Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

A Dash of This and a Sprinkle of That

Recognizing the Individuality of SF

By 
T.L. Cobern
2003, T. L. Cobern

o me, writing is much like cooking.  I can learn the science of both from how-to books and cookbooks, but in the end, it turns out that much of what transpires is art.  One cook's technically faultless dish may turn out flat, while another's excites the taste buds.  Similarly, one writer's work, which follows all the supposed "rules" of writing, may bore readers to tears, and another writer may draw them into fascinating new territory.

The difference between following the recipe and adding one's own personality may exist only in pinches and dashes.  In fact, many of the very best cooks I've known have thrown together fabulous dishes in such a way, with little to no regard for recipe directions.  It's not as though they are ignorant of the recipe; in fact, they know it so well that they can add to or subtract from it, or head off in a new direction, at will.

Writing feels the same to me.  I can read all the "how-to-write" books in the world, take all the classes possible, pay minute attention to every word that drips from a published author's mouth, and I still won't necessarily be a good writer.  I might be decent.  I might write readable prose, and some will think it's good.  However, without that final little bit of insight, the creative insolence that tells me deep in my soul how to break the rules and write something new, then I don't truly exist as a writer.  I'm only a hanger-on, a follower of recipes.

I believe this analogy applies particularly well to SF.  The entire genre was generated from the minds of a few radically independent thinkers.  Cutting-edge minds like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne broke away from the realism-loving attitudes of their own cultures, and they began to concoct their own recipes for how the world and the future should look.  They were hardly the gourmets.  As David G. Hartwell notes in the introduction to his anthology The Science Fiction Century, few of the powerful authors in the early twentieth century had either literary or humanist educations.  The mainstream literati considered SF a bastard child, with little possible merit.

Authors like Asimov and editors like John W. Campbell Jr. took these attitudes on with gusto.  They realized that SF wasn't to be a recreation of modern literature.  The recipe wouldn't be followed...and that choice differentiated SF from much of the last century's tripe.  SF writers tinkered with the recipe for success even as they changed the ingredients and flavor of literature itself. 

Current writers continue this grand tradition.  The Scientific Romance of Wells, Huxley and Orwell gave way to Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and others of the Golden Age in the post-WWII years.  The writing of that era gradually gave way to those authors whose works were less government-loving, more paranoid and more self-aware, like Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick.  James Tiptree, Jr., exposed as Alice B. Sheldon in the late 1970s, contributed a great awareness of social and gender politics, which Octavia E. Butler has continued with much commentary on racial issues as well.  William Gibson pioneered the Cyberpunk movement in the past couple of decades; Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle added touches of humor to hard science.  New voices in SF are coming forward to take the torch.

Each of the above writers, as well as many more, brought their own baggage and ideas to the table.  Each changed the recipe, contributed his own sprinkles of insight and cooked up an end result far different from the work others had done. 

While many SF traditionalists worry about the "graying of SF," I believe it's a fairly baseless worry.  What those traditionalists really worry about is the loss of their own brand of SF.  That is inevitable.  The writers springing up today have differing concerns, altered motivations, and new modes of expression.  The SF written today won't be your grandfather's SF... nor should it be.  That's the wonderful thing about writing, and reading, and the very effort of creation.  While all topics might have been already explored, each writer brings his or her own peculiar touch to even the most "overdone" issue. 

So take liberties with your work.  Don't be afraid to tread in the steps of the masters, because your work will be different.  You add your own dashes of inspiration, sprinkles of political commentary, and pinches of humor.  Your ideas are like no one else's, and that's a grand thing.  In fact, it's the very ground on which this genre of speculative fiction is based. 

Have a great time cooking up stories!

Resources: 

The Science Fiction Century, ed. David G. Hartwell, published by Tor in 1997, ISBN #  0-312-86338-1

Science Fiction, The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology, eds. Patricia S. Warrick, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg, published by HarperCollins in 1988, ISBN # 0-06-046941-2