Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl

“The thing about science fiction is that we don’t write about THE future. Every story is about a possible future, exploring the things that MAY happen fifty, a hundred or a thousand years from now. I think the world described in Man Plus is possible, but if some events go one way rather than another we may be, equally possibly, stuck with the world written about in All the Lives He Led.”

—Frederik Pohl

Quoted in an interview with Fred and Betty at that we haven’t linked before.



By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

According to AAUW, since the 1990s, a hot topic in the field of college-level feminist/gender studies is dealing with gender-specific pronouns when discussing unknown persons. (Feminists don’t all read SF, so they might not realize that Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue addressed the situation from a linguist’s perspective in the previous decade.)

Pronoun/antecedent agreement is a perplexing grammatical problem that I’ve dealt with since I began teaching freshman composition at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1960s.

Loyola being a Jesuit university, you might well understand the conservative emphasis on grammar in assessing writing and assigning grades. In fact, the grading guidelines given us teaching assistants stipulated that a paper with too many mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the conventions of Standard English — what we called basic skills — should be penalized in grading or even failed altogether, no matter how well that essay succeeded in other ways, such as organization, soundness of facts/research, clarity of thought, freshness of language, delightful sense of humor or other signs of original creativity, logical reasoning, and general effectiveness.

One cardinal sin of grammar was violating the principle that pronouns should agree in person and number with their antecedents and referents.

Mind you, it wasn’t a new problem then, either. A bit of history: this was one of the reasons that classes in English composition, usually known as 101 and 102 and sometimes called “bonehead English,” were introduced after World War II. Prior to that, professors could usually assume that only well-prepared students were admitted to colleges and universities (and legacies, of course, the sons of alumni, men who were happy with a “gentleman’s C”). From the late 1940s onward, however, GIs returning with their education benefits were enrolling in record numbers in pursuit of the American Dream

These were men (almost all were men) who, by and large, had never intended to go to college, but with the support of the grateful government and the encouragement of the American people, were willing to work hard and learn the proscriptive rules that prevailed in those early years. In hindsight, this may have been a large factor in the success of American enterprises in those years of the Greatest Generation.

Pluralizing the noun and using the plural pronouns will solve a lot of the agreement problems, but occasionally a singular noun seems essential for clarity, so I came up with my own solution, which allows the writer to be both grammatical and not seem forced. It’s simply to recast the sentence to avoid or eliminate the need for an antecedent. For example, instead of “Each applicant has to submit his own supporting documentation,” try “Each applicant must submit individual supporting documentation.”

Since English has many ways to phrase almost any idea, writers have the advantage over speakers in that they can reflect on both what they want to convey and how they choose to phrase the ideas. As true as it was in my youth and my first years of teaching, the mechanical aspects of writing are far less important than the other aspects of communication.

But it seems there will always be judgmental readers who are looking for reasons to reject the point the writer is trying to convey, and basic literacy skills are one easy way to eliminate those whose opinions we wish to ignore or discount. In my childhood, when someone rejected me, my mother always used to comfort me, “Consider the source.” But I still believe that it’s best not to alienate readers unnecessarily, and I will continue to try to avoid grammatical mistakes.

Spelling errors are another particularly easy way for those who disagree with us to reject what we have to say, because for the last several hundred years we have had standard spellings in dictionaries. Despite my tolerance for dyslexics, I admit I was comforted by fact that some young people are still trying to be correct in spelling in the age of texting.

In a record-setting regional contest of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, two outstanding students quickly eliminated the other competition and continued to spell word after word correctly. After they exhausted the list of over 60 words, local administrators requested that both children be allowed to advance to the national finals. But eventually the judges decided to continue the standoff, adding another 20-some more words, till seventh grader Kush Sharma finally beat fifth-grade Sophia Hoffman in an exciting match in Jackson County, Missouri. Let’s hope Sophia returns and tries again. The spirit of the Greatest Generation is not dead.

Chernobyl by Frederik Pohl


In 1987, I spent some weeks pushing my (then) new book, Chernobyl. It was an unusual tour mdash; only six states, but a total of four countries mdash; and even more hectic than most of its kind, partly because some of it took place in and around the famous Harmonic Convergence that year.

I’ve said from time to time that the main difference between science fiction, which is supposed to depict things which might actually happen, and reality, which is the sum of the things that do happen, is that reality is a lot less plausible than the author of even the trashiest imaginable science-fiction story would ever dare. I always like it when something I’ve said turns out to be true, so let’s take a look at that implausibility, the 16th of August of ’87, when six hundred thousand people are said to have saved the world by humming in unison.

Let’s start a little way back.

A decade or so before that, a more than ordinarily fuzzy-brained motion-picture producer got hold of a 1974 book called The Jupiter Effect. It went to his head. He decided that he wanted to make it as a feature film. Then, thinking creatively, he realized the book didn’t have any actual story in it that could be filmed, so he decided that he wanted a novel written from which the film could be adapted.

Then, for my sins, they came after me to write the novel.

The thesis of the “Jupiter Effect” was that on a date in the early summer of 1979, all the major planets would be in the same general direction from the Sun. The book said that this could really ruin your day, because the combined gravitational attraction of all those lopsided planets would disturb the core of the Sun. That would somehow accelerate its rate of nuclear fusion and so increase the Sun’s radiation. Then all hell would break loose on the Earth. Among other things, friction between the heated atmosphere and all those mountain tops in the Rockies and Cascades would trigger earthquakes.

