The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero.

Hard Sciences and Tough Technology”, Hal Clement — Clement is amazingly catholic in his sf taste, but he clearly considers “hard” sf the highest calling. He also admits his tastes as to what he will and won’t allow in hard sf (like FTL) is purely subjective. He provides useful ways of thinking how to use science in sf and the technique of incorporating science into a story. He says science can be used as a mystery-like device to solve a story’s puzzle, necessary rationale for story situation, and mere background that affects characters and leaves plot “mainstream” like. Clement stresses internal consistency and doing research because sf readers will probably catch mistakes and writers who don’t know what they’re talking about. Clement also brings up the point that the magic in fantasy and science in sf must be explained in terms of workings, limitations, and powers. While generally this is true there are, I feel, exceptions. Nevertheless, it’s very useful advice to avoid cheating readers. Clement lists three ways (and all work under certain conditions specific to them) of incorporating science: solid, well-worked material; poorly understand pop science; fast-talking pseudo-science babble (as long as it sounds good). Science can subordinate or be subordinate to the plot. Clement also points out advantages and disadvantages of short stories, they can’t develop premise fully but can’t make as many mistakes) and novel (all implications can be developed but more room for mistakes.)

Rubber Sciences”, Norman Spinrad — Very useful how-to and critical article. Spinrad’s gives (and illuninates using Scientology as an example) advice on how to create plausible (he makes a good case for arguing this is the most important feature of science fiction) science and environments. Spinrad urges developing extensive (and probably unused) background for a story. Rules for developing Rubber Sciences (plausible backgrounds, technology, and sciences): internal consistency, plant information near beginning of story , know when to stop explaining (too much explaining almost inevitably brings disbelief back), paying attention to evolution of science and plausible vocabulary, interfacing two old sciences will make new third, inventing hardware for science. Internal consistency means consistently maintaining a level of explanation for wonders (take them for granted or explain). Spinrad makes interesting case that sf, unlike fantasy, creates rather than requires willing suspension of disbelief through plausible rationale for wonders. Spinrad also makes very legitimate point that sf, unlike any other literature, (because it deals with plausible sounding futures and possibilities) can inspire and create futures. Rubber Science, at best, can be intellectual exploration of the unknown. That unknown can be a visionary consciousness (Spinrad makes point that changes of all sorts influence our consciousness and new consciousness makes new change) or the interface between our total (political, physical, social, cultural, artistic, biological) environment and our consciousness. Spinrad says ultimate subject for sf is nature of reality, and, since he cites Philip K. Dick as the greatest practitioner of this, he considers Dick as greatest sf writer. Spinrad recommends sf writer be generally scientifically literate and keep abreast of new disciplines. Spinrad claims, hard sf is subset of Rubber Science and rather limited in its perspective (modern consciousness in alien environment). There is much validity in this statement.

Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps”, Alan E. Nourse — Nourse puts forth three criteria for all successful fiction (and, by and large, I agree): theme (or premise, idea, driving force, thesis), character, and conflict. The theme can usually be stated simply. Character is revealed through conflict and conflict (especially in sf) can reveal the nature of the background society and environment. Extrapolation of modern (and, in some cases) past trends creates a novel background and that distinguishes sf from all other literature. Extrapolation can be in the very near future in a very limited area or more general trends in the further future. Also, present trends and concerns can be shifted to new settings (e.g. Frank Herbert’s Dune). Of course, some extrapolations are so drastic as to be quantum jumps yet they can be plausibly described and suggested. Also, extrapolations can be used to create character, theme, and conflict as well as serve to justify author’s story. Nourse’s cleanly written essay really doesn’t have much new to state, but it is a good reminder of basics as well as being informative regarding Nourse’s own The Bladerunner.

Future Writers in a Future World”, Theodore Sturgeon — Not a terribly useful essay though it does reflect what I’ve heard of Sturgeon’s fictional concerns. Sturgeon, and I disagree to some extent, states that the center of any story must be emotions “and above all loneliness”. An interesting biographical statement but not a valid critical value.  \He advises, and it seems a good if not always practical bit of advice, to gear story to a person or group of persons. He does suggest some interesting mildly story ideas. He also shows naivete regarding the energy crisis. In short, little of how-to value but of interest as a personal statement of Sturgeon’s personal and artistic values.

The Construction of Believable Societies”, Jerry Pournelle — Pournelle reveals himself to be a very clear and concise essayist free from some of the annoying mannerisms other authors (Theodore Sturgeon, Frank Herbert, Kathleen MacLean) have in this book Pournelle well shows the very crucial (even more than accurate science and tech material which can be avoided) importance of thinking about and developing plausible social, technological, and political backgrounds for stories even when they don’t seem to need them. Pournelle, as usual, provides intriguing suggestions for non-fiction reading in these matters. (Pournelle is something of a Renaissance man.) Pournelle suggests writer ask questions of relations between sexes, nature (or absence) of family units, government (what type, why do people obey it, what are its myths), and influence of technology. Pournelle raises intriguing point that cultures and political systems work by power of their myth and none are empirically better than others. Pournelle doesn’t suggest answers since, he says, no one in the social sciences has any firm ones, but lots of good questions.

