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The Science of Science-Fiction Writing
James Gunn
Scarecrow Press, 240 pages

The Science of Science-Fiction Writing
James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

With all the hundreds of books on writing (or dozens in the case of science fiction in particular), why should you pick up The Science of Science-Fiction Writing by James Gunn? One reason is that Gunn backs up his theory with examples -- unlike John Gardner's otherwise classic The Art of Fiction, which sets up straw men for examples to preach against -- though one could always ask for more specific dissection (an entire book of which is found in Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design). Another reason is the variety of sections not a focus in other books: "Author Strategy" (meaning the strategy of getting past the editor's desire to reject a manuscript), "Scene -- the Smallest Dramatic Unit" (in which he expounds upon A.E. van Vogt's method of scene into a literary device, insuring forward movement of the story -- the potential strength of which many critics initially missed), and two entire sections devoted to Gunn's specialty, not found in other books on writing: the specific protocols of SF (though sadly absent is his mind-expanding essay "The Protocols of Science Fiction") and a critical focus on the successes of early giants in the genre (H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, etc.). But the number one reason to pick up The Science of Science-Fiction Writing is a most invaluable section that one wonders why more books on writing haven't included something similar: an outline of all the advice Gunn gave during a workshop in 1998 -- likely, if a writer subjected his story to the rigorous distillations here, his story would sell somewhere. All throughout, the astute reader will want to sharpen his pencil, lest he overlook a golden nugget, to underline points Gunn makes in his examples.

The wide swath of Gunn's sound wisdom stems from his broad experiences, branching from his fiction as an Analog Award winner and Nebula and Campbell award finalist, to his scholarship as a Hugo and Locus Poll winner, to his Locus Poll nominee for editorial work on his non-pareil six-volume series, The Road to Science Fiction. As a professor at the University of Kansas, as well as online workshops and in-person summer workshops, he has taught Pat Cadigan, Bradley Denton, John Kessel, numerous winners of the Writers of the Future Contest, among other well-known names of the genre.

The first section opens with "Why People Read Fiction," general theory derived in part by the aforementioned experience and in part by Caroline Gordon, who also guided the artistry of Flannery O'Connor. One might be tempted to skip this chapter as an introduction. But that way leads to folly since, if a writer wishes to write for readers, he needs to know why they read. It introduces and offers morsels of advice that won't be found elsewhere on how and when to convey senses, how word choice arouses reader expectation, what kinds of important story questions readers raise and so forth.

A blessedly short and sweet "Anatomy of the Short Story" helps put the parts of the story within the grasp of a whole instead of dissecting over long chapters, giving the impression of an hollowed-out cadaver that other methods employ. "Why a Formula Is Not a Formula" justifies itself in opposition to the more experimental who run counter to certain aspects of its theory though most literary writers would not likely disagree. The advantage in this chapter, as in a few others, is that Gunn reasons out why beginning writers should not make their mistakes and how to work around them where other books merely dictate the laws. The brevity of "Author Strategy" is deceptive. The pencil will be an invaluable ally to the reader in ascertaining the editor's strategy to reject his slush pile. Don't take exception with "The Issue Is Character" until you understand how Gunn explains the methodology of great writers like Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Tom Wolfe all subordinated character to idea while maintaining round characters.

"Scene -- The Smallest Dramatic Unit" develops the idea of drama beginning from the stance of viewpoint to the scene, using van Vogt's method to illustrate how a story should constantly move forward. Here, debatably, Gunn quotes Lubbock calling the third person limited "true drama" although most fictions do use this viewpoint. Another possible sticking point is misinterpreting Hemingway's "narrative contains no interpretation" as meaning Hemingway's narratives have no theme; rather, interpret this as Hemingway's narrative viewpoints do not directly comment on theme.

A useful exercise for a writer might be to utilize the information learned about setting in "A Local Habitation and a Name" then apply it to other examples such as the opening scene in "The Lens of Time" which lends itself particularly well to setting analysis nearly as well as the example from Flaubert. "Speaking Well in Print" describes how dialogue is made most efficient. "Suspense in Fiction" shows the importance of viewpoint to creating suspense, providing examples how certain viewpoints cannot create such suspense and going into how a surprise cannot come out of nowhere and how to best write suspenseful drama. "Getting the Words Right" emphasizes revision while "How to Be a Good Critiquer and Still Remain Friends" points to intent in evaluating a work -- which should be useful for critics as well.

The first three essays ("The Origins of Science Fiction," "Towards a Definition of Science Fiction" and "The Worldview of Science Fiction") in the section on writing science fiction attempt a definition of SF by comparing and contrasting against mainstream and fantasy and reaching back into its literary and technological past for the origin in Newton, Darwin and Freud as well as in Shelley, Verne and Wells. One quote that bears repeating to SF nay-sayers:

"Mainstream fiction may seem more 'real' because it reflects the reality that most people deal with in their everyday existence: the social world and our interactions with it and our feelings about it. But is the evolution of humanity [one topic of concern for SF] less real because it is less quotidian?"
The Science of Science-Fiction Writing closes out with two more essays on writing SF in particular focusing on ideas and characters, providing ample examples from classic SF and coming up with how-tos for each. The final section includes the lives and craft of H.G. Wells, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, and so forth

Wait a second, you say, there's no specific chapter on viewpoint. Gunn covers viewpoint as it relates to scene and suspense, which is more valuable than the useless chapters other books provide. If you want viewpoint, hunt down the two editions of Points of View: an Anthology of Short Stories edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, but note that these omit examples of the second person and camera eye and that their own descriptions, although brief, are as faulty as every other chapter on writing different viewpoints. What appears to be the camera eye ("Anonymous Narration -- No Character Point of View") is actually a misnomer for omniscience, dipping into whomever's mind it so chooses, i.e. an the exclamation point in Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" has to be from someone's mind if it is to convey enthusiasm. Incidentally, no offense to the genius of the man's writing, Howard Waldrop tried to tell Clarion that the exclamation point couldn't be used in fiction. Let Welty be a lesson to the rampant rule-mongering also found in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, i.e. the rhyming rule which is broken by innumerable well-respected authors.

Waldrop and Gordon van Gelder shared the view that SF was ineffective below the arbitrary limit of 2500 words, yet the most effective short short, albeit with minor flaws that still raised it above another short short by a well known literary author, was "Hullabaloo" by Diane Turnshek in the July/August 2000 issue of Analog. However, books on writing can take the faulty empirical approach so a writer can understand the supposed rules or else it risks being too vague and fluffy in theory that the writer walks away with little more than when he started. The advantage of the two volumes of Points of View is that it demonstrates the rules can be and almost certainly are beautifully broken by great artists. Likewise, the advantage of Gunn's The Science of Science-Fiction Writing is that it tries to cover issues empirically to learn from yet admits to methods that flaunt the rules.

As all books on writing, the rules need to be challenged. Gunn's points on the best viewpoint and on character subjugated to idea in SF, however based on sound-reasoning and proof, also need to be challenged. Only through understanding yet challenging rules can a writer learn the rules and rise above to the level of artistry achieved in the Points of View anthologies.

If a writer merely flouts rules without first understanding where Gunn, Gardner, van Gelder and Waldrop come from, the writer is likely to flail at the pretense of fiction (moreover, how can you challenge a position you don't understand... yet people do). Unless you're making a living at writing -- and even some who are -- you could benefit from the sagacity of Gunn's sixty-plus years of experience.

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, and The Zone among others. He has interviewed for, 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 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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