So you want to be a science fiction writer

So You Want to Be a Science-Fiction Writer?

Élisabeth Vonarburg


This was written in last decade of the last century, and although I stand by it, some of the details referring to the “present situation” of the text have changed, especially in the French SF and Quebecois SF publishing industry and readership. The homegrown, er, writership is somewhat coming into its own, both in France and in Quebec – relatively. Even though, following the general trend, what is “in” nowadays (2008) in France and in Quebec is the New Space Opera on one hand, and the various flavours of Fantasy on the other.

It is a rather strange experience for a European to write Science-Fiction. It’s even stranger to write SF and not do it in English: for modern SF, in spite of the rich traditions which exist at least in two European countries (England and France), is now for better and for worse an American phenomenon. Therefore I invite you, English-speaking readers and writers of SF, to a thought experiment in strangeness, perhaps even in alienness.

I cannot and will try not to speak for my friends and colleagues in France or in Québec, but only for myself, since each writer is unique. Also, I believe that being a writer, and a writer of SF, is a situation heavily dependent on initial conditions: how old you are when you first discover SF, for instance, which bears on what kind of texts are available to you.

I was born in 1947, in France, and lived there until I was 23, more or less in the country even if I went to the university in Dijon, which is the capital of Burgundy and not a small city (what I mean is, I never lived in Paris, which is where Things are supposed to Happen in France, as everybody knows.) Now, my memory tells me that I never saw or heard the word «science fiction» before I was sixteen. But my memory must be wrong because I read a reasonable quantity of comic books and children magazines, and there was a lot of SF in them. But the fact is, it never registered as SF: I had no frame of reference for it, and somehow it was not different in my mind from the fantastic stories I had been reading since I was very small – myths, folk-tales, legends from all over the world.

I was an avid reader, and not a choosy one — a familiar pattern, I won’t dwell on it. I fit right in with the classical studies I was enrolled in at eleven: I already knew a lot of those writers, and those I didn’t know I gobbled up like candy. It was great. These writers and thinkers meant something to me, not as school subjects but as persons who could teach me, who were talking to me from beyond space and time. But as High School progressed and we came to the modern times, I began to feel uneasy. Things were happening out there (it was the beginning of the Sixties), but most modern writers didn’t seem to have noticed, or to have anything relevant to say regarding these developments. Their main formative experiences were in the past — granted, the Second World War constituted quite a lesson in «modernity», a lesson which took time to assimilate. But somehow I needed something more than their past. In fact, what I increasingly needed was a way out of a cage which had slowly been built around me by what I had been taught more or less subliminally during my whole life — especially since I was a girl: «Things are what they are, they’re always been that way, they will always be that way».

Somehow, I didn’t relish the prospect.

I was reading more philosophy than fiction, by that time, without finding much there to rely on either. But then I came upon a book titled The Dawn of the Magicians (Le Matin des Magiciens, in French), by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. And the cage opened up. I haven’t reread the book for at least thirty years, but as I remember it, mostly it was talking about every field of modern human knowledge — and to understand what an eye and mind opener that could be, you must realize that we were not taught much about relativity, quantum physics, or alternate ways of looking at History: the time lag between current and… respectable science was quite large. But what I really remember is a general message saying (to me, at least): «The universe is a much bigger, stranger and more marvellous place than you’ve been told, challenge everything you know in order to change the way you see it.» And they were actually showing how some people did just that: Borges, Bradbury, Buchan, Campbell, Clarke, De Broglie, De Vries, Einstein, Flammarion, Fort, Gurdjieff, Haldane, Hoyle, Lewis, Lovecraft, Machen, Merrit, Miller, Shiel, Sprague de Camp, Temple Bell… Yes, it was quite a jumble, but I didn’t know any of these people (well, Einstein, of course): there was a whole world out there, which I had been told nothing about, and which was about Mutants, Change, a New Conception of Reality and Mind… WOW.

I immediately began ransacking every library and bookstore in sight to find more from these people, especially science fiction writers — soon becoming a loved regular at my local used-books bookstores! Since it was the mid-Sixties by then, my «initial conditions» were quite good: there was a very healthy and active SF milieu in France at that time, which I didn’t know and didn’t care anything about but who published at least two monthly magazines, Fiction (mostly stories from F&SF),             Galaxie (stories from Galaxy) and one or two anthologies a year; there was also the «Présence du Futur» series published by Denoël, which covered as much «fantastic» literature as SF, from American and English writers and a few French writers in between; it had published a respectable enough number of books by the time I became aware of their existence. And there was also another, more popular series, «Anticipation /Fleuve Noir», whose real originality was (and still is) that it published a majority of French writers — a few of them under American-sounding pseudonyms, but what the heck. And of course, as soon as the libraries and bookstores resources began to dry out, I went hunting for English originals.

