Episode 14: The Science Fiction Field
By Leigh Brackett
Originally published in the July 1944 issue of Writer’s Digest, which is now in the public domain.
Winner of the 2020 Retro Hugo Award for Related Work
I am sitting here staring my typewriter in the face, trying to think how to begin this article. There’s so much to be said about science-fiction. It’s admittedly the screwball of the magazine family. It is also, regrettably, more or less a stepchild, inclined to be overlooked and even sneered at. Anyone who has taken the trouble to read a good science-fiction yarn, and read it honestly, knows that the field is no more worthy of contempt than the detective, adventure, western, or any other — in fact, less, since pseudo-science books lure some very bright brains indeed, and names with strings of degrees flying after like tails on so many kites.
I don’t know of any field of writing that offers more opportunity to the beginning writer; to the established man who wants a change; to any writer at all who has an imagination, a little tolerance, and the desire to have fun while he works. The rate of pay compares favorably with that in any other pulp group, and there is literally no limit to the adventures you can have. If you’re tired of this planet, or system, or galaxy, throw it away and build a new one. You’re God, with all creation to play around in.
They say you have to be a little crazy to write stf (in the jargon of an ardent fandom, is a contraction of scientifiction and will be used therefore, if you don’t mind, because stf is easier to type.) Well, maybe. But we don’t think we’re nuts. We think we’re imaginative, and forward-looking, and even sometimes a little prophetic. Were we astonished at the War Department releases concerning the rocket gun, the jet-propelled plane, radar, and some other things they’ll only hint at darkly? We were not. We’ve lived around those gadgets since we cut our teeth.
Take a look at the plans for the house of the postwar future. Take a look at television, plastics, new surgery, new techniques in psychological living. All of them have been forecast, used, and re-used in the pages of the stf magazines. The brass hats already are swiping our terminology!
Maybe you’re one of those people who will say, “Oh, sure, they make a few good guesses and all that, but it’s still kid stuff. Nothing but a bunch of funny-looking monsters chasing around, or a Rube Goldberg machine that integrates fraldemors out of the palefranesus. Who wants that junk? An adult mind has to have something real to work on.”
All right. Have you read the stories of Heinlein, De Camp, Hubbard, Leiber? The social histories of the future as they might well be written, with not one monster included. Have you read the exquisite other-world adventures of C. L. Moore, Kuttner’s psychological masterpieces, the emotional “contemporary” yarn like Bradbury’s “King of the Grey Spaces”? All of them as intelligent, as finally written, as searching, and a darn sight more thought-provoking than most of what you read in the top slicks.
Some of the greatest writers haven’t been above writing stf. H. G. Wells, Conan Doyle, even Prime Minister Winston Churchill—so you needn’t feel too snooty about it. The only measure of a man’s pride in his work is the excellence of it, and the only time anyone needs to be ashamed of writing science-fiction is when he writes it badly.
I’m not saying that there isn’t childish stuff written and published. There is in every field of writing you can name. But too many people judge us all by the poorer comic strips.
Why should we be apologetic when we say we write for the fantasy field? We have Williamson. We have Hamilton. We have Wellman. We had Abraham Merritt, rest his soul. Why should we apologize? God knows there are enough novels perpetrated by Grade B morons.
I will say, however, that there seems to be a special type of psychology that goes with writing stf. Not everybody can do it, which is why the field is such a wide-open market for new talent. I can cite my own case, and in talking with other writers I have discovered that it has been more or less the same with all of them.
Childhood, by and large, is a long, dull period of supervision, orders, tabus, and general pushing-around by a variety of persons vested with authority and the power to enforce same. The inevitable result is that the child escapes mentally into a dream world where he is king and things are done to his liking. He is Robin Hood, he is Blackbeard, he is Tarzan. Some of these children, like myself, discover the most thrilling, the most tantalizing and fascinating realm of all—the kingdom of the imagination.
