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OZ Odyssey

A Personal View of Science Fiction Writing from a Fan Down Under

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by Bruce Gillespie

I'm not a science fiction writer. I've had three stories published, two of which might be called science fiction, and one a fantasy. The most recent of these stories was written in 1976. I've written a few pieces of fiction since then, but either they haven't sold or I've been so unsatisfied with them that I have not sent them out.

I'm a science fiction fan. Not merely a science fiction reader. There are many such people in the community, but there are not many science fiction fans.

What is a fan? The term is, of course, a contraction of `fanatic'. But what kind of fanatic? Surely I don't blow up bridges or follow my favourite SF writers around from city to city?

Here's my definition. A fan is a reader who is so interested in science fiction and fantasy that he or she makes contact with other fans and takes an active interest in the field. He or she may publish magazines about his or her favourite reading matter. That's what I do. Many fans concentrate on organising and attending conventions.

Some, as I have done, set up non-profit companies to publish science fiction books that might otherwise be neglected. Many fans collect books. Twenty years ago, when I visited many of my fan friends in America and England, I found that they all had gigantic libraries. In recent years, a new group of fans has become prominent: `media fans': people who are interested in all the TV, video and cinema varieties of science fiction.

Science fiction fans, in other words, form a group that is symbiotic upon science fiction itself, but also forms its own world. We call this world `fandom'. It is worldwide, multilingual and totally anarchic, and also still basically unsuspected by the rest of the world.

If you become science fiction writers, you will become increasingly aware of fans, who exert an influence on the field quite out of proportion to their numbers. Also, of course, fans rather than writers are the main students of the field.

I may not have written a lot of science fiction, but I've read an enormous amount, and written millions of words about the subject. I'm not an academic student of the field, but someone who does everything out of a love of the field and a feeling of being part of a small minority.

I've often said that explaining why you read and write science fiction to most people is like trying to explain what is marvellous about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to a deaf person.

As all science fiction readers have found all our lives, most people don't read SF, and don't like SF, and in particular don't want to know anything about this thing they've never read. Science fiction is afflicted by people's prejudices, many of them the result of trying to watch primitive and awful TV shows and films that are labelled SF.

But even in the world of SF there are people like me who refuse to acknowledge that TV, film and video SF has anything much to do with the real thing, which is contained between the covers of books and magazines. People under thirty are often interested in the sort of SF that doesn't interest me.

Science fiction is a rotten term, anyway. Many of us prefer the term `speculative fiction'. I don't have a science background, yet I've been a science fiction fan since the age of twelve. Many of the best SF stories are unconnected to the sciences, but instead are, like other good fiction, based on observations about individuals and society in general.

There are two main streams in science fiction. The two threads are very much intertwined, but they are separate. They depend on two quite different definitions of science fiction.

The first definition is that `a science fiction story or novel is a realistic piece of fiction set in the future or an alternative present or past'. In other words, it should behave like realistic fiction, but happens to be set in the future rather than the actual past or actual present.

The second definition is that `a science fiction or fantasy piece of fiction is one that is set in alternative reality from our own, preferably an alternative that is as different as possible from the mundane world we see around us.'

What binds together these definitions?

In each case the story needs to be based on a `what if?' proposition. Take the case of Isaac Asimov's `Nightfall', the short story that consistently wins readers' polls as their favourite short story of all time. What if we lived on a world on which the sun never set? (That's because the world in the story has four suns, one of which is always in the sky at any particular moment.) What if, once every ten thousand years, the four suns lined up behind the world's only moon, the sky went dark, and the stars came out?

As you can see, a science fiction story begins with an idea, rather than a character, although some SF writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, say that they begin with a character. I must admit that I've written few SF stories because I rarely can think of a `what if' idea that might form the seed of a story.

A science fiction story has a magical quality that science fiction fans go on and on about indefinitely, but can never really define: the `sense of wonder'. In each case the writer has a sense that it's dull to use in fiction merely that facts of the world as he or she finds it out the back door or in newspapers. What if things were astonishingly, wonderfully different from the way we think of them in everyday life?

Which brings me back to science fiction, a term which continues to defeat people in Australia. One finds, over and over again, a hatred of science, or even of reasoned curiosity, in the literary community. Such people won't even consider that science fiction might be interesting. Yet it is true that much science fiction during this century presumes that the pursuit of science, of alternative possibilities of the physical universe, is just as exciting as the pursuit of any of the arts.

Wynne Whiteford

Put it this way, Science fiction began from two different directions. One was H.G.Wells in Britain. At the beginning of this century he invented many of the best science fiction `what if?' propositions, but he also was a major literary figure. In America, on the other hand, science fiction arose from the cheap pulp magazines. They were `scientific adventure stories', in which some wonderful invention or other was used as the excuse to set off on a big adventure.

Click here for feature on Anne McCaffrey In Britain, science fiction continued to be a small literary movement within the main field of fiction. Many fine writers followed, especially Olaf Stapledon, who covered the entire history of the universe in his books, and John Wyndham, whose popularity among school teachers in the 1950s and 1960s almost put off an entire generation of school kids who might otherwise have discovered SF.

In America, the field was officially labelled as `scientifiction' by Hugo Gernsback in 1926, when he started Amazing Stories magazine, which is still being published. Hugo Gernsback admired H.G.Wells, and reprinted many of his stories in his magazines, but what he really liked were stories about inventions. He wanted SF writers to give an actual description of what the future might be like: pretty dull stuff in pretty dull prose.

Click here for Terry Pratchett interview Science fiction has become an American genre, but no without plenty of resistance from Britain and all over the world, including Australia. The main negative effect of the dominance of American SF has been a tendency of writers and critics within the field to discount literary considerations, especially in matters of style. British writers, on the other hand, continued to write well, in the traditional sense, as well as write brilliantly, in terms of producing interesting ideas. Also, British writers are more likely than American writers to conduct experiments in style.

This division arises partly from the way science fiction has been sold over the years. In America, for much of this century writers sold their fiction at insulting rates to the pulp magazines. They had no time for fine style, so quickly did they have to work. In Britain, a much smaller number of writers could sell reasonably well in hardback editions to libraries. They were not so dependent on writing at breakneck speed, although many did sell stories to the American pulps as well.

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