Are sci-fi writers better than others?

Sci-fi writers are better than other writers. Isaac Asimov was once accused of making this claim, which infuriated a great many writers. Given his famously large ego, this seemed like something he would say, but his actual words were more along the lines of ‘all things being equal, a sci-fi writer could write passably well in other genres without additional training, but other genre writers probably could not do the same in sci-fi.’

There is a grain of truth to this argument. Every genre has conventions that it prefers you follow, but sci-fi demands some knowledge of science and sci-fi lore. You don’t need to be an expert, but you have to know the basics. Take Star Wars, for example. Modern physics says that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Well, that’s a serious problem if you’re planning to create an evil galactic empire. So George Lucas had to either come up with his own scientific-sounding solution or use one of the existing sci-fi conventions like the hyperdrive. If he did neither, Star Wars would cease to be sci-fi and become fantasy, a related but completely different genre.

So are sci-fi writers better than other writers? No, not inherently at least. Ego or no ego, Asimov knew better than to make such a ridiculous assertion. His words were twisted by those who did not like the suggestion that sci-fi was somehow different or special. Asimov didn’t argued that he could write romance better than a romance writer – only that he could write romance, whereas a romance writer probably could not write passable sci-fi without research. This is because romance is within the realm of common experience, unlike hyperdrives. Sci-fi writers are not “better” for knowing science and sci-fi lore, but such knowledge does grant them the ability to operate in the sci-fi genre.

Asimov was not a ‘great writer’ in the literary sense, and he was acutely aware of this. He rarely wrote about romantic love, and many of his stories have very little action and character development. But sci-fi is largely a concept-driven genre, and Asimov was a ‘great sci-fi writer’ because his ideas were so good and he presented them with remarkable clarity. As I have written previously, the topic determines the creative skills needed.

4 thoughts on “Are sci-fi writers better than others?

  1. I do not concur that being a talented sci-fi writer gives you more strength when it comes to the production of other genres of writing. I will say that the advantage of a sci-fi writer has much to do with their ability to research to lend some credibility to their text. This trait is important for any writer, no matter the genre. Writers of science fiction, medical fiction, legal fiction and the like often hone their skills of research to “prove” their thesis/claims/story. Research is the cornerstone of any good work of fiction. In that respect, science fiction writers (and medical, legal, etc.) have an advantage to creating believable text.

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  2. You make some great points, Kari, and I have rewritten the article to incorporate some of them. Thanks!

    One thing about sci-fi authors is that they may not have to research much to write their works. Many of them already possess the requisite knowledge because they are scientists and/or sci-fi fans themselves. They may have good research skills, but I’m not sure if that is necessarily a common trait for sci-fi writers in general.

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  3. I have to agree that it would be very hard for someone naturally suited to writing romance to decide to write a piece of science fiction. It would certainly be a stretch for me since it is not something I read on a regular basis. In that respect, be it Asimov’s words or not, he is correct in saying that he could probably do a better job of writing a romance than a romance author could at writing science fiction.

    Though, I might take that on as a challenge! Might need to give the old science fiction thing a try.

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  4. I’m glad that the article can serve as a sort of writing challenge for you. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I like that idea very much. I think everyone needs challenges of different sorts in order to grow. I know that I’m likely terrible at romance, so maybe I should try my hand at it. I’ve got nowhere to go but up!

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