in an alien, although entirely possible.

      If one in 20 alien is bipedal, bisymmetric, with arms and legs with hands and feet and a head on top, I would not be surprised. If 5 percent of them had mammary glands I would say that seems fair. If 5 percent of them had breasts on the female located on the upper chest with nipples, I would have to say it might be so. I might guess that 1 in 8000 aliens that we might meet could be sexy dames.


  • there are no rule to writing fiction, especially blatant comments as never to use this, avoid cliche and stick to a particular set of rules, sry that is not art for me and especially not your passion at heart.

    If someone is addicted to Roddenberry and wants to make his own Star Trek, all for it, since he could be innovative and manage something they did not manage in the 80s. Never touch Star Wars and the tropes within, come on 🙂

    Most of those technologies werent even represented in hard sci fi but ended up in a space fantasy opera movie from Lucas, but those Themes. Theories. Technologies and Plots are all way bigger than what Lucas put together.

    You want to take pre existant parts and full plots, do so but make sure to exceed beyond expectations and find originality in authenticity

    There is no wrong or right and how sticks to your article is lost in the world of creativity, since anything is possible and no idea is sacred.

    Lucas especially, Star Wars is not his creation it is a accomulation of all existing works and media that inspired him, it is more Flash Gorden and Kurosawa than you would expect and 1 to 1 copied in many aspects-

    So my 2 cents are, take what you want, never listen to anyone else besides your own gut and feelings and do what makes you happy and gives you the drive to complete a tale that might take years to accomplish

    Aswell, i am a futurist so i will take pre-existing themes and tropes and try to answer them in my own way, create more questions and expand the universe of science fiction as we know it..

    do not ever listen to anything else but your urges and thoughts

    • If there are no rules and anything goes, why is there so much bad science fiction? They are doing something wrong. Really, this list is merely a compilation of warnings about things that I’ve seen in bad SF.

  • I’m interested in your thoughts on rule 9. I agree that good sci fi should avoid deus ex machina, and there are times where invincible enemies, or limitless power can be boring and negatives in a story.

    But I think that a good story can derive from the unknown. I think the movie Arrival played on this a lot. It asked the question, what happens when we meet something or someone we literally can’t understand. Arthur Clarke’s Rendevous with Rama strikes me as similar too, where the central element of the story is how do humans begin to understand the unknown, and one could argue, the impossible to fully know/understand race that built Rama?

    I very much understand that these rules are meant to thought provoking, so kudos there, and I’m glad you wrote this. This was the only rule that stood out to me as one where directly breaking the rule has created some amazing stories.

    The culture series by Iain M Banks is another series that deals with similar questions a lot, just to plug one of my favorites.

    • The points you make are valid.

      At the time I wrote this I was editing a magazine and I kept receiving stories about God or supermen or unbeatable antagonists and to end a story with the realization that a hero can never win is weak.

      As you point out, it has been done well, but if you are writing a story please make note of rule 9. It will make your story hard to sell if you don’t.


  • I only have one comment. Missionary sex is definitely allowed with aliens. Not only is it allowed, since the male alien is drawn by abductees with no genitalia (only that strange grey mound between the legs), the female alien finds all sexual positions with the human species quite pleasurable. The last one that I was with, Xerflour, enjoyed missionary immensely, so much so that each time I tried to swivel her on top, she wrapped her spiked tail around my waist and held me on top. After the act, she lamented that the intolerably long trips that they have to make, even with inter-dimensional travel, makes her quiver with anticipation for the human form. She let me in on a secret as we gazed at each other wistfully from the edge of our pillows. The reason why alien men are so angry with the human race, the reason they wish to obliterate us, is because of our male protrusions. Xerflour put it this way, giving me a human time reference for understanding. “After six months of rubbing up against what is tantamount to a bump or nub, I need entercourse.” Of course I chuckled at her mispronunciation, stating that it is pronounced intercourse. She replied, “No, Bjorn. I prefer entercourse. Doesn’t that word “fit” better?” I laughed hard at her pun. She had picked up the nuances of the English language so quickly.

    Above all, Sci-Fi should be fun!

    • I could not get anywhere with Xerflour. She (he? it?) seemed to ignore every attempt at intimacy that I made. I can only assume you are lying or Xerflour has bad taste in Men (women? things?).

  • Only rule zero has credibility! I am 73 years old and have read literally THOUSANDS of SF stories in my life. Every one of your rules has been broken drastically many times in very good reads. And some really crappy miserable to read stories followed your 10 rules perfectly! Even Asimov has some unreadable bombs out there! You should not have to “force” yourself to read a story even if it perfectly follows your rules. So go by rule zero only.

    • I am 67 years old and have read literally THOUSANDS of SF stories.

      I also write stories. These rules are for writers. The odds are that if you don’t follow these rules, then you will probably write crappy unreadable stories. You may be a good enough writer to pull it off, but probably not.

      Break these rules at your own risk.



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I started reading Science Fiction in the 1950s. I started Writing SF in the 1960s. Then, I had a life. Now I am retired, raising chickens and keeping bees. I am still an avid reader and I have sold about 70 stories in the last 20 years.
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