We enjoy riding the plains with Zane Grey, but we would rather walk the dead sea-bottoms of Mars under the little racing moons. We have found forests deeper and wilder than Sherwood, with giant trees lifting to a strange sun. We have furrowed seas more mystic than the Spanish Main. We have ridden the beasts of nightmare and peered into the canyons of the Moon. We have bridled the hippogriff under Kosh-tra Belorn, and there is nowhere, nowhere we cannot go.
As we grow older, we learn to our delight that many of these adventures we have had are possible. Some day men will be landing on other worlds than this, and much of this world is still secret and hidden. Our concepts of space and time and mass and relativity tell us that so much is possible, so many weird and incredible things going on constantly all around us. We are fascinated now with our minds as well as with our hearts and emotions. And it does something for us.
We who live half our lives in other worlds arc never upset by anything new.
We’ve always known it was coming. Because we’re used to thinking in terms of whole solar systems, even whole galaxies, the cautious proddings of the postwar planners toward global thinking seem rather silly. We’re not too much impressed by anything, and we have reams of literature, based on actual scientific data, exploring almost every social trend, so we can hazard a fairly good guess about where every shade of thought is going to end up if it gets a chance. I’ll be willing to bet that not one reader or writer of stf was among those stampeded by the famous Orson Welles broadcast. We’d all have been stampeding in the other direction—to get first look at the Marshies and then pump each other’s hands delightedly while yelling, “I told you so—there is life on Mars!”
The point I’m trying to make is this— unless you have always read and loved fantasy (using the term in its broad sense), the chances are you simply haven’t any taste for it, and unless you have you had better give the field a wide bye. Perhaps in no other type of writing is it as important to believe implicitly in what you are doing. Detective stories, westerns, all other types of fiction use backgrounds readily recognizable to the reader. In stf you build your own background out of the raw stuff of your creative mind, and unless you are so sure of it that you could draw a map, sketch a brief history and outline the culture of the inhabitants, nobody else is going to be sure of it either. We like our worlds, and we get a kick out of doing this. If you don’t, stf is not for you. And please, for God’s sake, don’t think you can write down to the market. Editors have enough trouble as it is.
Having led you subtly to it, I shall now spring my second conclusion. I shall even put it in italics because I believe it so thoroughly and because it gave me my start as a professional: There is no field of writing so well adapted to the needs of the very young writer who has not yet seen much of this world.
Beginners are forever being told to write about life in their own back yards. But most young people are bored as hell with life in their own back yards. They’ve lived too much of it themselves, and it’s going to take time and perspective to get the taste out of their mouths. So they try writing about Buda Pesth and Paris and the Old Manor at Trembling-on-the-Brink, and collect endless rejection slips, and become very sad characters indeed.
The weakness in this system, of course, is that a lot of people have been to Buda Pesth and Paris and the Old Manor. They know how the people there act and talk, what the streets look like, and how the cooking smells at dusk. Furthermore, because the tyro doesn’t know these things, the blood of life is not in his stories, and even people who haven’t been farther away from home than the corner grocery know that they are hollow and without truth.
Suppose, then, that this restless young writer decides to set one of his yarns on Mars. No one has been to Mars, at least not lately. No one can rise and scream, “Kahora doesn’t look like that!” or, “That’s not the way the caravans go, from Ved to the Wells of Tamboina!” All the kid needs to do is read a few non-technical books on what science knows or guesses about Mars, take what he wants, modify it to suit, and knock together his own personal Mars, on which he can do as he pleases and no kicks from anybody.
Furthermore, because there is such a wide latitude of characters to choose from, the young writer is less apt to betray a lack of knowledge about people. The more he has, of course, the better—and this is the writer’s chief purpose in life, to learn about people. But he can afford to let his imagination run away with him in dealing with extra-terrestrial beings, human, semi-human, and monstrous. He will find that he loves these imaginary creatures with a peculiar and passionate devotion, because they are his own fears and hopes and desires speaking out with the voice he himself has given them.
