Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
January 2014

Title: Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Publisher: Abrams Image

Books on how to write are nothing new, but good ones are few and far between. Most writers who attempt such books end up presenting, intentionally or otherwise, a fairly rigid framework or set of rules that box in a writer. Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer takes a very different approach, and it is refreshing and wonderful to see.

Wonderbook is a gorgeous book. It has the feel of a large paperback textbook, yet at over 300 pages, almost no page is without an illustration of some kind. This, it turns out, is an important factor in making Wonderbook a success as a guide to writing. Wonderbook is the type of book you can sit with quietly and flip through, admiring the artwork, all of which is relevant to some aspect of writing, but without being tied down to any rigid system of rules.

What VanderMeer does in Wonderbook is provide set of very loose frameworks for approaching all different aspects of writing, always with an emphasis on imagination. Stories are looked at as "ecosystems" as opposed to more traditional metaphors, and I think the fresh approaches VanderMeer brings goes a long way to getting writers out of their box and into more creative frames of mind.

I was particularly fascinated by VanderMeer's approach to "narrative design," which begins with the standard tropes of writing texts (plot, structure, scenes, etc.) but quickly moves into aspects of storytelling that you don't often read about, things like repetition, or how time works within a story. And, of course, all of these concepts are accompanied by wonderful (and insightful) illustrations.

The book is intercut with spotlights and essays by well-known writers within the genre, people like Nick Mamatas, Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Straub and Nnedi Okorafor. Wonderbook is perfect for those moments when you feel like you are struggling and need to get your head into a different space to move you forward.

It is also a fantastic book to sit with, slowly turning the pages, marveling at the art, reading an essay, allowing your mind to drift, applying what you see in the book to what you do as a writer.

For me, Wonderbook is a go-to reference, along with Stephen King's On Writing, when I need to get my head out of the box and open myself to new possibilities in the stories I am trying to tell.

Title: Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age
Author: Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Publisher: Every Day Publishing (December 2013)

Fiction evolves. Tropes used in stories considered popular during Dickens' lifetime can seem awkward if they appeared in stories today. Adverb-laden pulpish writing that marks the early Golden Age of science fiction doesn't always stand up to its reputation of the time. And yet, I like the stories that Catherine Moore and L. Sprague de Camp and Jack Williamson and Leigh Brackett told. What I sometimes wish for are stories that put a modern spin on old school tropes, and yet still retain some of that old school feel. We saw some of these last month in Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. And I've found some more this month in Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

Fair warning: Schmidt has published some of my fiction and nonfiction in the past, but that doesn't change the fact that he has managed to put together a delightful collection of 24 stories that I think successfully achieve what Bryan set out to do. As Schmidt writes it in the introduction, he is trying to collect "[s]tories more closely related to old school pulp science fiction wonder stories than modern space opera, perhaps, but stories intended to both entertain and inspire."

The anthology includes stories by Seanan McGuire, Mike Resnick, Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, Allen M. Steele, Brenda Cooper, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, among many others.

While I don't have the space to discuss every story, I thought there were at least three standout stories that provide a good representation of what you'll find in this anthology. My favorite story in the anthology was Jennifer Campbell-Hicks "Malfunction," which tells the story of Lieutenant Everett Monson and his encounter with a robot that appears to be malfunctioning in a rather philosophical manner. The story is reminiscent of such classic Asimov robot stories as "Reason" (Astounding, April 1941) and "Robot Dreams" (Robot Dreams, 1986) and serves as a model candidate for what Schmidt set out to achieve with his anthology.

Another great story is Allen M. Steele's "The Heiress of Air," a space opera involving kidnapping and the attempted rescue of Cosette Trudeau. Steele's story has the feel of a Golden Age Astounding pulp story, something like one of Malcolm Jameson's "Bullard" stories. And yet the story upgrades the "science fiction" from Golden Age gadgetry to a full-caliber Twenty-First Century science fiction yarn, using modern science fiction tropes to keep the action firmly grounded in scientific realism, a core element of Steele's fiction.

Finally, there is the lead story of the anthology, Seanan McGuire's "Frontier ABCs: The Life and Times of Charity Smith, Schoolteacher," which I thought was terrific. The story has less of that pulpish science fictional tinge and more of a Western, Lonesome Dove feel. It reminded me more of something in the style of Harlan Ellison's "The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World." It is a sprawling, larger-than-life legend of a hero that winds its way through hundreds of years of on-again, off-again war within the solar system.

Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age is a fun, entertaining read, and a good representation of how short fiction today can recognize its roots and then deliberately evolve into something new and impressive.

Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin


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