Saturday 18 June 2011

How to Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Philippo

I have a small collection of "How to Write…" books and analyses of how novels work (two of the latter having been reviewed on this blog HERE ), of which my favourite is Bob Shaw's How to Write Science Fiction. This is a practical guide full of examples from Shaw's own work, and the value I place on it is enhanced by the fact that I have always enjoyed his writing (you'll find a couple of his novels reviewed here, too).

This essay by Paul Di Philippo (henceforth PDP) may share a title with Shaw's book, but the purpose and theme are very different. First, he considers the issue of the number of new ideas to include in one story. Some authors hold the view that these should be limited to just one novelty, everything else following logically from that. One reason given for this is to allow the writer to focus on all of the implications of this idea rather than produce a confusing mess which might overtax the reader's suspension of disbelief. (Another, less laudable reason is practical parsimony: to parcel out a finite stock of ideas over as many books as possible.) Other authors pack in as high a density of ideas as they can.

PDP gives many examples of the two approaches, but the two which struck me were Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama , in which the one novelty is a giant alien spaceship heading into the Solar System, and Niven's Ringworld : which includes several different alien species (one in the process of moving their entire system away from a galactic core explosion), immortality, indestructible space-ships, a vast artificial world in the shape of a ring around the sun, and lots more besides. I find this intriguing because both feature on my list of twenty favourite SFF novels, so clearly I believe that both can work very well - it's all in the execution!

It soon becomes clear that PDP is a firm supporter of the high density approach - and then some. He provides a history of high density SF, including Harness's Flight into Yesterday and the works of Rudy Rucker. It isn't just packing in lots of ideas that PDP favours but complexity in general: in the plot structure, the viewpoints, and in a wide range of characters. He also admires new styles of writing, and references Bester's The Stars My Destination (another favourite of mine) as well as the more recent cyberpunk, and he stresses the value of borrowing from other media - including poetry, pop music and paintings. A detailed analysis of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a complex, varied and high density novel which clearly had a dominant influence on PDP's writing career, is included as an annexe.

PDP then goes on to illustrate how to write such stories by analysing his own novel Ciphers (if prospective writers gain nothing else from this essay, they can at least be encouraged by the author's graphic description of Ciphers' painful, decade-long, rejection-filled gestation). He set out to construct a story of high complexity, with many bizarre characters, ideas, situations and subjects, the last including Information Theory, Gnosticism, Buddhism and serpent worship.

I was intrigued and informed by all this, but only convinced up to a point. I enjoy SF with a high density of ideas, as long as they are germane to the basic plot and not simply thrown in for the sake of it. Indeed, one of the reviewers of my own novel Scales complained that I had packed in too many, and that they could have been spread over a trilogy. However, adding complexity at every level is a different matter. There is undoubtedly a place for such fiction and our literary culture would be the poorer without it, but it is an approach to writing which I only enjoy in small doses and can rapidly lose patience with.

Perhaps the main issue I have with this essay is the title. Science Fiction is a very diverse field, I suspect more so than any other genre, ranging from near-future techno-thrillers to wild fantasies. Di Philippo's essay focuses on promoting and explaining one particular type of SF, very much on the outer fringes of the genre. It might be more accurately titled "How to Push the Boundaries of Science Fiction Until They (Almost) Burst".

The essay is published by the Italian digital publishing house, 40k .


Bill Garthright said...

Tony, the only way these "how to" books would work for me is if there's a button on the cover I could push to have the book write a story for me!

Writing fiction is hard work, and I'm full of admiration for you authors who can accomplish it - and do it well, too.

Anthony G Williams said...

Writing can be hard work, Bill, but it can also be a lot of fun.

I write non-fiction in my specialist field (military weapons and ammunition) more or less to order, but I can only write fiction when I really want to - when ideas keep bugging me and I have to write them down to get rid of them!

Alexander Field said...

Thanks for pointing us toward this essay, sounds fascinating. And I have to say that I have seen both approaches work with equal success, but as you say, it takes a writer of special talent to do either. Great review!