Description in Science Fiction

Science fiction deals with worlds that are beyond our present day experience, whether it be futuristic extrapolations of our lives on Earth, or made up worlds we will never reach, or universes that we can never possibly believe will happen but are nevertheless interesting to write about, or indeed some other variant.

They all involve the need to describe them, or at least those parts that are different from our own world. Writers cannot rely on the reader knowing what is different from every day experience. The only real exception is if the writer is dealing with a universe that has been written about before e.g. Star Trek.

What is exactly involved in description?

In any story, the description has to include the relevant facts that have an impact on the story. For instance, it is no good say Fred has a weapon. We don’t know whether it is a gun or a laser or a photon torpedo (by the way, who put torpedos in space?).  We have to know what that weapon will do or state what part of it will change the story.

Description has another function beyond saying what is in the world that changes the story. It can also give an atmosphere to a story. There is a difference between saying ‘the apple tree had a poisonous fruit’ and ‘the apple tree was laden with glowing mouth-watering fruits that should have been picked a couple of days ago.’ One states the function and the other lets you work out that there is something very wrong with the fruit. Unless the protagonist knows about the apples, the latter is the more likely description to be written.

There is one further layer to description. It can be written in such a way so as to give the protagonist’s mood. For instance, ‘Jane saw  the soft red glow of the moonlit lake’ is different to ‘Jane saw the bloodied water of the moon’s reflection in the lake.’ The first description is calm and peaceful, whereas the second is inducing fear in the reader because that is the way Jane views the lake.

So we now have three categories of description:

  • point of description that affects the story line
  • protagonist had the knowledge or had to work something from what he senses
  • producing at atmosphere for the protagonist and hence for the reader

Anything else is very likely to be padding or waffle.

This does not mean to say there can’t be tracts of description in one place in the story and its effect comes into play very later on the story. But if you do place the description away from the action or the protagonist working out something, then there has to be good reason for doing so.

If you look at descriptions in many good science fiction books, you’ll find they keep them tight. For example from Luna New Moon by Ian McDonald:

A third time Lucasinho wakes. His father stands at the foot of the bed. A short man, slight; dark and haunted as his older brother is broad and golden. Poised and polished, a pencil line of a moustache and beard, no more; perfect but always scrutinising to keep that perfection: his clothes, his hair, his nails are immaculate.

This description was on page 10 of my copy. During the rest of the novel we see the interplay between Lucasinho’s father and uncle follow the strategy outlined by the description here.

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