Tag Archives: John Brunner

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.

13 tales of caution, karma, and revenge, from Brunner

brunnerforwardFrom This Day Forward (1972) features thirteen stories showcasing John Brunner’s discerning style and wit. Correction: twelve stories and a poem. If there is a general theme running through this volume, it is that of poetic justice. Karma. Bad choices and mistakes coming back to haunt you. Evil or unethical people getting their just deserts, their comeuppance, their due. As a word of advice on avoiding such situations and keeping an eye on where we’re headed, Brunner offers this anonymous quote: It behooves us all to be interested in the future, because that’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives. Words of wisdom, indeed.

“The Biggest Game” is about a gigolo con-man on the hunt for his next rich widow target; but the tables are turned when the hunter becomes the hunted. “The Trouble I See” presents a man who has a special skill to sense danger to himself and uses it to manipulate others and become wealthy. Eventually, though, he is fooled by his own talent. In “Factsheet Six” a clairvoyant takes his revenge on a rapacious businessman whose unethical products caused the death of his family.

Two of the best stories are “Wasted On the Young” and “Judas.” The former presents a future social system in which the young, up until age 30, are allowed to live at society’s expense, charging any extravagance they desire to the state, after which they must repay that luxury with years of service. One young man thinks he can outsmart the system, living a life of such utter gluttony and overindulgence that he accumulates a service-debt of 300 years. He believes the state will never be able to collect on this debt, but he turns out to be wrong about that. “Judas” is an excellent story built on two concepts. One is over-reliance on technology and, in fact, the worshiping of technology to the extent that it becomes a god; the other is the lengths people will go to in order to hang on to their beliefs, even in the face of evidence against those beliefs.

“Even Chance” points out that just as it might matter to the crew of a plane where they get shot down during a war, the outcome of an alien crash-landing might also be highly dependent on the location of that landing. “Planetfall” is a boy-meets-girl story with two young people from different cultures (one Earth-based, one space-based) who each think the other’s culture is the answer to their dreams; but after learning more about each other, they realize those dreams are far too simplistic.

There are a few more stories that I didn’t care for all that much: one about intrigue in ancient Rome, one about reincarnation, one about fairies with a warning for humanity, one about a Viet-Cong terrorist in New York. And then there’s the poem at the end, which also didn’t impress me at all — or maybe I just couldn’t figure out what it was all about.

All in all, a successful story collection, meaning I liked at least half of the stories.

More Brunner, and More Things in Heaven

morethingsheavenI thought it was time for some more Brunner (and hey, it’s always time for more Brunner), so I picked out More Things in Heaven from my unread books shelf and gave it a go. Published in 1973, this is an expanded and/or revised version of a 1963 work called The Astronauts Must Not Land (that’s a definite improvement in the title, I must say). I get the feeling it wasn’t revised quite enough, because the writing comes across as a little less mature or refined than Brunner’s later work that I’m familiar with — a little clumsier in terms of plot, a little less developed in terms of characterization. Nevertheless, it is Brunner we’re talking about, and it’s not like he could actually write a bad book; even his below-average work holds its own against many other writers. So, this one is still worth reading, and it does come with a payoff in the form of a grand mind-blowing idea at the end.

The basic story is about the first voyage of the first interstellar vessel and its return — more about the return, actually. The Starventure is a faster-than-light vehicle, traveling through that mysterious, unknown medium simply called “hyperspace.” The means for accomplishing this have been recently discovered but not completely understood, and the process is described in rather vague terms even by the scientifically knowledgeable. As you can imagine, this lack of understanding provides an opening for weirdness to enter the plot, which it promptly does.