Let’s say I want to write a story about India. The closest I ever came to India was Kipling and a lone Sikh with bow-legs I pass occasionally in Pershing Square. It’s obvious that in trying to handle the character of, say, a Pathan warrior, or perhaps a Hindu prince, I would fall flat on my face. Four years ago, when I sold my first yarn to Astounding Stories, I was doing just that with characters a lot closer to home than India. But I could take my readers into the hollow heart of a dark planet between Mercury and the Sun and introduce them to a flaming Child born of the Sun itself, and make them believe it. I understood that creature. I didn’t always, or even most of the time, understand the people I passed in the street, but I understood the Sun-Child because it was an expression of my own longing for freedom, for strength—the galaxy to play with, racing the comets out on the edges of creation, drunk with the sheer immensity of space. The fact that the Sun-Child was imprisoned in a dark shell was, I suppose, symbolic of my own frustration. But we freed it, the hero and I, and I suppose that, too, was a symbol. Anyway, I got personal pleasure out of the whole thing, as well as a very nice check.
In this sense, writers of stf have an advantage over craftsmen in other fields. Frequently sheer power of imagination translated into mood, atmosphere, and unusual, compelling extra-terrestrials will carry a story otherwise undistinguished in plot and characterization.
Perhaps you like stf and want to write it, but are scared off by that word “science.” You’re no Ph.D., and aren’t likely to be, and you are thrown into a panic of inferiority by casual references to discontinuous functions in a four-dimensional space-time grid. Well, brother, you would be surprised how many top-notch stf writers don’t know any more about it than you do. That same terror of ignorance held me off, too, although I was crazy to write the stuff, until a certain young man who was already big-time material in the game confided in me that all the science he knew could be put into a quart bottle and still leave room for a fifth of Scotch. Then I began to perceive that there’s a trick to it.
There are, to be sure, quite a few stf men who are brilliant, scientific minds, including professors of physics, engineers, etc. Their stories are impressively larded with advanced math and all the other super-scientific gimmicks that leave us simple souls politely dazed and gaping. I often wish I were smart like that. But I’m not, and still I get by all right and have a lot of fun doing it.
There are few editors who insist on heavy science—-John W. Campbell, Jr., of Astounding Stories being the notable example. But even Mr. Campbell will buy stories completely lacking in this regard, so long as they are well done and unusual. Also, many of his important novels are based on the human sciences—psychology, sociology, etc.—which are comprehensible to any intelligent person who is interested in them. (The beauty of the human sciences is that they’re inexact, abounding in conflicting theories, and it’s fairly hard to get tripped up—whereas, as I know to my sorrow, blundering around with chemistry is an invitation to disaster.)
To be sure, you must have some grounding in science. Impress this firmly in your mind: You cannot contravene a known and accepted principle of science unless you have a logical explanation based on other known and accepted principles. You must take into account all the basic laws of gravity, magnetism, electricity, atomic structure, astronomy, velocity, and all the rest. This requires research, and there are many non-technical books available. Inasmuch as you have to observe the same rules in any story—to avoid, for instance, glaring blunders in police procedure when doing detective stuff—this shouldn’t cause any trouble. Also, it’s interesting to know what goes on in the world about you.
There’s a wide range of material in stf, from the frankly juvenile on up. And the readers, barring a few heavy-science fanatics, look for the same things you look for when you read—entertainment, release, an emotional punch, a stimulus to the imagination. If you can give them that, let the four-dimensional space-time grids go hang. Most of us fans skip that part anyhow, so we can get on with the story.
Let’s take a look at the mechanics involved in putting stf on paper and collecting checks for same.
If you’re an old fan, you’re probably painfully aware of all the cliches. If not, I advise you to read all the stf mags you can get hold of and learn what is overdone. The mad-scientist plot is on its last legs, thank God. The dictator-who-wants-to-rule-or-destroy is getting frayed around the edges from over-use. And unless you have an especially fresh and brilliant idea for the threatened or accomplished destruction of Earth, let the poor old girl have a rest. Ed Hamilton has kicked her around enough already.
