Quick page jumps:
The purpose of this site is to set forth a list of excellent works in the related fields of science fiction and fantasy so that readers with an interest in or taste for such literature may be guided to good books of which they might otherwise not be aware.
(I hereafter mainly use “science fiction and fantasy” as a collective term for speculative fiction as a whole, segregating its parts only where the context clearly requires separate consideration of those parts.)
Since there is already a host of web sites with nominally the same purpose—I examined many in the course of deciding whether to create this one—you are entitled to ask “Why another?” An answer beyond what you have already read will have to be lengthy, and I can but beg you to muster the patience for it.
Many—truth to say, most—science-fiction and fantasy sites select and evaluate works with, to put it genteelly, undemanding critical standards; those standards reflect, but also perpetuate, the literary demands of the readership of the sites and in turn the books. A generally undemanding readership has inescapable consequences: if the readers will buy anything, anything is what will be published. Certainly, as the book rack in any supermarket will demonstrate, large numbers of mainstream “anythings” are also published and read. But mainstream critics and discerning readers not only distinguish with no difficulty a Jacqueline Susann from a Gore Vidal, they understand that the two are writing to very different readerships and apply to those authors and their works appropriately differing standards; science-fiction and fantasy authors are, rightly or wrongly, widely perceived as all writing to a common readership, a readership that by and large does not, many would say cannot, distinguish excellent from mediocre or worse writing.
Science-fiction and fantasy readership has long now had much the quality of a cult and, as with all cults, the more abuse the outside world heaps on its members’ follies, the more fanatical the cultists become, despising the criticism and the critics. As the Welcome page noted, those who would champion the field to the world at large know the terrible truth of the saying “I can save myself from my enemies, but only God can save me from my friends.”
None of that is news. For quite a long time, science fiction and fantasy (which was mostly science fiction then) was horrible stuff—as respected science-fiction author and critic Brian Aldiss has put it, “pathetic tales, in which the namby-pamby has intercourse with the sensational”—presented in pulp-paper magazines with lurid covers capable of embarrassing anyone save the male juveniles who constituted virtually the entire readership. Naturally, no self-respecting established author would turn to such drivel; equally naturally, the reading public—other than those gadget-crazed juveniles—saw this stuff, then rightly, as trash.
That was then; this is now. The waters have receded and islands, even whole continents, have appeared in the oceans of science fiction and fantasy. But they remain largely unvisited by the inhabitants of the other hemisphere of literature because the evil name of those oceans lingers and few will willingly embark on them to see for themselves. And however richly and wonderfully populated those islands and continents may now be, the traveler from afar, when he sights through his critical telescope, still sees an awful lot of murky water in that hemisphere.
This web site cannot, and is not intended to, ameliorate those conditions; no site or number of sites can. Rather, my hope is to be of some service to two classes of persons: readers new to these fields who have sensibilities and capabilities sufficient to appreciation of good books and a desire to be pointed at some in this field, and readers who have already wandered these fields indiscriminately and would now like to begin tightening their critical focus.
I cannot, despite over about two-thirds of a century of voracious reading in science fiction and fantasy, lay claim to an intimate knowledge of all of even the better authors and works. Since I have adopted a policy of simply not dealing with mediocre or bad works, I run the risk of appearing on occasion to be implicitly castigating one or another author or book when I have simply overlooked him or her or it. That I regret, but prefer to the drudgery of discussing inferiority. Critics in all fields seem to deeply enjoy slice-and-dice dissections of the things they dislike; but such tirades, besides being cruel, are not to any purpose unless the critical writing is meant as an enjoyment in itself or a celebration of the critic’s wit, purposes which seem to me to miss the point of criticism. (Moreover, as Nero Wolfe has observed, sarcasm is not the rapier of wit its wielders seem to believe it to be, but merely a club: it may, by dint of brute force, occasionally raise bruises, but it never cuts or pierces.) I here simply speak of what I know and like and hope you find that speaking of interest and value.
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Evaluation of art is inherently subjective, but reviews are not thereby rendered arbitrary and useless. The value of a subjective evaluation turns on three hinges: first, the consistency of the values and standards the reviewer is using, for like works must receive like valuations; second, the reader’s ability to understand what those critical values and standards are and to perceive at what angle they may lie with respect to the reader’s own; and third, the sensibilities and capabilities of the evaluator—but only because a fool or a clod cannot render consistent opinions. We do not and should not require some hypothetical absolute “correctness” from reviews—only that they should stand as reasonably reliable guides for us.
You, for example, scarcely need agree with my opinions to find them useful: you need only understand the manner and degree by which my and your opinion-forming processes differ. At an extreme, you might avoid any book whatever I recommend and take up every book I do not; but even so, my opinions will have been a guide to you, which is my purpose in setting them forth. A particular reviewer’s opinions are only useless to you if you can find no consistent pattern relating them to your own, regardless of what that pattern is.
That being so, it is incumbent on me to set forth as best I can express them my critical criteria, which I do below. My qualifications I do not discuss: those you must judge from the work itself, as you would with any writing. I will begin by touching very lightly on what I see as the general character of literary quality—“very lightly” because the subject is stupendous—and then, with those criteria elucidated, turn to the special nature of science-fiction and fantasy literature.
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To find whether or not we like a book, we need do but one thing: read it. But to rationally discuss why we do or do not like a book—whether it is a “good” book—we need settled criteria for “goodness.” If we want to try to derive such criteria from uttermost basics, we must begin by asking ourselves why we read books.
Nero Wolfe, addressing an assembly of authors, famously begins: “First, I remark that with your books two of you have given me pleasure, three of you have informed me, and one of you has stimulated my mental processes.” Those, to me, are as good and complete a set of reasons for reading books as we need to be going along with.
But our purposes here are limited: we are discussing tales—books of fiction—and what is true of books in general is not necessarily equally true of books of fiction. Book is the great family that contains the genus fiction (within which science fiction and fantasy are species). When we leave the family for the genus, we must largely discard “informing” as a criterion. To be sure, a tale may inform us of interesting things we did not already know and thereby augment our satisfaction with that tale. But honest authors whose chief purpose is the imparting of information will choose a format that honestly accords with that purpose; a tale in which much of the author’s purpose is to inform us is scarcely a tale at all: it is a didactic homily done up in the trappings of a fiction to attract the unsuspecting reader. So, for fictions, the giving of pleasure and the stimulating of one’s mental processes are the hallmarks of excellence.