As a result, the book said, Southern California would fall into the sea.

(I hope you’re paying enough attention to understand that I’m not describing the plot of a science-fiction story. This was supposed to be real. This interesting prediction didn’t come from somebody’s chance encounter with an alien saucerer from the planet Clarion, but from the work of a couple of — otherwise — pretty reliable physicists.)

So I went and took my meeting, as they say, with the prospective producers and publishers. They explained all this scientific stuff to me, and I knew at once what I had to do. (I have my standards, after all.) I said, “No way, José.”

I said the whole thing was preposterous and definitely was not going to happen; and besides, if they wanted to film that book, the way to do it was to buy the film rights from the authors of the book, and then hire a script writer get to work on a scenario and, above all, leave me alone.

I thought that would end it.

As a matter of fact, I didn’t really understand how this particularly nutty idea had got even that far. Still, I was wholly confident that at some point someone in the producing organization would come to his senses. When this happened they would surely realize, a) that they couldn’t possibly get a film written, cast, produced, cut and released in time for the alleged drowning of Los Angeles and, b) it was a lousy idea anyway. I thought that if I just said no that might end the matter right then. Or, anyway, if it didn’t, at least I’d be out of it.

In the second part of that I was wrong. They kept coming at me.

Continue reading ‘Peddling Books Through the Harmonic Convergence’ »

Gateway by Frederik Pohl


Q: “In your novel Gateway how much of the character Robinette Broadhead is autobiographical and how much is therapeutic?”

A: Well, in a sense every character in every story I ever wrote is autobiographical. That is, every character is basically what I think I would care about, do, and wish for if I were that creature, with that creature’s makeup and history.

That’s not hard for me to do when the character is human, like Robinette. I know what kind of a world he lives in, that he’s been raised by his mother (autobiographical? maybe), what his hopes are for the future (not much, until the chance to go to Gateway comes along for him) and so on, and I can pretty much imagine what my feelings would be like if those things were true of me.

When the character isn’t human, and sometimes isn’t even organic, like Wan-To in The World at the End of Time, it’s harder. Wan To is a ball of energy living in the core of a star. But still he has feelings — like self-survival, maybe jealousy, probably vanity, probably curiosity and so on — enough to make him a character instead of a prop.

(That’s a distinction all we sf writers owe to Stanley G. Weinbaum. Almost every alien creature in every science-fiction story written before the creature named Tweel in his “A Martian Odysseyin 1934, from H.G. Wells’s invading Martians on, was a prop. Only Weinbaum’s Tweel was a character.)

At least I think that’s about what I would be like if I happened to be a ball of radiant energy instead of a human being.


By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

An important shibboleth of literacy when I was much younger was whether people could properly use, spell, and punctuate the common words to, two, and too. Likewise there, their and they’re, and it’s and its, and dozens of other often confused sets of words.

While a colleague and I were judging advanced-placement credit writing samples, she commented on how damaging spelling mistakes could be to the success of a short piece of writing, the kind on which we were making decisions of whether a student received credit and passed or faced the frustration of failure.

I’m very lucky that spelling always came very easily to me as a child, but I soon realized that it’s not the most important part of writing. That is, it’s necessary but not sufficient to achieve success.

A casual reader of a correctly spelled essay written in standard English grammar with conventional punctuation rarely notices its mechanical perfection. It’s the flaws that grab attention. We notice mistakes even more when we’re looking for a reason to reject what a writer is trying to say — when we dislike or don’t believe the point being made.

There are other ways to go wrong, of course, but to write effectively, you need to do a great many things right. Why distract your reader from your point with needless stumbling blocks to communication? Not everyone will agree with your point, even if you do such things perfectly and reason clearly and provide supporting evidence, but why make it harder to understand what that point is?

Yet I doubt that there’s a foolproof rule that governs the grammar of English that doesn’t have an exception. Wouldn’t people be better off if we could understand what our opponents really meant, in spite of the lame way they said it?

I was making elevator conversation with a stranger the other day on the to, too, two confusion, and my fellow person-on-the-way-to the-fourth-floor mentioned that the debate brought up tutus in her mind, because she taught ballet. Context matters.

How do we ever expect mere human beings to understand one another well enough to reach solutions to the problems facing our nation and our planet, such as how to solve the health-care situation in the U.S. or what can we do to mitigate the damage scientists predict global warming will produce?

The History of Engiish in 10 Minutes by the Open University

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

I love the English language, one of the truly great ones in the world. It’s not spoken by as many people as Mandarin Chinese or Spanish, but more students worldwide are learning English as a foreign language than any other language today.

English is the language of aviation and most scientific papers as well as a lot of business purposes. Europe loves English too, as a lingua franca that puts all those for whom it is their second language on an even playing field. It is rich with great literature — drama, poetry, fiction, and essays.

I love words: vulgar ones (you know one when you see or hear it), precise ones (and especially just the right word for the moment, whether it comforts or disturbs your audience), vague ones, especially those used to create the atmosphere and tone of fiction (misty, dour, wretched, jolly), short ones that sound Anglo-Saxon whether they are or not, and long ones (that make a person stumble trying to pronounce them and usually feel a little bit Latinate, linking the languages of the Indo-European family). It’s a tool for communicating, and for obscuring meaning as well.

Language in general is what separates Homo sapiens from other species with whom we share Planet Earth, isn’t it?