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MIND MELD: Who Are The Natural Storytellers of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

This week’s Mind Meld question was suggested by James K. Thanks, James!

We asked our panelists this question:

Q: Who are Science Fiction’s and Fantasy’s Most Natural Storytellers ?

Here’s what they said…

Gail Z. Martin
Gail Z. Martin is the author of The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven and Dark Lady’s Chosen (The Chronicles of The Necromancer series). She is also the author of The Fallen Kings Cycle from Orbit Books with Book One: The Sworn and Book Two: The Dread, and the upcoming Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. For book updates, tour information and contact details, visit

I’d have to say Neil Gaiman and Rod Serling.

Neil Gaiman because he brings a texture and richness without it ever seeming forced or contrived, and his characters are quirky without becoming caricatures. (Perhaps like an acrobat he only makes it look easy and there’s a huge amount of time and conscious technique behind the façade, but damn, he does it well.) And the late Rod Serling because he was such a prolific writer and so able to look at the most mundane situations and see the fantastic.

Lou Anders
A 2011/2010/2009/2008/2007 Hugo Award nominee, 2008 Philip K. Dick Award nominee, 2008/2006 Chesley Award winner/nominee, and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction and fantasy imprint Pyr, as well as seven critically-acclaimed anthologies, the latest being Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008) and Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008). He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, DeathRay, free inquiry, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His latest anthologys are Swords and Dark Magic and Masked. Visit Lou online at

I imagine Michael Swanwick sitting at his type writer cackling like a mad scientist when he writes. And it is a type writer in my imagination, his furious fingers banging out the letters on clacking keys. He makes writing appear so effortless that I almost forget that which I know better, which is that achieving his level of mastery requires years of hard work. Or not. Maybe these compelling visions leap from his brain unbidden. He showed me his dream diary once (yes, he had such a thing) and it was like staring into a font of creation, a churning anti-abyss.

Robert Silverberg has always had a clean, precise, and engaging style that communicates what he wants in exactly the right amount of words, never more never less. It’s hard to articulate, but his prose flows past my eyes at precisely the speed I read. Every Silverberg offering is a joy to read.

John Scalzi might be a contemporary, science fictional Mark Twain in the way his books make you feel you are sitting around with friends in a circle, possibly at a camp fire, possible in a comfortable drawing room. Do people still have drawing rooms? They aren’t for drawing are they? They must be for listening to Scalzi’s tall tales.

James Enge writes like I imagine Doctor Who would sound if it had only ever been a book series and never a TV show. He has nailed that wonderful quality of being able to lace humor and horror, pathos and bathos, the absurd and the sublime, the mundane and the weird. He can make you laugh, make you cry, make you retch, and make you laugh again in the span of a page, a paragraph. I love swimming in his sea of words.

Paul Cornell
Paul Cornell is the only person to be Hugo Award nominated for prose, television and comics. His first urban fantasy novel, Cops and Monsters, is out from Tor in the autumn of 2012.

I’d say that being a ‘natural storyteller’, that is making the audience feel that they’ve hardly glimpsed the architecture of a story, but instead have had what feels like a natural experience, is very, very hard work. The hard work goes into hiding the hard work.

The absolute master of this is probably Kurt Vonnegut: not a word out of place; a tone of voice that’s like someone speaking gently into your ear. To write so few words takes enormous effort. This craft is a nation the borders on the more modern state of the bestseller, the country of airport novels, of authors who are keen that the reader shouldn’t have to work too hard on prose. Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein were the masters of that in their day, and two recent books that achieve that seek to bring that ‘natural storyteller’ feel into the modern era are Heaven’s Shadow by Michael Cassutt and David Goyer (a very exciting attempt to do a J.J. Abrams style modernisation on the style of Arthur C. Clarke) and This is not a Game by Walter Jon Williams. The condition of being a ‘natural storyteller’ is, I think, what most writers seek. It’s often a career-long search, and not many find it.

Gary K. Wolfe
Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities and English at Roosevelt University and contributing editor and lead reviewer for Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, is the author of critical studies The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, David Lindsay, Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen R. Weil). His Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (Beccon, 2005), received the British Science Fiction Association Award for best nonfiction, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. A second review collection, Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001, appeared in April 2010. Wolfe has received the Eaton Award, the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and, in 2007, a World Fantasy Award for criticism. A collection of essays, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. He is also well known in the speculative fiction community for the Coode Street Podcast, in conjunction with Jonathan Strahan.

