Monday, July 31, 2006
1. One book that changed your life?
The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. I started the book a lapsed Christian and ended it an atheist (now an agnostic, which was more in keeping with the point of the book, I think). Really changed my life and helped me deprogram from 12 years of fundamentalist Christian education. That I was 23 when I read it will make sense to those in the know.
2. One book you have read more than once?
My favorite book of all time, The World According to Garp by John Irving. One of the few books I’ve read twice, and the book that made me want to get into this whole writing/publishing life to begin with (though I saw the movie first). Incidentally, either book in question 1 & 2 could be substituted for the other.
3. One book you would want on a desert island?
The complete Time Life Do-It-Yourself series. Don't own that now, but could see how it could have come in handy on Gilligan's Ilsand. Failing that, the Baroque Cycle, since it would take me years to get through.
4. One book that made you laugh?
5. One book that made you cry?
The Child Garden, by Geoff Ryman.
6. One book you wish had been written?
Babylon 5. Really, a five-book series. As it was meant to be, without network interference or absentee actors necessitating plot changes.
7. One book you wish had never had been written?
8. One book you are currently reading?
Jim Butcher's Proven Guilty.
9. One book you have been meaning to read?
Greg Keyes' The Charnel Prince. Or John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades.
10. Now tag five people.
David Louis Edelman
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Filmmaker Terry Gilliam said some years back that
Specifically, in response to Paul Cornell's comment that "movie producers don't mind being 'science fiction', while TV producers do. That's because: movie audience, lots of young men. TV audience: lots of old women," Ian McDonald offered the following:
"Paul's right about the difference between TV and Film production, in that film is very much a medium of genres whereas TV always has it's eye on overall network viewership (there's an immediate 'defect' mechanism on every remote control: there's always an immediate alternative, and increasingly TV is splintering into a long tail of niche digital channels) and network demographics. Asimov's hasn't put Kirstin KatherineRusch's article on where she sees the future of SF going --she sees the salvation of the genre in YA-style 'Star Wars-esque' space opera with cheerable heroes and booable villains (OK, I'm not being whiolly objective here). Me, I see the very thing you're talking about in your post as the future for SF: the genre I feel is going through a period of uncertainty --fantasy is kicking its butt all over the bookstores-- where core question are being asked: what is SF? What makes it SF? What is it for? What is it for now, in July 2006? What is a 21st century SF like --and I, for one, don't think it's necesarily back-to-basics space opera (though there must always be some of that, because it's fun) because that has been so well colonised by the visual media. Things are moving, I think, when you can quote something like JJ Abram's comment. There is a mainstream audienceout there who will enjoy SF minus the geek factor --how do we write books for them?"
Which prompted my long-winded response:
Ian, you are speaking at the heart of my primary concerns these days. The disparity between SF cinema and SF literature has been one of my chief obsessions for years, enough so that I edited a nonfiction anthology on the subject. But I think that - do in part to the Long Tail economics that you reference, in part do to the decreased cost of filmmaking, and in part to the increased importance of secondary markets like the DVD boxes set (see Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, we're seeing the rise of the niche and an increase in "narrative complexity" - as well as a general increase of everything, which means that quality SF&F is beginning to emerge - whether we're talking about accurate blockbuster renderings of The Lord of the Rings on one end of the scale, or low budget "low-fi, sci-fi" like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Primer on the opposite side.
There's a great quote from David Foster Wallace which I encountered in Chris Anderson's The Long Tail which says:“TV is not vulgar and prurient and dumb because the people who compose the audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.”
And I think we're seeing, if not the end of that - Fear Factor isn't going anywhere - the end of the era where that is everything and all. In the same way, perhaps the macro-category of science fiction will survive by migrating into niche categories - I haven't seen Rusch's article (when is it out?), but the Space Opera which she endorses (and which John Ordover claimed was the future in his Campbell conference talk) may be one end, mainstream appropriate of SF into works like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife may be another, and rigorously extrapolated, 21st century relevant SF such as your latest represents may be a third. I think that, in edition to the Star Wars style space opera that Rusch mentions, writers like John Scalzi and Chris Roberson also represent the future of the genre. I see both writers as good "gateway" authors, stepping stones between Star Wars and more rigorous fare. Roberson, in particular, always underpins extremely rigorous physics to his adventure tales, while the upfront narrative is grounded in accessible prose and engaging characters.
