I know I’ve discussed the importance of world-building before in science fiction (and fantasy), and I still feel the same. However, I think there are other important aspects of engaging sci-fi. A few of these fall under the umbrella of originality (the most important/difficult factor), and balance of all or most of these is probably ideal.
New Worlds – Pretty self-explanatory. Sci-fi readers want to go to places they’ve never been before and this can include a futuristic or alternate Earth. The genre is unique in its ability to support any setting or situation. The entire Universe is your oyster…
Cool Stuff I Don’t Have – Also pretty basic. Robots or other AI, laser guns, star ships, or other things we’ve never even thought about before.
Description – The first two won’t work unless they are woven into the story with unique language, allowing a reader to see and conceptualize something never before considered.
Modern Issues Solved with Future Tech – This may seem contradictory to the first two, but a balance of real and imaginative always works. I think sci-fi is at its best when it takes current problems and thinks of creative solutions future generations could use to solve them. Neal Stephenson recently challenged writers to think more optimistically about the issues we are facing now (though I personally still like a good dystopian). Using scientific theories that already exist adds a sense of reality to an obviously unreal setting. Larry Niven’s Ringworld series evolved based on feedback from engineers who read and loved his first book.
Action – Maybe this my testosterone speaking, but I do want explosions, high-speed chases, laser pistol fights, cool aircraft maneuvers, etc. This is fine in small doses, but I should be hooked early and throughout a submission.
Many of the submissions I see are very unique but lacking in pacing or character development (items so essential to all fiction they didn’t bear listing). It’s good to remember that publishing is very subjective and personal taste does come up a lot in our meetings. That said, I would love to be blown away by something so unique, so exciting that I have no choice but to recommend it for acquisition.