Tag Archives: Frederik Pohl

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.

Flash reviews — September ’09

Title: The Gold at the Starbow’s End
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A very decent collection of stories, most of them somewhat long since there are only five in total. Not really a bad story in the bunch; I enjoyed them all, to varying degrees. Nothing here is probably going to strike you as a work of genius, or the best of what the genre has to offer. But all are satisfactory reads, for sure.

Title: Isaac Asimov’s Utopias
Editors: Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams
Year: 2000
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
This anthology contains stories originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction which ostensibly have something to do with the topic of utopias. My take goes like this: “Mountain Ways” by Ursula K. LeGuin is a halfway interesting look at different marriage customs, but the other eight entries are some of the most yawn-inducing stories I’ve ever read. And the utopian aspect is pretty vague in most of them.

Title: Science Fiction in the 20th Century
Author: Edward James
Year: 1994
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
A highly readable account of science fiction — its history, culture, themes, and so forth. It’s probably hard to ever find a book of this nature that’s strikingly innovative; after all, any generalized critical work is going to cover roughly the same ground. But I did like the way the author expresses himself, and I did learn things I didn’t know before, so I consider it time well spent.

Pluses and minuses to be found in Man Plus

What it all comes down to is that a colony on the Moon can be supported from Earth. A colony on Mars cannot. At least a colony of human beings cannot.

But what if one reshapes a human being?

Title: Man Plus
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3/5 stars

manplusMars. It’s one of science fiction’s most commonly used settings, and one that seems destined to be among our first stepping stones when we finally spread out from Earth to find new homes for ourselves. And so SF has countless stories of the red planet and human attempts to colonize it. In many such stories, the planet is made habitable through terraforming, changing the planet to suit humanity. In Man Plus, Pohl goes in the opposite direction, exploring the idea of changing humanity to suit Mars. The novel tells the story of Roger Torroway, the first successful product of a government program to do just that. The book details the process of his terrible transformation, and the consequences for Roger, both physical and psychological.

All this takes place against a background nearly identical to that in Pohl’s novel Jem. In other words: Cold War Earth, political strife, WWIII looming ever closer and seeming inevitable, the “free world” vs. communism, and a conviction that getting an off-world colony started is of the utmost urgency to save humanity. The political paranoia and the inevitability of annihilation seem exaggerated and unreal to me; but I was five years old when this novel was written, so what do I know? Maybe if I’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the book’s sense of Cold War dread and urgency would seem more realistic. But to me, this aspect of the novel seems forced.

Very little of the story actually takes place on Mars. Most of it occurs in the lab where Roger Torroway is slowly changed from a human being into something more — or perhaps less — than human. Through a series of operations, Torroway is turned into a cyborg, most of his natural flesh replaced with artificial parts. His eyes are faceted globes. His skin is plastic. He has mechanical muscles, and photoreceptor wings for gathering energy. His nervous system is altered to provide vastly improved senses. By the time it’s all done, there is very little of the original, organic Torroway left.

The book is suffused with a sense of disquiet and uneasiness about this project. While it is seen as a huge scientific achievement and a benefit for humanity, it is impossible not to also view it as a kind of abomination:

The screen showed a man.
He did not look like a man. [...] He was an astronaut, a Democrat, a Methodist, a husband, a father, an amateur tympanist, a beautifully smooth ballroom dancer; but to the eye he was none of those things. To the eye he was a monster.

As Torroway goes through his transformation, it becomes harder and harder for him to connect with humanity, even with those he was closest to. This alienation from his own species, even in the cause of serving that species, is the central tragedy of the novel.

The book is interesting as far as it goes. It could have been far better though. For one thing, Pohl is not big on characterization. His characters are just barely developed enough to get the story told, and no more; I have a hard time really believing in them. Another thing the book lacks is an explanation of why this transformation is preferable to other possible solutions, such as simply bringing along the right equipment for ordinary humans to survive on Mars (building domed cities and so forth). A fairly average reading experience, overall.

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.

Classic authors speak on the value of science fiction

Here’s a short video clip of some of the big names in science fiction saying a few words about the genre. These are outtakes from a series of interviews recorded by James Gunn between 1968 and 1978 as part of his Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series. You can actually purchase a 2-DVD set of all the interviews from The Center for the Study of Science Fiction (University of Kansas), although if you ask me it’s a bit pricey.

Anyway, this clip is only about 9 minutes long, and most of the comments are of the sort you’ve probably heard or read before. But sometimes it’s nice to get it from the horse’s mouth, and see the faces and hear the voices of some of these famous writers of a past age; it gives a sense of connection, I think. This clip includes: Poul Anderson, Jack Williamson, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Clifford Simak, Frederik Pohl, Gordon Dickson, Damon Knight, and Isaac Asimov. (Wow, what a distinctive voice Brunner has!)