The Craft of Science Fiction

Thursday, November 16
5-7 pm
Bartos Theater


Readings and conversation with MIT writing professor Joe Haldeman, four-time Nebula Award winner, and author of The Forever War and many other books.

This forum is moderated by CMS Co-Director Henry Jenkins.


A podcast of The Craft of Science Fiction is now available from MIT World .


A webcast of The Craft of Science Fiction is now available from MIT World .


By Greg Peverill-Conti and Marie Thibault

[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman began by reading excerpts from his forthcoming novel, The Accidental Time Machine, a speculative story played out in and around MIT. This is ironic, he said, because he urges his students to avoid setting their stories at MIT. The plot, as in many Haldeman stories, involves time travel, leaping across eras that include the founding of MIT as well as a distant future in which the Institute has been transformed into the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy.

Henry Jenkins began their conversation by asking about the story's representation of MIT. Haldeman said he enjoyed the opportunity to research and think about the history of MIT. Even at the start, he found, it was very forward-looking – yet cautious of the conservative sensibilities of the era. Toward the end of The Accidental Time Machine the protagonist finds himself on that early campus as a man with no history who knows (but won't reveal) the future. He becomes a physics professor who has the special ability to explain everything clearly and thoroughly. Haldeman enjoyed the opportunity to explore the sociological issues presented by this scenario.

The conversation next turned to an interesting feature of speculative fiction: not only are the stories about science, they are also about the people that do science - and how and why they do what they do. Haldeman, who has been around scientists since he was an undergraduate student, believes they are misrepresented in fiction as either a crazy person or a genius. As a result, he has tried to make his scientists realistic and bases them loosely on real individuals he has known.

When explaining the fate of one character, a professor who is the protagonist's mentor and advisor, Haldeman laughed that, "A great thing about being a novelist is that anybody who's ever done anything bad to you, you can get back at them sooner or later."

In the early days of science fiction, Jenkins noted, the protagonist was often a lone tinkerer or inventor. Now the scientist is represented in a corporate environment or research institution. He wondered how this change has altered the types of stories that science fiction can tell. Haldeman suggested that one needs to rethink the satisfaction of science. One of the reasons he left science was the realization that he wouldn't ever be that lone hero of astrophysics and that his attraction to science was "aesthetic rather than intellectual."

The work of doing science, he continued, requires tremendous intellectual discipline – without the satisfaction of being able explain or share what you do with anyone not intimately familiar with your specific field. If you want to write a realistic science fiction story, you need to those at the leading edge of science have or find the time to learn about much outside of their field. This led him to quip on the value of a student's time at MIT: "We hope that in four years here we can make them civilized, but I don't know."

It struck Jenkins that the protagonist in Haldeman's story was a hybrid of the singular and corporate scientist. Haldeman explained that the character was modeled on an MIT student that he'd never met (but whom he'd heard about). He was pursuing his Masters but avoided getting his degree, instead working with his hands making incredible machines - a sort of “garage mechanic for science.” Haldeman chose not to focus wholly on the student so that the emphasis could remain on the time machine.

Haldeman is most closely associated with hard science fiction, but Jenkins raised the fact that time travel stories have had an historically odd relationship with the genre. According to Haldeman, this is because no one has ever demonstrated time travel. Despite this, they are a part of the hard science fiction category; unlike, for example, werewolf stories, which, although people have exhibited werewolf-like behavior, are part of the fantasy genre. This is probably due to the fact that time machines are machines and that the possibility of time travel has been posited with support from higher mathematical concepts. These concepts, however, are not anything that laymen (or Haldeman for that matter) could understand.

One of the practical uses for hard science fiction – going back to Hugo Gernsback (one of the pioneers of the genre) – is as a means for popularizing science and educating general readers. Gernsback believed that there should be a literary form to make scientific ideas accessible to ordinary people. He went so far as to consider printing all of the scientific facts in his stories in italics (in order to draw attention to them), but he soon realized that there was a value in the speculative aspect of science fiction.

Gernsback was an interesting figure, Haldeman said, because he believed that the only value of science fiction was in turning young people into scientists or engineers. Unfortunately, Gernsback couldn't tell good writing from bad; which demonstrates the paradox that something can be good science fiction but terrible writing. "The thing about science fiction,” explained Haldeman, “is that it's a form of writing; but it's also a way of looking at things, it's a mode of thought."

The old stuff can be ugly stuff, continued Haldeman, lamenting that some of it was virtually unreadable for him now. But the ideation of these stories was often very good – so good that some of these ideas played a role in the Allied victory in World War II (the scientists making radar and the atomic bomb were science fiction fans, but then again, so were their counterparts building the V1 and V2 rockets).

