Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

Does this plot seem familiar? In the far future, Earth has been enslaved by an alien race with invincible psionic ability. In course of time a mutant strain with similar ability develops in humanity but unhappily the aliens have a detector of psionic radiation and orders are given for the execution of the mutants. The human servants, at the cost of their own lives, disobey the order and send the young mutants off in a spaceship which eventually lands on a distant planet peopled by a kindly but backward race. The human mutants thrive, but eventually their increased psionic powers again register on the alien detection apparatus and an expedition is sent to exterminate them. They are concealed by their loyal protectors, but the aliens are able to transmit a ray which paralyses the human psionic functions. They live and multiply, but are no longer a threat until another race persecuted by the aliens seeks refuge on the same planet. They enter into a symbiotic relationship with the humans and are able to remove the psionic block; together the new allies reconquer Earth, and the backward race is rewarded. Well, of course, this is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the fact that nowadays it is quite an acceptable science fiction plot shows how vague the dividing line has become between science fiction and fantasy. Drawing this line has been a sort of game in the fan world for many years, the most recent attempt being in a scholarly and well-written survey by George Locke of imaginative novels published before the first world war, and it reminds me of nothing so much as the children's party game where you are blindfolded and told to pin the tail on a drawing of a donkey. It's difficult to do, and you haven't got much when you've finished.

However, making the attempt on present-day science fiction does elicit one interesting fact, that much of to-day's science fiction isn't science fiction at all, but fairy stories in which charms, spells and magic have been replaced by pseudo-scientific gobbledygook about spacewarps, forcefields and psionics. I like a good fairy story as well as anyone, but I'd like some real science fiction too, with some of the thrill and achievement of real scientific discovery in it. They say this is what Russian science fiction aims at, and if so there might be a lesson for us there. The trouble, of course, is that too few of our authors have any intimate knowledge of scientific research and too few of our scientific workers have enough literary talent to produce the polished writing required to-day. It seems that more collaborations are indicated.

But even if young man with thrilling scientific idea meets young man with writing ability, there is still the problem of combining their properties into a story. This process seems to be a mystery to most people, judging from the fact that the question authors are most often asked is "How on earth do you think of your plots?" Well, I'll tell you it's just a trick, an attitude of mind, and anybody can acquire it. I've been present at the conception of dozens of stories and, all you need is a couple of friends with lively minds. If you're cornpletely stuck just visualise a situation, any situation, and kick the components around. Twist them, invert them, extrapolate them or turn them inside out. I remember one afternoon James White, Bob Shaw and I just for fun took the simplest situation we could think of, a man sitting on a rock, and by asking ourselves questions about it—what was he waiting for, how long had he been there, was the rock really a rock or could it be alive ("Boy meets rock"), why that rock and so on—we had five separate plots after a couple of hours, two of which eventually sold. Of course it's even easier if you've got even the smallest original idea. Once you acquire the habit, you can see a whole story in the slightest thing. For instance, Eric Frank Russell told me he got, a plot for a detective story through not being able to close the boot on his car. It was about a man who carried out a carefully planned murder and carried the body in a trunk in the boot of his car to bury the lot in the woods. He stopped for petrol on the way and the garage attendant, noticing that the rear numberplate couldn't be seen because the boot wouldn't close down, thoughtfully chalked the car number on the trunk. Then I remember once I was coming home from work when I noticed that all the little girls seemed to have started playing with curious little three-dimensional crosses called jacks. I asked at a shop for some for my own daughter and they told me the factory was working overtime, unable to meet the sudden demand. It occurred to me to wonder who told children all to start playing the same game at the same time the way they do. Ken Bulmer was staying with me at the time and we worked out a story about aliens who were stranded on Earth because a small but delicately machined part was broken in their spaceship drive. Their problem is to get this part made without revealing themselves to agents of another race who are on Earth looking for them. They solve it by inventing a children's game the rules of which are carefully calculated to ensure that maximum mass production efficiency will produce a toy with the properties they want, so all they have to do is buy one in a shop. And that explains why in a recent story a part of an alien spaceship happened to be called a Wyllys.

from Nebula No. 38, January 1959

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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