Bruce Sterling. The Agberg Ideology
CATSCAN 4 "The Agberg Ideology"
To speak with precision about the fantastic is
like loading mercury with a pitchfork. Yet some are
driven to confront this challenge. On occasion, a
veteran SF writer will seriously and directly discuss
the craft of writing science fiction.
A few have risked doing this in cold print.
Damon Knight, for instance. James Blish (under a
pseudonym.) Now Robert Silverberg steps deliberately
into their shoes, with _Robert Silverberg's Worlds of
Wonder: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction_
(Warner Books, 1987, $17.95).
Here are thirteen classic SF stories by well-
known genre authors. Most first appeared in genre
magazines during the 1950s. These are stories which
impressed Silverberg mightily as he began his career.
They are stories whose values he tried hard to
understand and assimilate. Each story is followed by
Silverberg's careful, analytical notes.
And this stuff, ladies and gents, is the SF
McCoy. It's all shirtsleeve, street-level science
fiction; every story in here is thoroughly crash-
tested and cruises like a vintage Chevy.
_Worlds of Wonder_ is remarkable for its sober
lack of pretension. There's no high-tone guff here
about how SF should claim royal descent from Lucian,
or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Mary Shelley. Credit is
given where credit is due. The genre's real founders
were twentieth-century weirdos, whacking away at their
manual typewriters, with amazing persistence and
energy, for sweatshop pay.
They had a definite commonality of interest.
Something more than a mere professional fraternity.
Kind of like a disease.
In a long, revelatory introduction, Silverberg
describes his own first exposure to the vectors of the
cultural virus: SF books.
"I think I was eleven, maybe twelve . . . [The]
impact on me was overwhelming. I can still taste and
feel the extraordinary sensations they awakened in me:
it was a physiological thing, a distinct excitement, a
certain metabolic quickening at the mere thought
handling them, let alone reading them. It must be like
that for every new reader--apocalyptic thunderbolts
and eerie unfamiliar music accompany you as you lurch
and stagger, awed and shaken, into a bewildering new
world of ideas and images, which is exactly the place
you've been hoping to find all your life."
If this paragraph speaks to your very soul with
the tongue of angels, then you need this anthology.
Buy it immediately, read it carefully. It's full of
home truths you won't find anywhere else.
This book is Silverberg's vicarious gift to his
younger self, the teenager described in his
autobiographical introduction: an itchy, over-bright
kid, filled with the feverish conviction that to
become a Science Fiction Writer must surely be the
moral pinnacle of the human condition.
And Silverberg knows very well that the kids are
still out there, and that the virus still spreads. He
can feel their hot little hands reaching out
plaintively in the dark. And he's willing, with a very
genuine magnanimity, to help these sufferers out. Just
as he himself was helped by an earlier SF generation,
by Mr. Kornbluth, and Mr. Knight, and Mr. and Mrs.
Kuttner, and all those other rad folks with names full
Silverberg explains his motives clearly, early
on. Then he discusses his qualifications to teach the
SF craft. He mentions his many awards, his fine
reviews, his length of service in the SF field, and,
especially, his success at earning a living. It's a
very down-home, pragmatic argument, with an aw-shucks,
workin'-guy, just-folks attitude very typical of the
American SF milieu. Silverberg doesn't claim superior
knowledge of writerly principle (as he might well). He
doesn't openly pose as a theorist or ideologue, but as
a modest craftsman, offering rules of thumb.
I certainly don't scorn this offer, but I do
wonder at it. Such modesty may well seem laudable, but
its unspoken implications are unsettling. It seems to
show an unwillingness to tackle SF's basic roots, to
ablish a solid conceptual grounding. SF remains
pitchforked mercury, jelly nailed to a tree; there are
ways to strain a living out of this ichor, but very
few solid islands of theory.
Silverberg's proffered definition of science
fiction shows the gooeyness immediately. The
definition is rather long, and comes in four points:
1. An underlying speculative concept,
systematically developed in a way that amounts to an
exploration of the consequences of allowing such a
departure from known reality to impinge on the
universe as we know it.
2. An awareness by the writer of the structural
underpinnings (the "body of scientific knowledge") of
our known reality, as it is currently understood, so
that the speculative aspects of the story are founded
on conscious and thoughtful departures from those
underpinnings rather than on blithe ignorance.
3. Imposition by the writer of a sense of
limitations somewhere in the assumptions of the story
. . .
4. A subliminal knowledge of the feel and
texture of true science fiction, as defined in a
circular and subjective way from long acquaintance
SF is notoriously hard to define, and this
attempt seems about as good as anyone else's, so far.
Hard thinking went into it, and it deserves attention.
Yet point four is pure tautology. It is the Damon
Knight dictum of "SF is what I point at when I say
`SF,'" which is very true indeed. But this can't
conceal deep conceptual difficulties.