Moreover, in fiction those two qualities are not, as they more generally are in the entire family book, independent entities of which a given work may possess one or the other. For a fiction, pleasing the reader is a prerequisite for excellence. A tale that pleases us but does little to stimulate our mental processes has nevertheless achieved something that—if we want to believe our sensibilities and capabilities not mean—is neither trivial nor common. A tale from which we derive little or no pleasure but which stimulates our mental processes is, to begin with, a creature hard to believe in: first, we may well not even finish the thing if it pleases not; second, we rarely (except under duress) pay much mind to that from which we derive no pleasure. But even granting that we drudge our way through some relentlessly dull fiction and come away with new thoughts in consequence, that tale is nonetheless a failure because the first duty of a fiction—as opposed to a tract—is to please the reader.
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A tale is a whole thing and all aspects of it interact. Nonetheless, we may without much intellectual savagery pick out four chief means by which tales please. A tale need not possess great strength in each of those four elements to be good or even excellent; it is simply that a weakness in any one places a proportionate demand for extra strength on the others.
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A fiction is a telling. The language—the diction, the syntax, the style—used in that telling can be as clean and pellucid as that of Herbert Read or as artfully languid as that of Ernest Bramah, but a pedestrian tale well told will always please more than a sound tale ill told. That is not to say that tricks and mannerisms are wanted: they are not, and evoke more pain than mere flat writing. (Notably excruciating are the horrors produced by writers attempting the speech of a time or place with which they are not, after all, well familiar; fools who think that they will make their Sherlock Holmes pastiches read like authentic Conan Doyle by simply having their Dr. Watson simulacrum refer to every meal as a “repast” earn tortures regrettably forbidden under contemporary law.) There are a few writers who are especially famed for their unique language use—a Lord Dunsany, a Jack Vance—but not every great work of music need be a symphony: there is always room for chamber pieces. In sum, while a tale can have some quality even with insipid telling it can never have greatness without craftsmanlike language use.
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Plot is such an obvious element of tales that it might seem the paramount element. It is certainly important: few indeed are the books that can be considered successes if what is happening to whom and why are not important to the reader. Yet few is not none. It is possible to have a fine tale virtually without plot—the Oz books clearly demonstrate that. It is just that absent real plot a great demand is made on the other elements of pleasure and, I repeat, only a few books can bear such a burden.
There are many things that can be said about plots and plotting—to be told such things is a big reason people take writing classes—but most of them are obvious. I abstract here only the point that by tale’s end the sound plot must be both comprehensible and acceptable. By “acceptable” I mean that the famous “willing suspension of disbelief” is never fractured—which means almost the same thing as “plausible” but not quite, inasmuch as a most implausible plot can be acceptable so long as the author constrains it to the bounds of the setting within which it is placed.
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Trite but nonetheless true: Every book is a doorway through which we enter a unique realm. In that realm, as in the mundane world, we meet and come to know various persons, some well, some scarcely at all. And, again as in the mundane world, the degree of pleasure we take in being in that realm is largely conditioned on the quality and qualities of the folk we meet there.
But before an author can interest us in the quality and qualities of a tale’s characters, those characters must exist: the author must thus have expended the efforts needed to give each that existence—a face, a figure, a style of dress, a history, plausible idiosyncrasies. Now even journeyman authors usually—though by no means always!—manage to clothe their chief figures in sufficient shreds and tatters of personality to make them look plausibly human; but for master tale-tellers there are no “minor characters” or human plot devices. Every being who steps on the stage of such a master writer’s story has a past and a personality; she or he exists in the author’s mind and can thus exist in ours. Even if we only “see” that person for a sentence or two, she or he is an actor walking across that stage, not a cardboard cutout being pulled along on a string. The great harm of cardboard characters is not that we have no interest in them, though that is an ill thing, but that by their existence (or, properly, lack of existence) they fracture the willing suspension of disbelief, for we must disbelieve in a world in which we see cardboard cutouts where we expected to see living, breathing people.
(Obviously, we cannot demand that an author expend the same time and effort on a character we see for but a line or two in the tale as on a major figure; but we can demand that some time and effort have been spent, lest we get a stereotype instead of a character.)
For the major actors in a tale to please, however, plausibility is a necessary but not a sufficient condition: they must also engage us. To engage us, they must have qualities which mirror, however distortedly or disproportionately, things we can find within ourselves. In fiction as in the mundane world we can have no understandings with folk whose mental processes, intellectual or moral, are simply alien to us. Even a morally challenged imbecile like Othello engages us, if feebly, but no one really gives a bleep what happens to Iago (save as it may impinge on Othello’s fate) because he is just insane, and we can have no least comprehension of what goes on within his version of whatever such folk have where most people have minds. We may puzzle over a Iago, but he does not interest us (except perhaps as a puzzle), does not engage us, and thus cannot please us.
A final thought on character: we must have for a protagonist at least one of two things—liking or respect. We can have both, but if we have neither the book means trees killed for naught. (Note that the lack of a quality does not necessarily imply the presence of its opposite: we may lack liking for persons without thereby needing to dislike them.)
(Based on some conversations since the paragraph above was written I think I had best point out that “respect” is a morally neutral term—it does not necessarily convey positive qualities, as we may well have respect for a rattlesnake owing to the danger it embodies; “respect” as I use it above signifies an appreciation of magnitude in a character, whatever that character’s nature. Many great protagonists—in several senses of the word “great”—have been folk we would not by choice invite to our next dinner party.)
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Of setting much can be said, but the paramount consideration is that we must have neither too little nor too much. The master knows how to convey a sense of place with the occasional sharp detail of sound or smell or color; the prentice hand betrays itself by either a complete absence of such detail or a laborious and inevitably tedious recitation of minutiae. A skilled painter tells us that his portrait is of a farmer by allowing us to see fields through the open door in the cottage room he paints: he does not attach to that portrait endless numbers of survey plats of a typical regional farm, complete with irrigation-ditch gallonage calculations.
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The matter of stimulation of mental processes often being, as we will see later, crucial in science fiction and fantasy, I beg your indulgence here for a little detour.
