Bruce Sterling. The Agberg Ideology --------------------------------------------------------------- firstname.lastname@example.org --------------------------------------------------------------- "The Agberg Ideology" To speak with precision about the fantastic is like loading mercury with a pitchfork. Yet some are driven to confront this challenge. On occasion, a veteran SF writer will seriously and directly discuss the craft of writing science fiction. A few have risked doing this in cold print. Damon Knight, for instance. James Blish (under a pseudonym.) Now uobert Silverberg steps deliberately into their shoes, with _uobert Silverberg's Worlds of Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction_ (Warner Books, 1987, $17.95). Here are thirteen classic SF stories by well- known genre authors. Most first appeared in genre magazines during the 1950s. These are stories which impressed Silverberg mightily as he began his career. They are stories whose values he tried hard to understand and assimilate. Each story is followed by Silverberg's careful, analytical notes. And this stuff, ladies and gents, is the SF McCoy. It's all shirtsleeve, street-level science fiction; every story in here is thoroughly crash- tested and cruises like a vintage Chevy. _Worlds of Wonder_ is remarkable for its sober lack of pretension. There's no high-tone guff here about how SF should claim royal descent from Lucian, or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Mary Shelley. Credit is given where credit is due. The genre's real founders were twentieth-century weirdos, whacking away at their manual typewriters, with amazing persistence and energy, for sweatshop pay. They had a definite commonality of interest. Something more than a mere professional fraternity. Kind of like a disease. In a long, revelatory introduction, Silverberg describes his own first exposure to the vectors of the cultural virus: SF books. "I think I was eleven, maybe twelve . . . [The] impact on me was overwhelming. I can still taste and feel the extraordinary sensations they awakened in me: it was a physiological thing, a distinct excitement, a certain metabolic quickening at the mere thought of handling them, let alone reading them. It must be like that for every new reader--apocalyptic thunderbolts and eerie unfamiliar music accompany you as you lurch and stagger, awed and shaken, into a bewildering new world of ideas and images, which is exactly the place you've been hoping to find all your life." If this paragraph speaks to your very soul with the tongue of angels, then you need this anthology. Buy it immediately, read it carefully. It's full of home truths you won't find anywhere else. This book is Silverberg's vicarious gift to his younger self, the teenager described in his autobiographical introduction: an itchy, over-bright kid, filled with the feverish conviction that to become a Science Fiction Writer must surely be the moral pinnacle of the human condition. And Silverberg knows very well that the kids are still out there, and that the virus still spreads. He can feel their hot little hands reaching out plaintively in the dark. And he's willing, with a very genuine magnanimity, to help these sufferers out. Just as he himself was helped by an earlier SF generation, by Mr. Kornbluth, and Mr. Knight, and Mr. and Mrs. Kuttner, and all those other rad folks with names full of consonants. Silverberg explains his motives clearly, early on. Then he discusses his qualifications to teach the SF craft. He mentions his many awards, his fine reviews, his length of service in the SF field, and, especially, his success at earning a living. It's a very down-home, pragmatic argument, with an aw-shucks, workin'-guy, just-folks attitude very typical of the American SF milieu. Silverberg doesn't claim superior knowledge of writerly principle (as he might well). He doesn't openly pose as a theorist or ideologue, but as a modest craftsman, offering rules of thumb. I certainly don't scorn this offer, but I do wonder at it. Such modesty may well seem laudable, but its unspoken implications are unsettling. It seems to show an unwillingness to tackle SF's basic roots, to est ablish a solid conceptual grounding. SF remains pitchforked mercury, jelly nailed to a tree; there are ways to strain a living out of this ichor, but very few solid islands of theory. Silverberg's proffered definition of science fiction shows the gooeyness immediately. The definition is rather long, and comes in four points: 1. An underlying speculative concept, systematically developed in a way that amounts to an exploration of the consequences of allowing such a departure from known reality to impinge on the universe as we know it. 2. An awareness by the writer of the structural underpinnings (the "body of scientific knowledge") of our known reality, as it is currently understood, so that the speculative aspects of the story are founded on conscious and thoughtful departures from those underpinnings rather than on blithe ignorance. 3. Imposition by the writer of a sense of limitations somewhere in the assumptions of the story . . . 