Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Feb 2nd, 2017, 3:00 pm

TITLE: Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction
AUTHOR: Robert Silverberg [Editor]
GENRE: Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Anthology
PUBLISHED: Original release: October 1987; eBook: May 2014)
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


Review: Attend a science fiction convention today and witness authors such as Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison mobbed by appreciative fans. But go back to the late-1950s, and see their humble beginnings. Bob and Harlan shared an apartment, ate at diners where they ordered only hot water (5 cents) as though for tea but instead mixed the hot water with ketchup to make a form of tomato soup. Yum, and protein too! Their savings here and there were in service to their shared dream: to become a published and perhaps famous author.

Also due to their lack of money is their shared nature as autodidacts; they simply could not afford a writing school or even a writing program. Each learned the craft of writing in his individual way. Robert Silverberg was methodical, diligent; he placed his ass in the chair and wrote. And wrote. And wrote more. Millions of words spooled out of his typewriter. Then he submitted. Sometimes his stories were purchased and published; more often they were not. So he applied himself to the self-assigned task and objective, How could he learn, at no cost (but time), to become a better author - a selling author? His answer was to study the great works by the great authors of the day; to tear the stories apart at the sentence and word level to learn what they did that he did not. Science Fiction 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction (original title, Worlds of Wonder) is one result of that effort...
It’s necessary, of course, for any writer to work out theories about what he thinks he’s doing. Unless you have some idea of what a story ought to be, and what in particular a science-fiction story ought to be, I don’t see how you can write one. But most of the time those theories remain subliminal, internalized, intuitive. A writer, a professional writer, goes about his work more or less as a juggler does, or a pianist, or a baseball player, by learning the technique of the job and turning it into automatic reflex. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But from time to time I think it’s important for a writer to ask himself, “What is a story? What is science fiction? What the hell is this whole business all about, anyway?”

I’ve been asking myself those questions for six decades now. I ask them again in the pages ahead. And I try to provide some answers.

Not that I’ve come up with absolute answers. There aren’t any. A story is many things, and the same story often is different things to different people. A story is a machine that enlightens: a little ticking contrivance that guides its reader to some bit of illumination. It is a pocket universe in which the reader can hide for a time from the pressure of the everyday world. It is an exercise in vicarious experience, a trip in someone else’s mind, an essay in alternative realities. It is a verbal object, an incantation made up of rhythms and sounds.

A science-fiction story is all of those things at once, and something more.

Silverberg precedes the remarks above with the snippet below...
What you have here is actually three books in one. It’s an anthology of some of the finest short stories in the history of science fiction; it’s a series of essays intended to constitute a textbook of sorts on the art and craft of writing science fiction, and it’s a collection of personal reminiscences by someone who has spent—or misspent, some might argue—more than sixty years of his life reading the stuff and nearly as much time writing it. What it amounts to, then, is a three-level attempt to come to some understanding of what science fiction is and how one goes about creating it, and to convey some of that understanding to others.

[...] I think this book is going to be useful to others, or I would never have dared to propose it to my publisher. And I know it’s been useful to me, both because it’s given me the chance to reread some stories that I admire and because it’s allowed me an opportunity to codify and clarify my own half-intuitive theories about science fiction and about fiction in general.

Bob offers an afterword to each story as to what makes the story special and a few lessons he learned by reading it. From his afterword for Cordwainer Smith's classic story, Scanners Live in Vain...
The title is immediately arresting: “Scanners Live in Vain.” What are scanners? We don’t know, of course. But they live in vain. Why? Most story titles are descriptive in nature: “A Martian Odyssey,” “Nightfall,” “The Weapon Shops,” “The Nine Billion Names of God,” “First Contact.” But “Scanners Live in Vain” is a statement. It is a complete sentence, in the present indicative, telling us something. What, though? We have no idea what it means; but we want to find out.

So we begin to read and are plunged instantly into mystery and tension: “Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.” Two sentences, and we have the initial announcement of conflict that every effective storyteller since Homer has known to be the best way of starting a story, followed by an indication—“He did not even adjust his blood away from anger”—that we are entering an unfamiliar frame of reference, a strange science-fiction world. In the paragraphs that follow, Smith builds and reinforces a sense of strangeness by introducing unknown and unexplained terminology: first scanner, then cranch, then habermans, up-and-out, under the wire. These concepts are utterly familiar to his characters, of course, as much so as policeman and telephone and newspaper are to us; and they are familiar to the author, too, probably because he has devised them first while sketching the outline of his story, and has come to know them well during the planning stage. Now he can throw them at us with confidence. He sees nothing bewildering about the term cranching, and because he is so self-assured, we will stick around to find out what it means. (When a science-fiction writer seems to be making up his terminology as he goes along, blithely tossing in this or that ad-hoc coinage whenever he finds he needs one, readers quickly sense it, and their willingness to accept the invented world as a real one rapidly wavers. The trick is to work it all out ahead of time and internalize it thoroughly, so that the writer appears to be reporting the movements of his characters through a solid and plausible and fully experienced world that happens not to be this one. If it’s done right, the reader will quickly come to feel at home there.)

