Tuesday, October 31, 2006

World Fantasy Convention

Heading to the World Fantasy Convention on Thursday and looking forward to seeing everyone there. You can catch me on these two panels:

Contemporary Art and Fantasy Book Covers
Sat 3:30 PM-4:30 PM Ballroom A
Anders, Gianni, Givens(m), Palencar, Vess

Does a successful 21st century fantasy cover necessarily have to be representational? What influences the degree of representation in a fantasy cover?

Will Somebody Please Explain This Book?
Sun 3:30 PM-4:30 PM Ballroom A
Anders, Bey, Dedman, Groell, November(m)
We've all read at least one: the book that leaves us going "What the h***?" Our good-humored panelists discuss books they found obscure, convoluted, or just incomprehensible. What do such books contribute to the fantasy tradition, and what do they mean?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Medieval Confessions and Concessions

The discussions triggered by Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Asimov's piece, various responses, (including Charlie's fascinating technogeek thoughts) seem to have died down, though it's been fun, and I'm still reflecting on that aspect of the debate I find most relevant - how do you grow the ranks of our readers?

Recently, a friend suggest that, in an effort to attract new readers, it might be instructive to re-examine what brought us into the field as readers ourselves. So:

How did I get into SF?

When I was a very small child, I remember my father reading SF novels, though he soon got to busy and this (along with his weekly basketball game) was abandoned due to the pressure of work. But the idea of SF as something my dad did was impressed on me. Plus, the books had strange, sophisticated covers - some of them illustrated by Richard Powers -that reinforced my idea that SF was a serious, modern, adult genre. I remember when he brought home Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye - the very first Star Wars novel, written before even Empire Strikes Back came out (and only featuring Luke and Lea, since the idea was it could form the basis of a cheap sequel if one was commissioned and Harrison Ford wasn't yet signed). I didn't read it - it was over my head then, or at least out of my range of interests, but I remember being impressed that Star Wars had spawned an actual book - because books were sacred and important and thus leant authenticity to a subject matter.

My father read me The Chronicles of Narnia aloud several times, which were also read at my school (which was a fundamentalist church school), but there wasn't really a lot of other SF. However, I remember reading a Ben Bova novel I found in the school library, as well as several of James Blish's novelizations of Star Trek: TOS. And I read Batman comics through sixth grade, but when I was a preteen, sometime in 1978-1980, my father took me in a B.Daltons and handed me Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, and said, "Here, read this." I was going through a phase where I didn't do anything my father said out of principal. And since he is a lawyer, and that meant we were allowed to argue with his judgments, I took a look at the Michael Whelan painting of Deja Thoris and said, "But it has a naked woman on the cover."

"I know it has a naked woman on the cover," he replied (we both pronounced it "nekked"), "But it's still a good book and you're going to read it."He forced me to, and I did so furious and reluctant, but I read all 11 books in the series over the next few months. I ended up reading everything by Burroughs then available - in those days, the SF section was almost solid with books by ERB, Michael Moorcock, and John Borman (who I never read, as my father informed me that this time the nekked woman on the cover was indication of a bad book). I worked my way through Burroughs entire Mars, Venus, Earth's Core and Tarzan series, and read the 20 or so stand-alone novels that were also out (The Eternal Savage, in which Lord Greystoke has a bit part but isn't revealed as Tarzan, is still a favorite). I also read a lot of Moorcock - the Elric, Corum and (some) Hawkmoon series, and I read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books and some of Robert E. Howard's Conan. I didn't read much SF - though I read my father's battered copy of Dune when I was 15, and I found the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies in the basement of my grandmother' s house and read all of those. I also read several Isaac Asimov collections, an anthologies, but only read I, Robot from his novel works.

I was heavy into The Lord of the Rings thanks to the Ralph Bakshi film, though I stopped reading the actual book midway through The Two Towers, switched to The Silmarillion, and chunked it for The Tolkien Companion. So I painted hundreds of pewter orcs and memorized banner emblems and weapon types, but was more into the taxonomy of Middle Earth than the writing. AD&D hit me at just the right angle, too. I did read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and even tried for a while to play TSR's unplayable Top Secret spy game.