Men on Other Planets”, Frank Herbert — Despite some annoying material that doesn’t seem particularly relevant, Herbert has one good message: memorable and shocking sf can be written by assaulting assumptions of our culture, race, sf, and the author’s own personal ones. Analysis of art and world reveals assumptions inherent and these can be turned on their head. He gives some good examples including a brief critique of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. He also suggest familiarization with sf to avoid common cliches and also lists some cultural taboos to be potentially dealt with. He also says that no matter what the alien environment and alien characters are some reflection will be made of present human conditions if only in attacking assumptions and not upholding them.

Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences”, Katherine MacLean — A rather opaque and silly essay in parts in regard to its speculations on similarity of senses between different species and intelligent wind creatures (because A. E. van Vogt and Lester del Rey created they must be possible). Still, MacLean brings up valuable points on environment’s influence on morality and potential conflicts between species even when they have similar sensations and experiences and illuminates with from William Tenn’s works). She also states sometimes forgotten point that aliens regard themselves (and their world) as physically normal and morally right. Still, there didn’t seem to be much of value in this too long and sometimes unclear essay.

Heroes, Heroines, Villains: The Characters in Science Fiction“, James Gunn — James Gunn once proves his considerable critical talents which make him, of the ones I’ve read, the best sf critic. This essay is less (in fact, very little) how-to and more critic but criticism is illuminating to writers as well. Gunn talks about characters in sf and why they are so flat (they are usually types and sf is usually concerned with race and culture not individuals). Gunn points out (one of those things obvious after they’re pointed out) characters determine events and situation makes characters, and characters, especially in sf, exist to carry plot. Gunn lists Jules Verne (competent adventurer-scientist), Edgar Allan Poe (obsessive, exquisitely sensitive man), Mary Shelley (“mad” scientist), H. G. Wells (common man), Edgar Rice Burroughs (romantic adventurer), and John W. Campbell (realistic scientist) as creators of prime sf character types. He lists J. G. Ballard’s motiveless wanderer of “The Terminal Beach” as about as far away as you can go from tradition. Gunn has a sensible appreciation of entertaining, “traditional”, i.e. time proved, story values. Gunn also points there are few individually memorable heroes (and these, I would argue, are almost by definition types) in sf, fewer heroines, and virtually no villains. The last is a very interesting and true point. (The only candidate for memorable villain I can put forth is Frank Herbert’s Baron Harkonnen). Gunn says this is because sf enemy is often cultural values or (O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984 is memorable, but he is a symbol of the State, the environment of the story. I would agree and add that alien menaces, if it all memorable, are made somewhat sympathetic because we are shown why they do what they do. In other words, we sympathize (as in H. G. Wells’ Martians from The War of the Worlds) with their struggle for survival. Also it is hard to do alien menaces as individuals delineated from their already novel culture, e.g. how do you add novelty on novelty?

The Words in Science Fiction”, Larry Niven — Niven has little to say that I have not heard before, but, like most points on sf writing, it bears frequent repetition. Niven tells how to create new words and how they can illustrate points of future earth history and culture, ditto for alien cultures, and differences in alien psychology (what concepts are more important to them than us for instance Eskimo’s many words for snow), what ideas they have we don’t and vice versa, and how they view the world.) Niven says creating words isn’t necessary but is fun.

Short Stories and Novelettes”, Jack Williamson — Good nuts-and-bolts advice on maintaining suspense and unity of theme, character, and plot. He gives interesting advice on using A. E. van Vogt’s idiosyncratic 800-word scene theory. He also cites potential of cinematic technique and importance of sensory information and characters’ reactions to stimuli. Also, interesting composition information about his “With Folded Hands . . .”

The Science Fiction Novel”, John Brunner — Extremely (perhaps, along with Pournelle’s essay, the most useful in book) valuable essay that will merit rereading. Brunner gives detailed advice on plotting and advantages and disadvantages of the different potential viewpoints. Brunner also stresses using sensory data, right (and precise, correctly connative) words, and development of talent to see that words say no more and no less than author desires.

With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image”, Harlan Ellison — As usual Harlan addresses forthrightly, personally, with liberal doses of insults, warnings, anger, and hip (and usually funny) sayings. Ellison presents a frank picture of trials and tribulations in the screenwriting trade. Ellison gives the very exacting skills needed to work in a totally visual medium.

The Science Fiction Professional”, Frederik Pohl — Pohl gives no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts aspects of getting an agent (and when and why), publicizing self, and lecture tours. He gives the elementary advice so many would-be writers: writers write. Pohl is very encouraging in end when he says being professional in writing is knowing your limits and trying to transcend them — even if it means failure. The sin is not trying at all.


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