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Writer’s Craft # 127 – Writing Space Travel

July 29, 2013

Michelle Murrain

Michelle Murrain


Michelle Murrain is a science fiction writer who has published seven novels. Her novels are largely hard science fiction, and incorporate social, political, and spiritual topics. She lives in Northern California.


I’m a hard science fiction author. Proudly, even. As much as I love to ponder social structures, like relationships, culture and family, explore political systems, and delve into theological questions, first and foremost, I love science, and the implications of science as we understand it.

Hard science fiction does provide certain parameters for writing. Of course each subgenre of speculative fiction has its own set of rules, generally obeying the laws of physics is one rule of hard SF. The fun part, of course, is that you get to think about how our understanding of the laws of physics, or our abilities to manipulate matter might get better over time. And that framework actually creates some really great opportunities.

Space travel has been a core part of science fiction since the beginning. In fact, one of the earliest novels considered science fiction, C.J. Defontenay’s Star ou Psi de Cassiopée, published in 1854 is about space travel. (There is a translation available. It’s a strange read.) And as our understandings of our current and possibly future limitations on travel have changed, new inventions and ideas have been created to circumvent those limitations. I’ve used one of them in some of my writing, notably wormholes. They are useful short cuts, but in the end, I think some of the most interesting stories don’t allow such workarounds, but make us face head on the vastness of space, and the terrible distances involved.

In one novel I wrote, called Becoming Queen, I combined the idea of using quantum teleportation for immediate communication with the long amounts of time space travel would take (even with improved drive capacities.) It’s fun to think about how that might affect things – ideas can travel fast and easily, but people can’t. There are a lot of ramifications to that kind of reality, and it was a quite enjoyable exercise.

And of course, there is a richness in our own neighborhood of space, and there will be a lot of time, if we ever get around to it, where travel within the solar system will be quite interesting. Quite a bit more interesting than, say, the Oregon Trail was in the mid-19th century.

I have noticed a marked decrease in the number of science fiction novels about space these days. I guess perhaps that might be a reflection of the malaise related to the US space program. Or maybe it’s just not as popular as it used to be. But I’ll be writing about space for a long time to come.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2013 8:58 pm

    We’re still writing them, Lynda, but the publishers are not buying. Just last week, prompted by yet another publisher, my agent asked me once more, “Are you sure you don’t want to write an urban fantasy?”

    • August 4, 2013 10:19 am

      I hear you Graham. I did a writers’ gig with high school students yesterday where a student reacted negatively to science fiction — I essayed to convince her sci fi isn’t all techno babble. But the easier task might be to call what we do SF – Speculative Fiction. I hate the “change a word” game but it can be easier than changing minds about a stereotype. On the other hand, there’s ways to make urban fantasy scientifically accurate where applicable.

  2. July 31, 2013 9:26 pm

    Well, publishers have limited list space, so when genres like near-future SF start to become popular, other genres tend to take a hit. I do enjoy reading some hard science fiction.

    I agree that part of it is probably how space has become less popular with governments. There just haven’t been a lot of new discoveries, and even among the SFF community, there’ve been a lot of people coming down on space travel, even in our own solar system.

    Personally, as someone who loves space stories of many genres, that does make me a bit sad.

    I’ve been considering some stories taking the ftl communication, stl travel route, although the mechanisms would disqualify it from hard sf, and I think there are a lot of cool conflicts, personal troubles and sociological issues that could be explored in such fiction. Keep up the good work.

    • August 4, 2013 10:29 am

      I think we can be too worried about classifications. Personally, I use FTL travel (reality skimming in my universe) as a metaphor for technological empowerment, and gave up on the physics of it in my teens from the hard science perspective. In a space operatic / epic (#OptimisticSF) setting, like the Okal Rel Universe, the FTL solution maps to trade, communications and military power. It isn’t the story, but it lets me frame and dramatize the story.

      • August 4, 2013 3:49 pm

        There’s an argument to be made for using science fiction as an analogous frame to real-world issues, and using FTL is the simplest way to achieve that. There are also stories to be told where STL is the best dramatic enabler. I just wish people would realize you can like the one without hating the other. Out of all the things we need to be concerned about avoiding in speculative fiction, technicalities of physics should be ranked so much lower than it seems to be.

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