I didn't read (or game) much after I got my driver's license, however, and though I did read Alan Dean Foster's entire SpellSinger series one summer in college, my favorite authors then were John Irving (especially The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, one of which made me want to be a writer and the other changed my views on abortion) and Tom Robbins. But mostly college - and English 101 and 102 - made me hate books, and I didn't read much of anything for a while. I did return to comics with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but I did theatre in my last years of college and was more into live performance than anything else (though, it should be said, that I hated realism - the genre - as I felt it failed to take advantage of theatre's potential for transformation and its roots in ritual and magic - there is a reason that the Church persecuted actors - they steal the stage from the priests!)

After college I studied theatre in London, then directed theatre in Chicago, which lead to Los Angeles, where I hung out on movie set. On the way there, I'd gotten interested in Doctor Who, but by way of the novels rather than the television show, which I'd always hated for giving my UK friends the opinion that SF television was kid stuff. But I was struck by Kate Orman's The Left Handed Hummingbird, which pulled me heavily into Who one summer, and I'd managed to establish email relationships with several Doctor Who authors - email being only a couple years old as a real phenomena that people did, btw. So when the production assistant work dried up in Hollywood - my last gig was dumping buckets of fake dollar bills on a rap band standing in an alley - and my dad said "I"ll send you money for a plane ticket home if you agree to go to law school," I took a 3 hour jog in which I wracked my brains for a way to stay in LA. I came back from the jog, went and bought 5 science ficiton media magazines, and wrote all five of them offering them an article on the Doctor Who authors I knew. Only one responded - Sci Fi Universe - one of the few non-porn magazines owned by Larry Flint. They said they could care less about Doctor Who, but there was a convention in Anaheim I could attend on their behalf if I wanted. I went, met Jean-Marc L'officier, then connected with the in-development Fox TV Doctor Who movie, and interviewed him for the magazine. He called me a week later, saying that Titan Magazines in the UK was looking for an LA journalist to be their point man on a new Star Trek magazine and he'd recommended me. So, with one interview under my belt that had yet to see print, I told Titan Magazine with a straight face, "You will never find a better Star Trek journalist in all of Los Angeles than me." At the time I said this, I did not watch the show and barely knew how to write an article. But they hired me, and over the next five years, I busted my ass to make it the truth, writing over 500 articles for their magazines, hanging out on the sets and offices of SF TV, primarily Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (Look for me as an extra in the penultimate episode of the latter show).

I used to have to watch something like 6 hours of SF television a week to keep up, and I saw about two movies a week on average, but in 99, when B5 and Trek ended and everything was moving to Vancouver or New Zealand, I accepted a job to work for an old friend as the editor of an online publishing startup called Bookface.com. Operating on the assumption that SF people were early adapters, they sent me around to conventions to smooze SF&F writers into digitizing their stories and placing them online, which is how, when the bubble burst, I came to a great deal of good people in the publishing field and transitioned into literary SF. Somewhere in that process, I had become appalled at the disparity between the TV variety and the works I was being exposed to, though, of course, I'm a big proponent of the renaissance in television occurring now.

That's the long answer.

The short answer surprises me when I look back at what I've written - a school library, a parent's recommendation, cinema, and media tie-in work. Apparently, I wasn't born with a copy of Dhalgren in my hand after all. How about you?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Can You Read This?

I'm getting reports that some folks are having trouble viewing this blog. It seems to be that as you scroll down, the browswer prevents you from going all the way, possibly throwing up a grey band. I've played on the three computers here, and it seems to only occur in Explorer, not in Mozilla. Also, the problem may date to when I installed StatCounter on my webpage. I'm going to play with it, but I'd like to hear if its happening to anyone on a browser other than IE, and I'd welcome any advice. I can junk statcounter, but it's got its uses.