Space pirates are old stuff, and there has to be something more than blazing ray-guns and thundering rockets to pull them through. And the readers are tired of the yarn based on the super-hero and the ravishing babe (who seldom has a valid excuse for being there anyhow) who get themselves all tangled up with bug-eyed monsters on some planet, asteroid, or moon. This is the story replete with such dialogue as, “My God, look there!” and such description as, “His square jaw set grimly as he aimed his proton gun squarely into the gaping jaws of the advancing monster.”
When I was trying to break into stf, the criticism was frequently made that my stories were just present-day plots jazzed up with ray-guns instead of automatics, and rockets instead of planes. Your stf plot has to be part and parcel of its time and setting. It must be integrated so that that particular episode could not have occurred under any other circumstances of locale and social conditions. You see why you have to build solid backgrounds.
For instance, my novel “*Shadow Over Mars*” which will appear soon in Startling Stories, is based on the struggle between various groups for the domination of Mars. There are the Pan-Martians, fiercely resistant to any infiltration of outlanders. There is the Terran Exploitations Company, ruthless and greedy, crushing Martian and Terran settler alike. There are the Unionists, men of both races who want to use the best of both planets to bring life back to a dying world. And, inevitably, there are the little guys of both races who just want to be let alone, to live their own lives with decency and hope. This is a situation which has occurred in pioneer America and other places, I know. But the Martians, and the obstacles faced by the characters, are peculiar unto Mars and themselves, a valid part of their own matrix. Furthermore, the old piratical corporations here could only hope to dominate a small part of a continent. Only in the future, with interplanetary commerce and colonization, could a company possibly hope to control an entire world.
It helps a great deal if you get a broad mental picture of what the world of the future is apt to be like, taking into consideration logical developments in television, transportation, and so on. Some writers even make detailed chronological charts. Decide what your own personal planets are going to look like, and stick to it. This saves inventing whole new sets of names, natives, and conditions with each story. You’ll find in reading stf that authors use the same cities and localities over and over, developing various races with individual traits and customs. If you are a reader of Brackett, for instance (and if you are a devotee of the best in stf you must, of course, be a reader of Brackett.)(If you aren’t, you can quit reading this article right now, so there!), you will find references to the Low-Canals, the Jekkara spaceport, the trade-city of Kahora, the tribes of Shun and Kesh. On Venus the trade-city is Vhia. The Nahali with their scarlet eyes dance in the hot rains of the Middle Swamps, and pale giants with white hair done in intricate braids fight and laugh and sail their ships, sheathed in pearl shell, across the tideless sea. Mercury is a savage place of heat and mountain peaks that stretch up to space beyond the thin air, and the men who come from the Terran colonies of the Twilight Belt are as huge and darkly cruel as their native cliffs. All this makes for coherence in your stories, gives your readers something familiar to hang to, and it’s always nice to go back and meet old friends. Let’s drop in to Madame Kan’s on the Jekkara Low-Canal, and drink green thil in tall glasses, and watch the little dark women dance, with the tinkling bells in their ears. Ah me! Would that I could…
Mr. Mathieu tells me to let you in on my formula, if any. Well, I’ve been trying to hook into other people’s formulas these many, many moons, and so far I haven’t been able to find one. They just look at me vaguely and say, “Well, I think of a situation or a character or a setting that interests me, and then I get a guy in an awful mess, and—well, it just sort of builds from there.”
If you’re a struggling newcomer, you’ve read all the books there are on the subject, and I’ll bet you don’t know much more than when you started. You read the directions intelligently and they go into your head, but they don’t flow through your fingers to the typewriter keys. And until those cold mechanical arrangements of character, complication, obstacle, suspense, and so on are translated into warm and vital beings as unconsciously as you breathe, you have not mastered the “formula.” I am sadly convinced the only way to bring about this miracle is to write endlessly—to read and study and soak yourself in the stuff of other people’s talents, to be sure, but most of all, to write. And write. And write.
