As science fiction enthusiasts go, I’m an amateur.
Sure, I’ve read classics like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and Neuromancer. I’ve watched Battlestar Galactica (from the 2000s). More recently, after reading Michelle Nijhuis’s review, I devoured and thoroughly enjoyed the prophetic Feed. And as a father, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about when to let my children see Star Wars. (Patience, young ones.) All that to say: I’m a fan of the genre, but I can’t, for example, tell you how many Doctors Who have driven the Tardis.
But thanks in large part to Jeff VanderMeer’s rich and terrific Wonderbook, I’ve seen that the genre’s practitioners have smart and useful things to say about writing. In this tome, award winning sci-fi writer VanderMeer has assembled the words and pictures of his colleagues and contemporaries to produce a roller coaster ride of a guide.
Wonderbook is unlike any other writing book on my shelf. It declares itself “the illustrated guide to creating imaginative fiction” which, let’s face it, is not my job. This book is aimed at aspiring world-builders who invent languages and warring alien civilizations. To be sure, the majority of the book only indirectly applies to science writing. But within Wonderbook, stuffed with essays, fun interviews and smart insights by dozens of writers, as well as writing exercises and links to online resources, I found helpful tips and solid advice.
On beginnings: “How and where you start your story is critical to the reader’s reaction, the effects you can achieve, and how successfully you reach that vision in your head.”
On details: “Specific and significant detail is the key to good description,” “Use all five senses to enrich your descriptive powers.” (Powers! We have powers!)
The tips are great, but the real wonder comes from its unorthodox presentation. Wonderbook’s illustrations—Jeremy Zerfoss did most of them—are out of this world. They surround and invade the text. They’re weird and wild, often disturbing, sometimes cryptic, and always provocative. They can be noisy and bothersome; other times, they’re tranquil and reassuring. They include detailed maps of the imagination, robotic anglerfish that represent story structure, and squidlike biomorphs with giant eyes. One illustration depicts Nabokov’s “The Leonardo” as moons orbiting a shadowy, rocky world. A graph depicting odd little faceless aliens bumping up and down along character trajectories is so effective that my seven-year-old son, who sneaks the book to devour the pictures, sometimes describes the twists and turns of his school days in terms of his narrative arc. (“Things took a turn for the worse when I had to go sit in the hall…”)
Flipping through this book is a reward in itself. VanderMeer intends the book to be more than a writing guide; he describes it as a “cabinet of curiosities” to guide and inspire writers.
And he succeeds. We science writers generally traffic in the real world, covering things that have happened and researchers who really do stuff. But in the end, we assemble stories from all the pieces we’ve gathered. That means choosing the order in which we present information, and deciding who will carry the story, and finding some way to engage our readers all the way to the very last word. (And all that comes before revision.) Which basically describes the job of a writer of any stripe.
VanderMeer’s outlook on craft is fresh and invigorating, and I’m happy to have gone along for the ride. “Descartes was wrong,” he writes in the second chapter, The Ecosystem of Story. “The world is more like a living creature than a machine—and so, too, are stories.”