John of Salisbury attributed to Bernard of Chartres the saying (which Newton, Coleridge, and others all fancied enough to crib):
We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.(I have seen at least three different wordings of that saying, each in quotation marks with the source document cited; the version above is exactly that in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations—the web site I first saw it on, which attributed it to that very Dictionary, had nonetheless omitted a word, inside quotation marks, mind.)
A humankind no different from that which walks the world today has been pondering what Douglas Adams has charmingly summed up as “Life, The Universe, and Everything”—all of what we may loosely call The Big Questions—for at least a hundred centuries now, and the ponderers have been recording their ponderings and the fruits thereof for posterity in reasonably durable forms for well over fifty centuries now.
Nonetheless, once upon a time not so long ago even minds of power wasted a lot of time reinventing the intellectual wheel for, as Hippocrates famously observed, Ars longa, vita brevis.
(Truth to tell, Hippocrates wrote in Greek, not Latin; moreover, the full line—worth knowing—runs, in translation, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult”; it was Horace, who did write in Latin, who shortened it to Ars longa, vita brevis.)
But that was then; this is now. While once passing giants with accommodating shoulders were rare in the earth, today the printing press can place regiments of their simulacra on even the most modest bookshelf. Anyone situated as you are—at the screen of an online computer—has not merely giants about; you have, to be whimsical, the whole of humanity’s intellectual giantry in a circus-acrobat human pyramid waiting to bear you up.
Adopting Humpty Dumpty’s prerogative, I will define an adult as one who has become aware of most or all of The Big Questions and of at least the commoner classes of answers for each; likewise, I will define a child as one too immature to be able to properly grasp the import of such questions, much less any of their answers. Every adult was once a child. Each of The Big Questions was, at some instant in the life of every adult, grasped for the very first time as a matter of real importance, as in time were the available answers to each such question. The time of life when such realizations are being borne in we may well call adolescence.
Adolescence so defined is not a matter of innate wit or a lack thereof: it is defined by experience or a lack thereof. Addressing didactic tales to adolescents, when the tales are aimed at adolescents of innate wit, is not reprehensible but laudable. But laudable books for adolescents do not usually make laudable books for adults (though they can—in fact, several books listed on this site are nominally “juvenile” or “young adult” or even, as with the Oz or Alice tales, “children’s books”).
My Humpty-Dumpty definitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood often correspond tolerably with the usual chronological ones, but not always. There is, always has been, and doubtless always will be a class of chronological adults who died two years ago come Christmas and have simply forgotten to fall over, to whom The Big Questions would come as a pop quiz for which they have done no homework. To adults immodest enough to feel themselves outside that class—a grouping which includes me and, I wager, you—The Big Questions themselves are pretty well known, and at least a fair part of the many categories of answer to each are not unfamiliar. We have, that is, climbed up onto that human pyramid of giant thinkers and looked about a bit.
We (I presume here to speak for you as well as myself) do not know it all. We may not know each of the possible answers to The Big Questions that fifty centuries of pondering have elicited, nor the most cogent arguments for the answers we are aware of; we may not even know all of The Big Questions themselves. We certainly have no universally compelling knowledge as to which, if any, of the answers are correct. But we are out of kindergarten and intellectual kinderspiel is no longer amusing or interesting: tales just meant to serve as Cliff’s Notes for a Big-Questions pop quiz are boring. Tales that will “stimulate our mental processes” need to be tales that will stimulate an adult’s mental processes. Please keep that thought firmly in mind: we will soon be needing it.
That ends the detour. We thank you for your patience and interest, please watch your step alighting from the bus, and tipping is allowed.
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What Nero Wolfe (or rather Rex Stout speaking through his creation) meant by stimulating the mental processes of a reader is, as I take it, causing that reader to consider some question, presumably of large import, either for the first time—which would mean that the very existence of the question is a new thought—or from a new perspective. A tale stimulates a reader’s mental processes by being a microcosm so composed that a reader possessed of adequate sensibilities and capabilities will induce the macrocosmic issue or issues.
(The word “deduction” is used with tedious regularity where the word “induction” is wanted. One deduces various particularities from general propositions; one induces general propositions from various particularities. Science, like Sherlock Holmes, largely induces and rarely deduces.)
Achieving such stimulation is a delicate business. If you attend a play and find yourself remarking how skillfully the lighting has been contrived to enhance this or that mood, that contrivance has in fact failed; if you read a book and find yourself remarking how skillfully the plot and characters have been contrived to embody this or that Grand Truth, so also there is failure. The author who sets forth consciously and deliberately to enlighten is a tiresome creature better occupied composing tracts for door-to-door distribution.
I have found that one simple but remarkably reliable test is the degree to which the characters in a fiction discuss large issues: the more they do so, the more nearly the work is a book-length pamphlet. Characters in a well-told tale do not issue pronouncements about “Life, The Universe, and Everything”—they simply live and do. Beware the book whose “characters” are walking, talking ideas. In a well-told tale, it is the reader’s sensibilities and not the author’s manipulations that induce generalities from specifics.
Indeed, it is far from unusual for a fine tale to be stimulating far past the author’s design or even recognition; that may indeed be the norm. It requires extraordinarily immense strength of character to forbear in a tale from coaching or prompting or hinting or pointing at some idea one wishes the reader to induce from the telling; few writers have such strength, though the degree to which they surrender to such urges is the degree to which they weaken the work as a whole. Most of the tales that succeed in duly stimulating us were written by authors who were “merely” telling a story. Without any explicit intent to model this or that truth, such masterly tale tellers model many truths by simply displaying life as they understand it.
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Before setting forth my own few observations, I feel an incumbency to report a few critical works, each by an acknowledged master author of science fiction or fantasy, that are in my opinion vital components of even a modest science-fiction and fantasy library. They are—
The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin;
Trillion Year Spree by Brian W. Aldiss;
"On Fairy Stories" by J.R.R. Tolkien;
"The Fantastic Imagination" by George MacDonald;
The Decay of Lying by Oscar Wilde; and,
Beyond Life by James Branch Cabell.
The first is a collection of essays and like material; of especial import, I think, are the essays “From Elfland To Poughkeepsie”, which focuses on the distinctions between science-fiction and fantasy writing and the writing of mainstream fiction, and “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown”, on the importance of fully realized human characters in science fiction and fantasy.
