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 Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.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. Continue reading “The Craft of Science Fiction”

Earth’s Last Citadel

Well, there has been a fair uptick in traffic hear lately from a crowd interested in pulp, so I thought I’d get something out from the archives that might make them to stick around.

Frankly, though, this blog isn’t very tightly focused on any one type of book.

Still, it’s always nice to have more readers so maybe some of the new viewers will stick around.

One of my uncompleted reading projects is to read all 50 titles in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction by Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin from 1979. This title was listed.

Raw Feed (1992): Earth’s Last Citadel, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, 1943.Earth's Last Citadel

I didn’t care for this novel all that much. I suppose Baird Searles included it on his list of classic sf novels because it’s pulpy and probably one of the earliest far future science-as-magic stories.

While I didn’t find the novel particularly entertaining, it was critically interesting.

First, the menacing Alien from beyond time — first and last of his kind on Earth, feeder on mental energy (a vampire of sorts) is reminiscent of a Lovecraftian horror. He is a Light-Wearer. The good Light-Wearers created, from human stock, the Carcasillans and protected them (and expected worship from them) from the bad Light-Wearers like the Alien. This lends a biblical flavor to the book.

This book is interesting as a midway point in the far-future sub-genre of sf. Continue reading “Earth’s Last Citadel”

The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82

Review: The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82, ed. Robert Silverberg, 2010.Palace at Midnight

“Our Lady of the Sauropods”, I called it, and when Omni published it in the September, 1980 issue, the cover announced, “Robert Silverberg Returns!” I imagined the puzzled readers, who surely were unaware that it was seven years since I had deigned to write short stories, turning to each other and saying, “Why, wherever has he been?”

There wasn’t anyone to turn to when I first read that story. I was alone in a pickup truck during downtime at a construction site in the summer of 1980. But I recall being slightly puzzled at the implication Silverberg had been gone.

With this volume of Silverberg’s stories, I enter that part of his career where I read a lot of these stories when they first appeared. Others I first came across in Bantam Spectra’s first in a series of one volumes collecting Silverberg’s stories.

Many I hadn’t seen before.

The Plots

A surprising number are fantasies or non-fantastic stories of Americans having strange experiences in Third World Countries. An American academic recovering from the “wreckage of his marriage” tries to wheedle his way into a mushroom-worshipping cult in Jerusalem in “A Thousand Paces Along the Via Dolorosa“. Silverberg’s fascination with cacti and a story from his friend, botanist Paul Hutchinson, gives us “How They Pass the Time in Pelpel“. How the inhabitants of a remote village in Chile pass their time is following a strange auto race.

Silverberg has an admitted fascination with Mexico, “its mixture of tropical sunlight and eerie pre-Columbian darkness”, Mexican dance masks, and that shows in two tales. A collector of those masks has a chilling encounter with something that only looks human in a remote Mexican village in “Not Our Brother“. The death of Silverberg’s friend Philip K. Dick led to the Dickian reality-slip tale (rather like Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) “The Changeling” where, outside the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a man slides into a world where he has a wife and a new job. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume Five: The Palace at Midnight, 1980-82”

“Vintage Season” & “In Another Country”

And more Robert Silverberg, this time a sequel to C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” from 1946.

Vintage Season

Raw Feed (1992): “In Another Country”, Robert Silverberg/”Vintage Season”, C. L. Moore, 1990.

“Introduction”, Robert Silverberg — Account of Silverberg’s respect for C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and why he wrote his sequel, “In Another Country”, the way he did.

Vintage Season”, C.L. Moore — I knew the ending to this generally acknowledged classic, so that element of horror and shock, that emotion of the final revelation was denied to me. Of course, the ending seems obvious once you know it and read the story. Still, this story did generate some ominous, creepy feelings. There are the disturbingly immaculate visitors from some mysterious country. They’re time travelers, of course and are given to making disturbingly cryptic remarks that seem — in retrospect I would assume if I came to this story cold — to foreshadow a coming cataclysm. Moore does a nice job of not really describing the artifacts the time travelers have brought to our time but conveying the emotions of their art and artifacts. And she does a nice job showing the dreamy, strange relationship between Oliver Wilson and weak, too sensitive, patronizing, addict Kleph. The time travelers agenda, a tour of perfect seasons with seemingly great events in them, is a neat idea with a logical appeal to an aesthetic society of spectators. To Oliver Wilson, they seem horrible in their pursuit of disaster as an aesthetic experience. Yet, he realizes time has isolated them so far from him there can be no real emotional connection between them and him. The ultimate horror is represented by Cenbe, brilliant symphonia composer who, unlike his time traveling peers, is fascinated by the aftermath of disaster, the emotions of survivors and dying. To him, Oliver Wilson’s world is merely one of the “building blocks” that lead to Cenbe’s world, a source of artistic inspiration. When Oliver begs Cenbe to change history, Cenbe replies to do so would eliminate his “time-world” which is entirely to his liking. Wilson pleads he can change history, wipe out pain, suffering and tragedy. Cenbe, in effect, says this current horror will pass away like all the rest that makes up Cenbe’s history. Wilson has the fact unpleasantly driven home that we all exist (we hope) in someone’s distant past. But are we really that much different from Cenbe and his peers? We often view history and its horrors (and joys) as entertainments. The time travelers, of course, differ in that they can change history. But would we completely alter our world to help temporal strangers we can never fully know or understand? This story is one of those classic stories that start out on a human scale and end by showing humanity horrifically dwarfed by spatial and temporal vastness. Sometimes it’s the inhuman, dead universe that dwarfs us. Here it is our descendants.

