Science fiction is fun, they say. Fans call it sci-fi—hard to pronounce and chew gum at the same time. Technically speaking, it’s a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic settings, science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. It explores potential consequences of scientific and other innovations. Its more erudite fans label it the “literature of ideas.”

Assuming the italicized words apply, the question might be: which ethical codes could ever hope to be recognizable in a speculative, imaginative, futuristic, parallel, extraterrestrial setting?

Wait, back down to reality. I’m not looking for ethical norms in that setting—how un-sci-fi would that be? I’m just interested in the writing of the thing, not the thing itself.

I opined in an earlier blog about “writing ethically.” The core premise, I said then, is to avoid plagiarism and resist the impulse to make up “facts.” But the second half of that dictum only relates to writing nonfiction. When writing fiction, you have to make up the facts. Yes, plagiarism is a sin in this world, but is it one in a future world?

This is an onion-peeling process—eliminating ethical norms that do not add moral value to sci-fi writing. In literary fiction, we must be fair, honest, and accurate. It must be original, even if some ideas, notions, descriptive tone, meaning, and focus came from other ethical writers. Seems to me, those norms apply to sci-fi as well as literary fiction. Leave that peel on the onion.

Plagiarism is our mortal sin, but there are venal sins in literary fiction: cryptomnesia and intentional fabrication. Plagiarism is as unethical in sci-fi as it is in on this planet. How about cryptomnesia in sci-fi? Is that a peel that ought to come off the onion? Cryptomnesia is the reappearance of a suppressed or forgotten memory which is mistaken for a new experience. Makes ethical sense to worry about that in literary fiction, but in sci-fi, who cares? Maybe suppressed memories that pop up not just off the grid but off the planet are important in writing sci-fi. Does it matter? Intentional fabrication needs no definition—it applies in nonfiction but fabrication is the essence of literary fiction and the high priest of sci-fi writing.

In my opinion, fiction writers must make two decisions before keyboarding that first line in a novel. How much of the novel is actually true, and whose truth is it to reveal? These days, historical fiction creeps into most novels. So, truth in fiction is our ethical dilemma. But is that the case in sci-fi writing? Is any part of sci-fi supposed to be “factually true?” Who ought to own the truth in sci-fi writing? The writer? If not, then who?

My vote is to drop the factually true element in sci-fi writing. It’s not supposed to really be “out there,” is it?

Maybe the search for ethical norms in sci-fi writing lies in examining why so many readers love it. They are purposeful readers. They are of all ages, all genders, all religions, all colors, and every disposition and attitude. What they share is escapism. But there’s more. Sci-fi, admittedly speculative, winks at realism. The best sci-fi is a thoughtful perspective on the future. It’s informed by modern science and technological possibility. In my opinion, those are the ethical norms for sci-fi writers. Write to purposeful readers, let them escape their reality, give them a future perspective, and make it scientifically possible, even if it sounds impossible now.


Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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