Tag Archives: Frank Herbert

Advice to would-be sf writers, from sf writers

The sf writer cannot avoid man’s problems; by the very nature of his craft, he must meet them head on. That is sf’s challenge, and it is as big as the future of mankind.

Title: The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy
Editor: Reginald Bretnor
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here’s one of those “advice on how to write from the writers themselves” books, which I picked up not because I have any goals of writing myself but simply because I like reading what sf writers have to say about their field. This is one of several such volumes helmed by the same editor back in the 1970’s, and is a fairly interesting collection of essays for any sf fan who also likes reading works about sf. Strange fellow though, this Bretnor. His introduction provides some insightful thoughts on sf, but things get a little weird when he starts professing his belief that clairvoyance, dowsing, and other assorted woo is “proven.” Uhhh, yeah, whatever. Anyway, who cares what the editor has to say? What’s important is what the writers themselves have to share. Here’s a rundown of their contributions and a few comments on each:

Poul Anderson, “Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come.” This one’s rather dry, with not much of importance to say.

Hal Clement, “Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies.” A decent article on the use of science in sf and the importance of internal consistency.

Norman Spinrad, “Rubber Sciences.” One of the best essays in the book; it covers some of the same ground as Clement, but from a different perspective. Spinrad says what’s important in sf is plausibility, and not necessarily a rigid deference to scientific fact. He sums up by saying science fiction writers are….

… the poets of the future, the seers of human destiny. Hard science, soft science, or rubber are tools of the trade, means to the end of visionary insight and artistic creation. They should never be mistaken for the end itself.

Alan E. Nourse, “Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps.” Focuses largely on that all-important fictional element, the premise, as well as other fiction basics. Solid article.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Future Writers in a Future World.” This was a pure joy to read. Sturgeon does a better job than anyone else in this volume of getting across the sheer sense of wonder of science fiction, and his essay is full of enthusiastic inspiration for future writers and valuable advice on where to find story ideas. He also stresses the importance of connecting your ideas to real human concerns:

And whatever your idea or statement, gimmick, gadget or message, you will (to be read) encase it in love, and pain, and greed, and laughter, and hope, and above all loneliness.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Construction of Believable Societies.” A good look at the need for social depth — what we often call “world building” — in sf.

Frank Herbert, “Men on Other Planets.” Herbert makes some great points about sf’s ability to escape our society’s unexamined assumptions and play around with them. He also quite correctly warns the potential writer that there’s more to writing sf than thinking up an idea — the development of that idea is the crucial thing.

Katherine MacLean, “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.” MacLean chose an intriguing topic, but her thoughts on the matter were scattered and unfocused and, to be honest, boring.

James Gunn, “Heroes, Heroines, Villains: the Characters in Science Fiction.” Pretty self-explanatory. Solid article on the importance of characterization.

Larry Niven, “The Words in Science Fiction.” On how to add some linguistic depth to your fiction. Interesting.

Jack Williamson, “Short Stories and Novelettes.” A few words on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the shorter fictional forms.

John Brunner, “The Science Fiction Novel.” And here’s Brunner on the other end of the spectrum.

Harlan Ellison, “With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image.” A long and involved article on writing screenplays for television and film. I didn’t find it that interesting myself, but I’m sure it would be helpful to anyone looking to do that kind of work.

Frederik Pohl, “The Science Fiction Professional.” A rather tedious essay on the business aspects of being a writer — all about agents, publicity, contracts, and such.

Basically it’s a few boring articles, mixed with a few really pleasurable ones, with a lot more falling somewhere in between. I’d recommend this book to would-be writers; for anyone else, it just depends on how much interest you have in this sort of thing.

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. :lol:

Top 5 imaginary literary works from science fiction

One of the best things an author can do to bring a fictional universe to life, to make it feel vibrant and real, is to give that universe its own literature — and even better, to quote from it. This seems to be common in science fiction, and it’s one of those little flourishes I’ve always loved. So here are some of my favorite imaginary literary works from science fiction. These are imaginary works I wish really existed so I could read them in their entirety, rather than in little bits and pieces.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan
Appears in: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Comments: I’d love to get my hands on this sarcastic, subversive, and ingeniously witty dictionary.
Excerpts:

SHALMANESER That real cool piece of hardware up at the GT tower. They say he’s apt to evolve to true consciousness one day. Also, they say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.

POPULATION EXPLOSION Unique in human experience, an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won’t happen until tomorrow.

The Stolen Journals by Leto II
Appears in: God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
Comments: The personal journal of science fiction’s deepest and most complex character? Who could pass that up?
Excerpts:

This morning I was born in a yurt on the edge of a horse-plain in a land of a planet which no longer exists. Tomorrow I will be born someone else in another place. I have not yet chosen. This morning, though — ahhh, this life! When my eyes had learned to focus, I looked out at sunshine on trampled grass and I saw vigorous people going about the sweet activities of their lives. Where… oh where has all of that vigor gone?

The singular multiplicity of this universe draws my deepest attention. It is a thing of absolute beauty.

The Rigors by Meridian
Appears in: Liege-Killer by Christopher Hinz
Comments: Paratwa uber-assassin Meridian shares his experiences ruling over those sniveling enslaved humans. He’s implacably ruthless, yet at the same time oddly charming.
Excerpts:

Dinner was not a very satisfying occasion for the humans that night. It was readily apparent that their digestion was being disrupted by the presence of Peter’s head on my table.
[....]
Peters was served for desert. The humans did not want to eat their companion but they also did not want to risk angering me. Their dilemma was intelligently solved. They ate Peters.
I made certain that all the other domiciles learned of our special confection. Peters had been served as a good object lesson.
He was also rather tasty.

