Neal (Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash) Stephenson’s father was an engineer and his mother a scientist, and he himself studied science at Boston University. Isaac Asimov (Foundation) has a PhD in Chemistry. Stanisław Lem (Solaris) was a medical doctor. Besides a Master’s Degree and other educational achievements, Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake) is an inventor of a robotic writing device.
If you’re an aspiring science fiction writer, examining the education and life accomplishments of your favorite authors can sometimes make you feel under-qualified. I read through many biographies and find scientists, doctors, inventors, mathematicians, and physicists. I dropped out of college to start a service business, yet I still have the desire to write science fiction. Is this a lost cause?
Not if you research what you’re writing. This should be a necessary step for any writer regardless of genre, as you will inevitably touch on something of which you do not have all of the facts. The most obvious source for information is the internet. Research is deceptively easy here, yet there’s the caveat that what you find might be incorrect. Check your sources, find confirmation, and take notes.
More rewarding is developing contacts whom you can question on their area of expertise. I’m writing a decline-of-civilization story currently, and I have a scene that involves cracking a safe. There are YouTube videos to watch for some of the basics. I’ve also read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character about Richard Feynman, which covers his breaking into everything with a combination at Los Alamos during the development of the atomic bomb. But I also have a friend who picks locks and once worked at a safe company. This third source added the most color to what could be a procedural scene and added points that contribute to my story’s authenticity.
Besides direct research, keeping up with current scientific discoveries is key. Even a non-scientist can follow the news. My favorite source is listening to the Science Friday podcasts from NPR. This has become a springboard for further investigation on many topics that interest me. I’ve gone on to read about how sow bugs can drink out of their anus, fundamental attribution errors, exoplanets, and the development of sulfa and antibiotics. These are just a few items from my truck’s notebook where I write down things I hear about to read up on later. This puts the time spent idling in traffic to good use. Besides Science Friday and other podcasts, I download audiobooks. These can be either purchased or borrowed for free from many libraries. Besides, talk radio makes me want to plunge an awl into my ears.
Curiosity would be the third component to writing science fiction, as it contributes to the first two, but also will blossom out of life experiences not associated with staring at a computer screen while trying to write. I find being outside, hiking, looking at bugs, etc. to be such a wonderful way to learn about the world. Have an appliance that you need to replace? Try fixing it. I learned about microwave ovens by dismantling one and looking it up in the book The Way Things Work. Lots of pictures help. I discovered how to change a simple fuse and kept the oven working for years at the cost of one blown fuse per year. I finally retired the beast after it started to give me electric shocks.
Your imagination and creativity are your own. But science fiction requires a level of plausibility that needs to be backed up by the writer’s experience, education, and research.
(And an education counterpoint: William Gibson (Neuromancer) did horribly in school and just wanted to write science fiction. Frank Herbert (Dune) didn’t finish college. And Philip K. Dick wanted to do mind-altering drugs.)