I’m revisiting some classic critical nonfiction books about science fiction, beginning with Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s OF WORLDS BEYOND, a collection of essays by Heinlein, Campbell, Williamson, and others. This is the book where Heinlein identifies 3 basic plots and his 5 rules for being a successful writer, and A.E. van Vogt describes his technique of writing in 800-word scenes that include every idea that pops into his head as he writes.
Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, ed., OF WORLDS BEYOND: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947)
Eshbach (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/eshbach_lloyd_arthur) founded Fantasy Press, one of the earliest small publishers devoted to science fiction, in 1946, and compiled this ‘symposium’ of seven essays a year later. It’s a short book at 96 pages. I have a fine copy of the first edition, hardcover with dust jacket inside a Brodart plastic wrapper, that I bought from Robert Madle at World Fantasy Con in 1993. I read it at the time, and am rereading it now.
Eshbach’s Introduction notes that, in 1947, that while “stories of worlds beyond” are as old as human imagination, the field of “speculative fiction” had formed only in the past 20 years. “It appears to be well on its way toward becoming the fiction of the Atomic Age.”
The essays are by Robert A. Heinlein, John Taine (pen-name of CalTech mathematician Eric Temple Bell), Jack Williamson, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., and John W. Campbell, Jr. Each short essay is preceded by page or two ‘editor’s preface’ and a black and white photo of the author, in the formal clothes and generally stern expressions of the day. (Except for van Vogt, who looks a bit wild-eyed.)
At least a couple of these essays formulate authorial philosophies that have been passed down over the decades as common writerly wisdom, at least in the SF field. The star of the show is Heinlein, whose essay is “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”. The editor’s intro notes that Heinlein had recently begun to sell stories to the ‘slicks’ – that is, the high-end glossy general interest magazines, like Saturday Evening Post, that paid much more than the SF magazines of the day, like Astounding and Amazing. (In retrospect, Heinlein was and remained an outlier, with the limited exceptions of Bradbury and Clarke, for the next two or three decades.)
Here are some salient points from Heinlein’s essay:
- He quotes Kipling: “There are nine-and-sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays / And every single one of them is right!”
- He starts by claiming there are two ways to write speculative fiction: write about people, or write about gadgets. He prefers the former. [ Apparently ‘gadget’ fiction was more prevalent in the very early SF magazines, in stories which nowadays are never reprinted. ]
- He states the three main plots for the human interest story: “boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better”. He credits the last to L. Ron Hubbard, only because he had not realized that many of his own stories fitted that plot.
- The first plot is obvious, and has many variations. The second is about “the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa”.
- The third is about “a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts”. He mentions example stories, including his own.
- He dismisses various supposed SF stories as being fictionalized essays, or faux SF stories which could easily be translated to “Fifth Avenue, in 1947”; and he sets aside stories of contemporary advances in science or technology.
- “A story is not about the new situation; it is about coping with problems arising out of the new situation”, p15
- And he defines the “Simon-pure” sf story: conditions are different from now; they must be essential part of the story; the problem, the “plot”, must be a human problem; this problem must be derived by that new condition; and, finally, no established fact shall be violated (with various exceptions).
- He gives examples.
- And then finally, he gives his famous fives business habits for a successful writer:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
- And he concludes: “[I]f you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at them”.
- [[ Thus, is my thought, is that Heinlein’s famous five rules were appropriate to the era of writing when very many cheap magazines were being published, some of which had very low criteria for acceptance and were desperate for material. That’s not so true now. On the other hand, in the 21st century a person can self-publish anything, so in that sense no editorial vetting need apply. ]]
The second essay, by John Taine, is titled “Writing a Science Novel” and his main concern is keeping up on current scientific developments. His key points are Knowledge, Education, and Consistency.
(Taine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Temple_Bell, is probably the least-remembered of all the writers in this book; but he wrote over a dozen novels, of which the most prominent might be Before the Dawn, included in Donald A. Wollheim’s The Portable Novels of Science Fiction in 1945, along with works by Wells, Lovecraft, and Stapledon. (I have a 1st edition copy of that book too.)
By ‘Knowledge’ he means keeping up on current science, via books and journals. He notes p23 that “It is wise to glance at the date of publication of any book on science. If the book is more than ten years old (two or five in some of the physical sciences), it had probably better be put back on the shelf.” This I have echoed in my own recent thought that, while religions venerate the most ancient books (no matter how overtaken by later discoveries and understandings), for science or philosophy it’s the new books that count; the newest books take into account the older books and build upon them.