Star Wars will, of course, take care of itself, but the million dollar question is how do we drive consumers who enjoy films like Gattacca, Primer, Eternal Sunshine etc and readers of Time Traveler's Wife, Never Let Me Go etc. to writers like yourself, Paul McCauley, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Michael Swanwick, China Mieville, et al.
I'm personally feeling very vindicated by the new Batman Begins, because this is the Batman I've been insisting I've been reading about on and off since I was six, but it's taken decades and decades for the rest of the larger world to see the Caped Crusader as anything more than Adam West, Super Friends, and Michael Keaton. There are, of course, two Batmen - the Dark Knight that 30 plus year olds read about, and the kid-friendly cartoon character used to sell a buttload of plastic toys.
In the same way, there are at least two SFs, conflated in a good deal of the minds of the wider world with the lesser SF. But, as I said in the post, I think the tides are turning. It hasn't been that long - merely a few decades - since rock stars appropriated the titles and themes of SF novels for their music and SF writers were respected authorities in news shows and documentaries. The perception that it is purely escapism is a recent phenomena, one end of a pendulum that probably swings back and forth, back and forth, beginning with HG Wells on one end and Plan 9 from Outer Space on the other. I see the pendulum swinging back our way now, coupled with a rise in interest in the space program (re: the recent Titan probe), the dot com billionaire's with their own rockets (Virgin Galactic, et al), the aforementioned USA today article, the increased "gadgetization" of 21st century life, and the growing political/environmental awareness of the bloggosphere. All of which leads me to conclude that science fiction shall rise again, yee-haw.
Update: The amazing group blog Meme Therapy, which is fast becoming my favorite blog on the web, weighs in on the debate retro-preemptively, with a Brain Parade question, "Science Fiction often gets a bad rap. Do you agree with this statement? And if so, who or what is to blame?"
As always, the brilliant John Scalzi demonstrates that rather than going to all the trouble to formulate my own opinions, I can shortcut the labor by just appropriating his: "What I would love to see is SF lit make a play for mainstream readers, by any means necessary. Put the books in covers the mundanes can grok; give them some stories they don't feel like they're missing the joke on; fight to get stories where people are instead of where we wish they would go. Of course, it's easy to say this and more difficult to do. But the fact is: SF has a fine image. It's up to SF literature to get a piece of it."
Excellent opinions also from Paul Levinson, Jeff Patterson, and Suan Marie Groppi.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
One thing that I've said repeatedly over the last few weeks is that all these denials of SF in the media, these Judas Iscariot's of cinema who proclaim "yes my film is about robots and cyborgs and big space battles and genetically engineered moon cows, but it's actually a drama about people and relationships and the hazards of dairy products" are actually a last gasp of a dying perspective. In this introduction to The Year's Best Science Fiction: 23rd Annual Collection, Gardner Dozois notes that 8 of the top highest grossing films of 2005 were genre-themed, 13 of the top 20. Which means that at its broadest spectrum, the public has no problem with science fiction. TV Guide will certainly tell you that a popular SF show on the cover moves serious copies. And the San Diego Comic Con just had a record attendance of 140,000 people. It's almost as though we are becoming a society of SF&F fans all worried what the other guy thinks and apologizing to each other for our tastes when the other guy is a fan too.
I've been thinking for some time now that this knee-jerk reaction to being labeled "sci-fi" was on the way out and that we would start to see some mainstream re-embracing of the category. Now, USA Today has just given me the first positive proof of this. Look at this list of Hollywood types who aren't denying that what they do is SF, in an article in a major paper that doesn't use the word "geek" or "nerd."
