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The SF Writer's Online Resource
by Trent Walters

Michael A. Banks (pseudonym of Alan Gould)

Websites
Other SF Writer's Online Resource Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Index to Banks' Articles
Miscellaneous Tips for Writers
Where Do You Get Your Ideas...?
(Part I and Part II)
Review of Understanding Science Fiction in Science Fiction Studies
This column proposes to unveil authors' methods who contribute to the livelihood of upcoming authors. Not everything written in the column can be located on the web but can be acquired via inter-library loan -- if the reader finds a book described of interest. Again, the purpose is to highlight the authors and the work they have posted -- work worth investigating and dedicated to improving tomorrow's writers.

The Time Machine and War of the Worlds So many writing books are a dime a dozen, shedding little new light on the difficulty of writing. On the web are some free and interesting takes on this eternal dilemma. Michael A. Banks, author of three SF novels and several short stories, of a book that sets the record straight on Understanding Science Fiction, and of a style not displeasing to the ear, is one of those writers with something worthwhile to say. (The reviewer was unable to locate the Analog issues for "The Famous Hackers' School" and "What Do I Do If I Get a Phone Call from Mars?" [Analog, September 1990 and July 1993, respectively].) This article will dissect what he's said and how well he's applied it: simply put, exceedingly well.

Banks takes a short and sweet look at Understanding Science Fiction, aiming for the secondary education teacher audience but providing sound instruction for the writer as well. Even long-term science fiction readers, who may intuit genre requirements, are frequently surprised at how little they understand what the genre is or what it represents. To be fair, professional SF writers have difficulty defining what they do, but an understanding should facilitate writing and eliminate a few of the writer's inevitably many false starts. Banks demystifies and simplifies science fiction -- that is, with an emphasis on the science aspect which is probably the aspect most needing demystification. (In an article reprinted here, Jack Williamson describes how SF can be taught most effectively, which is of interest for his overview of the genre.)

The introduction serves as an overture, placing the sciences (general, genetics, physics, social sciences, religion, culture, art, astronomy, ecology, etc.) within the context of SF. It neglects a few of the softer sciences and subjects SF commonly dabbles in (at least utopias do not treat all aspects of the social sciences, psychology, history, archeology, and so on) though it states SF's application are limitless, and it is still an excellent overview. The first chapter traces the long sordid history of SF through Lucian and Cyrano de Bergerac's trips to the moon through utopias of Bacon and Moore, through the Saturnine aliens of Voltaire up to the first progenitor, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and its subsequent variations and refinements by Poe and Verne's technological extrapolations from the present. Wells, Burroughs and Doc Smith space operas, and the advent of the SF magazine from Gernsback and the New Wave through to the present close out Banks' history.

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The second chapter provides and applies excellent, albeit neglected, examples of two authors' extrapolation methods (Bova's, through science to its effect on the future society, politics and economics, and Pohl's, through selected social trends' interaction) on the year 2050. For example, simply increasing life expectancy affects lifestyle changes from increased population which decreases privacy, slows societal aspirations, changes political and economic structures. Or, through Pohl's method, the interaction of increased crime and of high divorce rates might allow self-protection, government child care, less travel which would strengthen family units, and short-term marriage contracts which would, conversely, weaken family units so that crime rates could either increase or decrease, depending on the writer's perspective.

Starship Troopers The third chapter takes apart and puts back together SF technologies of transportation (from anti-grav aircars to pedwalks to Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" slidewalks moving entire towns, from rocketry to atomic propulsion to Niven's "The Alibi Machine" matter transmission to extra-dimensional hyper- or warped-space to the relativistic effects nearing the speed light), weaponry (from blasters to atomics, disintegrators, death-rays and stunners to the germ warfare in War of the Worlds to the armored suits of Starship Troopers to robot warriors in Berserker or Bolo), communications (television, radio, satellite, videophone to instantaneous space-phones), construction (on Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress lunar colonies and in roofed-over craters, in space stations and space suits, in literal world-building as Niven's Ringworld and lesser forms of terraforming), energy production and transmission (Williamson's Seetee stories of antimatter-matter reactions to George O. Smith's "Lost Art" energy beams to Asimov's The Gods Themselves transmission from other universes), and medical (cloned organs and bodies to prolong life, replacement of dysfunctional limbs with machines, and suspended animation).

The fourth chapter of interest makes a U-turn for social commentaries in SF.

Utopias have existed since the Biblical Eden and More's Utopia with divergences into dystopia with 1984 and Player Piano. For diametrically opposed population controls, Make Room, Make Room and Logan's Run represent dystopias of the medical kind. Atomic and ecological disasters (Zelazny's Damnation Alley [in the reviewer's opinion Z's one stupendously bad story]) as well as other self-created obstacles dependence on machines like E.M. Foster's "The Machine Stops" demonstrate other possible dystopias.

The Left Hand of Darkness Societies can evolve out of strange environments like five-mile-long spaceships with total recycling of all biological materials [as Richard Paul Russo says, location develops character]. Sex, gender and gender roles have also evolved in SF with realistic portrayals in, respectively, Bova's "Zero Gee" and Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness where the "aliens" have become gender-neutral and the now commonplace marriage contracts which provide an outlet for polygamy and short-term marriages. Economics in SF can be seen in standardized monies such as credits and in super-consumerism/idle-workmen of The Space Merchants and Ballard's "The Subliminal Man."