Jenkins next asked Haldeman to share some of his memories of some of the pioneers of science fiction. He talked about Jack Williamson (who died only a few days before the Forum) and Edmund Hamilton. Williamson and Hamilton traveled down the Mississippi together in the 1920s and Haldeman wondered aloud about the conversations they must have had. Hamilton had a huge imagination, he said, and Williamson was one of a kind. Haldeman told of visiting Williamson at his home in New Mexico and of a conversation they had about gravitational lensing in globular clusters and its implications for planetary formation. "Jack knew exactly what I was talking about. We'd read the same articles – he was a science fiction writer. There are a lot of people writing SF now that wouldn't know a carbonaceous chondrite asteroid from their ass."

This led into a discussion of the science fiction writer as a consumer of scientific research. Haldeman felt that it isn't so much reading the research as it is observation. He explained that some of his story ideas come from magazines like and Scientific American and New Scientist . He described his efforts at imagining a new kind of alien and how he was inspired by plastination exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science to consider a life form that exists on a radically different timescale than our own.

Joe Haldeman and Henry Jenkins

Haldeman recently wrote a piece for the Comparative Media Studies newsletter about the mission of science fiction in a time when science itself is under attack and Jenkins asked that he share that vision. "Religion is out of hand on a lot of different levels,” Haldeman said, “and science fiction is a tool against religion. Science fiction is a tool for rationalism. Science fiction is like a flight simulator where you can try things out without dying."

To him, Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth provided something of an example of this last idea. For Haldeman, the movie was like 1930s science fiction – Gore is not a scientist but just someone who "gets it" and who is doing what Gernsback thought people should do: "It was a kind of an interesting injection of an old-fashioned science fiction tool."

The discussion had been focused on the scientific part of science fiction, but now things turned to the literary issues. Jenkins brought up the complaint that science fiction often lacks strong characterization and other literary niceties. Haldeman pointed out that most of his fiction is character-based because he writes things that he would like to read. He believes that the best science fiction needs to do a good job on both the science and the fiction. " I get so bored with these cardboard characters,” he explained, “going through and essentially giving a lesson."

Jenkins asked Haldeman to talk about what he has learned from other writers -- and particularly Hemingway, of whom he is a big fan. Ironically, Hemingway hated science fiction, Haldeman said. That being the case, Haldeman believes that all writers should be fascinated with another writer to help them develop a filter.

"It's like in optics,” he said, “you can have limited band pass filters, it can tell you a lot about something that you're looking at. You get a hydrogen three filter and look at a cloud of gas out in the middle of the constellation Cygnus and you see a thing that nobody could see without the filter. And then you take the filter away and see what everybody else is seeing." When he reads something more florid like Faulkner, Haldeman is able to apply his Hemingway limited band pass filter to imagine how Hemingway would have written the passage. "The thing that makes reading and writing infinitely fascinating,” he said, “is this idea that everybody brings his own set of filters to every situation."

Haldeman went on to relate an experience that helped him to understand filters and point of view. When he was in the fifth grade, he read a 3-D comic book that involved the retelling of a single event (a shooting in an old Western saloon) by several different people. When he finished the comic, he understood that there were billions of ways to tell every story.

Given Haldeman's role as teacher of writing at MIT, Jenkins wondered about the challenges of getting scientists to write science fiction. The first issue Haldeman raised was their timidity – the fact that fledgling scientists tend to be cautious and wary of making mistakes with the actual science in the story. Another issue is that at MIT, the people taking the course don't want to be writers and so sometimes they are not terribly concerned with things like style or the quality of their writing.

Jenkins wondered if writing science fiction provides a generative space for scientists where they could explore new ideas. Haldeman did not think of science fiction this way (despite describing it as a flight simulator earlier in the evening, where ideas could be safely tested and considered). Most students arriving at MIT, he believes, have already formed their thinking and ideas about science and science fiction. If they have not read science fiction they have at least seen its themes in the movies or on television. In either case, most of the students Haldeman works with are already open-minded when it comes to science.

The conversation next moved to the theme of war, how it is portrayed in fiction, and how Haldeman as both a writer and a veteran has approached the topic.

"If you've been a soldier, writing about war is the first natural thing to do," he said. Like most vets, his first book was a war novel. He's written war novels since, considered others and may well write more in the future. "I was a soldier for one year – exactly 365 days – 40 years ago - and much of it is still right there all the time."

Haldeman's war writing has led to comparisons to Robert Heinlein and some have pointed to The Forever War as an answer to Starship Troopers. The two were of different generations, different wars (Heinlein fought in WWII) and different points of view, Haldeman explained, but they had a begrudging respect for one another.

Asked about Enders Game, Haldeman agreed that it was logical for it to be grouped with the other two novels. "I'd love to see a 3-D mapping of the various ideas in the three books," Haldeman said. He sees Orson Scott Card as being far from a soldier, but yet he's written a novel about war on a massive scale. "He's a fine guy but he's got his limited band pass and I've got my limited band pass,” said Haldeman, “and never the two shall meet."

David Thorburn, the director of the Communication Forum pointed out that in his time at MIT, when he has asked students to name their favorite novels, Enders Game always comes out on top.


Question: It's interesting to me how the science fiction community has these novels of war and conflict as cultural touchstones. I was wondering if you've read John Scalzi's "Old Man War" and what you thought of that?