David Drummond is a well-known science journalist whose brother Leon is a Starventure crewmember. As the time nears for the ship’s return, something strange happens: David sees his brother walking down the street! Or at least he thinks he does. He soon becomes convinced that his mind was playing tricks on him, and drops the matter. But when others begin having the same kinds of experiences, and people start seeing bizarre images in the sky, then David knows humanity is in over its head, dealing with something completely unknown. As he and his associates work to uncover the nature of the mystery (being hushed up by governmental caution), David ultimately learns the truth, and that truth turns his world upside down and forever changes our understanding of what we consider “our universe” and our place in it. Here is David contemplating the situation:

Somewhere in the back of my mind, and I imagined in the minds of most people of this twenty-first century, there had been a dream of Man encompassing the universe by the power of his intelligence. That was the vision which had inspired Starventure.

Could we have been deluding ourselves? Had we truly been misled into thinking that because we seemed to understand our own little corner of the cosmos we were on the way to understanding the whole of it?

I can’t tell you any of the specifics of what David learns because that would just give it all away. However, I will say that I love the way Brunner works some mythology and philosophy into the mix. The ultimate explanation for all the strange happenings has a connection to Plato’s concept of ideal forms, and it also has some bearing on various myths involving loss, such as the lost Garden of Eden, the fallen angels, and the like.

If you like Brunner, this one’s worth your time. If you don’t like Brunner, well then, what’s wrong with you?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Brunner plays a strange game in Players

I think it says something about an author’s skill when you read one of his books, and you find the first 75% of it not to your liking for whatever reason (too boring, too strange, seems like it’s not going anywhere), but by the time you’ve read the last 25% you change your mind completely and end up regarding said book favorably. I’ve just had this experience, with Brunner’s 1980 novel Players At the Game of People. Honestly, for the largest chunk of this very strange book I was skeptical about it’s value, and it seemed very possible it would turn out to be utterly pointless. But by the time I read the last page and closed the cover, I was surprised to find myself nodding in approval, and appreciating the subtle and roundabout way in which the story unfolded.

Godwin Harpinshield is a member of a special group of people who — how to explain this? — live lives of inexplicable luxury, amongst and yet apart from the rest of humanity, and who have access to certain strange powers and experiences, including near-immortality or at least very long life. If that sounds vague, then you get the picture, because it IS vague throughout most of the book. As Godwin visits other members of this group in a surrealistic sequence of bizarre encounters, we get little sidewise glimpses into their existence, and obscure hints at where their unique abilities come from, or at least where they think they come from. Much of this is quite annoying, concerning mystical gibberish about astrology and astral guidance and the like; early on in the book it seems like the whole thing is going to stay on that track, thus my frequent wondering if this was a waste of time. I’m in a delicate position here, since I can’t tell you too much without spoiling it for you. Suffice it to say that the answer, while left intentionally sketchy, is not a straightforwardly mystical one. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be; there are perfectly good SFnal explanations available, which suits my preferences, of couse.

But that doesn’t matter so much — the source of the special powers isn’t really the point. At its heart, this is a Faustian tale about the price of getting everything you ever wanted. Godwin has easy access to all the finest things in life: a fantastic (and fantastical!) home, expensive cars, instant travel to exotic locales, the best food and drink in the world, the company of as many gorgeous women as he likes. And he pays nothing for it. At any rate, he pays no money for these privileges, nor does he work for them. But as the novel progresses, we begin to discover that there is a price, after all. And along with Godwin, we are forced to ponder whether it’s a price worth paying. Although Godwin gives off an almost constant sense of unease and dissatisfaction all along, the story gets most interesting when he finally starts to consciously question the reasons for his unease. The breakthrough moment comes here:

Something to do, perhaps, with pride?
Do I have pride?
He looked about him — looked anywhere in the grand apartment except at her — and asked, for the first time: “Did I create that? Did I earn it? Did I invent it or conceive it or design it?”
And felt the chilling knowledge overtake him:
Of course not. I simply accepted it when it was given.
Who have I been all these years?
And worse yet:
What have I been?

The novel ends tragically for Godwin, who never reaches any solid conclusions about what he could or should have done differently in life. He finds no answers, but at least he asks some questions — which is, I suppose, what we all do in this Game of People we call “life.”

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!)