So, to summarize, my initial conditions: (a) I had read and went on reading a lot of things other than SF, including fantastic and esoteric literature, philosophy and scientific essays; (b) my first contact with SF covered an adequately broad spectrum of texts and authors from the Forties, Fifties and beginning of the Sixties (and a few Thirties stragglers), (c) including some very good French ones; (d) I was not limited to translations and thus was aware that writers of SF were writers (well, some of them anyway), and not merely people with wonderfully wacky ideas. Last but not least, (e) even if I was not part of it, there was a lively and intelligent French SF milieu, mainly expressing itself in the pages of Fiction at the time, and whose members had original and thought-provoking ideas about SF, life, the universe and everything. All of which means that when I first began writing SF, at eighteen, I felt energized, not crushed, by the American tradition(s), I felt buoyed, not embarrassed, by the French one(s), and I never thought once that literature and SF were two distinct categories.

Of course, a lot of my energy came from sheer ignorance, the blessing of youth — and also from the fact that I was not trying to write SF with any «career» in mind, not even that of a writer. After trying my hand at poetry for a long time, and after a short-lived and frustrating attempt at «realistic» fiction, I had just found the ideal medium to express both my wonder at the universe (which I had been unsatisfactorily trying to do with poetry), and also to ask all the questions I had to ask as to my place in relation to the universe, to my fellow beings, and to myself — not only asking questions, but also getting to imagine my very own possible answers, as fictions! (Later, I would realize that it was also the ideal medium for me as a woman, but at eighteen, in the French countryside of the mid-Sixties, which was not exactly at the cutting edge of social revolution, my feminist consciousness was still lying low.) Although I said I would only speak for myself, I must try to make you understand how the situation may be different today for young francophone writers (never mind young female francophone writers!) It’s rather difficult not to feel crushed to insignificance, for instance, when 99% of all SF published in French are translations from the American. It’s difficult not to be embarrassed when most of what is left of French SF today is either derivative or so different from what can be abundantly found on the shelves under the label «SF» as to being hardly recognizable by readers as such (considering the prevalence of a certain type of American model, the Asimov/Clarke/Van Vogt/Heinlein connection). There are of course a very few glowing exceptions. But this very small percentage of the 1% left to French SF goes all but unnoticed by the mass readership…

Last but not least, as far as I am concerned, it may be very difficult for young would-be French writers to think of SF as a valid literary endeavor today, since they usually don’t read American SF in the original language, and all they have to rely on are translations. Now, I don’t want to disparage the work of my fellow translators — I have translated a dozen of SF books myself, and I know my translations are far from perfect. But I am also very much aware of the conditions in which those translations are done: for people who (sometimes) like SF, but whose main concern is the bottom line, by people who often are not (or were not, the last time I checked) professional translators, nor even literary translators, and who work for peanuts — so that if they want to make a living out of it, they have to translate a lot of books; they don’t have time to polish a translation, and besides, some editors demand that they «keep it short», having an eye on production costs. This is not exactly conductive to high literary standards, and I must say that until I read Sturgeon, Ballard Disch, Delany or Le Guin in English, I was not really aware that they were writers

This has another subtle deleterious effect on young French writers, since the steady deterioration of writing skills has been taking place in France as well as in all the rest of the Western world. The old axiom «as you read, so you write» is still true. As to SF, they read not altogether good translations of a foreign language — and they tend to write what I call «translation French», a somewhat broken and lexically limited version of French that makes me shudder each time I come upon it in beginners’ texts. (And if this happens to young French would-be SF writers, just imagine what may happen to young Québécois, whose relationship with the French language is still quite problematic sometimes!)

But I was lucky. Not only did I have a solid cultural and literary background, I also had parents who did not frown upon my straying enthusiasms. Perhaps because they were not the typical French bourgeois, having lived for a long time in the colonies (North-Africa and Indochina), and being both somewhat déclassés afterwards. My father became an engineer in the French Army from 1918 to 1950, building road, bridges, railway tracks all over the Empire, and a little bit of the infamous Maginot Line; my mother became a pharmacist during WWII, (and I am not talking drug-store owner here, but old-fashioned pharmacist, one-third biologist, one-third chemist and one-third physician). I don’t know if that makes them, or me, part of the specific techno-class described by Gérard Klein as the one expressing its dreams of power through SF after WWII. I’m not sure how it applies to girls. As a girl, I was supposed to go into the Humanities, and I did, but nevertheless, my parents never discouraged my interests in things not literary, bless their souls.