There is a thing known as “plot sense.” It is, like all the other tools of this maddening trade, an intangible. It is something developed over a period of time, absorbed from motion pictures, books, stories. You’re developing this when you feel satisfied with a certain story, or feel unsatisfied with another. Most people just leave it there, but because you’re a writer you’ll want to know why you are pleased or displeased. Plot sense is the nameless little geek that sits on your shoulder, peering, and tells you to develop character here, or emotional reaction there, or to speed up and boot the reader in the guts on page nine. It’s the monitor that keeps you from getting lost in the maze of possible futures you conjure up with the first word of your story.
Some writers never seem to get a firm grip on plot. W. R. Burnett, for instance, whom I admire immensely and who can’t be beat for character and dialogue, commits sins of plotting such as ruined “*The Quick Brown Fox.*” Burnett should worry, of course, but if he had a solid sense of plot he would never have had his big fascinating menace killed off-stage by a minor character, thereby leaving the book to fall like a punctured tire. I point out Burnett because he’s good enough to get by anyway, and so say that if you are a genius you, too, can do it.
Basically, the stf plot is no different from any other plot. It has to have the same elements of character, suspense, action, etc. The only difference is that in non-stf yarns you are limited by conditions already imposed by nature, history, and politics. In stf you are limited only by the conditions you yourself create, taking care to remain logically true to them.
The human characters in stf have to be as carefully drawn as people in any other field. Let Buck Rogers and Superman remain king in their own domain, and concentrate on genuine three-dimensional men and women. People in the year 3044 will love and hate and laugh and cry just as they were doing in 1944. Women will have babies, men will die for their beliefs. Their clothes, food, and entertainment will be as familiar to them as ours to us. They’ll squabble over politics, rob and kill each other, moan over the younger generation, and give up safe homes on Earth to go pioneering on the frontiers of alien planets, just as our ancestors went to Oregon and California.
The guy that boots his tin kettle around the Triangle trade-routes — Earth-Venus-Mars — won’t be any more a superman than the transport pilot of today. There will be heroes and scoundrels, but they will be no less human than the Colin Kellys and the John Dillingers of our time. They will be motivated by the same psychology and emotional habit-pattern that motivates you, or the guy next door. The stimuli may be different, but that’s all.
The human story is the backbone of stf, say what you will about ultra-scientific gimmicks. And the farther you can stay away from steely eyes, bulging biceps, snarling ray guns, and bug-eyed monsters, the better off you will be.
Most of my own heroes are fairly hard boys, not above using their boot-heels in a scrap and giving a handsome wench one of those 40-second Bogart-type kisses. They’re not invincible. They can be downed when the opposition is too tough. They’re a fairly seamy bunch, because to me people who have bucked the realities of pain and hunger and fear are a lot more vital, more natural, than people well insulated by money and the inhibitions of custom.
I use women when the story calls for it. A novelet usually does. If there’s no logical reason for a woman, she stays out. And this, little kiddies, brings us to the delicate subject of Sex in Science-fiction. All those under 21 please turn to next page.
There is nothing wrong with sex, in stf or out of it. To be sure, much of the sex stuff, politely termed romantic interest, is the same puerile sugar-icing crap you get in all the magazines, from Terrible Tales up to For Snobs Only. The heroine is a vision of feminine loveliness. (She usually does nothing but have tantrums, shriek, and generally gum up the action so that any normal man would let her have a stiff one to the button, but let that go.) He and she exchange a little light banter, usually at its cutest just as destruction closes in on them. They wouldn’t dream of making a pass at each other. In fact, it always takes them 6,000 words to discover that they are, well, in love, and they’re always just as astonished and flustered as though they’d never heard the word before.
Well, if you like that sort of thing, fine. But if you don’t, I inform you happily that you can get away with practically anything as long as it’s well and subtly done, and you don’t try to emulate Hemingway and James Cain. This does not mean that you can become vulgar and offensive, and an affair based on sex alone, with no deeper emotional meaning, would be out of place as well as dull. But sensitive, adult. writing can put over equally adult situations. If you don’t believe me, take a look at C. L. Moore’s last novel for Astounding.