4. A subliminal knowledge of the feel and texture of true science fiction, as defined in a circular and subjective way from long acquaintance with it. SF is notoriously hard to define, and this attempt seems about as good as anyone else's, so far. Hard thinking went into it, and it deserves attention. Yet point four is pure tautology. It is the Damon Knight dictum of "SF is what I point at when I say `SF,'" which is very true indeed. But this can't conceal deep conceptual difficulties. Here is Silverberg defining a "Story." "A story is a machine that enlightens: a little ticking contrivance . . . It is a pocket universe . . . It is an exercise in vicarious experience . . . It is a ritual of exorcism and purgation. It is a set of patterns and formulas. It is a verbal object, an incantation made up of rhythms and sounds." Very fluent, very nice. But: "A science fiction story is all those things at once, and something more." Oh? What is this "something more?" And why does it take second billing to the standard functions of a generalized "stor y?" How can we be certain that "SF" is not, in fact, something basically alien to "Story-telling?" "Science fiction is a branch of fantasy," Silverberg asserts, finding us a cozy spot under the sheltering tree of Literature. Yet how do we really know that SF is a "branch" at all? The alternative would be to state that science fiction is not a true kind of "fiction" at all, but something genuinely monstrous. Something that limps and heaves and convulses, without real antecedents, in a conceptual no-man's land. Silverberg would not like to think this; but he never genuinely refutes it. Yet there is striking evidence of it, even in _Worlds of Wonder_ itself. Silverberg refers to "antediluvian SF magazines, such as _Science_ Wonder Stories from 1929 and _Amazing Stories_ from 1932 . . . The primitive technique of many of the authors didn't include such frills as the ability to create characters or write dialogue . . . [T]he editors of the early science fiction magazines had found it necessary to rely on hobbyists with humpty-dumpty narrative skills; the true storytellers were off writing for the other pulp magazines, knocking out westerns or adventure tales with half the effort for twice the pay." A nicely dismissive turn of phrase. But notice how we confront, even in very early genre history, two distinct castes of writer. We have the "real storytellers," pulling down heavy bread writing westerns, and "humpty-dumpty hobbyists" writing this weird-ass stuff that doesn't even have real dialogue in it. A further impudent question suggests itself: if these "storytellers" were so "real," how come they're not still writing successfully today for _Argosy_ and _Spicy Stories_ and _Aryan Atrocity Adventure_? How come, among the former plethora of pulp fiction magazines, the science fiction zines still survive? Did the "storytellers" somehow ride in off the range to rescue Humpty Dumpty? If so, why couldn't they protect their own herd? What does "science fiction" really owe to "fiction ," anyway? This conceptual difficulty will simply not go away, ladies and gentlemen. It is a cognitive dissonance at the heart of our genre. Here is John Kessel, suffering the ideological itch, Eighties version, in _SF Eye_ #1: "Plot, character and style are not mere icing . . . Any fiction that conceives of itself as a vehicle for something called `ideas' that can be inserted into and taken out of the story like a passenger in a Toyota is doomed, in my perhaps staid and outmoded opinion, to a very low level of achievement." A "low level of achievement." Not even Humpty Dumpty really wants this. But what is the "passenger," and what are the "frills?" Is it the "storytelling," or is it the "something more?" Kessel hits a nerve when he demands, "What do you mean by an `idea' anyway?" What a difficult question this is! The craft of storytelling has been explored for many centuries, in many cultures. Blish called it "a huge body of available technique," and angrily demanded its full use within SF. And in _Worlds of Wonder_, Silverberg does his level best lo convey the basic mechanics. Definitions fly, helpful hints abound. A story is "the working out of a conflict." A story "has to be built around a pattern of oppositions." Storytelling can be summed up in a three-word formula: "purpose, passion, perception." And on and on. But where are we to find the craft of the "something more"? What in hell *is* the "something more"? "Ideas" hardly begins to describe it. Is it "wonder"? Is it "transcendence"? Is it "visionary drive," or "conceptual novelty," or even "cosmic fear"? Here is Silverberg, at the very end of his book: "It was that exhilaration and excitement that drew us to science fiction in the first place, almost invariably when we were very young; it was for the sake of that exhilaration and excitement that we took up the writing of it, and it was to facilitate the expression of our visions and fantasies that we devoted ourselves with such zeal to the study of the art and craft of writing." Very well put, but the dichotomy lurches up again. The art and craft of writing *what*, exactly? In this paragraph, the "visions and fantasies" briefly seize the driver's seat of the Kessel Toyota. But they soon dissipate into phantoms again. Because they are so ill-defined, so mercurial, so desperately lacking in basic conceptual soundness. They are our stock in trade, our raison d'etre, and we still don't know what to make of them. _Worlds of Wonder_ may well be the best book ever published about the craft of science fiction. Silverberg works nobly, and he deserves great credit. The unspoken pain that lies beneath the surface of his book is something with which the genre has never successfully come to terms. The argument is as fresh today as it was in the days of _Science Wonder Stories_. This conflict goes very deep indeed. It is not a problem confined to the craft of writing SF. It seems to me to be a schism of the modern Western mindset, a basic lack of cultural integration between what we feel, and what