The second—an updating of Aldiss’ earlier book Billion Year Spree—is a comprehensive, informed, and opinionated history and analysis of science fiction. (I don’t always agree with Aldiss—truly, I often disagree—but the book is seminal.)
The third is a long essay that ought to be required reading for all adults daring to call themselves civilized. Not listed above but also relevant and insightful are two short novels (long short stories, really) by Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major and Leaf By Niggle, which each deal with the relationship between a fantasy author and his material, and another of his essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” (All but the Beowulf essay, plus other things, can be had in the book Poems and Stories, a Tolkien collection.)
As to the fourth and fifth, they also are essays: The MacDonald, when I read it, replaced in my mind Professor Tolkien’s essay as the best (by a hair) short summation of the essence of the art. It first appeared in 1893, in the second edition of a collection of MacDonald’s essays entitled A Dish of Orts, which essay was reprinted in the 1984 Avon/Discus paperback anthology Fantasists on Fantasy, itself a book I can scarcely over-praise). The Wilde is characteristic Wilde: dry, penetrating wit, its point being that Art is not Nature, but rather elegant lies about Nature, and that “realistic” work is not Art.
The sixth item is, in effect, a book-length expansion on Wilde’s premise by a writer who practiced what he preached: that good fiction does not seek to portray men as they are, but men “as they ought to be”. (Which does not mean quite what you might think.)
Another book, not included in the list above but of inestimable value, is the now-famed Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell; that book, hard to sum up concisely, deals with myth, the human psyche, and more. Every literate adult ought to read it, but especially anyone with an interest in the fields visited here.
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Science-fiction and fantasy literature may be characterized, at least in a broad-brush manner, as tales set in worlds where major rules work differently than they do in our familiar mundane realm. Such a characterization is, however, one of degree, not truly of kind. Clearly a tale set in a far-future civilization or in a medieval culture where some sort of magic works is a tale from the species “science fiction and fantasy”; but what of a tale set in the early 1900s in which there are no breaches whatever of natural law but which is set on an imaginary mini-continental island in the South Pacific?
That tale, Islandia, is generally classed a fantasy novel. Yet, as has been many times pointed out, all fiction is “fantasy” to the extent that it tells of things that did not “really” happen. Why is Islandia a fantasy and Gone With The Wind not? Tara has no more “reality” than the Karain island continent. Surely it cannot be a matter of mere physical size—an imaginary plantation is realistic but an imaginary large island has to be fantastic? At just what number of square miles of area does a fictitious region pass from pseudo-reality to fantasy?
For those familiar with the works there is a valuable clue. Islandia is not simply a fancied setting for an ordinary tale of adventure or romance or the like: it is a place where the imagined population has evolved a set of customs, behaviors, and patterns of thought significantly different from any ever observed in the mundane world. Not impossible or even implausible (though unlikely)—just different. We readily understand why Miz Scarlett of Tara thinks what she thinks and does what she does, whether or not it is what we would think or do in the same circumstances; what Dorna of Islandia thinks and does are, until explicated for us, matters incomprehensible. Islandia joins its forebear Utopia—another island—in the realms of fantasy not owing to its merely (as James Branch Cabell delightfully put it) having been spared the wear and tear of ever actually existing, but owing to its difference from the fields we know.
(For a long time, this page had erroneously attributed that wonderful “wear and tear” line to Lord Dunsany—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.)
But we cannot define science fiction and fantasy merely as a set of tales in which “the rules are different.” Such a difference is, to repeat the mathematician’s term of art, a necessary but not a sufficient condition. The essence of the definition, I submit, is how, and why, the author makes use of the differing rules. A tale replete with wizards and warriors is not a fantasy if they are, in effect, simply scientists and soldiers who spell their names peculiarly and wear bizarre clothing (a marvelous true example is available in Le Guin’s essays).
I cannot overemphasize that point: if a book—no matter how alien its setting, its characters, its plot, even its language—could, with no violence to its basic structure, be rewritten in a mainstream world, it is not really science fiction or fantasy: it is trumpery. I will not by so saying convince the world at large to remove this or that author or book from the rolls of science fiction and fantasy, but here—my site, my rules.
(About appropriate uses of differing rules I will have more to say in a bit.)
As to the distinction between science fiction and fantasy: well, although readers can get pretty hot arguing the differences, even modest readings in the critical literature written by authors practicing in the field clearly show such distinctions to be not much felt or spoken of by those authors themselves, who pretty much lump the lot up—most, in their own work, moving freely from one arena to the other. As C.S. Lewis has said, “I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus.” Or, as M. John Harrison has perhaps more pithily put it, “there’s no difference between imaginary things; they share the over-riding quality of not being real.”
For any who insist on a rule, you may use as a crude litmus test the presence or absence of magic in the world of the tale: present, it makes fantasy; absent, it makes science fiction. The prime difficulty with that rough rule is the number of books that are nominally “science fiction”—in that the author sets forth “scientific” explanations for the phenomena not known in our mundane world—but in which (as my use of quotation marks suggests) that “science” is but a slipcover over fantasy, in that it is not, and is pretty clearly not even meant to be, plausible science but merely a way of justifying the novel events in the tale’s world. The question of why some authors choose that strange approach—rather like scratching your right ear with your left hand—I cannot say, unless perhaps they believe that their readers will accept “science,” however goofy, sooner than “magic.” (Such books are sometimes called “science fantasy,” an apt description.)
A mirror difficulty—and one that gravels me considerably—is books denominated “fantasy” that are really science fiction in a purple bathrobe. The difficulty derives from ill-considered ideas of what “magic” is, a difficulty well illustrated by Arthur C. Clarke’s whacking great clunker “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, which misses the essence of both magic and technology. Consider: technology is the manipulation of things through a knowledge of the laws of nature. The crucial word there is laws—law is only regularity (a tautology): if A then B, not ever F or L or Z. When certain actions have certain results, that’s technology. That the action might be the enunciating of particular words and the effect the melting to lava of a large boulder is immaterial; if anyone can work a spell, as anyone can fire a gun, what’s being used is technology. The implied underlying science—meaning elucidation of the true laws of nature—may differ drastically from what we conceive plausible, but it’s science nonetheless, literally by definition. (An interesting illustration, meant as humor, is Pratt and De Camp’s “Harold Shea” tales, in which we read of such things as “magico-static charges”.) To differ from technology, magic must thus necessarily be a force that is at least to a degree lawless, irregular. Or, getting to the pith, magic is the ability of a conscious will—as lawless a thing as there is—to directly affect reality. Now mind, one can define away anything: one can say that “lawlessness is the law”, and at least as to formal grammar that is a sentence; but it is pedantry. The point to carry away is that a deal of what passes for “fantasy” because it has “magic” in it is no such thing, because the “magic” is just John W. Campbell’s good old “psi powers” wearing that purple bathrobe, perhaps “accessorized” with a pointy hat. If confusion is possible, it is advanced magic that is likely to be mistaken for technology. But good writers never make either error.