And look at this quote from Lost producer JJ Abrams, who says that science fiction "is an extrapolated version of the present. If you're at war, or you find out the government is spying on you, or if you feel your civil rights are being abrogated, it can provoke you as a writer. Science fiction is never about paradise found. It stems from trouble in our own world. The best kind of storytelling is when writers turn a mirror on ourselves, and that mirror shows us a lot of conflict."
Most interesting, the article equates the fiction of HG Wells & Ray Bradbury with Star Trek, while being clear that by "science fiction" what isn't meant is "science-fiction-cum-fantasy" work like Star Wars. Obviously, this is just one journalist's opinion, and Hollywood can turn on a dime when the almighty dollar decrees differently, but for today I am most gratified.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
The conference was held July 5-9, 2006, at the J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I came in on Wednesday night, to sit in on the writing workshop held in advance of the awards weekend, and in good ol' workshop tradition, was taken out by a group of students for too many beers on my first night. But I had a wonderful time - thanks guys. You are all wonderful, and I hope I didn't talk your ear off too much about Robyn Hitchcock. Not my fault they had him on the jukebox.
As Rob reports, one of the best aspects of the week was the ability to have ongoing, weekend-long discussions with a few interesting people, as opposed to the chaos of conventions where you have a hundred five-minute discussions. Rob, Paolo Bacigalupi, and I really hit it off, and the conference wouldn't have been the same without them there. As Rob writes on his blog, "Indeed, Lou, Paolo, and I were so simpatico about what's right and wrong with SF, and about how the art form should be practiced, that it was like I'd found two brothers I didn't know I'd had." Rob, I am both deeply honored by and in complete agreement with your sentiments. And congratulations to you both on your respective awards. (Btw, Paolo has a new blog, Windup Stories. Stop by and say hello.)
It was also wonderful to meet in the flesh Pyr author George Zebrowski, along with Pamela Sargent. George and I have had many long telephone conversations, but this was the first time we'd met in person. George is an extremely good man, and his keynote address (we each delivered a speech on Thursday night) was a stirring talk on the importance of integrity in writing and publishing. George is a fierce defender of SF as art for art's sake. As he says you "tighten your belt" and shoot for excellence without compromise or surrender. Counterbalancing this, was Saturday's talk by John Ordover, who argued that science fiction couldn't achieve commercial success comparable to that enjoyed by fantasy novels unless it was willing to forgo innovation in favor of tried and true tropes. Ordover felt that fantasy was accessible because it was instantly familiar and that SF's greatest strength - its commitment to the new and unknown - was its greatest handicap. He argued for a return to Star Wars style space opera, though his "balanced porfolio" analogy made more sense to me that the rest of his talk.
Which, obviously, generated some controversy. Personally, I'm closer to George (and Rob, Jim Gunn, et al.) than John, though I still maintain that a work can be both commercially successful and artistically meaningful. I cite our own River of Gods as an example, as well as Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon and most anything by Charles Stross. I would also suggest that the previous age of lowest common denominator entertainment reaching the widest audience is fading, as online commerce drives more and more consumer eyeballs away from the short selection available in traditional retail and promoted by traditional marketing to the near-infinite and user driven choice offered on the internet (a la Chris Anderson's The Long Tail) and that just as the growing importance of the DVD boxed set has raised the overall narrative complexity of television, so to will quality in writing out in the minds of the consumer in publishing as well. But I digress...
Suffice to say it was a fantastic time. I hope what I had to say held meaning. Certainly, I learned a lot myself from all the discussions. Thank you to Jim Gunn and Chris McKitterick for having me, and to all the students, guests and participants. I would come back in a heartbeat.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
I'd like to see more reviews take the art into question. Or else, I'd like to see more reviews of art, some thoughtful discussion of what works and what doesn't. Maybe a monthly column that discusses the merits of new works (and trends) as they emerge. There is a move, for instance, away from illustration towards design afoot in publishing right now, though I tend to side with the thoughts expressed in John Scalzi's post which praised John Picacio for producing cover illustrations which don't "hide the science fiction or fantasy elements of the work, but they do present them in a way that includes (and entices) non-readers of SF/F rather than excludes them." This is what we've tried for with most of our Pyr covers, and which I think works beautifully with a cover like River of Gods (by the brilliant Stephan Martiniere, currently a Hugo nominee).
