Top critical review
Wildly Uneven, But Worth it For The Good Bits
on June 3, 2004
At the most basic level, this book delivers what the title and subtitle promises: How-to essays by some of the biggest names (as of the mid-1980s) in science fiction writing. The majority deal with science fiction (rather than fantasy) and with magazine (as opposed to book-length) pieces. Would-be fantasy writers should beware, but should also be willing to cut the editors a little slack on the subject. New writers with no track record and no agent (the book's target audience) have always had an easier time publishing short fiction than novels. Fantasy is (and has been for decades) almost entirely published as novels, but there's still (if only barely) a market for magazine-length science fiction.
The book is not, however, what it clearly *wants* to be: THE book for writers trying to break into the genre. The essays in it were written at different times and for different purposes. They vary wildly in length, depth, and (most critical) in the amount of knowledge they assume on the part of the reader. Trying to read the book straight through can give you a severe case of intellectual whiplash. If you want a unified, coherent book about how to write quality science fiction and fantasy, this is NOT it. (Try Orson Scott Card's _How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy_ or Barry Longyear's _Notes to a Science Fiction Writer_ instead.)
The real gems of this book include, as other reviewers have noted, Stanley Schmidt on worn-out plot devices and Connie Willis on humor. IF you want to write hard science fiction (stories where the scientific details are firmly in the foreground and integral to the story), then add Hal Clement's on aliens to that list. IF you want to write fantasy, then add Jane Yolen's superb essay on using elements from mythology and legend. Either group could benefit from Poul Anderson's essay on world-building. (As Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in her hilarious _Tough Guide to Fantasyland_, fantasy writers are notorious for creating worlds that make no ecological sense.)
The book is, ironicaly, least useful where it's most closely concerned with the mechanics of writing. Isaac Asimov's five essays are breezy and genial but offer little in the way of really concrete advice. Robert Heinlein's single essay (written in the early 1950s, if memory serves) is valuable *only* if you keep in mind that it was written when the market for magazine SF was *much* larger than it is today. Sheila Williams' essay on "The Mechanics of Submission" is now badly out of date, since it was written before e-mail and inkjet printers. Many of the markets listed at the end of the book have, sadly, ceased publication years ago.
The good bits of this book are very, very good. The essays by Anderson, Willis, and Yolen alone are worth the price of (paperback) admission. Be aware, though, that you get a *lot* of chaff along with the wheat.