Update: It appears to be cleared up now. I am amazed at how much I can do knowing absolutely nothing about XML, but you stare at it long enough and go "hmm, why don't I have that bit of nonsense here if I have it here and here? Let's see what happens if you type it in," you can get amazing results. I feel very much like the proverbial Chinese Box thought experiment in action. Anyway, please let me know if this has solved the problem.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Medieval But No Manifesto

Charles Stross weighs in with "Let's Put the Future Behind Us," and because I don't want to misquote him as he feels has already happened elsewhere, I want to say that Charlie has stressed that he is not writing a manifesto, but is - as I understand it - simply responding to the notion that rolling back the clock and writing to the golden age or Heinlein crowd is not the ideal long term strategy for growing the genre's market share.

As he says:

"There's a new cultural strange attractor at work, sucking in the young, smart, deracinated mechanistically-minded readers who used to be the natural prey of the SF movement. It's geek culture.... And unfortunately they don't buy many [fiction] books, because we aren't, for the most part, writing for them. This isn't to say that they don't read. There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF. Yes, I'm talking about cyberpunk. But while cyberpunk was a seven day wonder within the SF field, which subsequently lost interest, the geeks recognized themselves in its magic mirror and made it their own. This is the future they live in, not the future of Star Wars and its imitators, of the futures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And in addition to cyberpunk — the golden age SF taproots of their field — some of us are beginning to address their concerns. Among the quintessentially geek authors, the brightest names are Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling."

Charlie goes on to posit that the above authors are not writing for traditional SF readers, but writing fiction that is based on a present-day world view. His comments remind me of the way cyberpunk father William Gibson has been zeroing in on the present, approaching backwards from the future in his own work, his Bridge trilogy not as far cast as his Sprawl trilogy and latest Pattern Recognition set simply in the now (and actually, as of now, a few years in our past). I wonder if Gibson no longer needs to write science fiction because his particular future simply arrived. But I digress...

While Charlie goes on to say that:

"The audience I'm talking about is today's successor to the traditional SF readers of yore. They're smart, not brilliantly well socialized because their energies have been going elsewhere, and they increasingly self-identify as geeks. We are competing for their attention time with computer games, video, the internet, and fuck-knows-what new bleeding edge media that haven't made it our event horizon of self-absorption yet: anime, manga, machinima, your guess is as good as mine. They don't, yet, have a separate section in the bookstore, but they know what they like to read and they get it from the fringes of the mainstream and the edges of the genre and the core of the slipstream. And their time is coming. If you're a writer and you still want to be in business in something vaguely resembling SF in thirty years time, study them."

It's late here, and I want to process this some more after sleeping on it, but I will say that the target audience he identifies is EXACTLY the audience that David Louis Edelman was deliberately writing for with his novel Infoquake. That Infoquake has drawn multiple (favorable) comparisons to Stross, Stephenson and Doctorow should not surprise then.

More as I know it.

Chadbourn Dissents, Two Paul's Unite

Mark Chadbourn weighs into the debate with a post called The Slow Death of Science Fiction, wherein he disagrees with Rebecca Ore's opinion, quoted here again:

"If s.f. now is selling 7 or 8 percent of the market, the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories."

Rather, says Chadbourn:

"The real problem for SF, in my eyes, is that too much of it is failing in the art of communication. It’s written by scientists, for scientists. Every time this charge is levelled, the Big Machine Writers always talk about not wanting to do ‘dumbed-down fiction’ - SF is the genre of ideas, they say...By becoming more esoteric, SF will only go the way of the Western genre: a tiny backwater for specialists and nostalgia lovers."