He discusses scientific journals, but advises that “there is not a single periodical of this kind published in the United States that is worth its subscription price” and suggests unnamed titles from English and Germany instead. (This was 1947; what did he mean? Not Scientific American? But Nature and Science?) And he suggests attending lectures at local universities.
By ‘Education’ he means “the narrow sense of learning how to write a story that people will read”, and goes on to be skeptical about classes in learning to write. And he wonders, once the science is settled, “we land at once in unsettled controversies. What, for example, about a love interest?”
Yikes. We are in 1947. These notions about females in science fiction appear in several of these essays. Taine goes on:
If there is some logical (or biological) reason why a luscious heroine should display her charms in a science novel, she does not have to be lugged in by the hair. She will enter by herself, usually uninvited by the writer and sometimes to his exasperation. As a general rule, love interest in scientific fiction is a red herring to bewilder the reader and turn him off a trail that should, but does not, lead straight from the beginning to the end of the story. If there is not sufficient sexless interest in the story to hold the reader’s attention, no fortuitous blonde is going to lure him on to the last page. Yet many a misguided writer has got not only himself but his stories all fouled up with superfluous women.
Science fiction is one of the places where a pretty girl can be a damned nuisance. Conversely, almost any type of scientific fiction is no peg on which to hang a love story.
This passage also touches on another recurring theme in these essays: that the whole point of writing stories is to sell them and appeal to readers.
And by ‘Consistency’ he means what we’ve come to expect: no matter what the premise of an SF story, its consequences need to flow logically and consistently. And on this point, to give editor Eshbach credit, this essay flows logically to the next…
The third essay is Jack Williamson’s “The Logic of Fantasy”. He cites two principles, one from H.G. Wells: to assume in any one story only a single basic premise. The second is about the logic of character. He considers several of his own stories as examples. And he mentions things like this: “Science fiction is doubtless more popular nowadays than fantasy of the supernatural type, because science has become the modern equivalent of magic.”
One must go on, remembering this is 1947:
Now, when the news is filled with atomic weapons, rocket test flights, and astounding reports of “flying saucers,” the threshold of doubt is very low for scientific wonders. Old-style magic is somewhat out of fashion—thought doubtless some readers turn gladly to it, just to escape the harassing wonders of the scientific age.
And then he talks about the various current SF magazines.
One chain caters to sheer paranoia. Another magazine is mostly action-adventure, excellently written, with a minimum of heavy science. A third group offers a wide range of more adult material, ranging from ghost stories to highbrow science. A fourth magazine is deliberately edited for technicians, often using heavily scientific stories and articles. And the general magazines, including the “slicks,” are beginning to feature fantasy and science fiction.”
He discusses more examples of his own stories. Then he generalizes:
In the story-opening, the chief character responds to something in terms of purpose—and the plot interest depends greatly on how novel and vital his purpose is. In the body of the narrative, that same purpose impels him to make a series of attempts toward satisfaction. Usually he meets failures which test his motive traits, incidentally stirring his own emotions and the reader’s. In the ending, he either wins or fails, and the significant outcome of the test is made clear.
He attributes this frame of the action story to Dr. John Gallishaw, about whom I find this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gallishaw. I recall hearing this basic strategy for an SF story – problem, one attempt to solve that fails, a second attempt that fails, finally a third attempt, which either succeeds or fails – from Algis Budrys on a convention panel many years ago.
In striking contrast is the fourth essay, by A. E. van Vogt, titled “Complication in the Science Fiction Story.” Van Vogt’s scheme is to break every story down into scenes of 800 (or 600 or 1000) words, each scene with a purpose that is either accomplished, or not, by the end of the scene. Van Vogt’s scheme, furthermore, is:
Ever since I started writing for the science fiction field, it has been my habit to put every current thought into the story I happened to be working on. Frequently, an idea would seem to have no relevance, but by mulling over it a little, I would usually find an approach that would make it usable.
At the same time, he gives a couple examples from his own stories in which an intermediate conclusion (e.g. end of scene three) provides that “all the rest followed logically.” (p54) (I confess I don’t find the examples terribly persuasive to commend this kitchen-sink style of plotting.)
He also discusses what he calls plot “threads”, wherein longer stories need more threads, even if some are very minor. Some of these “minor threads” derive from “theme, science and atmosphere.” P57b. His example of atmosphere, from the opening of his story “M33 in Andromeda,” is what I think most readers today would call purple pulp prose:
The night whispered, the immense night of space that pressed against the hurtling ship. Voiceless susurration it was, yet somehow coherent, alive, deadly. For it call, it beckoned and it warned. It trilled with a nameless happiness, then hissed with savage, unthinkable frustration.
