Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Review: Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction

Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction
Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The premise of this collection is, to someone like me who aspires to sell stories to SFF magazines, a compelling one. Much-awarded writer Silverberg collects stories that were influential on him as a young writer, that he learned from, along with essays on each story analysing what he learned from it, and an overall essay about the start of his career in general.

The main drawback is that this is an almost-30-year-old book in which a writer whose fiction I've never really liked analyses stories that were, at the time, more than 30 years old and are now about 60 years old. Studying them might therefore not help a great deal with selling stories in the current market.

Now, there are some things that Silverberg says in the main introductory essay that I think are still useful. He talks about what he learned in his university studies about story in general, from studying Greek tragedy and storytelling theory, and he formulates it well. For example, he talks about how a story is built around conflict, the inevitable clash of powerful forces, and how the protagonist comes to participate in that conflict because of something he or she cares about; struggles against obstacles; and is permanently changed as a result. Reading this helped give me ideas for how to improve my stories: intensify the conflict or make it more interesting, increase the protagonist's investment in it, show more of their struggle, think about how they are changed by it. All of this is good stuff.

The analysis of the individual stories I found less useful. A lot of the stories of the 1950s, most of them, in fact, featured thin characterisation; Silverberg mentions this a couple of times, only in order to dismiss it as unimportant, because the science-fictional idea was what mattered. Perhaps this is one reason I've never loved his stories, because to me a character with some depth is important (it's why I can't abide Scalzi's work, which retains that 1950s flaw of indistinguishable characters who are more or less talking furniture).

I got my copy from the library, and an aggrieved feminist has written in it (in pencil) critiques of a couple of the stories, in particular Robert Sheckley's "The Monsters", in which casual wife-murder is used to make a cheap, glib point about moral relativity. She has a point. Along with thin characterisation, violence against women treated as a source of humour isn't going to play well in the current short story market, and quite rightly.

For that matter, a classical approach to story and plot won't necessarily help you to be published in some venues (Clarkesworld comes to mind), but I happen to agree with Silverberg on that aspect of the craft. And there are plenty of markets which do require a beginning, middle and end to a story, not just a lot of pretty jazzing about until you decide to stop.

In summary, then, I did learn something useful from this book, but most of it was early on. I did enjoy some of the stories (Frederick Pohl's "Day Million", for example, which closes the book, and which is an obvious inspiration for Harry Turtledove's 2013 story "It's the End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine"), and it's a good idea to know the classics, if only, as Silverberg points out, so you can avoid rewriting them from ignorance. The idea of the book is a good one, and I'd really like to see the same thing done again by another writer with more recent stories. Maybe I'll even attempt it myself, drawing on the many stories that are free to read online these days.

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