In Another Country”, Robert Silverberg — This story is, of course, a sequel to C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”. It’s set in the same time, same place, and has some of the same people (as minor characters) as “Vintage Season”, so it’s hard not to compare the two. I found Silverberg’s the more romantic (in both senses of the word). Moore’s plot is more concerned with exoticness, mystery, and unease than the romance between Oliver Wilson and Kleph. Silverberg’s story, by its nature of setting, is deprived of all mystery. The exception are the bits when Christine Rawlins feels she’s met Thimiroi before and the latter feels he was a 20th Century man. I thought Silverberg was going to do a time travel paradox, but he didn’t. Christine’s feelings of recognition could be some effect of the vaguely described time travel process, but I doubt that interpretation is intended. The counter-intervention only wipes out her memories and meeting with Thimiroi. Silverberg’s story is more emotional too (in the sense of poignancy and tragedy) with its doomed romance and Laliene’s futile efforts to spare Thimiroi the agony of frustrated, impossible love. Silverberg also does a nice job of showing how alien the visitors are (with women who don’t sweat or menstruate and a general intolerance for seafood) and how wonderful this vintage season and time are (with Thimiroi reveling in the primitive vitality of our world and suddenly chafing at the planned aesthetic perfection of his). But why did Silverberg see fit to date this story with a reference to Iranian politics? It spoils the timelessness (in a loose sense) of Moore’s vision. Silverberg in this story explains why Rome of 19 BC and Charlemagne’s coronation are on the itinerary. The travelers look for vintage seasons culminated with disaster of a natural or political nature though in Augustus’ and Charlemagne’s case the years chosen seem to be their best. Silverberg’s story does not have the creepiness and moral questions of history (however horrible) as entertainment that Moore’s does. Still, a worthwhile story.


More fantastic fiction reviews are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Fantasy Hall of Fame

An unproductive day new writing-wise, so you get a retro review from June 12, 2009.

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame, eds. Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg, 1983.Fantasy Hall of Fame

The reputations of some of these stories and that of their authors may have waned in the 26 years since this anthology was published. None of the stories are bad though a few aren’t that special. The stories were selected in a manner similar to the Silverberg edited The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One. Attendees of the World Fantasy Convention chose stories to honor that were published before the convention begin doing their annual awards.

The stories are arranged chronologically, and the first is Edgar Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). This classic tale of a plague, mysterious colors, and death coming to a cloister of aristocrats is the grandfather of all those far future tales of decadents on a dying Earth. Poe influenced the prose and poems of Clark Ashton Smith, but the influence isn’t very evident in the latter’s “The Weird of Avoosl Withoqquan” (1932). It’s a story of an avaricious man who hears an ominous prophecy from a beggar he snubs. Smith’s Zothique series, very definitely a series of far future decadence, is not represented here directly, but it’s certainly echoed in Jack Vance’s “Mazirian the Magician” (1950), part of Vance’s Dying Earth series. In a story full of Vance’s exuberant palette of colors and exquisitely named magic, a sorcerer determines to possess a woman who has avoided him.

Of course, Poe was not just an inspiration but an idol to Smith’s friend, H. P. Lovecraft. He is represented here by “The Silver Key” (1937). It’s an odd choice, perhaps dictated by its length. There is nothing wrong with the story. Featuring Lovecraft’s alter ego Randolph Carter, it’s Lovecraft’s most autobiographical work. Carter, a man in his thirties, goes on a quest to find his way back to the world of dreams – and its innocence – that he knew as a child. There are many better Lovecraft stories though. Lord Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft’s dream tales, and he’s represented here by “The Sword of Welleran” (1908). A wry tale of a city no longer defended by its legends and full of humor and despair and perverse emotion. Dunsany’s oddly syntaxed voice is probably still unique in fantasy. A lesser influence on Lovecraft was Ambrose Bierce. He shows up here with “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), a short, eerie tale of life after death in a far future land. Continue reading “The Fantasy Hall of Fame”