Let’s Start With A Spaceship In Trouble …
How I Write Science Fiction by Harry Harrison (1976)
I like to read science fiction and I like to write it just as much. I like it hard and I like it soft. Soft science fiction is more like fantasy than anything else. It can be a lot of fun – but you don’t have to worry too much about your facts. Hard SF is different. If there are real facts, and they are important to the story, they must be right. You can’t cheat. I did a book once about building a tunnel from Land’s End to the United States. Before I wrote a word I had to find out just what the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean was really like. I discovered a number of interesting facts – like an underwater mountain range of volcanoes – that made the book that much more fun to write and to read.
Then one day an editor asked me to write a story for the magazine Young Scientist. He wanted a story that told all about evolution, how the first life appeared on this planet, how it grew and changed through millions of years. A tall, order that – particularly since the story had to be enjoyable to read as well. After a lot of lip-chewing and staring out the study window at cactus and jackrabbits – I was living in California then – I had the idea. I would have a class of school children travel back in time to watch evolution as it was happening. And their school teacher would explain to them – and to the readers. Then, to make the story interesting rather than a boring old lecture, I had the children react the way they would in a real classroom. The good ones were good, while the naughty ones started fights, tried to step on the squigglies of a million years ago – and were always asking to go to the loo.
I enjoyed doing this so much that I said to myself – why not a whole book like this? Why not indeed. Let’s start with a spaceship in trouble, always excitement there. Let’s start with real trouble, with the only officer left alive and in charge being the ship’s doctor. And give him plenty of problems including the medical ones he should know how to face.
All of the problems in Spaceship Medic are real ones. Some of them can be solved by a knowledge of physics, others by astronomy or simple chemistry. All of the facts are given and the reader has just as big a chance of finding the answer as does the poor doctor. Science, and the facts of science, can be fun – because real things make a real world.
When I was done I had a space adventure novel where problems had to be solved and mighty fast too. With a happy sigh I typed those magic words, The End, on the manuscript and sent it off to my publisher.
Originally published in Puffin Post, Vol.10 No.4, 1976