That’s enough, though vV quotes on. He reiterates his 800-word scene thesis, with new ideas appearing ideally one per scene. And he mentions, as do most of these essays, how the ultimate goal of writing is to sell stories.
There are three remaining essays: L. Sprague de Camp on “Humor in Science Fiction”; Edward E. Smith, Ph.D. on “The Epic of Space” (I don’t think anyone this days, except the occasional writer of science fact articles in Analog, bylines themselves with academic credentials, but it was common back then, and Smith’s was the most prominent such); and John W. Campbell, Jr. on “The Science of Science Fiction Writing”.
The ideas in de Camp’s essay are unremarkable. The essence of humor is a surprise: an oddity, or an anachronism. He stresses that humor should avoid offense in the realms of religion or politics. He mentions, p69, that “Western culture in general has become increasingly humane – or squeamish if you prefer—during the last few centuries, so that a lot of formerly legitimate subjects for humor are no longer considered as such.” And provides examples about the hilarity of burning witches, denigrating certain racial and religious minorities, and so on. This subject dovetails with a theme of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I’ve finished and will summarize here soon) that social standards have ‘progressed’ to the point where things once taken for granted, such as casual violence against various targets, is now unthinkable.
De Camp mentions one notion I had not heard, the Polynesian word ‘noa’ as a counterpart to ‘tabu’ [taboo], where ‘noa’ means profane, vulgar, or commonplace (p70). You can’t joke about something tabu; nor can you joke about something noa, something too commonplace. The ideal area for joking is in the middle, as in relaxing standards about nudity. In any event, de Camp concludes, a humorous story still must have all the qualities of any good story.
Smith, author of the popular early space opera series Skylark and Lensmen, discusses how to write a “space story.” He discusses the elements of a good story; here are a couple examples, p76:
It is a well-known fact that many readers, particularly those whose heads are of use only in keeping their ears apart, want action, and only action. Slambang action; the slammier and the bangier the better.
Should the characters grow, or not? Many writers—good ones, at that—do not let their characters grow. It is easier. Also, it allows a series of stories about the same characters to go on practically endlessly…
He goes on to consider various elements of a story, including whether the author should have his hero be married off by the end. (While not familiar with much SF of Smith’s era, I recognize this plot point as common from what I have read, including Smith’s first novel, The Skylark of Space.) He passes through coincidence, and motivation, and then dwells at length on how he went about concocting a ‘space-police’ story. First, by reading every prior example he could find. And then by outlining his story, first in a few pages, then with a graph to plan “the peaks of emotional intensity and the valleys of characterization and background material.” A pencil draft; notes to it; a second pencil draft; then ‘typescript’ draft typed up by his wife; notes on it from his fan clubs in Michigan and Los Angeles; then a final typescript, typed by his wife, which goes to John W. Campbell.
Finally, “The Science of Science Fiction Writing” by John. W. Campbell, Jr. Here again is the utilitarian angle: the first line is “The author’s effort in science fiction writing, or any other type of writing, is to please the editor sufficiently to make a sale.” He goes on to describe what he, as an editor believes is needed for a good science fiction story: Prophetic extrapolation; and a story about human beings.
In older science fiction, the Machine and the Great Idea predominated. Modern readers—and hence editors!—don’t want that; they want stories of people living in a world where a Great Idea, or a series of them, and a Machine, or machines, form a background. But it is the man, not the idea of the machine that is the essence.
He discusses, from his editorial perspective, how frequently stories have good ideas but poor treatment; while even overly familiar ideas can be treated well, with examples of stories by de Camp and Williamson. He sighs about having to reject stories that are mere ideas.
The author’s function is to imagine for the reader, of course—but he must either (a) imagine in greater detail than the reader has, or (b) imagine something the reader hasn’t thought of. Ideally, the author imagines something new, in greater detail.
Examples from Asimov and Heinlein (mentioned as Anson MacDonald). He rails against the first-person story, which limits what can be told. And he opines that writers are born, not made, considering how many of his writers – Heinlein, van Vogt, de Camp – sold their first stories submitted.
Then he addresses “style” – “it is based on the way an author puts his ideas into English”. And contrasts various writers, including Sturgeon. But then explains that such techniques cannot be used consciously, and describes how L. Ron Hubbard would “gather momentum” in order to write (on an electric typewriter!) 3000 to 4000 words an hour.
Finally, he discusses how writers start their stories, and whether or not they know how to end them. For Astounding, “We do not insist on a happy ending!” With examples from Williamson and Padgett [Henry Kuttner].
Well, no, *finally*, he advises against submitting manuscripts that are handwritten, or typed in red ink on yellow paper. Don’t send it rolled. Last line: “If you take the trouble to write a yarn—send it in!.