Haldeman: I haven't read it. [No audio at this point]

Question: What will be the impact of the war in Iraq on science fiction?

Haldeman: You are seeing it in short stories now. I am going to start working on a story set in the desert. In some ways, it was morally easier for my generation – you had to be a soldier or break the law – on the contrary, all of the people fighting in Iraq volunteered.

Question: I was wondering what you thought of writers who write about war but never fought?

Haldeman: The touchstone here is Stephen Crane. He was eight or so when the Civil War ended, but The Red Badge of Courage is one of the greatest war novels ever written. In a contemporary review, the Times of London assumed Crane had been a vet but thought he must have had something wrong with his hearing because the sound of the bullets was wrong. Haldeman discussed the fact that the experiential issue is a big one for fiction in general – but especially for science fiction since none of the experiences are real. He recommended reading good war fiction to get a sense of war. He also pointed out that Hemingway, though never a solider was nevertheless a great war writer.

Question: In game design there is an idea known as the uncanny valley – as elements become more realistic any remaining inaccuracies become more pronounced. How does this factor into science fiction?

Haldeman: There may be a difference between gamers and readers; I know more about the 14th century, thanks to A Distant Mirror, than I do about the 16th century. Someone that's only read facile depictions of war isn't going to be able to write a great war novel. When Crane wrote the Red Badge of Courage he did all kinds of interviews and talked to vets to understand their experiences – he had piles of stuff to work with – he could percolate this through what he'd read and heard to create his novel.

Question: Can you talk a bit more about the great war novelists?

Haldeman: Hemingway and Norman Mailer are two. My class is on genre fiction and I choose war as the unifying theme. I did Starship Troopers, The Things they Carried, Master and Commander (an alien view of war and creepy war writing). Patrick O'Brien did huge research into British naval history and claimed that everything he wrote was based on that history. We also did The Dispossessed by Le Guin about oppressive peace.

Question: What do you think the Internet has meant to science fiction; is it harder to write science fiction now because of the rapid pace of new science?

Haldeman: It is harder now – what's gone are the easy stories. It's harder to write about the solar system, for example, because we know so much about it; if you are going to write about the edge of science, you're stuck with a lot of explaining because you have to help people understand where you are coming from – it is harder. The pace of change is also accelerated. I have a screenplay that I wrote in a program called "Dr. Memory" that is on big 8-inch discs. I've looked and asked everywhere but no one can help me retrieve my files – just as an example of the pace of change.

Question: You said you were starting your novel on December 8 – that's a rather precise date. How do you set up and start writing?

Haldeman: I try not to write while I am teaching and December 8 is the day I turn in my grades. I finished my last novel on my way to teach here in August. December 8 is my freedom day. I know the novel I am going to write and have been saving ideas for it for seven years. First you need to get the science, and then the themes – but you also want to know where the characters are going, what year it is, what their technology is like, etc. I love writing on the computer – until I start writing the novel – then I write by candle with a fountain pen and do one draft. Working this way it might take me two hours to write a sentence. Because I am writing in a bound book, when I am done I have a first draft and having that first draft is important to me. One thing I want my students to think about is that if they are writing on a computer , they lose what has been deleted – and they might have had it right the first time.

Question: You were talking about Gernsback's idea that SF ought to be a literature to communicate the ideas and principles of science to its readers – I was wondering about your feelings on this idea – especially in the context of science fiction's positioning in today's marketplace of ideas and given the disconnect between print and TV?

Joe Haldeman

Haldeman: Science fiction – like all fiction – has become less important. In a recent interview, Gore Vidal said, "There is no such thing as a famous novelist now." I think a novel can still change things because those who read them are movers and shakers; but the idea that science fiction can educate isn't there anymore. In the 60s and 70s science fiction became anti-tech – but now we are coming around again as people recognize that science is neither good or bad  - and that is being reflected in science fiction.

Question: Can you talk about the fan relationship to the genre?

Haldeman: I had an apprenticeship. I'd been writing poetry all my life and in college I wrote some fiction as a senior and got paid for it. I started writing my first novel in graduate school and eventually left grad school to be a writer. My brother was a huge science fiction fan. He had a printing press and published a fanzine (which is a starting point for many writers in the genre). He wrote two novels and hundreds of stories but never made enough money to do it as a career.

The classical model is that science fiction writers are aware of having been helped by older writers and understand that they have to do the same thing. I was helped by a number of people – Ben Bova was one – who intervened in difficult editorial decisions – I've never been able to do that for young writers, but can tell them when to use a semicolon.

Question: How close are your first drafts to what we see in print?

Haldeman: Ninety-eight percent of what I write in my first draft ends up in the final version.  Actually, the editors sometimes ask me to expand it – so 110%, I guess.

Question: In your time travel story, is the Plough and Stars (a bar not far from MIT) still around in the future?

Haldeman: No. It's around during the protagonist's lifetime but not in the far future – by the time MIT has become the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy (in the far future), Massachusetts Avenue has become a cow path and the Harvard Bridge is no more.