From my own work (“*Thralls of the Endless Might,*” Planet Stories, Fall, ’43) here is a case in point. The setting is a lost colony of Earthmen, wrecked long ago on an asteroid far from the Sun. Generations of environment have wrought changes in them, a degenerative evolution returning slowly to the primitive. A boy and a girl are trapped, alone in a bleak wilderness, facing death.
A strange cold terror took him. He turned his head toward the yellow girl and saw the same thing in her eyes. They looked at each other, not moving nor breathing, thinking that they were young and going to die.
He shivered. The girl’s golden body burned in the grey light. He moved. He didn’t know why, only that he had to. He took her in his arms and found her lips and kissed them, roughly, with an urgent, painful hunger. She fought him a little and then lay still against him.
If that ain’t sex, brother, I don’t know what is. It is also, I think in my humble way, truth. My women are usually on the bitchy side — warm-blooded, hot-tempered, but gutty and intelligent. I like them, and I have fun working with them. I find that a great deal can be accomplished, when the temperature gets too warm, by simply slapping the space lever twice and letting the reader fill in the gap himself. Just try to be honest, not dirty, and you’ll be okay.
Next comes the question of ideas. People are always asking me how I think up these things, and I always give them the old saw about lobster and ice cream. But seriously, happenings in the news can be translated into the future. Put Rickenbacker’s raft, for instance, in a Venusian ocean and see what happens.
The stories of other writers, particularly the classics, arc fertile sources, and that doesn’t mean plagiarism. Nobody can copyright a mood or an emotion. The idea for one of my favorite yarns, “*Veil of Astellar*”, which will appear soon in Thrilling Wonder Stories, came from Lord Dunsany’s tale, “*The Man with the Golden Ear-rings.*” Another of my favorites, “*The Halfling,*” which came out in Astonishing Stories, was inspired in part by “The Maltese Falcon” and the circus-of-the-future background just naturally grew out of Ringling Bros.
The physical properties of the worlds you create often suggest plots. I used to get my hero crashed or abandoned on page one and let him stagger off into the caves of Mercury or some place to see what he could see. The result was that Julie (Julius Schwartz, my guardian angel, sometimes spelled agent) wrote plaintively to please quit sending him so many stories beginning with just one guy going somewhere. A story, he pointed out, should have characters, plural. So let that be a lesson to you, too. Nonetheless, I still get yens to explore my private planets. A recent sale to Planet Stories was the result of interest in the ancient cities long buried under the warm and hungry seas.
Monsters—that is to say, creatures nonhuman and evolved under different environmental conditions—are a necessary adjunct to stf, and not to be sneered at unless they are crudely done. I always try to give my queeps and fraldemors at least a touch of beauty and sympathy. I believe in them. I know where they came from, and why, and how. I am not interested in dull masses of flesh equipped with an unlikely array of fangs, tentacles, claws, mandibles, and glaring eyeballs, usually four of them mounted on stalks. Some of these e-t’s (extra-terrestrials, to you) are merely projections of our own dogs and horses and wild life. Others are your most fragile, or fascinating, or terrifying characters.
Be careful of your names, when christening people and places beyond this earth. I got a lot of complaints at first because most of mine looked like Zqfxl, which is difficult to pronounce and therefore annoying to the reader.
Well, and there it is. The trailways of space are before you, to blaze as you will. The editors of the science-fiction mags are a swell bunch—my special and personal thanks to Alden Norton, Malcolm Reiss, Scott Peacock, Leo Margulies, and Oscar Friend. All the books have felt the paper pinch badly. But on the other hand, much of their big-name, big-producer talent is in service, or busy in Washington, so the gates swing for new blood.
I’ll be looking for you when I get back. Right now my little Fitts-Sothem is warming up in the launching rack, ready to blast off for Venus. There’s a situation developing there, up in the high plateaus north of the Sea of Morning Opals. I’ve got to see what happens.
I, for one, vote we start calling it scientifiction again, and abbreviate it stf while we’re at it.