If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t more people happy?
One of the things I’ve learned in the process of building our own farm from nothing more than a patch of bush with a fantastic sea view, is that starting from absolutely nothing is one hell of a lot harder than starting from something. Literally, anything, but ideally something that requires little more than a redecorate and moving your furniture in is definitely this game on ‘lowest difficulty’ setting. From the regulatory/bureaucratic quagmire point of view, any sort of existing house, especially if it has electrical and sewage systems in place is going to save you a mint of money and may substantially reduce your chances of informing the FBI that your local council has a video of President Trump kissing Vladimir hidden somewhere on their premises.
Starting from nothing… well, you MAY get what you want, to your own desires and design. On the other hand, speaking from personal experience here, you may well end up building, taking down and rebuilding… at least three times to achieve something sort of Okay, in a good light, or at least when viewed through ‘I do not want to do it a fourth time, and it isn’t falling down immediately. Besides, it has character!’
This is equally true of writing. I spent a lot of years in a large crit-group, which exchanged critiques. You very rapidly got to recognize the writing efforts of 1) Those who had never read anything much. 2)Those who never read anything in the genre. Writing is not a movie. After a while I started to be able to pick the influences (I read a lot, and have read a lot, and I have a very high retention) among those who had plainly at least read some of the genre.
Frank statement: most of what I was offered to critique was like reading slush… 10% OK and 0.1% great. I did a couple a week for near on a decade. I have no idea if I was much good at it – but I learned a lot. Just having to explain what didn’t work (and grasping what did) forced me to think about these things, to actually put instinctive reactions into ‘why’ – and to learn some of the lessons without having to do the dumb things myself. Well… SOME of the dumb things myself!
And in all that time, I never saw one ‘OK’ let alone ‘great’ from the class of ‘don’t read much’, and one – literally one who wrote a good story but was ‘inventing’ the genre as she went along. It still wasn’t great but it was readable. I wish I’d kept a number record, but I am almost certain there was a direct correlation to the obvious fact that the writer had read a lot of sf/fantasy to how good their own efforts were.
Now: let me be clear here. Just because you’ve read every work of sf/fantasy/horror back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, doesn’t make you a great writer. The odds are still very low. But if you don’t read, there’s a microscopic chance. Electron microscope required. If you don’t read the genre, you’re up to merely needing a nice collection of zeros after the decimal point to put before the 1.
You know… many of the great artists… and many great chefs… and many great musicians… don’t follow the rules of their field. But you will inevitably find they KNOW the rules. They know the conventions. They reached their branching out point off a very solid foundation.
What on earth gives anyone the idea that writing is different?
So: what got Dave onto this topic?
Well, one of the leading lights of our field (or so we are told – A publishers’ darling anyway, even if I don’t personally like her work) came out with the curious statement in the last week or so:
“SCIENCE FICTION HAS ALWAYS BEEN PROGRESSIVE!”
Um. And we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
If this isn’t Orwellian re-writing of the history of our field, she must be very, very, very happy.
Speaking as someone who has actually read an awful lot of very old (and a lot of middle aged, and fair amount of get off my lawn, whippersnappers) sf and fantasy… sf/fantasy has one defining political characteristic: at least until the 1980’s it was an exceptionally broad church, including anything from C.S. Lewis to Samuel Delany, Zenna Henderson to John Norman, Ursula LeGuin to George MacDonald.
After that, it started to crimp down. By the mid-90’s it was becoming doctrinaire and narrow… and becoming much narrower in class and social diversity appeal as well as becoming increasingly left-wing dominated. Curiously, although reading, and populations grew… sf particularly lost readership.
Personally I think the weakness in the field –particularly in traditional publishing comes from having a bunch of ‘writers’ who… Don’t know who Robert Silverberg is. Who do not fall about laughing helplessly when someone says ‘Science Fiction has always been Progressive.’
So I thought: in the spirit of helpfulness, that we should come with a list of 5-10 foundational but less known novel recommendations from no later than 1970 that have taught us the fundamentals of how to write the genre. My only restriction being: they should appeal to ordinary, average readers and should STILL be easy and pleasant to read. Everyone’s mileage will vary.
Because we’re a writing site: try to include the reason you think it valuable. And don’t rank them. We’re not trying to start a pissing contest.
Here are some I thought worth using to build my writing on:
Eric Frank Russell – Next of Kin. EFR was possibly a con man who came up with tall stories people believed (spontaneous human combustion). If you can do that… you’re worth learning from. This story – like most of his centers on quite a complex idea (the possibility of a soul or spiritual doppelganger) and how to exploit the differences in language. It’s satirical, and funny, and yet in very simple easy to read English.
Zenna Henderson. No Different Flesh. How to write character, and how to make the extraordinary ordinary and identifiable with.
Mack Reynolds. Space Pioneer. How to blend unusual cultures and traditions (Albanian) with modern sf.
Clifford Simak. Goblin Reservation. Simak was a small town newspaperman. He loved his rural people – but he also wrote at a level they’d be comfortable with. This means he’s carrying complex ideas (the werewolf principle!) in very simple easy to read English. – A nice trick if you can do it (trust me, it takes little skill to write a complex idea in complex English. Why anyone thinks that being hard to understand is a mark of competence is beyond me.) Simak also illustrates to me the problem with this – he’s TOO easy. His writing lacks the depth to do justice to the ideas. Often his characters are pretty cardboard. (Goblin Reservation has some of the more attractive ones – Alley Oop and Shakespeare’s Ghost).
James White: Hospital station. How to write memorable aliens. Seriously, also how to do one of the more difficult tricks in writing – a drama with minimal violence.
H. Beam Piper: Lord Kalvan of Other When – I think this is foundational parallel universe/multiverse tale
L Sprague De Camp. Lest Darkness fall – Ok you might say Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court was the first ‘alternate history/time travel back to start another branch of history story – but this is really what you have to read if you’re going to write Alternate history. The key here – to me – is the problem solving.
Jack Vance. The Blue World. It’s satire, it’s incredibly clever in its questioning of societal assumptions – but it’s adventure first, and centers on problem-solving (something that was very common when sf was a first choice for hands on engineers, and now seems so very rare. Maybe Gender Studies graduates don’t have to solve problems much.)
I’m a day older tomorrow but at the same time a year older (when most of you will be reading this) so my replies may be even more sporadic than usual. Time travel does that to a bloke.