How Robots and Ray-guns Can Improve Your Poetry

Russell Jones Dark Matter
Category: Writing

Back in 2010 I was sat with my literary hero: the Scots Makar, Edwin Morgan. We talked about his interest in science fiction – from nuclear weapons to neutron stars, teleportation to talking cancer cells. As a poet myself, I asked him for some writing advice (who wouldn’t?). This is a snippet from his answer, which has stuck with/to me:

'The experiment is just experiment. It may be successful, it may not. It may not lead to anything very much at all. Or rather it may be a kind of key to open a huge door.'

Experimentation is vital to evolving as a writer

Opening doors – isn’t that what writing’s about? I believe that experimentation is vital to evolving as a writer. If you don’t test new ideas and tools, if you always revert to what’s comfortable and known, how are you ever going to improve? How will you ever be able to surprise a reader if you can’t surprise yourself? As Morgan put it: 'Unknown is best.'

Venturing into unknown spaces can be scary (particularly if those spaces contain creatures with tentacles and a taste for human flesh) but – similar to how a poem’s form might take your words in an unexpected direction – experimentation can also change how you think about and approach writing, and ultimately affect the results of your poetry. And so we come to science fiction…

Science fiction is a genre which encourages readers and writers to imagine difference. It projects our hopes and concerns into distant times or alternate spaces, and it’s able to push ideas to their extremes. It forces us to create artistic experiments. Those experiments, as Morgan suggested, might be successful or they may not, but their results will always have an impact on their creators. Science fiction leaves you altered.

Science fiction is able to push ideas to their extremes

And in my opinion, sci-fi is a perfect bedfellow for poetry. Poetry’s brevity means it can quickly respond to our current concerns and desires – something which a novel struggles with due to its length and the slow nature of the publishing industry. A sci-fi poem can jump through time and space within a few lines, without apology or back story. You can create multiple universes in a sonnet, or travel from prehistoric lagoons to far-flung-futures in a villanelle. Formal poetic experiments also suit sci-fi, whose boundaries are always being pushed back and broken.

Science fiction allows poems to come from unexpected places. How might a virus, calculator, robot or ray gun view issues of love and death, for example? Stepping outside of our own blinkered views can sometimes shed new light on old conceits, and new forms of expression are – in my opinion – one of the ways to keep poetry interesting and relevant, as well as finding new audiences. 

I’m not suggesting this angled mirror is a trait unique to science fiction, but it is certainly prevalent to the genre. And let’s not forget enjoyment: science fiction poetry is an imaginative exploration; it battles against limitations, making it exciting to write and, hopefully, read.

And so I implore you to give sci-fi poetry a chance, to open huge doors and go where no poets have gone before!


Dark Matters book cover
Russell’s latest sci-fi poetry collection is Dark Matters, published by Tapsalteerie (May 2018), who have kindly offered two books up a prizes: the regular edition or the special edition (which includes a poetry comic illustrated by Edward Ross).

Just email with the answer to the question below. The competition closes on Tuesday 3 July 2018 at 5pm. All entrants must reside in the UK.:

Who is the Scots Makar and Russell's literary hero?

Russell Jones

Russell Jones is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. He has published five collections of poetry (three of which are sci-fi poetry) and edited two successful poetry anthologies, including Where Rockets Burn Through: Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK. He is deputy editor of Scotland’s only sci-fi magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and was a guest editor for The Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (“Poetries and Sciences in the 21st Century”). He has a PhD in Creative Writing from The University of Edinburgh, researching the sci-fi poetry of Edwin Morgan. He blogs at