we know. It is an inability to speak naturally, with conviction from the heart, of the things that Western rationality has taught us. This is a profound problem, and the fact that science fiction deals with it so directly, is a sign of science fiction's cultural importance. We have no guarantee that this conflict will *ever* be resolved. It may not be resolvable. SF writers have begun careers, succeeded greatly, grown old and honored, and died in the shadow of this dissonance. We may forever have SF "stories" whose narrative structure is buboed with expository lumps. We may always have escapist pulp adventures that avoid true imagination, substituting the bogus exoticism that Blish defined as "calling a rabbit a `smeerp.'" We may even have beautifully written, deeply moving tales of classic human conflict--with only a reluctant dab of genre flavor. Or we may have the opposite: the legacy of Stapledon, Gernsback, and Lem, those non-stories bereft of emotional impact and human interest, the constructions Silverberg rightly calls "vignettes" and "reports." I don't see any stories in _Worlds of Wonder_ that resolve this dichotomy. They're swell stories, and they deliver the genre payoff in full. But many of them contradict Silverberg's most basic assertions about "storytelling." "Four in One" by Damon Knight is a political parable whose hero is a rock-ribbed Competent Man whose reactions are utterly nonhuman. "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester is a one-shot tour-de-force dependent on weird grammatical manipulation. "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss is a visionary picaresque with almost no conventional structure. "The New Prime" by Jack Vance is six jampacked alien vignettes very loosely stitched together. "Day Million" showcases Frederik Pohl bluntly haranguing his readers. It's as if Silverberg picked these stories deliberately to demonstrate a deep distrust of his own advice. But to learn to tell "good stories" is excellent advice for any kind of writer, isn't it? Well- constructed "stories" will certainly sell in science fiction. They will win awards, and bring whatever fame and wealth is locally available. Silverberg knows this is true. His own career proves it. His work possesses great technical facility. He writes stories with compelling opening hooks, with no extraneous detail, with paragraphs that mesh, with dialogue that advances the plot, with neatly balanced beginnings, middles and ends. And yet, this ability has not been a total uoyal uoad to success for him. Tactfully perhaps, but rather surprisingly, _Worlds of Wonder_ does not mention Silverberg's four-year "retirement" from SF during the '70s. For those who missed it, there was a dust-up in 1976, when Silverberg publicly complained that his work in SF was not garnering the critical acclaim that its manifest virtues deserved. These were the days of _Dying Inside_, _The Book of Skulls_, _Shadrach in the Furnace_--sophisticated novels with deep, intense character studies, of unimpeachable literary merit. Silverberg was not alone in his conclusion that these groundbreaking works were pearls cast before swine. Those who shared Silverberg's literary convictions could only regard the tepid response of the SF public as philistinism. But was it really? Critics still complain at him today; take Geoff uyman's review of _The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party_, a recent Silverberg collection, in _Foundation_ 37. "He is determined to write beautifully and does . . . He has most of the field beaten by an Olympic mile." And yet: "As practiced by Silverberg, SF is a minor art form, like some kinds of verse, to be admired for its surface polish and adherence to form." This critical plaint is a symptom of hunger for the "something more." But where are we to find its mercurial secrets? Not in the storytelling alembics of _Worlds of Wonder_. Why, then, is Silverberg's book so very valuable to the SF writer of ambition? There are many reasons. Silverberg's candid reminiscences casts vital light into the social history of the genre. The deep structures of our subculture, of our traditions, must be understood by anyone who wants to transcend them. To have no "ideology," no theory of SF and its larger purposes, is to be the unknowing puppet of its unwritten rules. These invisible traditions are actually only older theories, now disguised as common sense. The same goes for traditional story values. Blatant solecisms are the Achilles heel of the wild- eyed SF visionary. If this collection teaches anything, it's that one can pull the weirdest, wackiest, off-the-wall moves in SF, and still win big. But one must do this deliberately, with a real understanding of thee consequences. One must learn to recognize, and avoid, the elementary blunders of bad fiction: the saidbookisms, the point-of-view violations, the careless lapses of logic, the pointless digressions, the idiot plots, the insulting cliches of character. _Worlds of Wonder_ is a handbook for accomplishing that. It's kindly and avuncular and accessible and fun to read. And some readers are in special luck. You may be one of them. You may be a young uobert Silverberg, a mindblown, too-smart kid, dying to do to the innocent what past SF writers have done to you. You may be boiling over with the Holy Spirit, yet wondering how you will ever find the knack, the discipline, to put your thoughts into a form that compels attention from an audience, a form that will break you into print. If you are this person, _Worlds of Wonder_ is a precious gift. It is your battle plan.