So I am thrilled to see two new voices join the bloggosphere. One is artist John Picacio, whose blog On the Front, debuted last week. The other is Tor art director Irene Gallo. Not only does it feature a profusion of pretty pictures, but The Art Department contains some sound advice that every beginning illustrator should follow. Only a few days old and already I'm hooked.
Monday, July 10, 2006
I'm quite fond of BenBella's Smart Pop books, and quite honored to have been asked to contribute to four of them, their The Man From Krypton, Star Wars on Trial, the forthcoming So Say We All (about Battlestar Galactica), and an upcoming Spider-Man title. I enjoy writing these essays, and I hope to write many more. I also think that Star Wars on Trial is a very good book, possibly one of the most fun books they've put together so far.
So why the worry? The nature of the book is that writers are split into "witnesses" for the defense or the prosecution, themselves represented by Matthew Stover and David Brin. The book is divided into eight sections, looking at the politics of Star Wars, its portrayal of women, its lack of real science, its impact on the field, etc... The back and forth effectively encapsulates the heated emotion all Star Wars debates stir up and has all the juicy fun of a good flame war.
Now, I've got a lot to say about Star Wars, pro and con, a lot of which can be summed up with a not-uncommon deep affection for the original trilogy and an utter disgust with the new one (though I'm less thrilled with Return and quite enjoyed Revenge). And I've got a lot of real problems with some of Lucas' choices in the latter films - something I share with, oh, most of the English speakng world. But the topic I drew was the media tie-in and whether it was good or bad for the genre.
Probably because my head was up my butt and I wasn't paying attention, I didn't quite grok the us vs. them nature of the book and what I set out to write was a much more balanced look at the issue, an attempt to ask the question "are media tie-ins harmful?," rather than answer it outright. To that end, I included quotes from a number of different writers in the field. Realizing into the process that I was supposed to be more emphaticly one-sided in my opinion, my essay was steered towards a more forceful attack on the media tie-in (and even paired back eventually from what you see in print). Now, when I say "steered" I am not saying editorial involvement from above altered my words. I altered them to give BenBella more of what they were looking for and what I had agreed to do. But the result is that I feel I have taken (or will seem to have taken) a strong Lou vs. Media stance that is not entirely how I feel.
Lest you think I'm backtracking, I am not wild about media tie-ins. I don't believe they draw readers into the rest of the field, nor appreciably affect the number of readers a writer gets for his non-media tie-in work. My own sense from working in media as a journalist is that readers of media tie-in works are there for the media, not the writer. There are superstars of the tie-in (R.A. Salvatore for Forgotten Realms of course), but these are different readerships and I don't think if all the Star Wars books disappeared tomorrow that those readers would rush out and pour their dollars into purchases of Accelerando or Starship:Mutiny. And maybe this doesn't matter.
I've bought the occassional Doctor Who book in the past, don't fault my friend Sean Williams for his successful Star Wars trilogy, and am happy for Chris Roberson's upcoming X-Men novel (the cover of which, by John Picacio, will undoubtably blow us all away). I don't fault anyone for writing or reading a media tie-in. Sure, I wish we lived in a world where the cinema of science fiction more closely resembled its literature and where popularity followed quality more closely than it does. Yes, I am aware that there are books of quality written as media tie-ins, and, ironically, I suspect that a lot of Star Wars novels are better than Star Wars itself.
And I think that railing against Star Wars is raging into a wind.
But a few months ago, I gave a young man who only reads Forgotten Realms novels a copy of Sean Williams' fantasy, The Crooked Letter. The next time I saw him, he said he finished the book in a rush, that he couldn't put it down, and that it was "the smartest fantasy he ever read." He said that he "didn't know that fantasy could be this good," and that he was telling all his friends about it and was anxious for the next book in the series.
