The Craft of Science Fiction, Part 1: “SF: The Challenge to the Writer” by Reginald Bretnor

This is the first part of my 15-week blog series on the 1976 book The Craft of Science Fiction, edited by Reginald Bretnor. I’m going to tear apart each article, looking for the parts and pieces that still make sense to the modern practitioner, and give my own advice as well.

Reginald Bretnor, the editor of this collection, unfortunately passed away in 1992, so barring sudden leaps in my abilities as a psychopomp, I won’t be able to ask him anything about it. With that caveat, I’m looking forward to this exercise. Any manual of writing is, of course, a product of its time, so I’m expecting something of a coarser social sensibility than we would expect from a 21st Century book. I will note this but I’m going to deliberately refrain from fully exercising my feminist sensibilities (except when it’s absolutely unavoidable).

Reginald Bretnor was born in Russia shortly before the birth of the Soviet Union, and died in Oregon shortly after the nation of his birth had been restored. He mostly wrote military science-fiction, and was the chief editor of a three-part anthology of SF war stories, The Future at War (1979-80). He was alleged to be an associate of Anton LeVay (which would put him in good company with a number of SFF writers and practicing scientists at the time).

“SF: The Challenge to the Writer”

This essay begins by observing what anyone who is even distantly familiar with the news already understands: That we live in an age of constant and accelerating change, and that this change comes with it dangers and opportunities. One of the difficulties with being an SF writer and being taken seriously is that the two seem almost to be at right angles from each other. Academe has long declined to take SF seriously and SF has responded with an almost self-spiting anti-intellectualism. This is not to say that science fiction does not take scientific intellectualism seriously, of course – there is a deep respect for intellect when the subject is scientific advancement. But we have this simultaneous instinct to reject literary analysis of science-fictional work (this has its roots, oddly enough, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s vocal detestation of allegory, one of the principle methods of understanding a metaphorical work – and science fiction is as metaphorical a genre as, for example, Regency romance).

On page 6, Bretnor summarizes one of the most difficult problems of science fiction: The creation and shaping of future societies that by necessity are alien to our own, and doing so in a way that resonates with present-day readers. This is a task that has historically met with only mixed results; for every Foundation trilogy there is a decade of works that have contented themselves with merely reiterating the past. One of the greatest rewards of SF writing is to see a future culture come fully to life; one of the greatest failings is to simply reiterate a past or present culture in future drag.

Science fiction is one of the most challenging disciplines of writing, in spite of mistaken impressions to the contrary. Samuel Peeples, in pitching the script of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second pilot of Star Trek, argued to Gene Roddenberry that a good science-fiction piece is a good “period” piece – in that in addition to the universal challenges of writing fiction, one must also capture the zeitgeist of a time that does not exist (whether it doesn’t exist anymore or whether it has yet to exist is somewhat immaterial).

Bretnor recommends, as do I, that the aspiring science fiction author acquaint herself with the scientific method and its very human applications. While Brettnor recommends doing so through the medium of books (we are, after all, authors), specifically Count Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, I actually have a different object in mind, and it has the advantage of being presently on television: Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s revival of Carl Sagan’s seminal pop-science TV show Cosmos. While Dr. Tyson is himself (as he is the first to admit) not immune to human fallacies and failings, he is also a tremendously warm and honest man, and a good teacher.

You Don’t Have To Know Everything (But It Helps If You Can Find It)

One place where Bretnor and I disagree is that I don’t think that the SF writer has to necessarily have a working familiarity with the disciplines about which she writes. Certainly, there is the necessity to be familiar with the scientific method and both the best and working practices of science (which aren’t always actually one and the same). But in terms of functional scientific knowledge, the best place to gain the most currency is still the public library, and I believe that library training can benefit any writer, not just a science fiction writer. If you have a local community college that teaches classes in research techniques or library sciences – or both – you might be well-served by taking them.

My favorite saying about the skills I gained from my library degree is, “A librarian doesn’t know everything, she just knows where to find everything.” For we who write, the science of our craft is more in research than in application – we have to know how to sound like we know what we’re talking about, not necessarily to know what we’re talking about.

So what does all this mean? Well… to be honest, to me this is a bit of a weak essay. It’s “selling” the idea that there is an element of craft in science fiction to an audience that should already be predisposed to believe this as it is. Despite purporting to be about craft, this essay is more about the use of science in SF. Which, while an important aspect of SF, isn’t per se a craft issue but a research and understanding issue. An introduction might not be as such a waste of time and pages, but as an essay it’s a poor introduction.

My summary:

Craft in SFF is as important an element as it is in works set in the modern day. Perhaps moreso since the SFF author does not have a familiar modern-day setting to fall back on if her worldbuilding falls flat – while your readers may offer you a small additional buffer of suspension of disbelief because you’re building a fantastical world, when that suspension breaks, the backlash is all the harder. Treat your readers and your science with respect, and they will treat you with respect.

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