The next best approach to writing science fiction, aside from studying actual science, is to study science fiction. In fact, you really should do both. If you study the science but not the science fiction, it's easy to come up with ideas that have already been thoroughly explored to the point that the ideas have become quaint or unpopular, or have been explored better elsewhere. For my own personal experience, in the early nineties I started reading about the possibility of virtual reality, usually explored in popular science magazines like, uh, Popular Science. Reading about virtual reality, I naturally started getting a lot of ideas about stories where people are trapped in computer generated worlds and don't know it.
I'd read science fiction almost exclusively through the early 1980s. Then I went to college. As an English major, I was trained to regard science fiction and fantasy as a lesser form of literature unworthy of my attention. (This is still a common attitude, but now there are respectable universities with programs that study these genres.) Because my college degree had steered me toward reading more "literary" fiction, I'd stopped reading contemporaneous science fiction just before the rise of cyberpunk novels. In this genre, virtual reality was a fairly common concept, and I was only vaguely aware the genre existed. When I was writing my VR stories I thought I was being original, but every editor reading my work probably wondered why I was wasting their time with stories they'd seen before.
This need to know what's already been done can create a real challenge for the would be science fiction author. If you read essays by professional editors of science fiction publications, one of the things you'll quickly discover is that they have a huge list of stories they never want to read again. The classic "don't send us this" story would be a male and female astronaut find themselves stranded on an alien world with that's eerily Earthlike. It turns out their names are Adam and Eve! Or, shocker, your neighbor/wife/mother is an alien! Or you discover you're living in an intergalactic zoo!
Ten thousands stories based on these ideas have already been written. What hope is there of writing an original story?
On the other hand, music is built out of a limited number of notes and chords and time signatures. People have been writing love songs since before there was even a way to write them down, let along record them. But, every day new love songs get written, and some of them are great. There is no idea so old or worn out that a good artist can't find a fresh use for it.
The cheesy alien zoo premise? It was old when Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five. So were stories about time travel. But, rather than shying away from these elements, Vonnegut just incorporates them with an audacious swagger and self-aware humor. Sure, the character travels through time. Sure, he's been exhibited in a zoo on an alien world. But these are included in a much larger story about war and justice and mortality. The story isn't built on time travel. Instead, the science fictional elements serve as a frame that provides an emotional distance that's required to tell the destruction of Dresden without being destroyed by the telling.
Beginning authors often assume that great science fiction stories are about exploring some cool science or technology. In reality, most great science fiction is about exploring larger human truths. Any tools you choose to need to show these truths are fair game.
Once you know this, the vast body of science fiction that's been written before is no longer a constraint on your originality. It's now part of our common cultural language, and fair game to be incorporated into art.
For instance, H. G. Wells wrote a book called The Time Machine. The technology behind the machine is somewhat blurry, but the science shown in demonstrating how man might evolve based on the theories of the day, and how the planet would change based on what's known about how the sun and moon will change, are reasonably sound. For any current author, the important thing about The Time Machine is the fact that anyone even vaguely familiar with popular culture knows what a time machine is. If you want to write a time travel story, you don't need to do serious research into the plausible construction of a time machine. You write, "I set the controls of my time machine to 1941 and pressed the button." Poof! The reader will follow you to 1941. The time machine can look like a Police Box, a fast car, or a watch. It can be a phone app, a special beverage you purchase at 7-11, or a do it yourself kit downloaded off the internet. It's a free idea, yours to use with gusto, with the caveat that your story shouldn't be about time travel. H. G. Wells wrote his book about time travel. His is the story that explains the concept. You, get to use the concept. You can use time travel as a plot gimmick, but the focus of the story can't be "wow, what an amazing technology." In my own case, my first novel Nobody Gets the Girl has a time machine in it. It exists not to explore the wonders of time travel, but to provide my protagonist with existential angst once his life gets erased. I use it as a device to take my character apart and put him back together in pursuit of exploring the larger question of just what, exactly, is a "normal" life. Oh, and there are some giant baby dolls and some superheroes and a trip to Mars, for literary merit.
The big advantage of stealing from existing science fiction is that you know going in what sort of market exists. If you want to write stories set on a post apocalyptic Earth, or about travelling to an alternative reality, or about first contact with aliens, you know that there's already a viable base of readers who've enjoyed the concept in the past and might have liked it enough to read another one. This is how genres come about--readers enjoy murder mysteries, or romances, or stories about robots that fall in love while solving murder mysteries, and want to recreate the pleasure of that experience.
The disadvantage of recycling old ideas is that, well, they're old ideas. Great science fiction thrives on instilling a sense of wonder. That can be tough to do when you're staying safely within the predefined lines drawn by authors who happened to have the unfair advantage of being born a century before you. Now, no matter how fresh you try to make your time travel story, it's probably going to vanish from bookstores in a few years, while H G Wells is still in print and being read over a century later. Writing the familiar is a great strategy for selling books. It's far less likely to earn you literary immortality.
Welcome to my worlds!
I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!