There is a third species, horror fiction, which is a sort of step-sister to science fiction and fantasy. Horror fiction, to my mind, is qualitatively different from science fiction and fantasy in that its first and dominating goal is—as the name suggests—to excite a feeling of horror in the reader. Too much of horror fiction uses as a major tool sheer disgust. There are many things that universally excite revulsion in humans—gore, decay, slime, the usual suspects—and many “horror” stories rely at bottom on those things for such success as they achieve, for extreme revulsion is a fair simulacrum of real horror. But even quality horror fiction—likely no more and no less common than quality science fiction and fantasy—still has at most one foot over the fence and planted on our fields, again because its primary motivation is the excitation of a single emotion. The attentive visitor to this site will find that a few specimens generally classed “horror” works have crept into the lists—a Shirley Jackson, some William Hope Hodgson, some Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman—but each is arguably something more or other than “straight horror”; on the whole, I have excluded plain “horror” fiction, however successful as horror.
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The journeyman writer—or, let’s be frank, the hack—will compose a science-fiction or fantasy tale for but one reason: the standards for quality in the field, as with any “genre,” are materially lower than in mainstream publishing; it is, simply put, far easier to get published.
The reason for that ease is scarcely occult: it is supply and demand. Omitting portentous sociological and political analyses, I set forth as plain fact—you may accept it as such or not—that we live in unpleasant times and, in consequence, there exists a large class of folk who would rather be (or, more correctly, suppose that they would rather be) in any of numerous other places or times than the ones they now occupy. For those many, genre fiction supplies what its direst critics unceasingly accuse it of—escapism, pure and simple; whether the tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, capable hero wields a six-shooter or a rapier or a ray gun or a broadsword in fighting his way through villains and plot contrivances to the girl he invariably gets in the last chapter is irrelevant. Readers choose genres whose staple settings and plots best comport with their own fantasies (that word again); hack writers choose genres that best comport with their own prior genre reading.
(Manifestly, not all science-fiction and fantasy authors are hacks—else this site would be purposeless. Writers who are not hacks choose these fields because of the special opportunities they afford. But, despite those special opportunities, not all good writers choose these fields—indeed, too few do—first, because of the evil reputation the fields bear, and second, because the special opportunities are balanced by corresponding special hazards and special demands on the writer.)
I must emphasize—strongly—that while a desire to be somewhere or somewhen else, and the use of literature to temporarily achieve that being, is certainly “escapism,” that does not to sensible minds automatically make such escaping or the literature used to achieve it an object of condemnation. Professor Tolkien has elegantly pointed out the vast difference between the escapism of the shirker seeking to evade legitimate responsibilities, which is rightly to be condemned, and to which I was referring above, and the “escapism” of the unjustly confined prisoner, which is a duty and to be praised. Tolkien argues—and who among us would disagree?—that the modern world in effect unjustly imprisons the human soul; the consequent urge to escape is thus more than merely innocent: it is healthy. Deciding who is shirking and who breaking free requires a moral judgement, for all shirkers will report themselves unjustly imprisoned by bars others would call merely rightful responsibilities. Cases vary; know thyself.
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As I noted earlier, it is in setting a tale more than anywhere else that the prentice hand most often reveals itself; that is superlatively true when the author is a complete worldmaker. A mainstream hack can only go so far wrong describing the mean streets down which his puppets must trudge; a writer essaying a world from the core out must take far greater care to neither skimp nor overburden us.
There is in this worldmaking business a clear example of the oft-cited observation that circumstances generate their opposites. In years not yet beyond living memory, it was a commonplace of science-fiction and fantasy criticism to assail writers for careless and thus inept worldmaking: suns of impossible color for their size in the sky, cities off in the middle of mountain ranges with no conceivable economic basis for existence, that sort of thing. It was, and apparently remains, an article of faith with many science-fiction and fantasy authors that readers care very much about such matters and will recoil in horror from any such inconsistencies. (To me, barring comically gross ineptitude, such flaws are invisible, but I must—as with the joy of drinking tea—take it on faith by report that the phenomenon exists; I suspect, however, that few of the carpers, if such there truly be, are of voting age.) In consequence, a new generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers undertook never, ever to tell a tale set in a world for which they had not worked out exactly the exchange rates of seventeen various currencies, the tidal height at the equator and both tropics, the number and names of all spices added to stews (by season), the geomorphology of five separate continents (if Doctor Watson wishes to distinguish between separate continents and whatever the alternative kind may be, let us not differ), and the sexual habits of uncountably many species of domestic animal. That, in itself, was harmless: idle hands do the devil’s work and it kept such folk off the streets at night.
But beware what you wish for: you might get it (there’s no saw like an old saw). What was not harmless, though predictable, was those writers’ feeling that having gone to all that effort nary a jot nor yet a tittle of it was going to be wasted time: you wanted planned-out world-making, you bleeping well got it, and five Appendices (Geography, Chronology, Vocabulary, Botany, and Biology are the commonest, but the disease takes many forms) to prove it, not to speak of endless sequences of pages (weep for the trees, oh weep) filled with things you don’t care to know about your own home town much less some Podunk in another dimension. I suppose a large part of this tsunami of sludge was generated by the earthquake that Lord Of The Rings was in the ocean of science fiction and fantasy; but the diarrhea (or logorrhea—yes, it’s a real word) still lapping at our bookshelves is as literate and persuasive as the things turned in at the annual Hemingway-Imitation contest (again yes, there really is one), and it shows, like its sibling the annual Bulwer-Lytton Imitation contest (yes, yes), how trippingly parody falls from the tongue. The difference is that the Hemingway and Bulwer-Lytton imitations are supposed to be excruciatingly awful.
