BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some (like this one) may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

I ran across a copy of Science Fiction Handbook, Revised, by L. Sprague de Camp & Catherine de Camp (Owlswick Press, 1975) at a used bookstore not far from my house and was amazed to find it in impeccable condition, dust jacket intact. How could I possibly pass it up? It sat on my to read shelf for at least all of the COVID lockdown time, but I eventually got to it and found it equal parts enlightening, heartening, bizarre, borderline offensive, and quaint. But let’s keep in mind right away that this is the 1975 revised edition of a book originally published in 1953, so there’s a bit of a layer of dust on the contents, jacket or no.

The book begins with an overview of the science fiction genre, up to date as of forty-six years ago. Most notable in this section is the de Camps’ dismissal of fantasy as a popular genre with only the slightest nod to Tolkien. I found this odd considering the first time I remember reading anything by L. Sprague de Camp was in his series of Conan collections in which he curated the original Robert E. Howard stories, finished some unfinished Howard tales, and wrote some of his own. But 1975 is maybe five years prior to what then became a huge resurgence of fantasy, so I won’t say he was wrong that no one was reading fantasy, he was just… writing this in 1975.

Still, this section had me adding to my to-read list: The Clouds and The Birds by Aristophanes, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, Micromegas by Voltaire, “What Was It?” and other stories by Fitz-James O’Brien, The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas, and Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

L. Sprague de Camp’s career started in the later part of the pulp fiction tradition, and his love of Conan the Barbarian, if nothing else, sets him largely in that tradition: genre stories should be fun, written to sell, and keyed to the tastes of the current roster of magazine editors:

In 1942, one of the authors sat in the headquarters of the U.S. Navy in Manhattan, facing three officers gathered to interview him as to his fitness for a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve. These men seemed interested in the fact that, on the questionnaires he gave his occupation as “writer.” They had trouble, however, in putting their concern into words. After some beating about the bush, one said:

“What we want to know, Mr. de Camp, is: why do you write?”

Sprague de Camp thought and answered: “To make a living.”

They relaxed. We suppose they feared that he might say he wrote to express his soul or to convey his deathless message to the world. Not that there is anything wrong with expressing one’s soul or conveying one’s deathless message, provided that one has some other means of support. Still, most writers do have to consider the bread-and-butter aspect of their writings.

God forbid we attempt both. In this 1975 edition he’s pretty openly disdainful of the “New Wave” authors like Harlan Ellison and J.G. Ballard. I’d love to go back in time and encourage him to rethink that, allowing room for Howard and Ellison, Dunsany and Ballard, or both Edgar Rice and William S. Burroughs, but alas…

Speaking of the pulp tradition, the de Camps quote Jack Williamson and Edmund Hamilton’s “formula” for a science fiction story that I think makes for a perfectly usable short story prompt:

Three men go out to save the world. One goes mad, one is eaten by the Things, and one returns to tell the tale.

Speaking of quaint verging on offensive, as seen above, the de Camps do rely on the traditional male pronoun for everything—and I mean everything. Though passing reference is made to certain female authors of the day, the whole book clearly assumes that science fiction writers are men, writing stories for boys, as we see underlying n this weirdly schizophrenic take on fans:

Because many science-fiction fans are adolescents, and because some adolescents are given to exhibitionism and gaucherie, fans as a group have sometimes been scorned as eccentric. Actually, the average fan displays high intelligence, a voracious appetite for reading, and a personality type that often finds it hard to get along with ordinary people. The fans’ interest in speculative literature gives them a common bond, which they do not often feel towards the average person.

And I couldn’t help but take offense to this heavy handed bit of flagrant and baseless ageism:

Collaboration works best when the collaborators make contributions of equal importance and when their special skills complement, rather than duplicate, each other, it is usually best for the younger to do the rough draft. The younger writer is likely to be more fertile and facile, while the older is probably the keener critic, with a sharper eye for inconsistencies, grammatical errors, and other flaws.

In the quaint but not offensive column are numerous long passages of text and advice that only demonstrates just how much technology has changed since 1975:

When, at last, you write your final draft, type with a black ribbon, reasonably fresh, on white paper of average grade. Either make two carbon copies, or—if you can afford it—one carbon for your files and one Xerox of the ribbon copy. The latter is ideal for further reproduction; but a typed copy made with fresh carbon paper will serve and saves the writer money.

Wow—how expensive were “Xeroxes” in 1975? The de Camps go on to describe their complex filing system, with each story or novel given its own index card tracking publication dates, when rights were reverted, reprints, and so on, and ledger pages to keep track of royalties. I’d advise, if you can find this book in the first place, that you actually look at the information they track, though Excel will better serve as a repository for the same information, just as a backup drive or cloud storage will mitigate your Xeroxing and carbon paper expenses.

The advice in terms of actually writing a science fiction short story or novel, is a bit light. This book reads more like “how to be a science fiction author” than “how to write science fiction,” but there is some good advice, mirroring some of the same advice I’ve offered myself, like this pearl, which belongs in last week’s post:

At gatherings, people have asked: “Mr. de Camp, do you think that I, too, should become a writer?”

Strictly speaking, the right answer to such a question is “No.” Unless a person has a strong urge that he will struggle to become a writer no matter what anybody says—if there is no doubt in his mind—he had better avoid this profession. He will almost certainly do better financially in some other occupation for which his physique, education, and personality qualifies him.

In general, the de Camps advise us to write, and more or less figure it out ourselves, though with a nod to help from books like theirs, more formal education, and so on, with this statement at the heart of it:

Other professionals, such as lawyers and physicians, spend years in special training before they are competent to practice. Why should a writer expect to master his profession any sooner?

It’s hard not to agree with that in principle.

And this paragraph nicely encapsulates the nature of a short story:

In a short story, there is no space to waste. The reader has no tolerance for long beginnings. To hook the reader, shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph. There is no space for great complications and no time for lengthy processes, such as a basic change in a person’s character. You cannot develop character; you can at best reveal it and show its relationship to the action. You have a brief development leading up to one major incident, told in a concentrated, concise manner. If you can put in a snapper ending, so much the better.

And I just like this advice on the subject of active writing:

While all sentences narrating an action may be said to move, some move faster than others. Those that move the fastest have a simple structure of substantives, and other verbs with the necessary prepositions, conjugations, and other operative words to tie them together. Those that move slowly are stuffed with adjectives and adverbs.

All in all Science Fiction Handbook is more entertaining as a glimpse into the world of what I now do for a living from the year I turned eleven than it is a must-read how-to for contemporary authors. Some things, like advice to write clearly and to take learning your craft seriously, remain unchanged, while we’re safe to set aside the assumption that only men write or read science fiction, and do so using fresh new typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, even if you still have to save up for the occasional luxury of a Xerox. Maybe it was that expense that drove one author of the de Camps’ acquaintance to explore other income streams, embodied in this fun quote from L. Ron Hubbard: “Some day I’ll pull something that’ll make Barnum look like a piker.”

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXVII: SCIENCE FICTION HANDBOOK, REVISED

  1. mjtedin says:

    After a bit of research, I found that it cost about $0.10/page make copies in the 70s. For a 500 page manuscript, $50 was a lot of money in 1975. From my own memory, I think it still cost that much in the 80s .

  2. Pingback: FANTASY AND/OR SCIENCE FICTION AND/OR HORROR | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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