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How to build a story from a SF novum

You may 00001xhave noticed during the past few Wednesdays this blog has posted ideas for science fiction stories based on novums – inventions or hypothetical concepts that SF writers inject in their tales to show how such an imagined world might differ from ours. The novum might be an mechanical device like robot servants, artificial intelligence, or faster-than-light spacecraft; it also can be a hypothetical idea such as “The Earth is a scientific experiment run by aliens to determine the meaning of life” or “The government outlaws books.” Science fiction stories typically arise from a novum.

Among the problems of many novice science fiction writers is instead of introducing a new novum they rely on used furniture – that is, they borrow novums from popular SF series. After all, how many novels have you read that use starships exploring the galaxy for the Earth-based Federation? Barely changing names to appear as if you are not appropriating – a starcraft seeking M-class worlds for the Earth-centered Alliance – still doesn’t cut it as original or fully using the potential that science fiction offers to examine our culture or humanity. Clearly a list of new, scientifically plausible novums are needed.

Of course, simply describing a world based on a novum is more of an essay than a story. Stories center on conflict, and a novum should generate such clashes that lead to a tale worthy of telling. A novum is the “what if” that allows you to explore humanity.

Consider the following novum – Second Brain. What if everything in the world were catalogued so that information about any item could be instantly accessed? Buy a burger and fries? The tray instantly relays information about their calories nutritional value. Pass an item in the supermarket? Up pops info about its ingredients and cost per ounce compared to other products. See a car driving down the street? The make, model, special features, miles per gallon and sticker price suddenly appear over it. Pull a book from a shelf in a library? A synopses and links to critical reviews rise from the book’s top edge. Sounds like a great universe, doesn’t it – you never need to look up information about anything! Decision-making suddenly becomes easier.

What if, however, a group of teens and young adults revolt against this info-heavy world, and like hippies of the past speaking against capitalism, claim the Second Brain mars the world’s natural beauty, is largely controlled by megacorporations and so is inaccurate and meant to cajole you into making purchases, and is information overload that disconnects us from one another and our own selves. This marks a major division in society – those who want to disconnect from the Second Brain and those who are utterly dependent upon it.

Now, what if this conflict is played out between a college-age daughter and her corporation-managing father? She leaves for the wilderness while he works to further entwine the Second Brain into our society. Of course, their conflict over the novum is merely representative of what truly separates them…she finds his love for her phony (like the Second Brain information) while he finds her ungrateful and unappreciative. How can they ever overcome this divide? That’s the story you want to tell.

The novum, meanwhile, serves as a launch pad to a discussion about our own era, in which people increasingly disconnect from one another in favor of the information and entertainment they receive via their smartphones and other electronic devices.

In short, the list of novums appearing on this blog are merely a starting point. So, when creating a story from them, follow these six simple steps:
• Select a novum you find intriguing
• Imagine how the world would be different if this novum actually existed
• Determine a conflict that might arise between people or within a person in such a world; this conflict is substantive enough that it needs to be resolved
• Create characters (especially a protagonist and an antagonist) who can fight out these conflicts in this imagined world
• Draw an analogy between this imagined world and its characters with today’s society
• Write the story

All right, let’s get started writing the next generation of great science fiction!

Professional Book Editor: Having your novel, short story or nonfiction manuscript proofread or edited before submitting it can prove invaluable. In an economic climate where you face heavy competition, your writing needs a second eye to give you the edge. I can provide that second eye.


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