I’m going to out myself right now by revealing my lack of true geek cred: before I started reading this book, I’d never heard of Ben Bova. In fact, my knowledge of most of the Golden Age sci-fi authors is pitiful. Asmiov? All I’ve read of him is I, Robot. Arthur C. Clarke? Nada. Sturgeon? The only novel of his I’ve read is More than Human.
The point is that my knowledge of the sci-fi greats is painfully limited, and Ben Bova’s work fits comfortably within that void. So learning that he used to be the editor for Analog magazine – and that he used to read every story that crossed his slush pile – got my attention.
The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is Bova’s attempt to teach struggling sci-fi writers the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they can get out of the slush pile. In it, he breaks down story craft into four key elements: character, background, plot, and conflict. Each section is broken down into three chapters: one on using the element in theory, one with a short story showing the element in action, and a third one analyzing the short story in question.
The final portion of the book is devoted to analyzing the differences between novel writing and short story writing, and explaining how the publishing industry works. Considering that this book is nearly 20 years old, the information about sci-fi markets and submission practices is outdated, but the advice about planning, research and story craft ring true.
Despite this, this book is not without its problems. The chapters earlier in the book on theory were much more engaging than the short stories or the ones discussing the element in practice. In particular, the chapter on character theory contained a piece of advice I found so revelatory that when I had a chance to talk to Ben Bova at Ad Astra early in April, I told him how much it meant to me, and how it gave me a completely new way to think about a character I was working on.
He was lovely in person, by the way – a complete gentleman.
The book’s biggest weakness is the stories that Bova includes to prove his points. I’m not quite sure what to think of them – the best way I can describe them is that they exhibit a simplicity and naïveté (especially the story of the young boy running away from home in the hopes that aliens can cure his leukemia, and yes, I am being totally serious here) that seems like it’s dialed straight from the 50s, post-war optimism intact. Considering Bova’s age and background, they probably were written then. But I can guarantee that if stories like those crossed my path in the slush pile, I wouldn’t give them a second chance.
Ultimately, The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a very handy reference book for speculative fiction writers of all stripes – perhaps I’m just too much of a black-hearted cynic to enjoy Bova’s fiction, even if his non-fiction is sound.