Simplification, the strength of the first four chapters, becomes a weakness when it comes to the author's commentaries on fiction, especially on his own works. One might hope for more insight into the process but gets little more than revelations of Man vs. Society, character subjugated to idea, and so forth. Unfortunately, contrasted against Hawthorne's anti-science story "Birthmark," Banks' tales may leave the reader with the false impression that the anti-science story is stronger than the pro-science -- an impression denied by Banks' series of inventor stories described below. Also, unavoidably, the resources and references are outdated.

You can find an index to Banks' articles of which the most interesting to the writer of SF are his ideas on ideas, reviewed here (you will also find an invaluable article on reselling articles, manuscript preparation, and other practical mechanics on this page as well).

"Miscellaneous Tips for Writers" offers a grab-bag of proverbial suggestions across the gamut of fiction writing from creating characters that feel true, to identifying the difference between a vignette and a story, to committing to a story's submission process, and to jotting down notes on ideas. Banks lets writers know "Where Do You Get Your Ideas...? (Part I and Part II)" by finding good ideas which lead to characters and conflict that readers can relate to, by following out the permutations of the idea through a logical sequence of steps, by altering the idea significantly from its original inspiration, and by identifying which readers and markets would be interested in your ideas.

Ringworld The print article, "Science Fiction: Hard Science and Hard Conflict" in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (edited by J. N. Williamson, Writer's Digest Books, 1987), asks the writer to view writing hard SF in three stages. First, decide how much and whether science is foreground or background to your story. Second, research through your own leg work or through an expert. Third, apply the knowledge as unobtrusively as possible. Banks gives useful advice on how to make the science work best in the story: no dumping info like "As you know, Bob"s, contrive a scene to display science with training or demonstration, flashback to a mini-history segue way when science via character recollection (ala Ringworld or Gateway), or best of all show the science naturally as the characters use, react to and discuss it as a consequence of the narrative flow.

Gateway "Concerning Compuorganics and the Ultimate Personal Computer" [Analog, February 1983 and the accompanying ad in Analog, November 9, 1981], an artful piece of manipulative non-fiction that is as timely today as twenty years ago, can't be described lest the wondrous nature be given away without the reader earning it. Indirectly, this constitutes a co-authored article with other unnamed authors and astute readers of Analog although the inspiration is the author's own "Horseless Carriage" [first appeared in IASFM July/August 1978; reprinted in Asimov's Choice: Extraterrestrials & Eclipses and in Science Fiction Masterpieces] which should be read between the ad and article for full effect. "Through the Wire" [Journal Wired Spring, Summer/Fall '90] presents outdated info on why someone should access the internet.

So much territory to explore, so much to be "Lost and Found" (written with George Wagner and appeared in IASFM March/April 1978; reprinted in Asimov's Choice: Comets & Computers and in Science Fiction Masterpieces)... A man gets lost after inventing a machine that can cross timelines though he doesn't fully grasp how he invented it. He stumbles across a gas station and asks how to get back to his hometown, trying to mask what he doesn't know. Unfortunately, the maps, Nexons, and other quaint and unexploited time terminology serve the least common denominator of possible inherent ideas.

The first in a series of the inventors' businessman stories ["Horseless Carriage" first appeared in IASFM July/August 1978; reprinted in Asimov's Choice: Extraterrestrials & Eclipses and in Science Fiction Masterpieces]: a man attempts to hock an inventors' anti-gravity machine for him -- only none of the companies believe his claim and won't be shystered. By itself, this story makes no earth-shattering revelations in theme, idea, plot, or character. However, the play of ideas and themes would profoundly heighten sandwiched between the ad on page 110 in Analog, November 9, 1981 and "Concerning Compuorganics and the Ultimate Personal Computer" in Analog, February 1983. What a virtuoso performance that would be to bring these three together (or even better: the entire sequence of the inventors' businessman)! Literary art would have to redefine the ways in which it labels art.

Despite the title's appearance, "The Big Black Bag" [Analog, August 17, 1981] bears little resemblance to Kornbluth's time-traveling medical bag in "The Little Black Bag" apart from its blackness, its bagness and a mysterious ability to hold more than it appears to be able. The second in the inventors' businessman series presents a scientific bag any magician would love. An inventor pulls books, lamps, a fan, potted plants, a wall clock, and a coffeemaker out of the bag. The objects can disappear once again inside. But how does one market such a bag? As waste disposal, of course -- that is, until one discovers the trash is dumped on the lawn of the state capitol....

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress "The Tie That Binds" [Analog, March 1, 1982] these inventors' businessman series together is idea as theme, making each story alone too simplistic a play without the whole. It's only by this, the third of the series, that the reader feels the full impact of the author's artistic method, attacking the idea of waste disposal to retreat and regroup with a transportation system, attacking the idea of an even better transportation system to retreat and regroup with a better waste disposal system, and so forth. So much of science can be summed up in misdirection of ideas for tampering in technologies whose implications are not completely understood, hoping to achieve outcome X only to find the path blocked by insurmountable problem Y -- which isn't a problem at all if the scientist keeps an open mind for different possibilities. The series as a whole becomes a refinery of ideas, distilled until it produces the purified product.

Likewise, we can only hope that literary art opens its mind to different possibilities of interpretation of what art is and can also hope that someday a publisher will collect the author's articles and stories of ideas as well as the first two sections on SF in his well-received Understanding Science Fiction (see review in Science Fiction Studies.)

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.


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