My first reaction to this question is that I have no clear idea what a “natural story teller” is, although I admit it calls up pleasant images of a grizzled old coot in trapper furs regaling a campfire circle with blatant lies. I suspect the term has gained so much currency from blurbs and promotional materials and even the occasional review that it sounds as though it has some sort of consensus definition, but I doubt that’s the case. It’s probably simply shorthand for writers whose work we find congenial, fluid, fairly easy to apprehend, and compelling at the fundamental what-happens-next level of story.

If that’s what it is (and at least that’s what I’m working from here), I’ll start by claiming that a fluid, “natural” storyteller is not always necessarily a good writer, and a good writer is not necessarily a natural storyteller. Danielle Steel or Dan Brown can keep you turning pages, but the ease with which those books flow through your system like colonoscopy preparations doesn’t necessarily make them worth revisiting later. Ulysses or Anathem or Dhalgren may be heavier lifting, but can repay the effort several times over.

Skilled, effortless storytelling in this sense may be a talent, but it isn’t necessarily a virtue, and it’s as subject to misuse as any other talent. By way of examples (and to name names, which is really what the question asked), let me offer two contrasting examples of SF writers whose work I’ve heard praised for its natural storytelling sense: Orson Scott Card and Connie Willis. There’s not a lot in common between them other than their ability to spin compelling tales with ingratiating characters.

Card is certainly a skilled storyteller in this most obvious sense of the term, yet his talent and his stories are increasingly put to use in the service of viewpoints that I once viewed as distasteful, and are fast moving toward repugnant. Willis, whose sane, humanistic views I find much more amenable, doesn’t make much of an effort to openly flog those views in her stories, and the result, at least over the last several years, has been better stories.

Or, to complicate matters further, let’s consider Tim Powers. Reading a Powers novel is pretty generally a delight–this guy seems like a natural storyteller, right? — but once you realize how much intricate, agonizing work he may put into a novel over a period of years, you have to wonder how “natural” it all is.

The point is, we the readers are in the position of trying to identify a “natural storyteller” on the basis of end products that may in fact be the results of painstaking and painful drafts, revisions, rewrites, and restarts, sometimes with the assistance of wise agents or editors or writing group colleagues. There may indeed be “natural storytellers” in the SF field, and I’m sure there are, but as readers we don’t really have much of a clue as to who they are and how they work. All we get is the story.

Ian Sales
Ian Sales reviews books for Interzone, and also writes his own fiction. He is currently editing the anthology Rocket Science for Mutation Press. He is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency. His website can be found at

When people use the term “natural storyteller” what they really mean is that the author in question is not a very good writer and they can’t explain his or her success and/or appeal. It’s a sop, mealy-mouthed praise aimed at someone who doesn’t deserve it but manages to shift units at an enviable rate. Science fiction has — and has had — more than its fair share of such writers. Their prose is bland and clumsy, their characters are paper-thin stereotypes, and their world-building consists of little more than the world in which they live plus a handful of inelegantly-coined neologisms. And yet their stories sell, their novels get published, people read their books. Some of them even appear on lists of “classic” or “best” sf novels.

Writing is about telling stories — yes, even non-fiction or journalism. A writer who cannot tell a story is, by definition, not a writer. But good writing is so much more than just that. It is: prose which evokes mood or place, or both; characters which feel like real, living people; a world — or an entire universe — broad and deep enough to hold far more than just the story and everyone who appears in it. It is not just the right words in the right order, it is also the imagery those words. Good prose should impress the reader.

When we as genre fans venerate those “natural storytellers”, those bad writers, when we insist that the qualities they display are what we consider to be important in writing, when we claim that, as a result, the genre should not, and cannot, be judged by the same rules as other modes of fiction… then we’re only making ourselves look very foolish. We’re telling people that not only do we know science fiction is a genre characterised by bad writing, but we’re so stupid and contrary we actually think bad writing should be admired.

So, please, let’s have no no “natural storytellers” in science fiction. Let’s have good writers and bad writers, good books and bad books. And let’s not base those opinions on our childhood memories of said books, let’s be adult about them. After all, it’s long past time science fiction grew up.

