A conventional novel can draw on real life. Inspiration on speech patterns can come from a snatch of conversation overheard at the shops. Making a house seem realistic can be helped by seeing how a real house is built. Want to describe a foreign beach? Go there on holiday.
So how can a science fiction novel compete with this reality? A little knowledge of the hard sciences can help. Mixing knowledge of how matter would behave under strange conditions with experience of what ice feels like can give extra detail to a scene set on an icy moon. Dealing with all five sense can help bring a scene to life. The author should be thorough in describing what a person can sense of their world. Sight, hearing, smell and touch all add up to a richer impression.
However, there’s another dimension to this. Setting a novel in 21st Century England will automatically give the reader knowledge about the world. They’ll know something of how transport works, the political situation, how people find food. A novel set in the far future, on a distant planet will need to give the readers background information, or risk providing a flat, sterile setting for the novel. If the author does give sufficient background, there may be a risk of inconsistency. A police state where censorship is common may look awkward if characters have easy access to publishing technology. History infects our modern world, and can explain why things are in a particular way in one country, and completely different elsewhere. Have people grown up in a culture which sees government as a servant, or as a possible threat to their freedom? An answer to this question may explain something about attitudes to gun control in the UK and the US.
So how can a science fiction author work towards providing a detailed, but consistent and convincing setting for their work? I’ve chosen to develop a backstory for the novel. I started with our world, and jotted down a few ideas as to how history would play out over time. I aimed to reach the setting of my novel, which is set in the far future, in a completely different environment to our own. After some highly enjoyable work I managed to establish a decent join between our world and the novel’s setting.
This back story has proved to be a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration when writing the novel. I have been able to mine this alternative history to create richer characters, who live in a culture that has at least some substance and reason for being. Part of the novel deals with characters living under severe rationing. I was able to use material from our history to provide a dose of reality to this situation, but I could also look at my fictional history to look at how this future rationing would differ subtly from shortages which had happened in our factual history.
Much of the back story won’t appear in the novel, but it could be seen as a sort of scaffolding. It was a necessary support when the story was under construction, but it’s also something that could be packed away when the work had been finished.
Maybe some of the scaffolding will be reused. Just keep on looking up.