MIT Communications Forum: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction with Joe Haldeman

Last night’s Communication Forum was different than the ones I’ve attended in the past. Where those had had a number of panelists talking about a specific topic, this one featured only one person talking about a very broad theme.

Joe Haldeman is a professor of writing at MIT and is a four-time Nebula winner. His novels include The Forever War, Old Twentieth and Camouflage. The evening was moderated by Henry Jenkins, head of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.

Haldeman started by reading several selections from his upcoming novel, “The Accidental Time Machine,” a story set in and around MIT over the course of shifting time. Based on what he read last night it should be great.

Jenkins asked about the story’s representation of MIT and Haldeman said that he enjoyed the opportunity to think about and research the history of the school. Even at the start, he found it was very forward-looking – yet cautions it the way it watched out for the conservative sensibilities of the time. Toward the end of “The Accidental Time Machine”, the protagonist finds himself on the early campus of MIT – a man with no history but a man who knows (but won’t reveal) the future. Haldeman enjoyed the opportunity to explore the issues presented by this scenario.

The conversation turned next to an interesting feature of speculative fiction: not only are the stories about science, they are also about scientists. Haldeman, who has been around scientists since he was an undergrad, says they are misrepresented in fiction – and he has tried to make his scientists realistic and bases them on people that he has known. “A great thing about being a novelist,” he said, “is that anybody who’s ever done anything bad to you, you can get back at them sooner or later.”

The work of doing science, he continued, required tremendous intellectual discipline – without the ability to explain or share what you do with anyone not involved with your specific field. If you want to write a realistic science fiction story, you need to recognize that science is extremely compartmentalized.

In the early days on science fiction, Jenkins noted, the scientist was often portrayed as a lone tinker or inventor. Now the scientist is represented in a corporate environment or research institution. He wondered how this changed the types of stories the science fiction tells. 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.”

One of the ideas behind hard science fiction – beginning with Hugo Gernsback – is that it be used to popularize science and be a means to educate people. Gernsback’s idea was 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 a story in italics but he realized that there was a value in the speculative aspect of science fiction.

Gernsback was an interesting figure, according to Haldeman, 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 – demonstrating the paradox that something can be good science fiction but terrible writing. “The thing about science fiction,” said 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.”

Jenkins asked Haldeman to share some of his memories of some of the pioneer of science fiction. He talked about Jack Williamson (who died only a few days before the Forum) and Edmund Hamilton; and about Williamson and Hamilton traveling down the Mississippi together in the 1920s and the conversations they must have had, and about Hamilton’s huge imagination and about Williamson being just 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,” he said, “We’d read the same articles – he was a science fiction writer. There are a lot of people writing science fiction 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 reads New Scientist and Scientific American and related a story. A few days ago, returning home on the T from teaching, he was reading the latest New Scientist. There was an article about Wendy Mao and her team of researchers who’d compressed water under thousands of atmospheres of pressure for six hours and then bombarded it with x rays. The result was an alloy of metallic hydrogen and oxygen. “Oh,” he remembered thinking, “we never came up with that.”

“Can you believe this shit?,” he said. “Because this is the way I did chemistry in junior high school. I can imagine them now: ‘well, we’ve got this thing, why don’t we put water in it and crush it down with diamond pressure, and then, while we’ve got it that way, lets just put x rays on it for six hours and see what the fuck happens’.”

Jenkins wanted to know what type of responses this article triggered for Haldeman as a writer. His immediate response, he said, to the article was social – just imagining her and her gang thinking about and conducting this experiment. 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. [Haldeman requested that the details not be shared as it may be included in an upcoming novel.]

Haldeman recently wrote a piece for the Comparative Media Studies newsletter about the mission of science fiction at 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 and science fiction is a tool against religion. Science fiction is a tool for rationalism,” he said. “Things like faith-based initiatives work really well – 9/11 was a faith-based initiative and that changed all of American life.”

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. Herdeman 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.

Jenkins asked Herdeman to talk about what he has learned from other writers – and particularly Hemingway, of whom is is a big fan. Hemingway, Herdeman explained, hated science fiction. He’s read all of the legitimate Hemingway and listen to and presented papers on him as well. He believes that all writer should be fascinated with another writer to help them develop a filter.

“It’s like in optics,” Herdeman explained, “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 like Faulkner, Herdeman 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 is this idea that everybody brings his own set of filters to every situation.”

Herdeman went on to relate an experience he’d had that helped him to understand filters and point of view. When he was in the fifth grade, someone published a 3D comic book. The entire story took place in a saloon and featured an outlaw causing trouble who was eventually killed by the sheriff. The story was first told from the sheriff’s point of view, and then from the outlaw’s and then from people simply in the bar. When he finished the comic he suddenly understood that there were billions of ways to tell a story.

Given his role as teacher of writing at MIT, Jenkins wondered about the challenges of getting scientists to write science fiction. The first issue he raised was their timidity – the fact that fledgling scientists tend to be cautious. 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.

The conversation next moved to the theme of war, how it is portrayed in fiction and how Herdeman 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.” Like most vets, his first novel was a war novel. He’s written some 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.”

Herdeman’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 – but they had a begrudging respect for one another.

Asked about “Enders Game,” Herdeman agreed that it was the logical for it to be grouped with the other two. “I’d love to see a 3D mapping of the various ideas in the three books. If anyone wants an easy Masters thesis there you go.” Herdeman sees Orson Scott Card as as far from a soldier as you could get but here he’s written a novel with 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 and never the two shall meet.”

[tags]Joe Herdeman, science fiction, MIT, Communications Forum, Henry Jenkins, Hugo Gernsback, Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, The Forever Wars, Starship Troopers, Enders Game, Wendy Mao[/tags]

2 thoughts on “MIT Communications Forum: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction with Joe Haldeman

  1. Larry Steckler says:

    Anyone interested in Hugo Gernsback needs to know that I have just completed editing and publishing a new unauthorized autobiography I located when we cloed down our offices (Gernsback Publications Inc) in 2002. It will be available within the next few weeks from in softcover and hardcover. It covers his life as writer of Sci Fi, publisher of Sci Fi, Publisher of a vast variety of other magazines, especially those devoted to electronics, his inventions and patents, his dreams. and more.

    If you have questions about Hugo I may have the answers. Reach out for me at

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