But I don't think anyone is advocating throwing out plot, character or entertainment. In fact, the novels I've held up as exemplary of good SF (IMHO) - River of Gods and Paradox - are chocked full of both. My favorite character in Ian McDonald's River of Gods is a neglected housewife who never come into contact with any of the fantastic elements of the plot; my favorite scene in the whole novel being when she is cruelly snubbed by high society women at a cricket match. To those who haven't read the novel, the scene probably sounds more like something they'd expect to find in Bride and Prejudice than a work of hard SF. Whereas John Meaney's Paradox COULD BE Star Wars if Star Wars understood plotting and character. It's the tale of a lower class boy who works his way up through a rigid class system in order to exact revenge on the Lord he blames for his father's death and his mother's fall. It has Lords and Ladies, sword fights, karate, rock climbing, lazer gun battles, vehicle chases and vehicle crashes, and an elite force of mysterious & kick ass FTL pilots who can shoot deathrays from their eyes. It wears its influences - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank Herbert, Ann McCaffrey - quite visible on its sleeve, but it's damn smart about updating these tropes for a 21st Century audience.

While I'm at it, let me again point to Joel Shepherd's Crossover as another example of what I consider to be a near-perfect SF work to shoot for when it comes to balancing entertainment with relevance, and point out that his tale of a synthetic human dealing with prejudice and misunderstanding, while engaging in lots of heavy-arms fire and casual sex, is tonally near-identical to the new Battlestar Galactica - called by both Time and Rolling Stone the best drama on television and in my opinion a series which has raised the bar for cinematic SF for ALL TIME.

And while we're on the subject of Battlestar Galactica - the most successful show the Sci Fi Channel has yet produced - this morning I heard a critical piece on same on NPR in which the commentators praised it for engaging with harsh reality in exactly the way that Paul McAuley advocates written SF should be doing, while lamenting that so much of the rest of the Sci Fi Channel's programming failed to raise above the level of episodic space adventure as typified by Star Trek and Star Wars. I know that BSG is the only thing I watch on Sci Fi Channel, as it is for the NPR spokeswoman, and, I suspect, this is true for many other people out there in its fan base. If I were in development at Sci Fi right now, I'd be looking to produce more in the same vein as rapidly as possible in place of all the shlocky sci-horror they pump out. (And, incidentally, in case you're listening, I'd try to poach a few HBO series creators to help me do it, with a few newer SF book writers on as creative consultants to avoid the problems you get when the non-SF initiated try to write for SF.) But the point is, BSG is breaking out into the largest audience that the channel has ever had and getting unprecedented mainstream critical response in addition to its numbers, not by retreating to Star Wars-style adventure, but by presenting real people and real stories within complex narrative arcs which engage head on with uncomfortable truths about the current war on terror. Long term, I suspect that its affect on the mainstream perception/opinion of science ficiton will be a positive one as a result. One or two more shows like it, and the "stigma" attached to SF could wither away rapidly.

Again, no one is talking about throwing out entertainment value (or didn't you see that spaceship burning up on entry in the big battle in last night's episode?). They're just objecting to the notion that limiting science fiction to being "just entertainment" and retreating to outdated tropes is a positive thing for our genre's future.

All of which Paul McAuley reiterates when he returns with a second post, "Don't Look Back in Anger," in which he says:

"Science fiction isn’t going to win a new and wider audience by turning its back on the world and talking to itself. It has to engage. It has to produce novels that are part of the world’s conversation. Paul Cornell is right. If someone somewhere could write a definitely great populist but finely imagined science fiction novel, it would not only be a lovely thing in its own right; it would, like a supernova, make the science fiction galaxy more visible."

McAuley goes on to say that it's going to take more than one such supernova, but he is underscoring my point that BSG is succeeding for a TV audience specifically because it has managed to become part of the world's conversation. And if television viewers aren't put off by smart RELEVANT TV, why should we continue to assume readers will be put off by smart RELEVANT books? This is science fiction, for god's sake. It is supposed to be the genre that grapples with the big questions, engages the big concepts, and makes you think, damn it. That we are debating this at all feels increasingly absurd.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Back on Cover Art

Just really like this one. Another amazing Stephan Martiniere. This is due from Ace in April, 2007. Although Pyr publishes Sean's fantastic fantasy series, the Books of the Cataclysm, as well as his sci-mystery novel, The Resurrected Man, I've never read his acclaimed space opera, the previous books of which were co-authored with Shane Dix. Astropolis is the new trilogy and his solo space opera debut. I've been meaning to correct my gross oversight for some time, but this cover makes me all the more anxious to do so. If I haven't already read the recent Geodesica duology by the time this comes out, I know I'll be dropping everything to read Saturn Returns. From the description:

Dark experiments, dangerous ruins, fleeting ghosts and deadly

On the edge of the galaxy in a distant and terrible future, Imre Bergamasc is reborn into a pieced-together body with the certain knowledge that he was the victim of an elaborate murder plot.

