The three reasons this book concentrates on science fiction story-writing are:
1. In today's commercial fiction market, SF is one of the few areas open to new writers, whether they are writing short stories or novels. Mysteries, gothics, romances, and other categories of commercial fiction are much more limited and specialized, especially for the short-story writer, but SF is as wide open as the infinite heavens. SF magazines actively seek new writers, and SF books consistently account for roughly 10 percent of the fiction books published each year in the United States. The SF community is quick to recognize new talent.
2. Science fiction presents to a writer challenges and problems that cannot be found in other forms of fiction. In addition to all the usual problems of writing, science fiction stories must also have strong and believable scientific or technical backgrounds. Isaac Asimov often declared that writing science fiction was more difficult than any other kind of writing. He should have known; he wrote everything from mysteries to learned tomes on the Bible and Shakespeare. If you can handle science fiction skillfully, chances are you will be able to write other types of fiction or nonfiction with ease.
3. Science fiction is the field in which I have done most of my work, both as a writer and an editor. Although most of my novels are written for the general audience, since they almost always deal with scientists and high technology they are usually marketed under the SF category. My eleven years as a magazine editor at Analog and Omni were strictly within the science fiction field, and I won six Science Fiction Achievement Awards (called the Hugo) for Best Professional Editor during that time.
Science fiction has become known as "the literature of ideas," so much so that some critics have disparagingly pointed out that many SF stories have The Idea as their hero, with very little else to recommend them. Ideas are important in science fiction. They are a necessary ingredient of any good SF tale. But the ideas themselves should not be the be-all and end-all of every story. (Ideas and idea-generation are discussed in chapter nineteen.)
Very often it is the idea content of good science fiction that attracts new writers to this exciting yet demanding field. (And please note that new writers are not necessarily youngsters; many men and women turn to writing fiction after establishing successful careers in other fields.) Science fiction's sense of wonder attracts new writers. And why not? Look at the playground they have for themselves! There's the entire universe of stars and galaxies, and all of the past, present, and future to write about. Science fiction stories can be set anywhere and anytime. There's interstellar flight, time travel, immortality, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, behavior control, telepathy and other types of extrasensory perception (ESP), colonies in space, new technologies, explorations of the vast cosmos or the inner landscapes of the mind.
John W. Campbell, most influential of all science fiction editors, fondly compared science fiction to other forms of literature in this way: He would spread his arms wide (and he had long arms) and declaim, "This is science fiction! All the universe, past, present and future." Then he would hold up a thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart and say, "This is all the other kinds of fiction."
All the other kinds of fiction restrict themselves to the here-and-now, or to the known past. All other forms of fiction are set here on Earth, under a sky that is blue and ground that is solid beneath your feet. Science fiction deals with all of creation, of which our Earth and our time are merely a small part. Science fiction can vault far into the future or deep into the past.
But even more fascinating for the writer (and the reader) of science fiction is the way these ideas can be used to develop stories about people. That is what fiction is about—people. In science fiction, some of the "people" may not look very human; they may be alien creatures or intelligent robots or sentient sequoia trees. They may live on strange, wild, exotic worlds. Yet they will always face incredible problems and strive to surmount them. Sometimes they will win, sometimes lose. But they will always strive, because at the core of every good science fiction story is the very fundamental faith that we can use our own intelligence to understand the universe and solve our problems.
All those weird backgrounds and fantastic ideas, all those special ingredients of science fiction, are a set of tricks that writers use to place their characters in the desperate situations where they will have to do their very best, or their very worst, to survive. For fiction is an examination of the human spirit, placing that spirit in a crucible where we can test its true worth. In science fiction we can go far beyond the boundaries of the here-and-now to put that crucible any place and any time we want to, and make the testing fire as hot as can be imagined.
That is science fiction's special advantage and its special challenge: going beyond the boundaries of the here-and-now to test the human spirit in new and ever-more-powerful ways.
This means that the SF field can encompass a tremendous variety of story types, from the hard-core science-based fiction that I usually write to the softer SF of writers such as Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, and from glitzy Hollywood "sci-fi" flicks to the various kinds of fantasy and horror that now crowd the SF field. Hard-core science fiction, the type that is based on the world as we know it, has been my life. I have been reading it since junior high school, writing it for more than four decades.
Over the past few years, several editors have told me that they are longing to see hard-core science fiction stories. They tell me they are glutted with soft SF and fantasy and other types of stories. There is a demand for science fiction material that is not being met by the writers.
Why is this so? Perhaps it is because honest science fiction is the toughest kind of fiction to write. Every time I hear the term "hard science fiction," I think to myself, "Hard? It's goddamned exhausting, that's what it is!"
Science Fiction's Special Requirements
Every good science fiction story must present to the reader a world that no one has ever seen before. You cannot take it for granted that the sky is blue, that chairs have legs, or that what goes up must come down. In a good science fiction story the writer is presenting a new world in a fresh universe. In addition to all the other things that a good story must accomplish, a good science fiction tale must present the ground rules—and use them Consistently - without stopping the flow of the narrative.
In other forms of fiction the writer must create believable characters and set them in conflict to generate an interesting story. In science fiction the writer must do all this and much more.
Where in the universe is the story set? Is it even in our universe? Are we in the future or the distant past? Is there a planet under our feet or are we dangling in zero gravity? The science fiction writer must set the stage carefully and show it to the reader without letting the stage settings steal the attention from the characters and their problems.
Indeed, one of the faults found with science fiction by outsiders is that all too frequently the underlying idea or the exotic background is all that the story has going for it. The characters, the plot, everything else becomes quite secondary to the ideas.
Where anything is possible, everything has to be explained. Yet the modern writer does not have the luxury of spending a chapter or two giving the life history of each major character, the way Victorian writers did. Or page after page of pseudoscientific justification for each new scientific wonder, the way the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s did.
Very well then, if science fiction is so tough to write, why bother?
Because of its power, that's why.
Science Fiction's Special Satisfactions
This tremendous latitude, this ability to set a story anywhere and anytime, not only presents the writer with a massive set of problems, it also gives the writer the marvelous opportunity —and perhaps the responsibility — to offer a powerful commentary on the world of today by showing it reflected in an imaginary world of tomorrow (or, in some cases, of distant yesterdays).
Some people have praised science fiction for its predictions. Nuclear power, space flight, computers, and most of the technological trappings of today's world were predicted in science fiction tales more than half a century ago. More important, I think, is that science fiction stories also predicted the Cold War, the global population explosion, environmental pollution, and many of the social problems we are wrestling with today.
Picture the history of the human race as a vast migration through time, thousands of millions of people wandering through the centuries. The writers of science fiction are the scouts, the explorers, the pathfinders who venture out ahead and look over the landscape, then send back stories that warn of the harsh desert up ahead, the thorny paths to be avoided, or tales that dazzle us with reports of beautiful wooded hills and clear streams and sunny grasslands that lie just over the horizon.
Those who read science fiction never fall victim to future shock. They have seen the future in the stories we have written for them. That is a glittering aspiration for a writer. And a heavy responsibility.
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