At first glance, it might appear that in an ideal world, comparative advantage would rule our every decision. Each person would spend their lives doing the one thing they are best at, allowing other people to focus on that which they are best at. The triumph of efficiency would ensure universal happiness! At least, it would if we lived in an Econ 101 world. Rather tragically for first-year econ majors, we do not.
In the world in which we are actually living, humans are often happier if they pursue a variety of activities. Thus, the subject of this piece: speculative fiction authors who also write non-fiction. The overlap is not that surprising, given that one of the most productive work-avoidance strategies for fiction writers is endless research. Turning research into a diverting non-fiction text is a perfectly valid way to avoid writing the next book your publisher expects from you! For that and other reasons, speculative fiction abounds with authors who have also written non-fiction.
Perhaps examples would be useful. Here are four classic examples and one very modern one.
I will begin by observing that Isaac Asimov wrote a lot of non-fiction texts in almost every Dewey Decimal System category. Picking just one to represent them all would be difficult and I am not going to even try. Also, even I cannot strain logic enough to justify classifying Bertrand R. Brinley’s Mad Scientist Club stories as speculative fiction, so I will have to forgo mentioning his superlative Rocket Manual for Amateurs.
The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)
Perhaps best known for works such as Rendezvous with Rama and The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke was also an avid non-fiction author. Clarke’s 1950 Interplanetary Space was a slim, rather technical introduction to space flight. The Exploration of Space was in some senses a do-over, tackling the same subjects using more accessible terms. At under two hundred pages, the text may seem slender by modern standards, but Clarke does his best to make it comprehensive.
Every space enthusiast has to start somewhere when it comes to comprehending the issues involved in interplanetary flight. For legions of space flight fans of a certain age, that somewhere was this text. Among their numbers? A certain John F. Kennedy, a senior functionary who arguably played an important role in the American Apollo Project. It is no surprise that this was an award-winning text.
The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp (1963)
De Camp, on his own and in collaboration, rambled between fantasy and science fiction. He wrote non-fiction as well, of which The Ancient Engineers may be the best example. De Camp takes readers on a tour of great engineering works of the past, ranging from antiquity to the Renaissance, and from Asia to Europe, with primary focus on the Mediterranean and European civilization.
Modern readers will note the use of now-outmoded terminology regarding Asia and other subjects. Also, while de Camp makes it clear that he is aware of Mesoamerican civilizations, they are mentioned only in passing. Otherwise, this was an engaging introduction to the engineering triumphs of the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, and Italy.
The Trouble With Tribbles by David Gerrold (1973)
David Gerrold is the author of such SF works as The Flying Sorcerers, the (supposedly) ongoing Chtorr series, and The Dingilliad. He has also written non-fiction, this text in particular. As the cover makes clear, this is not the script for the famous Star Trek episode (season two, episode 15), but rather Gerrold’s account of how that episode came to be. Gerrold’s first published SF novel was years off when he successfully pitched “The Trouble with Tribbles” to Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, the novice scriptwriter encountered many … ahem … learning opportunities along the path from concept to final product. Out of what I assume is pure public-spiritedness, he tells us about them here.
Theatre and its cousins are fascinating, involving as they do the process of turning an immaterial idea into a tangible entertainment despite the impediments presented by finances, human quirks, technical limitations, and other complications. While some of the technological specifics have been superseded, the general issues remain relevant. Also, the account is funny.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ (1983)
Russ was part of the rising tide of women speculative fiction authors of the late 1960s and onwards. How joyously this demographic shift was greeted by the grognards of fantasy and science fiction may be reflected in Russ’s guide to all of the eleven basic methods used to justify ignoring women’s writing. While How to Suppress is just 159 pages long, those are a very comprehensive 159 pages.
How to Suppress is snarky, sarcastic, and bleakly hilarious. Also, the eleven methods are not peculiar to suppressing women’s fiction; they can be applied to any group unwanted in the canon. This is not, however, intended as a how-to book; rather, by drawing attention to the underhanded tricks, Russ hoped to deter their use.
At one time, even mentioning the title of this book on rec.arts.sf.written ensured a flame war. I look forward to discovering if that is still true of fandom.
The Sad Bastard Cookbook by Rachel A. Rosen and Zilla Novikov, with illustrations by Marten Norr (2022)
Novikov is the author of the time-travel comedy of manners Reprise. Rosen is the author of the bleak near-future Cascade. Together, assisted by artist Marten Norr, the pair created The Sad Bastard Cookbook. Its target market? People so crushed by life that even breathing demands onerous effort. Its mission? Provide the means by which even the most enervated readers can feed themselves and so avoid starvation.
One has to admire the simple clarity of that cover blurb: “Food You Can Make So You Don’t Die.” The cook book delivers, offering a wide variety of meals suitable for even the most unmotivated cook. Even better, one need not even motivate oneself to travel to a bookstore to purchase the book. The Sad Bastard Cookbook is available here for free download.
There are a multitude of exemplary non-fiction books penned by speculative fiction authors not mentioned above. Feel free to mention your favorites in comments below!
[Note that I have already dropped Asimov’s name in passing, even though I couldn’t choose just ONE of his non-fiction books. He has been mentioned!]
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.