But neither his mind nor the history of his former life are as easily reassembled, so he sets out to follow the fragments of his memories and discover the reason for his elimination. Through interstellar graveyards, decaying megacities and bizarre star systems, he pursues whispers connecting the death of the worlds he once knew to his own murder.

Tracked by forces determined to thwart his efforts, Imre combs the wreckage of the future for the truth about himself--no matter how unbearable it may be.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All Hail the New Medievalists!

Thanks to Paul @ Penguin for pointing me to Permanent Damage, Steven Grant's column on Comic Book Resources. Steven discusses science fiction in the second section of this blog post (the first bit in blue), where he says:

"Science fiction has become reality only at the pace (and in the areas) that commerce is equipped to assimilate it. Even if we could successfully build an android (and the Japanese, at least, are hard at work on it), they'll never become commonplace unless marketed as sex toys, and then everyone will want one. People talk about science being a false religion (ain't they all?) but science was never marketed as a religion; science fiction was... Science fiction, in its proselytizing mode, even helped the recent spread of religion by writing checks science couldn't cash, and an awful lot of people have 'returned' to religion because they've felt betrayed by The Promise Of Science. Science, of course, still works just fine and continues on in its usual clumsy fits and starts. It's science fiction that betrayed everyone. Science may deliver wonders - turns out there is much in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies - but science fiction never settled for mere wonders. It always wants miracles, just like everyone else, and, more than that, it wants miracles to be commonplace."

He goes on to talk about the way in which the mainstream and media have been incorporating SF, focusing on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Bob Dylan's new CD, and Battlestar Galactica, making me again note that these adaptations of our tropes are NOT of the old school space opera variety that Kristine Kathryn Rusch recommends. Grant concludes:

"The interesting thing about these works is that there seems to be something in the modern American psyche that's responding to them, and it may be the secular version of that element that responds to promises of the impending Apocalypse. These aren't even the relatively benign 'dystopian futures' of cyberpunk, where government/corporate quasi-fascism is offset by the possibility of personal techno-anarchism, like a boy's adventure novel. Even most of the bleakest science fiction contains the seeds of some sort of redemption (there's that religious iconography again), but these new works are not about The End Of Days. They're simply about the end."

Meanwhile, Rebecca Ore has an interesting point to make in the comment section of Paul McAuley's post, in which she says:

"If s.f. now is selling 7 or 8 percent of the market, the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories."

Or as Ian McDonald puts it earlier in the same thread:

"Media SF has so successfuly colonised the lower ground (much as 'Friends', by being so basic, colonised much of the lower ground of situation comedy, and Buffy seems to doing in urban fantasy) that written SF needs to look elsewhere and do something different."

Which, interestingly enough, dovetails with something Steven Grant said in another section of his column, when he wasn't speaking about SF at all, but about Hollywood's constant underestimation of audience intelligence as relates to the film Lucky Number Sleven:

"The problem really isn't that audiences are stupid, though that's how they're commonly portrayed. It's that they're overeducated. Maybe not in traditional terms, but in pop culture. People grow up with movies, TV, comics. The challenge now isn't coming up with material but coming up with material audiences are unfamiliar with. (Not that familiarity isn't marketable - that's a different discussion - but even the familiar requires a new wrinkle to be really marketable; has a new wrinkle ever done anything besides make something old look older?)"

Which is another good reason not to stuff genies back into bottles.

