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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 6 (July 1999)
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Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,

by Crawford Killian,
North Vancouver, BC, Canada and Bellingham, WA, U.S.A.: Self-Counsel Press, 1998.
ISBN 1-55180-189-2. 165 pages. USA $14.95, CDA $15.95

Reviewed by Darlene Netcoh
Copyright 1999 Darlene Netcoh

In the introduction to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, science fiction novelist Crawford Killian states that his book's purpose is to show "you how to save time, energy, and grief by mastering the craft of storytelling as quickly as possible," to suggest "how to market your story as quickly as possible," and to persuade you to go beyond the market." His primary focus is on the science fiction and fantasy genres, and he instructs the reader not to consider his advice as the last or the only word," since these genres "can be, and should be, highly individual expressions of universal experience." As a primer for the various subgenres of science fiction and fantasy and as a guide for creating fiction, Killian's text succeeds. The first two parts of the book, "Knowing Your Genre" and "The Craft of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy," are both informative and entertaining. However, Killian is less successful in Part Three of the text in which he details, excruciatingly, such publishing concerns as font type and size. Despite certain aspects of the book which are pedantic and assume too little prior knowledge on the part of the reader, overall the text is entertaining, due to Killian's personable, humorous style, and, more importantly, informative, due to his comprehensive exploration of the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

To write in a specific genre, one must understand the conventions of that genre. Frequently using his own work as examples, Killian covers the conventions of these two genres and explains how to be original by tinkering with those conventions." Briefly, he defines a science fiction story as "one in which the story couldn't happen without its scientific content" and a fantasy story as "one in which the conditions are flatly contrary to scientific fact." He then makes an important point: "the basics of storytelling still apply." To convey that message, Killian repeatedly calls attention to that which could be boring or clichéd in each of the subgenres.

Each of the subgenres on this rather extensive list receives a succinct yet informative review. In this section of the book Killian discusses stories that involve hard science fiction, alien invasion and contact, interstellar empire and war, space opera, the colony, military science fiction, near-future politics and wars, far-future societies, mutants, nanotechnology, post-holocaust barbarism, world disasters, utopias and dystopias, wild talents, time travel, parallel worlds and alternate histories, and cyberpunk.

The list of fantasy genres is less extensive because "fantasy can do anything it pleases, within rather broad limits, so its divisions are less clear-cut." Within this discussion, Killian covers epic, historical, modern, urban, science, and religious fantasy and fantasy of the enchanted grove, parody, and slipstream. All of these descriptions include basic characteristics of the subgenre and an instruction about what a story in that subgenre should accomplish. For example, in his discussion about stories that involve wild talents, Killian uses his novel Lifter as an example of a story that involves a wild talent, levitation, that appears to be beneficial but turns problematic when the levitating teenager flies so high that he passes out from lack of oxygen. As Killian states, "When you're tempted to write about a dream come true, be sure that the dream turns into a nightmare as quickly as possible. A wild talent story, then, should entice readers into looking again at their fantasies, and making them thank heaven that they have only tame talents." Such conflict is the basis of any story, and Killian continually makes the aspiring writer aware of that fact.

In addition to his emphasis on the necessity for conflict, Killian also clearly delineates the processes through which the writer develops the other elements of a story. Such processes include developing good work habits, such as generating ideas, conducting research, and maintaining a "bible" of one's gestating novel, as well as developing the other elements, such as setting, characters, and plot. A very important point that he reiterates throughout the guide is that a writer needs to read. One of his suggestions is that a writer should explore the origins of all Western literature--the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Greek drama, Roman verse, and nonfiction--as well as Asian literature, such as the Ramayana of India, Chinese novels such as The Journey to the West, and medieval Japanese stories such as The Tale of Genji.

In his discussion of "the craft of writing science fiction and fantasy," Killian is really explaining the craft of writing. According to Killian, some of the "tough" questions that writers should ask themselves are how they would summarize their story on the dust jacket, whether or not the story is about the most critical time in their characters' lives, whether or not the story is original and unpredictable, and whether or not the story is realistic within the premises established by the writer. He also dispenses good advice about establishing the setting and scenes of conflict, showing characters and what's at stake, developing characters through action and dialogue, and constructing a scene. To illustrate the superiority of showing over telling, Killian uses two passages. The expository passage is "dull and unpersuasive," while the dramatic passage is a "scene: the portrayal of conflict and its resolution." Killian also includes exercises that readers can use to develop their writing. For example, Killian explains that a scene presents a problem and shows how the characters deal with that problem. Then he lists a series of elements that the reader/writer should develop into a scene. Using specific examples of fiction to illustrate his points, and providing exercises for the reader to try, he helps the reader of Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy to understand the elements of an interesting and successful work of fiction.

Killian's humorous and conversational style and the text's layout make the book easy and enjoyable to read. With little renditions of Saturn next to the page numbers and three little spaceships and Saturn hovering about helpful hints in the wide right margins, the layout is whimsical. Writing in the first person and addressing the reader in the second, Killian strikes a conversational tone. For example, regarding the reading that a writer should do, Killian states, "You should also be reading both good and bad work in your chosen genre. The junk will warn you away from bad practices, and encourage you at the same time: if these bozos can get into print, surely you can!" Descriptions of his own experiences and work are frequently self-deprecating and amusing. First, he introduces the discussion of subgenres as his "admittedly crabby opinions." Later in a discussion about "soul searching" so that writers do not "just babble away and let others psychoanalyze us," Killian describes the behavior of a character in his novel Greenmagic. He conversationally and exasperatingly explains, "Well, it took a female colleague, reading a draft of the story, to point out the phallic symbolism in Calindor's behavior. Was I ever embarrassed! But it was pretty funny because I'd been completely oblivious to that kind of reading, though I'd certainly seen such obvious symbolism in other writers' work." Similar amusing anecdotes appear throughout and make the book easy to read.

The one weakness of the text, however, is the material that appears to be filler. Further, this filler makes the work seem pedantic and implies that it assumes too little of the reader. For example, in the section on library research, Killian explains how to look up a subject in the library's index. He tells the reader to "write down the title, author, publisher, and date of publication on a separate sheet of paper, along with the book's library call number." As if this information is not obvious enough, he proceeds to explain how to locate the books on the shelves and states that some books may be in the reference section and will not be allowed outside the library. He also goes into excruciating detail about conducting research on the Web and even about changing the background color or font for the browser. "Part Three: Getting Published" does contain some useful information among the filler, but it also includes grammatical matters that could have been covered by directing the reader to a handbook. Although the inclusion of these items allows the text to be appropriate for an audience of varied abilities, such obvious information makes certain sections of the book seem simple-minded.

Despite some weak components, Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy will be beneficial to those who want to "learn how to get the science and the magic right, develop believable fantasy worlds, and challenge [their] readers' imagination," as the front of the book promises. The extensive discussion of the subgenres of science fiction and fantasy and the useful hints for developing good writing habits, both of which are conducted through a pleasantly humorous and conversational style, make the book a successful guide for writing science fiction and fantasy.

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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