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7 An Experimental Talk After a decade of desultory SF convention going, during which time I’ve listened to a goodly number of SF writers give their guest-of-honor speeches, I’ve noticed that those speeches seem to be of three basic types. The first and by far most prevalent type is the, “There have been certain unfortunate, deviant, and pernicious trends in science fiction manifested of late, by and large by some of our newest and youngest writers, that are perverting the good, pure, true values of good, pure, true science fiction” speech. This talk ends with a reaffirmation of the values of good, pure, true science fiction: “Science fiction provides a sense of wonder. Science fiction is the literature of ideas. The purpose of science fiction is to entertain. Science fiction shows man triumphant in the universe.” Everybody applauds wildly and usually gives the speaker a standing ovation. And, if you’re me, you wonder, What’s with these twits? And you’re glad you don’t live under the sort of dictatorship that allows these guys actually to legislate against unfortunate, deviant, pernicious trends. The second type of SF convention guest-of-honor speech explains how critics are ruining science fiction, how criticism is the blackest of evils, and how too much analysis is bad for the field. I find it endlessly fascinating that the SF writer most closely associated with this particular speech is himself the author of a two-volume critique of the Bible and another two-volume critique of Shakespeare, and has edited and critically annotated an edition of Lord Byron’s comic epic Don Juan. When I casually mentioned this to him once, he immediately countered, “Well, I mean bad criticism, of course. That is, bad reviewing. I mean, bad book reviewing.” “Bad book reviewing is destroying science fiction?” I asked. “Well,” Dr. Asimov countered pensively, “it certainly is not helping.” Bad book reviewing does not help science fiction. Certainly no one could argue with that. But about good Dr. Asimov’s various convention 112 starboard wine speeches the most courteous remark we can make is, “That’s not what you said on the dais.” The third type of guest-of-honor speech begins with some variation of, “I am going to take this opportunity you have given me to talk, not about science fiction, but rather about . . .” ecology, elections, banking laws, the space program, ESP research, computer technology, the ERA, police brutality. . . . You name it, at one time or another we’ve heard it. Among this last group of speeches have been some of the most interesting . By and large, though, they do not get the standing ovations. However interesting they are, they tend to leave the audience feeling a bit uncomfortable. There is always a sense of mislocated occasion— sometimes even the suspicion that one has been treated to a display of marginal paranoia. In the decade-plus that I have been listening to various SF writers give their guest-of-honor speeches, the reputation has accrued to me of being something of an SF experimentalist—a reputation that, for better or worse, I am happy with. And as some of you may have noticed on your program, the title of this particular guest-of-honor speech is “An Experimental Talk.” Experimentation in narrative strikes me largely as a matter of, first, responding to your writing field—say, science fiction—with a certain complex gut reaction. Certain effects the field produces must honestly excite; certain other things about it must totally infuriate. But these two responses must both occur in some sort of coherent form during the encounter. That’s the first part of being an experimentalist. You have to have this double response to the field itself. Second comes a period of analysis, when you start to explore what really contributes to these various effects, both the pleasant and the unpleasant ones. Then you move on to what you would like to do in the midst of it all. In light of your analysis you begin the third stage, which may be, at this point, writing your SF novel. But this description makes something as rich and, finally, as mysterious to the writer as it is to the reader seem a rather schematic process that simply involves following a set of outlined rules. There is an element of the schematic in it. But then, even the most traditional SF novelists are always trying to do something new and original...


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