Update: Chris Roberson chimes into the discussion with a food-based metaphor, and a really smart one at that. Not surprisingly, Paul Cornell is first to comment with his own come comestibles analogy.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

J. Garcia & Mr. Medieval Weigh In

Jose Garcia, one of three bloggers behind the magnificent Meme Therapy responds to Paul Cornell's question "Where's Our Casablanca" in a blog post of the same name. Jose suggests that SF media and SF literature are apples and oranges and that far from being an asset that science fiction has colonized so much territory in the mainstream visual media, the reverse is now true:

"We all have a limited amount of time and money to spend on entertainment. If people are watching spending more and more time watching Science Fiction television and playing Science Fiction computer games they may be doing so at the expense of reading a Science Fiction novel. We may just have to resign ourselves to the fact that Science Fiction is now primarily about visual media and that such popularity won’t necessarily translate and possibly work against its popularity in dead tree media."

While I agree with the first half of that statement, what Jose fails to acknowledge is that Hollywood films attract readers in the scores of millions, so if we could attract even 1% of that audience, we're talking a significant increase in SF readership. So if 35 million people went and saw The Matrix, and even 1% of them had been persuaded to read SF as a result, that's 350,000 new readers. Hasty math, but suggestive that it's a target worth shooting for and simply writing it off as apples to oranges is a mistake. Yes, certain individuals whose time is monopolized by visual media will no longer read. But they may not have been readers to begin with. Whereas, there must be readers who, attracted by what they see in visual media, adjust their reading habits to include SF. Certainly, the number of people who respond to my frequent criticisms of Star Wars to tell me it was their entry to more sophisticated SF&F works suggest the flow between books and cinema is not exclusively one way. I am reminded of Gollancz editor Simon Spanton's advice that it is not the uninitiated whose attention we are after, but the "lapsed Catholics of science fiction," those individuals who read SF as a child, then put it aside. Some folks don't get it and never will, but let them who have ears to hear...

Meanwhile, Mr. Medieval himself, Paul McCauley, gets into the game with his post "Don't Fence Me In," in which he says:

"I became more and more enraged by Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s piece in Asimov's, mostly because it exemplifies the lamentably pious, holy-than-thou obsession with definitions that's becoming rife in the science-fiction community. If you really want to kill SF as a genre, go right ahead and tell people what is and what isn’t really SF, and don’t forget to exclude people whose work borrows from and expands on the central themes and tropes of the genre simply because they forgot to include a heroic narrative or some other tick mark that meets the approval of the Guardians of the True Quill."

He then goes on to make a strong case for diversity in science fiction, with the very sage advice that "SF should be a big, roomy mansion that welcomes all kinds of fantastic fiction."

Of particular interest to me is McAuley's observation:

"What’s this American obsession with the New Wave? Look, it happened thirty years ago. It shook things up a bit, it added some useful stuff to the common humus of the genre, but the people responsible have moved on. It isn’t around anymore. It’s as dead as a parrot. So why are people still acting as if filthy dirty New Wavers are about to ravish their precious little genre and piss on the furniture afterwards? Get over it, or get out of the way."

For my own part, I was born in the latter half of the sixties and started reading SF in the late 70s, post New Wave, and read Asimov and Delaney side by side without realizing they sat across philosophical and stylistic divides. I do remember realizing that Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" belonged to a different category of storytelling than his Elric work and having the good sense not to share it with my fundamentalist Christian parents. (Though I did give my father "A Boy and His Dog" to read, which he pronounced "disgusting.") However, it was only in retrospect that I learned what the New Wave was, or the importance of Moorcock the editor and the New Wave to our genre. I certainly enjoy being a reader on this side of the New Wave fence, where thesis and antithesis met, merged, and moved on. But ultimately, I think Kristine's prescription fails for the same reason the earlier Mundane Manifesto does, as McAuley points out - the Universe is a big place. What's sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander. This is true for those who write it and for those who read it. I wasn't so fond of those "Fuck Authority" shirts of a few years ago, but "Fuck Authority, Sez Who?" was brilliant.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to be interested in Carol Pinchefsky's informal study, and the notion that introducing the uninitated to SF requires, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, "a solid understanding of your friends and their tastes, and (I think on some level) writing itself." The italics are mine, because that's the part of the statement I find so insightful. Although in the minds of the general population and (regrettably) a lot of people in the publishing industry, SF sits below mystery and just above romance on the ladder of "literary respectability, " the field of speculative fiction contains some of the most sophisticated writing and complex style as anything out there - certainly more than what is found anywhere else but in "literary" novels. While browsing together in a bookstore a while back, I showed a friend of mine - a lawyer who reads bestseller fiction and some historical - William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. He read the first page, then jumped as if it were a snake that might bite. He exclaimed "that's literary fiction!" and backed away in almost-fear. He explained that he hadn't read literature since college and was just looking for something to take to the beach. So I gave up and pointed him to the towering stacks of The Da Vinci Code.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Medieval Fallout III and Judging Books by Their Covers IV

