Writing Thriller Novels -
Science Fiction or Science Faction?
Can Your Readers Suspend
Here I’m not going to discuss literary fiction – such as written by Ian McEwan or V S Naipaul; I’m
discussing thrillers, specifically techno-thriller novels. Now, you might think immediately of Tom Clancy, or maybe
Craig Thomas, but Patricia Cornwell is also, to me, a techno-thriller author. When I read Cornwell, I believe
pretty much everything – she was a medical examiner and knows bodies inside out. Clancy or Thomas though? Certainly
their work is plausible, even when Thomas invented a new Russian plane, in Firefox, it was fairly credible to
If we look at the work of someone like Colin Dexter (who wrote the Morse series of
detective stories), each tale is well written and credible, but the context – which makes Oxford the murder
capital of England – is perhaps a stretch too far. Nevertheless each story is holistic and credible in its own
right. It’s not in the techno-thriller genre, but you get the point, I hope.
To what degree do you suspend disbelief when you read these works, and as a writer, what would you
expect of your readers? My academic background is physics and oceanography, and I did find some of Clancy’s writing
hard to swallow when I read it first, but I still enjoyed it. When he is developing his franchise with other
authors in his later books, the stories, to me, become less credible.
Now, there are techno-thriller writers, very successful ones, whose work I cannot read. Some of it is
down to style, and some to content. I cannot suspend disbelief, even when the storyline is all action and racing
When techno-thrillers are set well into the future, they become science fiction. To me, science fiction
invents new technologies – for example a black hole interstellar drive for a spaceship. I argue that in between
techno-thrillers and science fiction, there is a genre which we could call science-faction. This projects existing
technology (or tech that is just being developed), into the near future. It is on the edge of
This is where I would pitch some of Arthur C Clarke’s work. With his prediction of earth-orbiting
satellites he was just ahead of the curve.
So, when I wrote ‘Gate of Tears’ – and I classify my work as science faction - I looked a little
ahead into the future, projecting existing technologies (together with trends, politics and international events).
I didn’t want my readers to say – “that’s incredible” (literally) and maybe have their enjoyment curtailed. To that
extent I like to include a bibliography of research resources just in case readers are interested to look further
into my ideas.
I do love science fiction though, and as I get older, more of it seems to become credible. I have
seen Clarke’s satellite prediction come to fruition during my lifetime, and there are aspects of William Gibson’s
work – e.g. ‘jacking into the web’ with a direct connection from a chip implant in the brain to the internet which
I believe are not more than a generation away. Science fiction in itself has a spectrum – from extreme technical
content, through all action adventure, to societal science fiction concerned with how alternative societies on
alternative worlds might be structured and behave. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is an example of this.
Whichever one you go with, there is plenty of room for creative writers, and plenty of material for
readers – whether they can suspend disbelief or not.
In a way, I guess it’s just a question of timescale – as we progress technically, science fiction
becomes science faction becomes reality. It may also be a matter of the reader’s perception, based on their
individual levels of scientific knowledge. Now that a writer cannot address!