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Boundless and Bare

The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy

Edited by Reginald Bretnor 

11 Sep, 2022

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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Reginald Bretnor’s 1975 The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy is (I know this may seem astonishing) a symposium on writing science fiction and science fantasy. 

So far as I know the contributors were not drinking wine together, though they may have done so separately at various times. 

First impressions:

All but two contributors have died since this text appeared. Not entirely surprising, since the book is just short of half a century old, but a bit depressing. Who knew Jack Williamson could die? 

Like Bretnor’s two previous symposia (1953’s Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future and 1974’s Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow), contributors are with one exception men. Bretnor is very consistent about making room for one and only one woman in each of these works, never the same one twice. However, I see some familiar names from Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow; Bretnor didn’t mind letting the boys appear in more than one of these texts.

There are no contributors of colour, nor, as far as I am aware, were there any in the two previous volumes. 

Boys” is of course a misnomer, as the contributors are for the most part seasoned veterans, with a total of 380 years of publishing SF between them, an average of 25 years experience, and a median of 26. Unsurprisingly, given that he emigrated to New Mexico in a covered wagon, Jack Williamson had racked up an impressive 47 years by the time this volume appeared, while the baby of the group is cherubic Jerry Pournelle, who at that time had but four years’ experience publishing SF1.

Although the reader will come away from this with a blithe ignorance that women were taking an increasingly significant role in SF in the 1970s, at least this volume acknowledges more women than did Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow. Granted, that’s not saying much. Joanna Russ seems to be the figure on which contributors have settled as the face of women in SF (although Leigh Brackett does get namechecked, both as Mrs. Edmund Hamilton and as a writer in her own right). 

One is struck by the intense resentment and loathing many SF authors evince towards modern literature, not to mention the steadfast conviction that SF is somehow superior to mainstream fiction. Well, given the lousy pay, something had to motivate writers.

On the whole this collection ranges between a bit dated and a lot dated. It is not the most fascinating text on SF I’ve read recently. I found that the text seemed longer than its 300-odd pages; bitter regret at my life choices kicked in around the hundred-page mark2. Nevertheless, the work isn’t totally hopeless; would-be writers could salvage something from this, although no doubt they would be better served hunting down something a lot more contemporary. If one had to chose between this and Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, I’d go with the second. 

The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy is unsurprisingly out of print, but used copies can be had for a very reasonable sum. 

Now for the lengthy nitty-gritty.

Foreword (The Craft of Science Fiction) • essay by Reginald Bretnor

A mission statement: the topic is how the chosen authors write SF, which Bretnor points out is not quite the same thing as how to write SF. 

SF: The Challenge to the Writer • essay by Reginald Bretnor

A lengthy discourse on the challenges SF presents for the ambitious SF author, who must avoid the traps set by such second-rate schools as modern literature and worse, the [hissed] New Wave[/hissed], while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by such cutting-edge fields as psionics, general semantics, and the paranormal. Which, by the way, are totally things that are real and VERY SERIOUS SCIENCE and not the sad delusions of propeller-beanie-wearing nerds who could use a reality check. 

Who edits the editor? Not only was this essay (unintentionally) hilarious, it makes the ones to follow look better by comparison. 

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come • essay by Poul Anderson

Anderson discourses on large scale stories.

Anderson also takes the time to underline that he uses saga (and epic) metaphorically, since he’s not limiting himself to specific poetic forms. Although he could. 

Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies • essay by Hal Clement

Clement discusses how to wring stories out of science as we know it.

Rubber Sciences • essay by Norman Spinrad

Spinrad ponders how to present made-up science and technology without destroying suspension of disbelief. 

Words cannot convey my mirth and glee when I rediscovered that among the examples Spinrad chose to illuminate his discourse was Scientology. Note that poking fun at the Clams at this time was not without risk. Also of value, advice to know when to stop explaining the made-up science.

Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps • essay by Alan E. Nourse

Nourse draws on several examples to discuss how to incorporate transformative developments into narratives.

Given how angry he seems to be about Medicare, it may be for the best that Nourse died before Obamacare arrived. 

Future Writers in a Future World • essay by Theodore Sturgeon

On creating engaging narratives, which of course means somehow basing stories on people. 

The Construction of Believable Societies • essay by Jerry Pournelle

Pournelle expounds on the tricky matter of presenting imaginary societies so that they seem plausible to the reader. 

Note the use of believable” rather than realistic.” Many of you may expect this chapter to be comedy gold, but for the most part it’s a not unreasonable take on the matter. 

Men on Other Planets • essay by Frank Herbert

Men on other planets will not be the same as men on this planet!

Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences • essay by Katherine MacLean

MacLean ponders entirely non-human characters. 

Heroes, Heroines, Villains: The Characters in Science Fiction • essay by James E. Gunn 

Believable fiction is based in believable characters.

The Words in Science Fiction • essay by Larry Niven

Where do SF writers get their crazy words?

Schenectady Typos can be useful, although I wonder how that technique works in an era of word processors. I also wonder what this chapter would have been like had it been written by, oh, Tolkien3.

Short Stories and Novelettes • essay by Jack Williamson

Commentary on the challenges and opportunities inherent in short fiction.

The Science Fiction Novel • essay by John Brunner

Commentary on the challenges and opportunities inherent in long fiction.

The essay for which I reread this! Alas, this is not the Brunner essay I was looking for. 

With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image • essay by Harlan Ellison

Comments on screen-writing, simultaneously the best and the worst way to make a buck.

The Science Fiction Professional • essay by Frederik Pohl

Making a living writing science fiction requires mastering a diverse and time-consuming array of fields. Writing fiction may not be the activity in which the successful writer invests the most effort. Success depends on accepting this reality. 

The specifics are dated in some respects, but the general point is still as correct now as it was back in 1975

1: The four-digit number of debut year, while the two-digit number is the interval between debut and 1975. Well, one-digit in the case of Pournelle. 

Williamson 1928 47 

Pohl 1939 36 

Sturgeon 1939 36 

Herbert 1946 29

Bretnor 1947 28 

Anderson 1947 28

Ellison 1949 26 

Gunn 1949 26

MacLean 1949 26

Brunner 1951 24

Nourse 1951 24

Clement 1942 23

Spinrad 1963 12

Niven 1964 11

Pournelle 1971 4

2: So of course I doubled down once I discovered a curious fact about Bretnor’s symposia. Onward, deeper into the misery mines! 

3: Not that Tolkien could have written this chapter, as he died in 1973