The Birth of Braxi: excerpts from the later dialogues of Harkur the Great and Viton the Ruthless (author unknown)
Appears in: In Conquest Born by C.S. Friedman
Comments: Philosophy for a physically- and martially-oriented society not afraid to embrace its dark side.
Excerpts:

VITON: These gentle emotions, what good are they? Love, compassion, amity; what purpose do they serve? To my mind they are socially invalid, obstacles to emotional efficiency. There is no more constructive emotion than hatred.

HARKUR: A man’s most sacred possession is his privacy of mind. Examine him, torture him, break him; still his thoughts are his own until he chooses to express them. This concept is one of the foundations of Braxin philosophy. Psychic ability, by its very nature, guarantees violation of this privacy. Therefore, we should not and will not tolerate it.

BuSab Manual (author/s unknown)
Appears in: Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert
Comments: The Bureau of Sabotage exists to throw an occasional monkey wrench into the vast grinding machinery of government, to help keep it within bounds. This is their training manual.
Excerpts:

When the means of great violence are widespread, nothing is more dangerous to the powerful than that they create outrage and injustice, for outrage and injustice will certainly ignite retaliation in kind.

There are some forms of insanity which, driven to an ultimate expression, can become the new models of sanity.

The value of self-government at an individual level cannot be overestimated.

Brains, bugs, ecology, & entomology from Herbert

Frank Herbert gave us The Green Brain in 1966, right on the heels of the publication of Dune, and the two books are close in more than just chronology. This novel is another expression of Herbert’s deep interest in ecology, which was such a major part of the foundation of Dune. What we have here is a look at imminent ecological disaster due to human shortsightedness.

In Dune Herbert wrote:

“The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem,” Kynes said, “is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained miss the collapse until too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.

That quote could have been custom-designed for The Green Brain, since the book is all about the ecologically illiterate and how they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. The niche in the system that humanity fiddles around with in this novel is a hell of a big one: the planet’s insect population. Most of the world’s governments decide that, with an ever-growing human population, insects can no longer be tolerated, due to their massive destruction of crops and their role as a disease vector. So a great crusade is initiated to eradicate them from the planet — not just certain species, but all of them (with the exception of bees, which will be engineered to take over certain insect functions). This war is waged with an array of modern weapons and equipment, from various poisons to sonic devices. As land is cleared it becomes part of the Green zone, while the insects are continually pushed back into ever-shrinking Red zones ringed by barriers they cannot pass. Much of the planet has been cleared over a number of years, and the largest remaining Red zone is in the jungles of Brazil. The book is built around several characters involved in the Brazilian campaign.

But like other surprises of nature such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria, insects adapt and evolve in response to this survival threat. And the results of that evolution are astounding: a sophisticated mimicry ability, resistance to many poisons, the development of their own chemical warfare substances, and….. intelligence! The title of the book is more than simply metaphorical; there actually is a big green brain sitting in the jungle. And it realizes, unlike the humans, that the entire world ecosystem is threatened, that all the creatures of the world exist together in a vast complex web of relationships, and one can’t just start cutting the strands. And if the humans don’t understand this, well then they’ll simply have to be taught a lesson!

As events turn sour for the book’s protagonists, at least one of them begins to get the picture:

Joao pulled a sprayman’s emblem from his breast pocket, fingered it. “I believed it…. then. We could shape mutated bees to fill every gap in the insect ecology. It was a…. Great Crusade. This I believed. Like the people of China, I said: ‘Only the useful shall live!’ And I meant it. But that was quite a few years ago, father. I’ve come to realize since then that we don’t have complete understanding of what’s useful.”

There’s nothing much about this book that’s realistic: the idea that you can keep certain areas completely insect-free is silly; the incredible speed of insect evolution is hard to swallow; and the biologists of the world would never sign off on such a project, knowing how disastrous it would be. But surely Herbert never meant this to be a scientifically rigorous scenario. It’s one of those books that teaches a lesson in stark terms; it takes a concept, a present-day trend or issue, and pushes it to the farthest extreme possible in order to make a point. And I think it succeeds fairly well at that goal, even if it was a bit weak in terms of characterization and plot.

Worth reading? Sure.

Short clip: Frank Herbert speaks about Dune

Here’s a very short video I found of a television interview with Frank Herbert, the only such video I’ve been able to find. I don’t know the date on this, but I’d guess it’s from sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s. I wish I could find the whole interview, assuming there was more to it — this is only about a minute and a half long. Nothing new here for Dune fans, but as I’ve said before, it’s just nice sometimes to be able to hear your favorite authors in their own words and voice.

I’ve been thinking lately about Herbert’s thoughts on power. He said he thought the old adage “power corrupts” isn’t quite right, and put forth his own version: “power attracts the corruptible.” What I think is that BOTH statements are correct. No doubt many people are drawn to positions of authority because deep down, whether they consciously recognize it or not, they desire power and the perks that come with it, whether that’s wealth or the ability to impose their will on others. On the other hand, I believe there are people who go into politics or other positions of responsibility with the noblest of intentions, truly desiring to do good; but as time passes, the temptations of power slowly erode their defenses and wear them down, corrupting them to varying degrees.

(Hmmm…… most pictures I’ve seen of Frank show him with a beard. He looks pretty different in this clip.)