And so here I am today, a woman writing science fiction. In French. In the francophone Province of Québec, Canada. And I am now acutely aware of how problematic that is. Because I have been reading American and British SF even more extensively. Because I have been talking with a lot of American and British writers and readers. And because I have been closely associated with the birth and life of the Québécois SF milieu, which gives me yet another view from outside. From outside American SF, I mean, beside the French-from-France point of view. Because, you see, when you are not an American SF writer, and not a native English-speaker writing SF, all you can do is write either with or against the American & British SF traditions — what you know of them. You have no real place of your own, no real tradition of your own from which to write SF (well, some of us older geezers do know our French and European SF tradition, thanks to Pierre Versins and his Encyclopedia; but I doubt whether the younger writers do). You have to build — darn, you have to be your own SF tradition! Which may give rise to some serious identity problems.

I remember the first time I realized how different the American approach to SF could be, compared to that of the rest of the world (and especially mine). It was at a SF convention in Vancouver, I believe, during a panel on the hallowed subject «What is a professional SF writer?». Fred Pohl was on that panel. I was in the audience. And I listened to an all-American panel expound upon advances, number of copies, agents, quantity of output… all the while fidgeting in my chair, scandalized — but silent. I thought of myself as a «professional writer», you see, but my definition was quite different: a professional writer is someone who has organized her or his life in order to write, period. And of course, I realize now that the material aspect of the «profession» is very important, if only because it allows one to have enough time to write, indeed! But at the time, what suddenly struck me was the idea that for an American, or at least a native English-speaker, the prospect of making money with SF, of «having a career» writing SF, was not totally absurd. Whereas for me, a French woman living and writing in Québec, it was. I had already published two books in France at that time, and I just knew that I would never make a living writing SF, had never even expected to. All I could hope for was being able to indulge in my hobby while supporting myself through the odd teaching job or the odd translation. Now, of course I know that it’s the same for many American SF writers. But I am talking perception of possibilities here, expectations, the fact that American SF writers have actual role models, and real opportunities. The idea of «making it» in the American market had never crossed my mind: to begin with, there was the language barrier, the translation hurdle, the most obvious one, and I just didn’t know how I could possibly overcome that.

Then something unexpected happened to me on my way to getting on with my hobby. One day someone called me on the phone, and it was a Canadian translator. She had been asked to choose what she would translate for a forthcoming Canadian anthology of short fiction (not necessarily SF), and liking what I did, she wanted to translate it. Might she?

Be my guest, I replied, very happy but not unduly hopeful. Even though this lady was, I could soon tell, a very good translator, it would come to nothing. It was a fluke, a one shot.

And then, somehow, things snowballed in the most unexpected way. There was the first Tesseracts anthology dedicated to Canadian SF, edited by Judith Merril, and she accepted one of my stories for it. «Do you have anything longer, a novel for instance?», asked the publisher of the Tesseracts anthology. I had, the novel published in France. They liked it, and published it. And it also got published in England. Meanwhile, several other stories had been translated and published in Canada. And suddenly, out of the blue, another phone call two years ago, and I found myself with an American agent and a three books contract with an American publisher.

But I still thought, it’s a fluke. I still thought, still think, «nothing much will come of it». Because you see, even when you are a published author, a reasonably well-known author in your own language and culture, even when you’ve had some works translated and appreciated in English, the hard part has just begun: dealing with the lifelong, unacknowledged inferiority complex you have as a non-American SF writer. Because all this time, somehow, you have been trespassing (and think, being a woman, too!) Because all this time, you’ve been playing with somebody else’s toys. Because, in a word, you don’t own SF.

Now, I’m not saying that Americans really, actually, own SF. That would be absurd (a lot of questions immediately come to mind: «Which SF?» and «Which Americans?», for instance!) I only mean to say that, to a lot of American readers, writers, editors, publishers, critics, readers, SF is American SF — or at least SF published in English in the States.

Now that can be deceptive. «SF in English» doesn’t mean only «SF written in English», but also «SF based on the Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions», which by definition no non-American, and especially no non-native English-speaker can tackle. We — I — come from a different culture expressed in a different language, with different givens and different expectations. This is a problem similar to that described by Mr. Wu in the previous issue of Monad — perhaps aggravated by the fact that I don’t live in the States and don’t write directly in English (and my translator is a Canadian!). It has a lot of consequences, from one end of the bargain (what I write) to the other (selling what I write), which I am not sure I have fully understood yet.

