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Conceiving the Heavens:
Creating the Science Fiction Novel

Melissa Scott
Heinemann, 198 pages

Conceiving the Heavens
Melissa Scott
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Melissa Scott studied history at Harvard College and Brandeis University, where she earned her Ph.D. in the comparative history program. In 1986, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 1996 Lambda Literary Award for Gay/Lesbian Science Fiction for Shadow Man and the same award in 1995 for Trouble And Her Friends. She is one of the founders of WaveLengths, a review journal of gay/lesbian/bisexual/of interest science fiction and fantasy.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mark Shainblum

It's sometimes dangerous for a working writer to read a book like Melissa Scott's Conceiving the Heavens. Some writers, like Scott, treat the act of writing like a giant exercise in construction, building an edifice from the bottom up. Others, like... uhhh... me for example, tend to write more organically and instinctively. (Translation: By the seat of our pants, by the skin of our teeth, hoping for the best.)

When the act of writing is made explicit through exercises, techniques, tips and stratagems, I tend to get flustered. Remember that famous Peanuts comic strip several years ago when Lucy and Linus desperately tried not to think about their tongues? It's like that. (Try it. Don't think about your tongue, I dare you.)

I'm the first to admit that there are severe drawbacks to the seat-of-your-pants school of writing, and Scott makes them explicit in this excellent book. The author of over seventeen science fiction novels (including the recent Dreaming Metal and Night Sky Mine, both from Tor), she illustrates many of the traps neophyte SF writers often fall into when they don't properly conceptualize their work before starting. Unlike mainstream literature, science fiction demands a certain consistency and clarity of thought. If you posit a highly advanced culture with teleportation, are cities and houses necessary? Can the notion of privacy co-exist with psi abilities? How would societies with radically different notions of wealth conduct commerce? Would they conduct commerce?

Also important for the neophyte writer, Scott provides an excellent overview of the different sub-types of science fiction, from hard SF at one extreme to science fantasy at the other; and the tropes, styles, conventions and concepts which differentiate them. Though I have nothing against media-based SF franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars and Babylon 5, their massive media reach has caused widespread confusion between SF as a whole and the sub-genres of space opera and science fantasy in particular. Scott reminds her readers in Conceiving the Heavens that SF is still basically a literature of ideas. Starships, laser guns and hyperdrives are only tools of the science fiction writer, part of the backdrop and not the substance of the story itself.

This book is very much like a Clarion SF writing workshop on paper. Scott furnishes the basic toolbox of SF and teaches, not writing (which I personally do not believe can be taught except at the most basic, technical level) but the specific mindset necessary to write science fiction. It's a cliché of the field that if you can remove the science fiction elements from your story and still have a story, it's not science fiction, but there are many levels of science fictional and literary complexity beyond that. Though Scott's sections about the act of writing, finishing what you start and getting agented and published are extremely useful, in one sense you can get this kind of information in any general reference about writing. It's where Scott teaches you how to conceive new languages, dream whole new peoples and build entire worlds where this book really shines. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the whole book.

Copyright © 1998 by Mark Shainblum

Mark Shainblum is the co-editor of Arrowdreams: An Anthology Of Alternate Canadas (Nuage Editions, 1997) the first anthology of Canadian alternate history. A veteran of the comic book field, Mark co-created the 1980's Canadian superhero Northguard and currently writes the Canadian political parody series Angloman both in the form of a paperback book series and as a weekly comic strip in the Montreal Gazette. He lives in Montreal with his computer, his slippers and a motley collection of books.

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