Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 3, 2021


 Of Worlds Beyond:  The Science of Science Fiction Writing -- A Symposium, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach  (1947)

Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (1910-2003) was a science fiction fan and writer.  He first published in the field in February 1930 with a short story published in the second issue of Hugo Gernsback's Scientific Detective Monthly, and went on to publish some two dozen additional stories in that decade and a smattering of stories in the Forties and Fifties.  He returned to the field in 1983 with Subspace Explorers, completing a novel left unfinished by his friend E. E. Smith.  He followed that up with Luicifer's Gate sequence -- four paperback novels publlished from 1984 to 1990.  While his writing was workmanlike, Eshbach made his biggest contribution to science fiction when he founded the publishing house Fantasy Press in 1947, mining the cience fiction magazines for material and bringing into print dozens of books, many now recognized as classics by such authors as E. E. Smith, Stanley G. Weinbaum, John W, Campbell, Jacl Williamson, A, E, van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell, L. Sprague de Camp, and John  Taine.  Eshbach approched six of these writers to contribute essays to Of Worlds Beyond, the first published book about science fiction.

Of Worlds Beyond is a slim book, clocking in at just over 90 pages.  As can be expected from a book on writing published three-quarters of a century ago, parts are a bit creaky; other parts have been supercceded by the passage of time, changing tastes, and a changing and more literate audience.  At its core, however, there is some pretty good advice that can be applied to today's science fiction, as well as any other type of fiction.  Plus, there is a sense of history that embues the book -- something I appreciate.

Leading off is Robert A. Heinlein, who had made a strong impact on the field with his early stories going on to become one of the most influential giants of science fiction.  Heinlein explores both the technical and the human interest types of story in "On the Writing of Speculative Science Fiction," dividing most stories into three categories:  boy-meets-girl, The Little Tailor, and th man-who-leaarned-betterand outlines in general the six parts to a pure, salable science fiction story.  He concludes with his often repeated advice:  You must write; You must finish what you write; You must refrain from from rewriting except to editorial order; You must put it on the market; and You must keep it on the market until it is sold.

"John Taine" was noted mathematician Eric Temple Bell.  In "Writing a Science Fiction Novel." he stresses the importance of keeping up with scientific discoveries, preferably avoiding outdated (i.e., usually more than five years old) science.  Staying on top of the latest advancements in the field is essential, according to Taine -- something easier said than done.  Research is key, but scientific knowledge is not enough.  The writer must integrate the impact of science on the emotions and actions of human beings or the reader is likely to quit on him.

Jack Williamson's lengthy, storied career in science fiction is well-known.  He started in the space opera day of super-science and matured into a powerful writer of such classics as The Legion of Space, The Legion of Time, The Humanoids, "Wolves of Darkness," and the Seetee novels by "Will Stewart."  He published his final novel, The Stonehenge Gate, when he was 97.  In "The Logic of Fantasy," Williamson details the importance of the logic of premise and the logic of character.  Assumptions (one, perhaps two, per story, please) should follow a natural progression, taking the through an unusual -- but not quite jarring -- journey; it should be backed with three-dimensional characters with whom the reaader can identify in some way.  It really does not matter how far out the main assumption is -- the reader will accept all and forgive all if the plot thread follows in a logical sequence.

L. Sprague de Camp was noted for, among other things, his use of humor in many of his stories.  Thus, he was the perfect choice to write "Humor in Science Fiction" for this symposium.  Humor is tricky.  It can be obtained through surprise, aberrancy, and inoffensiveness, he states.  "An opera hat is not funny on at the opera, but on a cannibl chief it is out of place, and therefore funny."  The fish out of water trope can use surprise to good humorous effect.  Aberrancy in the form of anachronisms can be another way to bring humor into your story -- think the Lefty Feep tales by Robert Bloch, which combine anachronisms with a Damon Runyon-like language.  As for inoffensiveness, it is likely that boat has sailed for the modern reader, but what was acceptable in the past may no longer be so.  Jokes about race, sexism, current affairs,and certain political and social issues may well have had their heyday in the distant past, but they can be off-putting to many readers.  One item that de Camp feels worth saving is nudity -- the incongruity of a bishop in a nudist camp in one of Thorne Smith's books is one example.  This should continue to work until that day when nudity becomes casual in our society.

A, E, van Vogt writes of "Complication in the Science Fiction Story."  Van Vogt was noted for tossing as many ideas as he could in his stories.  He explains that he uses 800-word scenes to construct his tales.  Each scene has a specific purpose and is followed rigorously from beginning to end, often leading logically to the next scene.  He has been described as one who throws in one new idea every 800 words or so, but this was not necessarily the case.  Van Vogt, however, does use different plot threads -- just a few in his short stories, more in his longer works -- and manages to tie them all together nively at the end. 

The idea of galactic space opera, where entire planets and civilizations are at risk from weapons of super-science, was popularized by E. E. "Doc " Smith, a food chemist who entertained himself by writing the Skylark and Lensmen novels, placing humanity in danger from powers once beyond its imagining.  Looming behind all this is motivation.  What logically motivates the characters and, therefore, the plot?  Smith found this perhaps the most difficult thing to do in his science fiction.  Smith's contribution, "The Epic of Space," is the most sexist of the seven pieces in the book; one must take this with a grain of salt, realizing that he came from a different time.  His feeling that characterization, background, and atmosphere can bog down a story points to his slam-bam approach to space opera and his  mind-blowing inventiveness.

The final contribution is from John W. Campbell, Jr. an early writer of super-science tales and the editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown.  It was the editorial Campbell who, despite any faults he my have had, pushed science fictionand fantasy into growing up.  He insisted on good, clear writing, rigorous logic, scientific knowhow, cleverness, and believable characters.  The Golden Age of Astounding brought us such writers as Heinlein, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Sprague de Camp, Eric Frank Russell, Frank Herbert. and L. Ron Howard; Campbell also gave us such atrocities as L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, the Dean Drive, psionics, and other nonsense.  In "The Science fo Science Fiction Writing" Campbell targets the various techniques used in creating good science fiction.

An interesting collection of articles, reminences, and theory, dated though it may be.  It's certainly worth a look if you are interested in where the field had been and where it might have gone.


  1. I actually read OF WORLDS BEYOND when it was first published. Around that time, college and universities were just started to get interested in Science Fiction. Before too long, they stared offering classes in SF.

    Did you get a package from me? I've sent out a bunch of packages and some of them are arriving late.

    1. I got the package, George. Thank you very much. I already devoured two of the books you sent me. Your thank-you note is sitting by the side of my computer right now, just waiting for me to make the 8-mile trip to the Post Office. I also gave a shout-out to your kindness in my blog post last Monday. However, for various reasons, that post never made it online. Perhaps this week.

      Needless to say, you are one of Nature's noblest.

  2. What a relief! A couple of the packages I've sent either haven't arrived yet or went somewhere else. The USPS just delivered a package I sent to Michael Padgett in Georgia. Michael searched for it, I had my local USPS look for it. It never got there, they said. Yet, now I have Michael's package with WRONG ADDRESS stamped on it. I'll try again next week. And, of course, I'm still searching for the LEM box. So frustrating...