I am not worried about what I write — my position is still «I write what I need to write, then I’ll worry about the market». What… interests me is the way it may be received. In my various dealings with American editors in the last ten years, (and talking with some of my francophone friends about their dealings with American editors), I have become aware of a pattern — and I am not talking about the «insularity» of American SF editors, their real or imagined reluctance to consider non-American SF writers simply on «protectionist» grounds (or because, having so many good stories already in English, why should they bother?) No, what I am talking about is, again, different sets of givens & expectations, which translate into different literary criteria. When an American editor and a French editor both profer the well-known «I don’t care what (gender, race, nationality, take your pick) a writer is, I will publish anything that is good», «good» doesn’t have the same meaning for both (all individual idiosyncrasies set aside). I, and other French colleagues, have been told, for instance: «I can’t stand the first person/present tense», (a stylistic approach which is so common in France — not «artsy» at all — that nobody ever remarks on it). And, more seriously: «Not enough action (or plot)», or «This story is such a downer!» Combined with what some French editors are heard saying, and with what the French readership is saying with its purse (buying American SF in bulk and more or less ignoring French SF), it can be conducive to very serious and painful soul-searching on the part of francophone SF writers crazy enough to think of being published in the States…

And also, deeper than all that I have mentioned above, there is the diffuse but nagging question of one’s whole culture’s relationship to science and technology — which may well be why Americans think that «SF is American as apple-pie». At the beginning of the century, science and technology were still a European thing. They’re not anymore — certainly not on the fantasmatic level, at least, which is the one I am concerned with here. The European empires based on European sciences and technology don’t exist anymore either. And that may be pretty hard to take. It does something to your sense of importance relatively to the universe. It does something to the way you envision the past, the present — and the future. (Now, when you’re a female SF writer, the effect is not quite the same; but this would detract from the main thrust of this essay). In short, you’re not the one with the big stick anymore, and although it may broaden your mind as to the plight of the underdogs (and has indeed done a lot for the renewal of SF in the Sixties, which I see as coming from England, a has-been Empire if there is one!), it is somewhat constraining when you want to imagine a brave new future, since you have difficulties imagining yourself (your culture, your society) as a prime mover in that future. For example, what if you are a young Québécois SF writer, descendant of French conquerors who have been conquered, living an uncertain francophone life in a predominantly English-speaking continent, and reading almost nothing but American SF? Well, you write stories about Captain John McSmith, born in New-York, commanding the Starship Counterprize and conquering the universe. Not one European aboard the ship, never mind a Québécois! And you don’t do this by choice, with a neat historical or something explanation for this absence, but by sheer (hysterical) blindness, simply because you cannot see Québécois in the stars: you’re not even sure what it is to be a Québécois now, then what could it be in the future!

And this is not the most extreme example of what it means to be French or generally European, or even more generally non-American, and to write SF (the British, Australians and such, have an even more ambiguous relationship with the whole shebang, deluded by the fact they speak English; and I won’t go into what it means to be an English- Canadian SF writer!). Mr. Wu said very pertinent things about what it is to write SF and not be a white Occidental…

Once again I have strayed from my promise of speaking only for myself. But there is a very good reason for that, as you may have realized by now. I am not sure how representative I am. For reasons pertaining to my initial conditions, I assume, my relationship with… non French-speaking SF has always been quite harmonious: I’m so in love with the Other that anything goes. I love Stanislas Lem, am curious of other SF from the ex-Soviet Empire, am endlessly fascinated by Japanese or Brasilian SF… But while very aware of the relativity of things American in SF, American SF is still what gives me my most enduring pleasures. Thus I have to ask myself something that I believe no American SF writer will ever have to (though female American writers may…): am I a traitor, somehow? Have I been acculturated? What must I make of the fact that I have been translated and published in Canada, England, the States, and that nobody at Bantam, for instance, has yet told me that my use of the present tense is annoying, or that I should do more or this or less of that? How do I go about explaining this to myself, since the «You are GOOD» theory is just too compromising for me to tackle, and the «Traitor Theory» does seem a bit farfetched? The «Fluke Theory» again? Or the «Right – Time – for – Exoticism – in – American – SF – Publishing Theory»? Or the «Opening – of – the – American – SF – Mind Theory», the wonderful possibility that perhaps, after all this time, American SF publishers, editors, critics, readers may be ready to welcome the Alien?

I like this one best, I must confess. I’ll go with it until proven wrong.