Here is Silverberg defining a "Story." "A story
is a machine that enlightens: a little ticking
contrivance . . . It is a pocket universe . . . It is
an exercise in vicarious experience . . . It is a
ritual of exorcism and purgation. It is a set of
patterns and formulas. It is a verbal object, an
incantation made up of rhythms and sounds."
Very fluent, very nice. But: "A science fiction
story is all those things at once, and something
more." Oh? What is this "something more?" And why does
it take second billing to the standard functions of a
How can we be certain that "SF" is not, in fact,
something basically alien to "Story-telling?" "Science
fiction is a branch of fantasy," Silverberg asserts,
finding us a cozy spot under the sheltering tree of
Literature. Yet how do we really know that SF is a
"branch" at all?
The alternative would be to state that science
fiction is not a true kind of "fiction" at all, but
something genuinely monstrous. Something that limps
and heaves and convulses, without real antecedents, in
a conceptual no-man's land. Silverberg would not like
to think this; but he never genuinely refutes it.
Yet there is striking evidence of it, even in
_Worlds of Wonder_ itself. Silverberg refers to
"antediluvian SF magazines, such as _Science_ Wonder
Stories from 1929 and _Amazing Stories_ from 1932 . .
. The primitive technique of many of the authors
didn't include such frills as the ability to create
characters or write dialogue . . . [T]he editors of
the early science fiction magazines had found it
necessary to rely on hobbyists with humpty-dumpty
narrative skills; the true storytellers were off
writing for the other pulp magazines, knocking out
westerns or adventure tales with half the effort for
twice the pay."
A nicely dismissive turn of phrase. But notice
how we confront, even in very early genre history, two
distinct castes of writer. We have the "real
storytellers," pulling down heavy bread writing
westerns, and "humpty-dumpty hobbyists" writing this
weird-ass stuff that doesn't even have real dialogue
in it. A further impudent question suggests itself: if
these "storytellers" were so "real," how come they're
not still writing successfully today for _Argosy_ and
_Spicy Stories_ and _Aryan Atrocity Adventure_? How
come, among the former plethora of pulp fiction
magazines, the science fiction zines still survive?
Did the "storytellers" somehow ride in off the range
to rescue Humpty Dumpty? If so, why couldn't they
protect their own herd?
What does "science fiction" really owe to
," anyway? This conceptual difficulty will
simply not go away, ladies and gentlemen. It is a
cognitive dissonance at the heart of our genre. Here
is John Kessel, suffering the ideological itch,
Eighties version, in _SF Eye_ #1:
"Plot, character and style are not mere icing .
. . Any fiction that conceives of itself as a vehicle
for something called `ideas' that can be inserted into
and taken out of the story like a passenger in a
Toyota is doomed, in my perhaps staid and outmoded
opinion, to a very low level of achievement."
A "low level of achievement." Not even Humpty
Dumpty really wants this. But what is the "passenger,"
and what are the "frills?" Is it the "storytelling,"
or is it the "something more?" Kessel hits a nerve
when he demands, "What do you mean by an `idea'
anyway?" What a difficult question this is!
The craft of storytelling has been explored for
many centuries, in many cultures. Blish called it "a
huge body of available technique," and angrily
demanded its full use within SF. And in _Worlds of
Wonder_, Silverberg does his level best lo convey the
basic mechanics. Definitions fly, helpful hints
abound. A story is "the working out of a conflict." A
story "has to be built around a pattern of
oppositions." Storytelling can be summed up in a
three-word formula: "purpose, passion, perception."
And on and on.
But where are we to find the craft of the
"something more"? What in hell *is* the "something
more"? "Ideas" hardly begins to describe it. Is it
"wonder"? Is it "transcendence"? Is it "visionary
drive," or "conceptual novelty," or even "cosmic
fear"? Here is Silverberg, at the very end of his
"It was that exhilaration and excitement that
drew us to science fiction in the first place, almost
invariably when we were very young; it was for the
sake of that exhilaration and excitement that we took
up the writing of it, and it was to facilitate the
expression of our visions and fantasies that we
devoted ourselves with such zeal to the study of the
craft of writing."
Very well put, but the dichotomy lurches up
again. The art and craft of writing *what*, exactly?
In this paragraph, the "visions and fantasies" briefly
seize the driver's seat of the Kessel Toyota. But they
soon dissipate into phantoms again. Because they are
so ill-defined, so mercurial, so desperately lacking
in basic conceptual soundness. They are our stock in
trade, our raison d'etre, and we still don't know what
to make of them.
_Worlds of Wonder_ may well be the best book
ever published about the craft of science fiction.
Silverberg works nobly, and he deserves great credit.
The unspoken pain that lies beneath the surface of his
book is something with which the genre has never
successfully come to terms. The argument is as fresh
today as it was in the days of _Science Wonder
This conflict goes very deep indeed. It is not a
problem confined to the craft of writing SF. It seems
to me to be a schism of the modern Western mindset, a
basic lack of cultural integration between what we
feel, and what we know. It is an inability to speak
naturally, with conviction from the heart, of the
things that Western rationality has taught us. This is
a profound problem, and the fact that science fiction
deals with it so directly, is a sign of science
fiction's cultural importance.