About JP Frantz (2323 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

12 Comments on MIND MELD: Who Are The Natural Storytellers of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

  1. >>James Enge writes like I imagine Doctor Who would sound if it had only ever been a book series and never a TV show.

    I Think James should put that ad copy on his novels!

  2. You can tell Sales is a reviewer.  He can’t just enjoy a book for what it is and has to muck everything up by trying to write about trumpted up meaning.

    I would agree with Wolfe on Card on all accounts.  It is effortless and immersive to read about his genious children.  I do not agree with Asimov.  I always found him to be more like work.

  3. I’ve heard Vonnegut just writes straight through from beginning to end.  If he has to change something, he starts over at the beginning.


  4. Old school, Jack Vance. New wave, Roger Zelazny. Present day, John Scalzi. And as Ian Sales apparently can’t grok the wonder of a natural storyteller, I simply smile sadly and reconcile myself to the fact that some people were born color blind and cannot begin to appreciate what others largely take for granted. There is no description vivid enough to begin the discussion with such poor souls. 

  5. “When Ian Sales uses the term “natural storyteller” what he really means is that the author in question is not a very good writer and he can’t explain his or her success and/or appeal.” FTFY

    I’m guessing many other people are quite comfortable with the phrase Natural Storyteller and don’t think of it as disparaging at all.

  6. I’d put Michael Moorcock right up there.  A lot of his output has been dashed off very rapidly (some of those Eternal Champion books were cranked out in a week), yet it’s virtually all good storytelling.  He just feels like an instinctive, effortless storyteller to me.  One gets the sense that he’d sit down at his desk to pay a bill, start writing a check, and then write a novel by accident.

  7. Lou, thanks for mentioning Silverberg. A living treasure that one. Amazing writer.

  8. While I certainly enojy the work of the writers mentioned above, I’d like to point out that a Y chomosome is not an actual requirement for being to be a good storyteller. I nominate Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold, both of whom spin wonderful yarns. SHARDS OF HONOR for Bujold and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG for Willis would top my lists.

  9. Yeah, DAMN those reviewer-types who don’t just read the surface of a book or look beyond the obvious in a question! Who do they think they are, anyway, mucking up our unreflective pleasures with their thoughts?

    That said, I only partly agree with Ian’s notion that “natural” is a sort of cover over poor writing. I think that some writers’ work flows with both ease and stimulation that it has a naturalness to the reading eye. But sometimes the idea does seem misapplied.

    Plus, what Carmen said. Weird how so many “natural storytellers” are male. I can think of three female “natural storytellers” without pausing: Kage Baker, Ellen Kushner, and Nora Jemisin. Excellent prose that pulls you in so quickly and powerfully that it takes a real effort to pull your eyes from the page.

  10. This is the kind of question that I think will always evoke an automatic “Isaac Asimov” response.

    But I also think of Anne McCaffrey, a writer who keeps me compulsively turning pages even when I don’t objectively (think I) care for the story or characters….

  11. Firstly, in defence of Ian Sales: “enjoying a book for what it is”?  Doh, what it is includes all that meaning underneath, the allusions, the way it engages with other works, with society, etc.  Some books have more or less of these ingredients, no good book has none of them. 

    But Ian is wrong to dismiss Natural Storytellers.  For me these are writers whose work has a voice, it feels like it is being told in my head.  It may, as others have said, actually be the result of intensive crafting and decades of practice, so the word natural may mislead a bit, but as with some musicians and other performers, the publicly displayed product seems unforced.

    Mostly the names that come to mind in this context are short fiction authors, those whose work you can imagine read to you by the fireplace. No, not read, told.  Avram Davidson, Howard Waldrop, Terry Bisson, Karen Joy Fowler, Leigh Kennedy, Manly Wade Wellman, Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, all do this regularly, not necessarily always. 

    Then I look outside the genre to Eudora Welty, F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O’Connor, etc who used a few thousand words to create worlds and acheive storytelling that some big name genre authors waste a few thousand pages failing to manage. 

  12. So does that mean my publishers were insulting me when they called me “a natural born storyteller”? I guess I’ll have to wait until the reviews come in to find out if it’s true…

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