Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998)

     If one were ever curious as to the magnitude of difference between the educators at the community college and university level, he or she should pick up Crawford Kilian's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998, though there is a more recent revision that should avoid some of my criticisms).  Kilian manages to spend 160 pages giving information that could just as easily have been conveyed in a pamphlet. 
     Part of the book is wholly worthless.  Information about how to set one's Netscape browser or using AltaVista as a primary search engine seem damn near laughably ancient 14 years after publication.  Formatting instructions so that manuscripts can be read by Macs and PCs also seems redundant.  Worst of all, Kilian dedicates a mini-chapter to a rushed overview of basic English grammar.
     It is a little difficult to take an author seriously when his books are almost entirely out of print.  Does he know scores more about writing, marketing, and publishing novels than I do?  Absolutely.  Ashton Kutcher has more practical experience in terms of television and film acting than I do, but I wouldn't go to him for advice on the subject matter; I would seek out someone I believe can act at a professional level.  Where Kilian lost me was in his deep and abiding love for Orwel's heavy-handed 1984 (1949) – a fine, but far from excellent novel – while completely misreading Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer (1977) as a manifestation of a white suburban fear of urban black men.  Talk about not understanding the time and setting of the book, and that the racial tensions in Los Angeles did not end with the Watts Riots.
     But to the material itself.  Kilian expends a fair amount of effort to display that he is well versed in the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He name drops constantly – revered authors become his lifelong inspiration, lesser authors are acquaintances and peers with whom he has debated at workshops, and the truly obscure are mentioned to prove that he isn't just familiar with the most successful titles in print.  Kilian calls out those who write licensed fiction – what he terms formula fiction – as not being real authors interested in telling real stories.  I don't know if this applies to the more recent authors who create their own setting and characters that go on to be licensed; I would assume so as Robert E. Howard is viewed as a real author for his Conan stories.
     Unfortunately, Kilian is very interested in providing a formula for writing a novel.  In his estimation, all Science Fiction and Fantasy novels are about power.  That may be true; the ones I have wanted to write are about political and economic power.  But it reads as overly restrictive to announce that all of them must be.  He provides a blueprint for moving the story forward, something that seems much more valuable as a workshop or classroom tool than a means to work on anything other than formula fiction.
     I found this book to be a waste of time.  Well, not entirely, but I would have preferred he had written a much more concise book that didn't feel the need to be constantly self-referencetial.  From what little example Kilian gives of his own works, he doesn't seem like somebody I would want to read, but I have one of his books on order from the library that I intend to read to give me a better idea of his ability as a fiction writer.  He certainly seems well versed in what it takes to get material published – that section felt more honest than the rest of the book. 
     I cannot say that I am eager to read anything more from this series.  Not just because Kilian did not address "how to get the science and magic right" ('read science journals' and advice on keeping magic internally consistent isn't informative by itself), but because the target audience seems to be much different from me.  What Kilian illustrates well are the following two points.  First, devotees to a genre may harshly judge works by authors who are not as familiar.  Secondly, waiting for inspiration to write is an invitation to being something other than an author.

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