Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review of How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card, author of the acclaimed Ender's Game and its numerous sequels, among other gems, has long established himself as one of the most interesting (and opinionated) voices in the world of speculative fiction. So it’s hardly conceivable that any speculative author not read his views on the genre. However, this slim volume is a mixed offering.

First published in 1990, a good portion of its content—most notably the last chapter “The Life and Business of Writing”—contains decidedly outdated information. And clocking in at just 140 pages (including the index), this is certainly no definitive tome on the art of writing science fiction and fantasy. That said, it would hardly be an Orson Scott Card book if it failed to offer some nuggets of dazzling pertinence.

This is not a book on craft. As Card points out, there are many books, aimed at writers of all stripes, that aptly cover the subject of technique. Instead, he focuses on the peculiarities of the speculative realm, including a fascinating chapter on the origins and history of the genre. He goes on to discuss world building (although with a slight science-fiction bias), determining what kind of story you’re trying to tell and therefore the best way to go about it (his MICE quotient, dividing stories into the four categories of milieu, idea, character, and event is brilliant reading no matter your genre), and manipulating the strictures of the genre to your best advantage.

This is not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination. Card could have doubled his page count without disappointing me. But the pearls of wisdom contained herein are too good to miss.
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  1. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Orson at the first writer's conference I ever attended back in Feb '08. I even got him to sign my copy of Ender's Game. I remember the encounter well because I was standing in line discussing the fact that someone had referred to me as Rush Limbaugh given the fact I absolutely refuse to drink beer. Orson of course had picked up on this and asked me, "How's it going, Rush?" I think my response to that was a stutter.

  2. Your review tickled my curiosity. Although, I have hard time with such a title: "How to Write Science-Fiction and Fantasy". I mean, it implies Card has the truth.

    Oh and don't listen to me, I'm sure it's awesome. I'm always over complicating stuff...

  3. I have this book, or at least did at some point. It was one of the resources I used in my early sci-fi writing days. Though he does believe in evolution, I found his practical advice in other areas quite helpful as I tried to write realistically about outer-space living.

    And Jeffrey, I agree with you on the beer thing. I won't drink it, either.

    ~ VT

  4. @Jeffrey: Okay, now I'm a green blob of envy!

    @Ben: Don't blame Card too much. ;) Titles like that are little more than a marketing ploy - and, in this case, it seems to work!

    @Victor: My forays into speculative fiction have yet to reach space, but I enjoyed hearing his incisive take on those aspects of the genre.

  5. This is actually one of my favorite books, for the reasons you stated above in your third paragraph. Not a perfect book, no, but worth having in your personal library if SF/F is your genre of choice.

  6. What was good about it was definitely good enough that I'm keeping it on my shelf.

  7. I blame this book for my current efforts to get published. He claimed the only way to finish the second book is to publish the first one. After reading that, I was unable to finish a single mss until I started sending queries on my first!

  8. Still writing at that second one though, I hope? :)

  9. There is both an art and craft to making it as a salable writer. The first is innate - you either have it or you don't. But craft, you can learn, and Card is a master of making complex principles easy to understand and incorporate.

    This book has probably the densest percentage of usable information per page of any of the fifty or so books on writing that I own. He explains in clear, understandable language why one kind of story is different in construction and tone than another. My favorite bit has to do why not to write a prologue for an Event story, specifically epic fantasies. His reasoning is both detailed and observant.

  10. Loved the bit about prologues. He said it as well as anyone I've ever heard. Hope lots of young writers were listening!

  11. KM, second book finished and seeking publication, third book started. I guess he was right. :)