As I try to say in my essay, I don't object that the media tie-in exists, but that it is so often conflated in the minds of the general public with the rest of the science fiction and fantasy genre. I do not fault you if you read them or write them, and perhaps you write them well, but for my part, it is the rest of the genre that I will strive to proselytize and uphold. Star Wars, after all, doesn't need my help, but there is a lot of smart pop out there which does.
Barnes & Nobles' Paul Goat Allen just sent an email informing us of his upcoming review of Infoquake and interview with author David Louis Edelman. The review & interview will appear in August in the B&N sff newsletter as well as on B&N's Science Fiction/Fantasy homepage, and I will certainly point out a link to it then. But for now, I'm thrilled to report that Paul says:
"Brilliantly blending the cutthroat intrigues of the high-tech business world with revolutionary world building, Edelman could quite possibly be the illegitimate lovechild of Donald Trump and Vernor Vinge. Infoquake is one of the most impressive science fiction debuts to come along in years - highly recommended."
Obviously, we are thrilled with the comparison to Vinge which joins prior comparisons to Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow. Not bad company to keep! Meanwhile, an interview with Edelman is already up at the blog Meme Therapy, where Edelman explains:
"When I started writing Infoquake, I gave myself a challenge. If you had virtually unlimited computing power and a virtually unlimited supply of energy, what could you do? Keep in mind that neither of these things is an impossibility.
Finally, Paula Guran blogs about her humorous encounter with Edelman and Yours Truly at the recent Book Expo America, then goes on to kindly praise Infoquake on her blog Dark Echo:
"It is sf, yes, but sf about cut-throat business practices and competitive programming (a way-cool concept of sorta programming in thin air), with an endearingly sociopathic protagonist, and lotsa, lotsa nifty techno-supposings, and an interesting concept of guild/spiritual family/religion/union groups in a technocracy. Highly imaginative use of the current Zeitgeist."
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
My round-robin answer to the question "What new formats, subgenres or media would you like to see more science fiction in?" has just showed up at my favorite new blog, Meme Therapy. Also included in this Brain Parade, Chris Roberson, Tim Zinsky and "JP."
The Schedule of Events:
Thursday, July 6, 7:30 pm, Alderson Auditorium
• Lou Anders and George Zebrowski present on the state of the science-fiction novel.
Friday, July 7, 10:00 am, First Floor Lobby of Ellsworth Hall
• Interviews with our special guests.
Friday, July 7, 6:00 pm, Kansas Room, KU Memorial Union
• Awards banquet for John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel of the year and the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best short science fiction of the year.
• Informal off-campus reception to follow.
Saturday, July 8, 9:00 am, Malott Room, KU Memorial Union
• Round-table Campbell Conference discussion.
Saturday Lunch, KU Memorial Union
• Registered Conference attendees receive an informal, complimentary lunch.
Saturday, July 8, 12:45 pm, Oread Bookstore, KU Memorial Union
• Mass signing by special guests.
Saturday, July 8, 2:00 pm, 100 Smith Hall
• Interviews and talks with our special guests.
• John Ordover presents about the current state of the science-fiction novel.
• Informal off-campus reception in the evening.
Sunday, July 9, 9:00 am, First Floor Lobby of Ellsworth Hall
• Meet the award winners and other attending guests!
Monday, July 03, 2006
"John Picacio, whose gorgeous book covers utilize materials from standard acrylic paint to found objects employed as elements in complex mosaics, eschews the obvious. The results are sometimes haunting, sometimes witty, sometimes ornate and sometimes startlingly simple, but almost always achingly beautiful. Among the best in this oversized collection, best appreciated by readers willing to page through it slowly....The book closes with a lengthy interview, in which, among other things, Picacio describes his opposition to lazy illustrations that merely duplicate events or places from a given story. He says such covers steal from readers' right to envision such moments in their own imagination. And he may be right. But from the evidence on display, Picacio has plenty of imagination to spare. He doesn't need to steal a thing."