How to write science into science fiction


16 February 2024
Sci-fi author Derek Künsken offers advice on merging science and storytelling in a way that grips the reader

Inserting science into science fiction can be a tricky, but manageable problem. I face it everyday. It's a subset of the expository problem all writers have across genres: How do I give the reader the basic information they need to understand the story?

There's a lot of cool science stuff I would love to add, but I ask myself “What's the minimum the reader needs to know?” This helps me know what absolutely has to be in the story, by hook or crook. Cold Equations is a classic sci-fi story full of gut-wrenching drama that utterly falls apart if the reader doesn't understand that every gram of weight affects whether or not you can change direction in space.

The answer to what absolutely needs to be there also gives me a list of what science facts are nice to know. Non-critical scientific information is like any non-essential information in any story - it shapes the flavour and style of the story. Sci-fi readers (and writers) are often sense of wonder junkies, so carefully placed, cool science facts usually add to their reading experience rather than detract from it. Similarly, readers of historical fantasy or historical romance come for the historical facts... in judicious amounts.

The amount of science to put in a story after that is like spice in cooking. The writer has to spice to taste and hope that most readers share their taste. I tend to enjoy more science facts than fewer, so I have to target editors who sell to science-thirsting sci-fi readers (ex.: Analog Magazine), or I need to dial my nerdism back. I've done both. I indulged my taste for science facts in the Quantum Evolution series, but focused on character and culture in the Venus Ascendant duology.

How do you add scientific exposition into scifi? There are a few ways.

As much as possible, I try to make science facts matter to the characters. In The House of Styx and The House of Saints, families live in the clouds of Venus. Venus's surface is hot enough to melt lead, and the clouds can burn with heat or sting with acid. This matters viscerally to the colonist. They get hurt. They worry about loved ones getting hurt. The reader worries too, and doesn't notice science facts buried in there.

Similarly, in my Quantum Evolution series set 500 years in the future, humanity has engineered several subspecies. Belonging to one of those subspecies matters to the characters. Belisarius Arjona hated being Homo quantus for some very scientific reasons I wanted to explore (I don't think humanity is responsible enough yet to engineer ourselves). The aquatic, deep ocean character Vincent Stills resented being Homo eridanus, forever trapped in the dark depths. I got to say a lot about the ocean floor through his bitterness.

A little more subtly, I sometimes try to make some of the science facts matter to the culture and psychology of the people who populate the setting. In the case of the Venusian colonists, they can't touch the surface without a submarine, can't touch the clouds without an environmental suit, and can't look at their new world with their bare eyes. If that were me, I might feel that my new environment hated me, and that feeling might become stronger with every leaky valve that exposed me to acid burns. The idea of being severed from the environment is the cultural and psychological background drama of the novels, and also distracts the reader while scientific facts enter the narrative.

Sometimes I can't find a way to connect a scientific fact to character, culture or psychology. The least subtle and most straightforward way left is a direct dose of well-written exposition. Just tell the facts. Sometimes expediency is the clearest way to go. In Ben Bova's Jupiter, there's a point early in the novel where the narrator talks directly to the reader about the gas giant's size, weather, temperature, radiation and so on. No plot. No character. No tension. No close third person point of view. Just pure facts in omniscient point of view. It works because the facts Bova picked are cool.

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My clearest example of being direct was when I was writing an alien living on their alien world using a close third person point of view. The alien could have noticed everything in its environment for the reader, but that wouldn't have been very authentic – the reader would disbelieve the character. Or I could write as clean and short an omniscient expository lump as I could to get the most important setting facts out of the way – which risks boring some readers. As with most narrative problems, I opted for what I felt was the lesser of two evils—I tried to keep the character as engaging and authentic as possible. Luckily I don't often have to make this choice.

The House of Saints is published bu Solaris. Find out more about Derek and his books at


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