Of course, there are limits to how far this technique can be carried...

And from Silverberg's afterword to Bob Shaw's magisterial, Light of Other Days...
This small, quiet, well-nigh perfect short story shows just how much science fiction can accomplish within a span of three or four thousand words. Beautifully it demonstrates how the best science fiction uses speculative science or technology to illuminate its human themes and human themes to illuminate its scientific speculations.

It is built around two interlocking cores: a troubled marriage and a technological wonder. The wonder is “slow glass,” one of the most ingenious science-fictional inventions of the last twenty or thirty years—a substance so opaque that the passage of photons through it is vastly hindered, to the point where it may take ten years for a beam of light to travel the width of a single pane. The marriage is tense because an unwanted pregnancy has interposed itself, causing economic and emotional strains. Shaw’s handling of each of these cores is distinctive and elegant; but it is his use of each to cast light on the other that makes this story so memorable.

Slow glass, taken by itself, is the sort of notion that comes once or twice at best in a science-fiction writer’s lifetime, the sort of thing that stirs his colleagues to lusty applause and bleak bileful envy. Like most brilliant ideas, it’s a perfectly obvious one—to anyone with the wit to see it.


The story’s gentle, understated nature is clear from the brief, lovely opening statement: “Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass.” That one-sentence paragraph gives us an image of rural tranquility and then perhaps of mountain starkness, and leaves us finally perplexed by the mysterious phrase “slow glass.” It propels us into a long and splendidly worked second paragraph that offers a richer view of the scenery and an even more puzzling glimpse of the slow glass.

The third paragraph leads us from the perplexing windows on the hillside to the conflict between Selina and Garland. There are problems in their marriage: she is pregnant, and angry about it. The accidental pregnancy has forced husband and wife to contemplate things about themselves, and about each other, that they had skillfully managed previously to avoid dealing with. All this is a rare touch of emotional realism in a science-fiction story, particularly in one that was written almost fifty years ago. Most science fiction in that time—and all too much of it today—is set in a never-never land of bland emotions where such real-world matters as marriage, childbirth, and divorce are sidestepped entirely or else handled in a perfunctory and almost embarrassed manner.

As a side note: Light of Other Days is an exceptional story. I rank it second on my list of all-time best SF short stories. (Oddly it shares characteristics with the #1 story on my list.)

Science Fiction 101 is an extraordinary anthology; at minimum, the book includes the foundational works of science fiction selected by Robert Silverberg that represent, at the time of their publication and Bob's first reading of them (from more than 50 years ago!), the apotheosis of writing craft and (sense of) wonder. If you read science fiction, you will enjoy its collected stories. If you love science fiction, then Bob's personal stories and reminiscences of how he become, over the many decades, one of the most honored writers in SF will fascinate you. And if you write science fiction, you will welcome Bob's clever and insightful essays that reveal the craft and the art of (writing) science fiction.

An easy 5-star recommendation for all readers and writers of speculative fiction.
Feb 2nd, 2017, 3:00 pm
Jan 4th, 2020, 2:55 pm
Paulaendop wrote:I am struggling quite a bit with this genre, especially in where the boundaries lie between sci fi also fantasy and general fiction - what would be classified as sci fi/fantasy and what wouldnt, and why.

Excellent question, Paulaendop.

There are as many answers as questions. I like this demarcation...
Science fiction establishes rules and then adheres to those rules; Fantasy has no rules, anything can happen for any reason at any time... and does.

SF author, Greg Benford, famously said that
"Science Fiction is like playing tennis with the net up. Fantasy is playing tennis with no net."

Bottom line, though: Both terms are marketing foofaraw. Publishers use them to tell book buyers and book readers whether this or that book will interest them based on a genre. Or a book's cover art. Or related authors' blurbs, etc, Really, after all this time, publishers still do not know what sells a book so they keep trying new things. "If you liked x book, you're gonna love y!"
Jan 4th, 2020, 2:55 pm