First, kudos to John Scalzi for allowing me to rope him into the discussion. After bringing his audience up to speed, Scalzi write:

"...much of the debate between Ms. Rusch and Mr. McDonald is irrelevant, because it starts from an erroneous premise. That erroneous premise is that the Star Wars films are entertainment. Star Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot."

He then proceeds into one of the funniest bits of Lucas-bashing I've heard in a while, with some very insightful points made along the way, including this gem:

"What's interesting about mythology is that it's the residue of a teleological system that's dead; it's what you get after everyone who believed in something has croaked and nothing is left but stories. Building a mythology is necrophilic storytelling; one that implicitly kills off an entire culture and plays with its corpse (or corpus, as the case may be). It's one better than being a God, really. Gods have to deal with the universes they create; mythmakers merely have to say what happened. When Lucas started Star Wars with the words 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...' he was implicitly serving notice to the audience that they weren't participants, they were at best witnesses to events that had already happened, through participants who were long dead.

Why does this matter? It matters because Lucas' intent was to build an overarching mythological structure, not necessarily to make a bunch of movies. If you listen to Lucas blather on in his laconic fashion on the Star Wars DVD commentaries, you'll hear him say about how he wanted everything to make sense in the long view -- that all his films served the mythology. This is fine, but it reinforces the point that the films themselves -- not to mention the scripts and the acting -- are secondary to Lucas' true goal of myth building. Myths can be entertaining -- indeed, they survive because they can entertain, even if they don't brook participation. These films could work as entertainment. But fundamentally they don't, because Lucas doesn't seem to care if the films work as entertainment, as long as they sufficiently conform to his created mythology.

This is especially evident in the prequel trilogy, which is designed for the specific purpose of consecrating the mythology of the Skywalker family; in essence, putting flesh on the bones of the myth, so that the flesh could then turn to dust and the bones could be chopped up for reliquaries. Because they're not designed as entertainment, it's not surprising they're not really all that entertaining; strip out the yeoman work of Industrial Light and Magic and what you have left is a grim Calvinistic stomp toward the creation of Darth Vader. Lucas was so intent to get there that he didn't bother to slow down to write a decent script or to give his cast (riddled though it was with acclaimed actors) an opportunity to do more than solemnly intone its lines. Lucas simply couldn't be bothered to do more; entertainment gave way to scriptual sufficiency."

Amen. Like John, I felt palpable relief when the whole thing was over, because I was excited that the amazing technologies that Lucas had pioneered, the costs of which are dropping all the time, would be available to a whole new generation of hopefully better and more talented filmmakers and writers who could rush in to fill the now vacant niche now that Star Wars is over. So I was really upset to hear about plans for a Star Wars television series, though, of course, if Lucas will stay out of it, and allow younger filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon to run the show, perhaps we will finally get a Star Wars equal to its special effects.

And speaking of, Joel Shepherd comments that:

"the greatest potential of SF, and what it can do that few other genres can, is to transform greatly significant concepts that could under other circumstances be quite boring, and make them exciting, sexy and action packed. And that the best SF has action that's more dramatic, and more gripping in a purely entertaining fashion, because it's actually about something that matters. Otherwise, you have what Hollywood usually turns out -- tremendous action, awesome special effects, within which characters that no one cares about go through a series of action sequences the consequences of which are utterly unimportant both technically and emotionally... so why should anyone care if they survive or not? By avoiding 'cleverness' in plot, they kill drama in the action, thus achieving neither, and a bomb of a movie."

