This is "a three-level attempt to come to some understanding of what science fiction is and how one goes about creating it, and to convey some of that understanding to others," as Robert Silverberg sets his goals in the book's first paragraph. Overall, it's a unique and successful work.
We all know there is a special SF "feel," and Silverberg selects the 13 stories of this volume to elicit and inspect that mysterious essence. I was struck by how much he is a hard-core SF reader: "I can go to John Updike for style, to Faulkner for character, to Dostoevsky for plot, to Thomas Mann for ideas. To Graham Greene for pace . . . but not one of them can deliver those moments of visionary power that science fiction has brought me. . . ."
This prefaces remarks about Jack Vance's "The New Prime," a refurbished title for the marvelously pulpy 1951 story, "Brain of the Galaxy." It's a marvel of compression, giving you six plotty lumps that converge to a clipped, surprising finish. I can easily see the 15-year-old Silverberg thrilling to the sweep and heady power of this yarn, yearning to learn its lessons. He did; devotion to Vance's unique manner of conjuring up arcane yet recognizable strangeness informed much of the Majipoor series. This enables him to set forth Vance's strategies, taking us through the way the story was set up and showing why it works.
He's even better with lesser work. Instead of picking a famous Henry Kuttner story, he selects "Home Is the Hunter" from a 1953 Galaxy, when Silverberg was reaching "marginal professional quality as a writer." The story seems dated now, its methods stiff and at times transparent, yet it does have power. Students of SF short-story writing can study Silverberg's following essay for useful digressions on the dangers of first-person point of view, risky variant forms (as in this story, where "the protagonist pretends to be addressing himself"), the extreme constraints of stories under 4,000 words and detailed ruminations on the choices Kuttner had to make throughout. If you've ever wondered how much has to go into structuring, this essay and several others will be a revelation. Thank God, most of this labor is done by the subconscious. Otherwise, the astonishing records of profligate writers like Philip Dick (28 magazine stories in 1953) and Bob Sheckley (24 in that year) would be beyond comprehension.
Wonder and narrative speed captivated the young Silverberg, and seem to still. Even so, his repute as a stylist is foreshadowed by his reverence for C. L. Moore's "No Woman Born" from a 1944 "Astounding," whichhas a wholeness and smooth surface that seems quite current. Silverberg uses this to sound out the constraints that make SF writing unique: "The speculative premise, if it's developed with real rigor, is apt to crowd out characterization. Conversely, to delve deep into the souls of a story's characters may cut into the space available for the exposition of the premise, or . . . some reduction of subplot development." Along the way, he explores what action actually is in a story, the trade-offs of style and atmosphere, flaws and Homeric nods, and the crucial hidden fulcra of the plot.
His autobiographical opening essay allows him to nostalgically invoke his own ineptitude, while giving tips on what shaped his awareness of what fiction can do. A lengthy discourse on Kitto's "Greek Tragedy" gives forth an interesting thesis on finding the true dramatic center of any work. There is much ironic contrast, as he relates his scholarly pursuits of literature at Columbia University and simultaneous rejection by the lowest pulp markets. He even quotes in full some embarrassing rejection slips from H. L. Gold (" . . . appalling glibness . . . invariably taking the easiest way out . . .). I smiled at these, for vast ambition often does go along with abysmal ineptitude, in a literature that so moves adolescents. And because I got quite similar Dutch uncle letters from Silverberg when I started; such are our common roots.