When I was about thirteen, I discovered in the depths of a Vroman’s bargin bin a large* book with the title: Science Fiction 101. Well that’s clearly a book meant for me, I thought. I had only recently decided that writing was something I’d like to do and this book came with the byline “where to start reading and writing science fiction.” Perfect.
I think I finished it in a day. Then I re-read it again. And again.
The book was great for two reasons. One it introduced me to some of my favorite science fiction short stories. And two, the author included essays after each story dissecting what the story had taught him about writing and pointing out things that the writers did extremely well. He even did this from two perspectives, what each story had been to his teenage self and what it was still teaching him after thirty-five years of writing.
In the introduction he comments:
“The process of becoming a writer involves discovering how to use the accumulated wisdom of our guild, all those tricks of the storytelling trade that have evolved around the campfire over the last five or ten or fifty thousand years. Others can show you what those tricks are. But only you can make a writer out of yourself, by reading, by studying what you have read, and above all writing.”
Some of the advice which seems obvious now I remember being eye opening in middle school. The “Purpose, Passion, Perception” structure, which he attributes to Kenneth Burke’s “The Tactics of Motivation,” I remember making a particular impression. The idea is that all stories have what Burke called “the tragic rhythm” – an underlying structure which builds drama and holds the story together. It begins with Purpose – the goal of the characters – both the protagonist and antagonist. Passion is the struggle of those characters to attain their goals against whatever obstacles stand in their way. Perception then is the culmination of the story; the outcome of the passion of the characters which Silverberg also notes should come with some fundamental change in the character of the protagonist. The bigger the change he notes, the better the emotional impact of the change.
Other tidbits I’m still wrestling with. For instance:
“…[H.D.F. Kitto] taught me what a dramatic situation really is: a zone of inevitable opposition of powerful forces that emits ever-widening reverberations until it is neutralized somehow in a way that creates understanding, insight, and harmony. Knowing that, I could work backward from my perception of the story’s central issue to generate its plot. What created this conflict? What can possibly solve it? Who is being hurt by it, and why?”
Sounds simple to do. Just come up with your story’s central issue before you begin and then ask yourself those questions. But its devilishly difficult to do in practice and maintain across even a short story. At least, I’m still struggling with it.
Science Ficiton 101 would be worth looking for simply for the collection of short stories. Thirteen in all, they are still some of the most delightful, most impactful SF short stories I’ve ever read, each with that sticky quality of memory that finds you contemplating their themes and consequences in the small hours of the night when you should be sleeping. Taken together with the commentary, they have so much to teach. Well over a decade later, I’m still learning new things every time I read them.
I would be remiss in noting that not everything about the book has aged well. Silverberg gives only one story in thirteen to a female writer (C. L. Moore) and reveals her gender like the surprise I’m sure it was to him at one time. The reader is referred to with male pronouns throughout the essays. And the stories, well they were written mostly in the 50’s and early 60’s. In fairness Silverberg calls the authors out on underdeveloped female characters (except when he’s pointing out stories in which all the characters are underdeveloped because developing them would undermine the tension of the plot). The inclusion of “Day Million” by Frederick Pohl, in which the characters are neither male or female or “anything you would recognize, is enough of a palate cleanser to make the rest forgivable.
*I was reading upwards of two books a day at that point. Thick books were books that I wouldn’t finish too fast to be worth buying.