What a successful world-maker must accomplish is to fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world. Really, that’s it: tell that tale in that world. Where the tale, of its own accord, intersects some aspect of that world that differs from our own, there are two basic possibilities: the difference matters to the tale, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, pass on: leave it that the heroine heard the haunting notes of a traditional kabba played mournfully on a drall. Does it matter a rat’s ass what a kabba or a drall is? No? Then don’t kill trees telling me about them. If it does, then—and then only—in the fullness of time reveal to me these things. Do you suppose Zane Grey devotes pages to explaining how an exploding compound of niter propels a blob of lead out of a short metal tube at so many and so many yards a second? OK, you spent a lot of time thinking through your private Brave New World: get over it.
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Authors of quality tales must first of all be competent users of language. I think at once of an exemplary series of fantasy novels, extant as I write: the author has plots worthy of Victor Hugo, refreshingly plausible characters with interesting thoughts, and a vivid world-setting—a recipe, one would think, for greatness or at the least sound quality—but the novels are all unreadable owing to the author’s tooth-grindingly awful writing.
(The world is full of books on how to set out one’s thoughts in decently crafted English—no one writing professionally has any excuse for lacking Fowler and Follett, Barzun and Read, and no one possessing them has any excuse for pouring gabble onto the printed page. Exacerbating the problem for the poor reader is that almost all science fiction and fantasy—to its publishers, cheapjack stuff—gets minimal and horrid editing and proofing.)
Created worlds allow the master hand license not only in setting but in language; regrettably, few take sufficient advantage of the possibilities. (Jack Vance has shown us the immense scope of those possibilities.) In this, too, the prentice hand shows all too quickly. Books that would be tedious to begin with become pounding headaches when the author casually undertakes spurious dialects. The innumerable grotesque parodies, all unintentional, of medieval speech are a perpetual fingernail on the blackboard of science-fiction and fantasy literature—Robert Newton’s Long John Silver (“Arrrhh, arrrhh, Jack me lad!”) had more integrity than any of those hideous stews of usually incorrect thees, thous, wots, and inverted word orders (the Hall Golden) served up to us monthly (or however often publishers come to term).
(Re: incorrect wot, courtesy of Wilson Follett: “But had I wist, before I kissed.” The word was already obscure by Shakespeare’s time.)
The thing that masters never forget and all others, it seems, never remember is that to the characters speaking in a tale, their speech is normal and natural and should be so rendered in the telling. It is only when a character is speaking in a mode that his contemporaries in the world in which he resides would find higher or lower or otherwise different from their norm that we need to see that speech rendered in a way that conveys that differing tone to us. Bilbo and Frodo and Sam speak as you and I would (or at least as we would if we were English); Aragorn and Boromir and Faramir do not, but their mode—more dignified and resonant—is only a sort of background difference and is not deeply other: varlet and sirrah and prithee are not a part of that mode any more than they were to another dignified and resonant speaker, Winston Churchill. We—readers and authors alike—are perhaps misled by the degree to which languages shift with time. Never mind Shakespeare (much less Chaucer): Dickens, scarcely a century past, today seems full of quainteries—but they are only phrases that were everyday speech in his day and if he were writing today he wouldn’t use those “quaint” phrases, he would use their contemporary equivalents.
I have said that to the characters speaking in a tale, their speech is normal and natural, and so it is. On occasion, however, an author will wish us to see a world so different from our own that its “normal and natural” speech cannot be rendered in contemporary idiom. Consider: the folk in a mainstream novel from, let us say, 1910, do not talk to one another with the same words that their contemporary equivalents would use to say the same things. Whether we think modern speech patterns more honest or those of 1910 more civil (not incommensurable views), we cannot mistake the one for the other, nor freely interchange them. Recalling the vital premise that all literature, including science-fiction and fantasy literature, really talks about us, here, now, warns us that the author choosing for whatever reasons to give us a world-setting in which contemporary idiom is inappropriate for “normal and natural” speech is engaging in a chancy business. Nonetheless, chances sometimes come off, and in this delicate matter of rendering the “normal and natural” speech patterns of an imagined world the craftsmanlike author uses a more powerful tool to tell us about that world than volumes of “linguistic appendices.”
(Professor Tolkien, a professional philologist, claimed he devised Middle Earth only to have a world in which to imagine speakers of the languages he liked to invent; so—even if we disbelieve, as many do, his claim—we accept his linguistic appendices as integral to the works they are attached to.)
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It is in the closely related areas of plot and characterization that the skillful writer can best use the special freedoms of science fiction and fantasy to please readers. My opinion is that readers, on the whole, prefer tales about large people or large events or both: a protagonist who remains throughout the tale a quite ordinary person must participate in large events; events that are in themselves quite ordinary must be redeemed by a protagonist of unusual dimension. The book in which the protagonist is ordinary and the events are ordinary yet the effect achieved is large is comparable to and as rare as the exquisitely carved cameo. It can be done, and when well done is especially impressive, but it is the equivalent of running a race horse with sand bags: it is the overcoming of a deliberate handicap.
The difficulty in dealing with large characters and large events in mainstream fiction is that by and large we already know a lot about them: the author has very little scope. It is impossible to keep your readers in suspense about who will win the Battle of Waterloo. The Titanic sinks. America wins the war. Kennedy is assassinated. In an imagined setting, there are no such restrictions. The author can tell us tales of great folk doing mighty deeds while yet developing plot and characterization howsoever seems fitting. That is not, as some hacks take it to be, a license to contrive wildly: whatever happens, whatever the characters do, must be faithful to their natures and to the world setting. Moreover, a grand scope is no guarantor of a grand fiction: inter-galactic wars or The Ultimate Confrontation Between Good And Evil are, as themes, not only not assurances of grand results but, from experience, horribly suggestive of something quite other. In literature as in life, liberty demands wise and discreet usage to be a virtue.
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A science-fiction or fantasy tale, like any other, must first of all please to be good: that is ever and always its first duty, as it is of any tale of any kind, and the degree to which a tale pleases us must forever be the chiefest of our criteria for evaluation. After that, however, the science-fiction and fantasy tale rises in our esteem—again, like any other tale—largely in proportion as it causes us to first see or to better understand or feel something important about, well, “Life, The Universe, and Everything”.