We have no guarantee that this conflict will
*ever* be resolved. It may not be resolvable. SF
writers have begun careers, succeeded greatly, grown
old and honored, and died in the shadow of this
dissonance. We may forever have SF "stories" whose
narrative structure is buboed with expository lumps.
We may always have escapist pulp adventures that avoid
true imagination, substituting the bogus exoticism
that Blish defined as "calling a rabbit a `smeerp.'"
We may even have beautifully written, deeply
moving tales of classic human conflict--with only a
reluctant dab of genre flavor. Or we may have the
opposite: the legacy of Stapledon, Gernsback, and Lem,
those non-stories bereft of
emotional impact and human
interest, the constructions Silverberg rightly calls
"vignettes" and "reports."
I don't see any stories in _Worlds of Wonder_
that resolve this dichotomy. They're swell stories,
and they deliver the genre payoff in full. But many of
them contradict Silverberg's most basic assertions
about "storytelling." "Four in One" by Damon Knight is
a political parable whose hero is a rock-ribbed
Competent Man whose reactions are utterly nonhuman.
"Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester is a one-shot
tour-de-force dependent on weird grammatical
manipulation. "Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss is a
visionary picaresque with almost no conventional
structure. "The New Prime" by Jack Vance is six
jampacked alien vignettes very loosely stitched
together. "Day Million" showcases Frederik Pohl
bluntly haranguing his readers. It's as if Silverberg
picked these stories deliberately to demonstrate a
deep distrust of his own advice.
But to learn to tell "good stories" is excellent
advice for any kind of writer, isn't it? Well-
constructed "stories" will certainly sell in science
fiction. They will win awards, and bring whatever fame
and wealth is locally available. Silverberg knows this
is true. His own career proves it. His work possesses
great technical facility. He writes stories with
compelling opening hooks, with no extraneous detail,
with paragraphs that mesh, with dialogue that advances
the plot, with neatly balanced beginnings, middles and
And yet, this ability has not been a total Royal
Road to success for him. Tactfully perhaps, but rather
surprisingly, _Worlds of Wonder_ does not mention
Silverberg's four-year "retirement" from SF during the
'70s. For those who missed it, there was a dust-up in
1976, when Silverberg publicly complained that his
work in SF was not garnering the critical acclaim that
its manifest virtues deserved. These were the days of
_Dying Inside_, _The Book of Skulls_, _Shadrach in the
Furnace_--sophisticated novels with deep, intense
studies, of unimpeachable literary merit.
Silverberg was not alone in his conclusion that these
groundbreaking works were pearls cast before swine.
Those who shared Silverberg's literary convictions
could only regard the tepid response of the SF public
But was it really? Critics still complain at him
today; take Geoff Ryman's review of _The Conglomeroid
Cocktail Party_, a recent Silverberg collection, in
_Foundation_ 37. "He is determined to write
beautifully and does . . . He has most of the field
beaten by an Olympic mile." And yet: "As practiced by
Silverberg, SF is a minor art form, like some kinds of
verse, to be admired for its surface polish and
adherence to form."
This critical plaint is a symptom of hunger for
the "something more." But where are we to find its
mercurial secrets? Not in the storytelling alembics of
_Worlds of Wonder_.
Why, then, is Silverberg's book so very valuable
to the SF writer of ambition? There are many reasons.
Silverberg's candid reminiscences casts vital light
into the social history of the genre. The deep
structures of our subculture, of our traditions, must
be understood by anyone who wants to transcend them.
To have no "ideology," no theory of SF and its larger
purposes, is to be the unknowing puppet of its
unwritten rules. These invisible traditions are
actually only older theories, now disguised as common
The same goes for traditional story values.
Blatant solecisms are the Achilles heel of the wild-
eyed SF visionary. If this collection teaches
anything, it's that one can pull the weirdest,
wackiest, off-the-wall moves in SF, and still win big.
But one must do this deliberately, with a real
understanding of thee consequences. One must learn to
recognize, and avoid, the elementary blunders of bad
fiction: the saidbookisms, the point-of-view
violations, the careless lapses of logic, the
pointless digressions, the idiot plots, the insulting
cliches of character. _Worlds of Wonder_ is a handbook
that. It's kindly and avuncular and
accessible and fun to read.
And some readers are in special luck. You may be
one of them. You may be a young Robert Silverberg, a
mindblown, too-smart kid, dying to do to the innocent
what past SF writers have done to you. You may be
boiling over with the Holy Spirit, yet wondering how
you will ever find the knack, the discipline, to put
your thoughts into a form that compels attention from
an audience, a form that will break you into print. If
you are this person, _Worlds of Wonder_ is a precious
gift. It is your battle plan.
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