Here, however, we return to the problem I discussed earlier under the heading Adolescence & Adulthood—the difficulty of stimulating, with fiction, the mental processes of a reasonably sophisticated adult.
Science fiction especially largely touts itself—well, strictly speaking, most of its authors tout it—as “the literature of ideas.” Brian Aldiss is himself a respected science-fiction author, and his historical examination of the field, Trillion Year Spree, can rightly be called a landmark or seminal work: presumably, Mr. Aldiss more than qualifies as an expert. But on just the very third page of that book, still in the Introduction, we read:
SF cannot exist without divergent opinions. The material with which it deals is itself controversial. Shall we increase technology until the whole surface of the planet is covered by concrete and steel? Is all religion an aberration? Is war inevitable? Will artificial intelligence take over our governance, and is that desirable? Do we need to conquer space? How would utopia come about? What of our immortal souls?
Now those are without a doubt important questions and ones for which there are no universally accepted answers. But they are also questions that, not to be condescending but just to speak plain truth, are generally fairly obvious to bright 12-year-olds. We do not need a homily draped in an allegory to bring us out of some presumed stupor to a Zen enlightenment that war is bad yet humans continually make war and maybe we should try to find a way to break that cycle. Duh.
I hope that no one reading that will wantonly draw the conclusion that I am opposed to ideas in literature in general or in science fiction and fantasy in particular; I am not. Contrariwise: tales that embody a working out of large ideas are enhanced thereby. What I object to, mightily, is the belief that ideas in a tale represent some sort of all-day pass, that the author who puts a Big Idea in a tale and presents therein some answer or comment on that Big Idea has now paid in full the purchase price of our attention and respect. As I said earlier, the author who sets forth consciously and deliberately to enlighten is a tiresome creature, better occupied composing tracts for door-to-door distribution.
A distressingly high percentage of science-fiction and, nowadays, fantasy tales really are works by tale tellers who think—well, let me not asperse them by saying what they seem themselves to believe, let me say “tale tellers whose fans seem to think”—that they are giants in the earth because they have written tales that raise or address Big Questions. Take two aspirin with a milky drink and call me in the morning.
Authors who believe that their task is quite done when once they have set a Big Question before their readership will generally do little more with the tale: their purposes have been fulfilled. In drearily inevitable consequence the characters will all be card-carrying members of the Allegorical-Symbols Union, Local 666; the settings will be water-based paint on environmentally sound recycled cardboard; and the language use will be of a level suited to reach the kind of hare-brained dolts—or the adolescents—the author supposes need all this Deep Enlightenment.
The sort of auctorial zealotry or condescension described above is awfully widespread in science fiction. It is less so in fantasy, at least if we view that field as a historical whole. For a long time—from well before there really was such a literature as “science fiction” (a hatchling of the ’30s, Mr. Aldiss, who traces it to Mary Shelley, notwithstanding)—there was a literature of fantasy, or “fantastical fiction” as it was often called. While fanatics try to trace fantasy back virtually to caveman days, if we call “fantasy” the deliberate making of a false, artificial world for largely literary purposes—as distinguished from myth or folklore or epic, which are stories meant to be thought true (or at least a reasonable or plausible facsimile of truth, as with Dante’s Comedy)—fantasy is no older than the novel, but still by and large much older than “scientifiction.” Many of the early writers of “fantastical fiction” had, very assuredly, something to say, but they came of a literary tradition that didn’t stint the telling of a tale just because the tale might carry a message or viewpoint. They were, to use a now-plagued phrase, well educated.
(Yes, I have heard of such people as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and the cited Ms. Shelley. I mean above that there was no going school of “science fiction” writing until the pulps of the early ’30s; earlier works were not in their time much distinguished from what we today call “fantasy,” the lot being—as noted earlier above—lumped in as “fantastical fiction.”)
It wasn’t until into the twentieth century in America that “writers” with little more than a love of technology and a conviction that they were possessed of a vision that would transform humanity started getting widely published (if the pulps were “wide” publication). In time, fantasy of course “caught up” with science fiction: more and more authors with convictions and little else started writing, and getting published, presenting tales next to which Pinocchio is high literature. Nowadays the two forms, fantasy and science fiction, are closely parallel in quality or lack of it.
(That discussion is giving the hacks the best of it by assuming that they have visions, however puerile, that they urgently want to pass along. In truth, many of them are folk who simply see a relatively easy buck there for the having; the rest never really outgrew their teddy bears and are read by folk of the same stripe.)
Science fiction, from its explosion in the ’30s, was not in absolute terms—perhaps one to two generations—long in maturing to the stage in which quality work appeared regularly. But with the field as a going concern only three or so generations old right now, necessarily a large percentage of the total body of works is sludge. Meanwhile, the new success of science-fiction publishing eventually caused fantasy to collapse from a literature into a mass-market publishing category; as science fiction worked its way uphill, fantasy stumbled downhill. But, because fantasy is much the older field and didn’t turn into a mill until after science fiction was already well along, the body of decent works of fantasy is, and will likely remain for a good while, substantially larger than the body of decent works of science fiction. Neither form is inherently more suited to quality work: it is a simple numbers game. In consequence, if we are today assembling a library of quality science-fiction and fantasy works, we must expect a marked tilt toward fantasy—much of it old enough to be “classic”.
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The Great Unwashed seem to think that science fiction and fantasy are about things that are very other: aliens, far-future civilizations, magicians, the usual suspects. The truth, as I have already noted, is just the opposite: science fiction and fantasy comment on us, here, now. All valid literature does that and nothing else or it is not literature, it is anthropology or some such thing.
The mainstream author has to jump high hurdles to accomplish much, for the unavoidably tedious familiarity of everyday “real” life makes it difficult to create characters and situations so compelling that we can recognize in them universals of any sort; the mainstream author must, in effect, strip his characters naked for us to really see them at all. Science-fiction and fantasy authors have a technique of inherently larger scale: instead of being obliged to strip their characters, they can dress them in an infinite variety of wild costumes.
To pursue the metaphor, a science-fiction or fantasy tale is thus like a costume party at which we find old friends dressed far differently than we have become accustomed to seeing them; they are still, under their masks and costumes, themselves—but their bizarre appearances (bizarre to us, who know them each quite else, though their new persona might be perfectly ordinary in itself—a crone, a sailor, a stock broker) may well give us to reconsider questions of identity. “Who, after all, is this fellow, that lady? Do I truly know them? Did I ever?” (Masks are powerful things, as most writers and readers well know.)
Science-fiction and fantasy authors have the privilege not only of holding such parties but of designating who shall attend wearing what costume. By artfully designing the costumes to each reveal or highlight some particular element of the wearer’s character or nature, the author enables us to see our old friends in new lights. (At the risk of offending the thoughtful by obviousness, I reluctantly remind you that I am still, of course, speaking metaphorically, and that the “persons” at such masques are in actuality ideas, institutions, and suchlike, even if incarnate for the purposes of the tale.)
If such a party is to be a success, the host or hostess must be an artist. It will not do, for instance, to be blatant: one cannot simply parade the folk one dislikes in a masquerade of monsters. Nothing is thereby demonstrated except the paucity of one’s creative imagination. The science-fiction or fantasy writer may, then, perhaps best be characterized as a costumier of ideas. Excellence at the task requires wit, scope, grace, subtlety.
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Science fiction and fantasy are too commonly portrayed, even by their friends, as supplying answers to the question “What if…?” What if a flying saucer landed on the White House lawn tomorrow? What if some people could cast spells? What if we were all androgynous? What if the gods revealed themselves? What if we were each made twice as smart overnight? And so on. In honesty, a great deal of science fiction and fantasy is written from just such considerations. That does not make it good science fiction or fantasy, nor does it define the field as the answering of such questions.
There is in baseball an expression that describes a class of poorly handled infield grounder: “He let the ball play him.” Writers who generate science-fiction and fantasy tales simply because they have asked themselves “What if…?” and thought of a clever answer are letting the ball play them. The task of a science-fiction or fantasy writer is to create a tale wherein the special liberties available allow a more focussed or wider or deeper or more something presentation of the ideas than would a “mainstream” treatment. Such a tale can be an answer to a “What if…?” question, but if so the answer provided, and the question, should flow from the necessities of the tale, not the tale from the necessities of the answer—otherwise the boors who incessantly drone on about science fiction and fantasy not being “real” literature have another bullet in their gun.
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The newcomer to these lands requires a gentle warning; Mr. Rod Serling used to issue it regularly: “You are about to enter…The Twilight Zone.”
Writers of tales set in the fields we know—“mainstream” fiction—may at once give us some minimal scene-setting backdrops and then parade their actors before those backdrops and have them speak their pieces. Writer of tales set beyond the fields we know have the huge additional task of giving us not sketchy backdrops but an entire cosmos to comprehend before we can grasp the significance of their actors’ words and deeds.
The science-fiction and fantasy author may signal the otherness of the tale’s cosmos in two basic ways. The first method is immediate; none, for example, are likely to mistake this for a place and time with which they are familiar:
It wove through the warp of the desert; a dusty trail looping around wind-eroded buttes, over dry stream beds, among clumps of gray scrub brush. Straighter, but always within sight of the roadway, was the elevated train track. No trains had run in centuries and the track was streaked with verdigris. Though there were seldom travelers to hear it, the wind in the trestles keened atonal scherzos.
Closer to the city, the road was lined with the burned-out shells of what had once been buses.
(The opening words of Cinnabar, by Edward Bryant.)
Now consider this place:
Coastal southern California is a semiarid land crosshatched with mountain chains, narrow valleys, and dry riverbeds. The upper reaches of its steeply sloped canyons are nearly impenetrable—its sunny broken rises blanketed with greasewood and sumac and mesquite, dense miserly plants that survive eight or ten rainless months each year. The shady slopes, turned away from the sun, are covered with oak and fern, and at higher elevations maple and big cone pine. On the flats and along streambeds grow sycamore and alder, their roots sunk deep into the loamy alluvial soil. In rare decades when one drought year follows another, stands of alder along dry creeks wither and die as groundwater falls away deeper and deeper into the earth.
(The opening words of The Rainy Season, by James Blaylock.)
You could, you think, get in your car and drive there. But as the tale set in this place unfolds, little by little—a strange remark here, a curious thing there, an inexplicable act the other place—it will irresistibly be borne in on you that the rules in this place are not what you thought they were. We knew—well, we very likely knew—when we picked the book up that it was fantasy (and what curious reactions we may have if we did not know!). But the pace at which to measure out to us the manner in which the tale’s world is other is a thing the author has had to carefully consider.
You must not presume that authors have some contractual obligation to all at once display fully their tales’ universes, set out fair and square with no contradictions. You will be given so much as the author cares to deliver, delivered at the pace and in the manner that author chooses; such control on giving is of the essence of these fields, and by how well an author makes use of it we may in good part judge that author. And until you are given data, you must just go along understanding the place and its inhabitants as best you can—recalling, though, that things may not be as they seem. Above all, you must trust your author to have foreseen likely difficulties and to have dealt with them in a suitable place in the tale.
In sum, the newcomer to these lands must absorb the rules visitors to otherworlds, from Gilgamesh through Dante, have ever needed for survival: assume nothing, stay alert, trust your guide.
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Authors, where listed on this site, are ranked by stars—which as used here run from five down to one—that signify, rather crudely and approximately, the following:
It may help your understanding to know that the “stars” I use here are only the visible part of a personal rating scheme that in full runs from +5 to -5. A “zero” book is still a decent read, just not one quite important enough to retain for the future. A -1 book can be read for some modest pleasure despite one or more clear flaws. A -2 book one could pick up to pass time in a dentist’s waiting room, but put down when called and never feel a need to go back to for completion. Anything below, from -3 to -5, is impossible even for a few pages (the difference between -3 and -5 lies in the degree and nature of the butchery). Thus, because I am trying to include only authors of quality, authors here accorded even “one-star” rank are above the norms of the field.
(Note:A # appearing just before a given author’s stars signifies an author of quite limited output (at least of works that fall into the purview of this site. Do not confuse that with a similar mark that appears before the titles of a few books I include here based on my experience of their author despite my not having read them myself.)
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If you like, you could now digress to look at some rambling Musings on science-fiction and fantasy matters.
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