Of course, Scalzi points out that sometimes the audience can't distinguish the difference, citing how the Yoda light saber duel is itself always cited as proof that the movie didn't suck, how two hours of lame storytelling can be justified in the mind's of so many fans because of a few seconds of cool.

Which has me thinking about comments Terry Gilliam made ten years ago about how you have to train your audience, and that Hollywood is repsonsible for dumbing audiences down over decades to the point where smart filmmaking is impossible. I agreed with him at the time, but think the trend has turned, largely due to the democratization of special effects and the importance of secondary markets (DVD boxed sets, etc...) necessitating more complex narratives that will lend stories longer shelf life, more rewards on frequent viewing, etc...

But speaking of training the audience, thanks to my friend Tomas for cluing me in to this article on Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. "Wizard Oil" documents Carol Pinchefsky's "informal study in introducing non-genre readers to science fiction and fantasy." Determining that the best way to introduce someone to SF&F was through personal recommendation, Carol asked four volunteer genre virgins about their own reading habits and tastes, then provided each of them with a short story to read, followed by a short questionaire. The results are fascinating to read about. Especially this comment from "Wendy K," who represents, I think, a type of reader I know well:

I understand the appeal of reading about another world, where the characters are upon a completely different plane. It's just not real life. You're escaping when you read those kind of stories. I understand the appeal, and it's interesting enough to me, but I wouldn't want to drown myself in the genre. I'm really interested in life on Earth."

Meanwhile, Carol reports a better than 25% success rate with growing new potential readers, making me wonder if everyone in SF shouldn't try this experiment themselves. I routinely give books to new readers, but I think I may start blogging the results in future.

And speaking of new readers and how to grow them, in response to an anonymous post suggesting I/Pyr shouldn't be afraid to scare away readers over 50 in order to grow a new audience, "Robert" posts:

Oh, give me a break! I am 52 and am not 'scared away' by more complex SF -- it's what's kept me reading all these years, NOT nostalgic tie-ins. Seems to me that Star Wars books are being marketed to a younger audience, as are most "entertaining" Sci-fi movies."

Thanks, Robert. (And I'm glad you like our books!) Perhaps some truth here re: younger audiences, as another anonymous responded:

"As an early 30's guy who ate up SF/F through high school and college and now rarely touches at least SF, I can only explain my reasons:

1.)I get more than enough politics in the air I breathe, and without inviting it. The last thing I want is to get knee-deep in a novel whose premises or presuppositions bug me. I get all the politics I need from CNN/NPR. Am I the only one who is utterly weary of politics? Voter turnout says no.

2.)As someone who owns original F/SF art, the heavy reliance on digital covers with composited photos of models is always a turnoff. I can't bring myself to buy anything with a digital cover that doesn't at least fool me into thinking it isn't digital (Lockwood). This also tips my interest towards fantasy. There's a reason guys like Whelan, Donato, and Parkinson (RIP) have been so popular over the years.

3.)I'm what someone might call a fairly normal guy. I tried the literary con scene but didn't fit in with the in-jokes, the constant obscure quoting and all that. So, the scene put me off. I'm more comfortable at a paper gaming convention where the media is still SF/F but the people are more everyday. Perhaps something in the literature caused the hardcore fanbase to be so...what they are.

4.)Like most my age, I spend more free time playing video games than reading SF/F these days. Most of what is appealing about SF/F is the visual aspect, which is a large part of why games/movies/tv dominate SF/F consumption, why fantasy art generates large fanbases.

Great stories can be had without any SF/F dressing. I do read normal fiction still from time to time, and non-fiction because I like learning. What SF/F can get me (and part of why I still read mainly Fantasy on occasion) that regular fiction cannot, is sheer, unbridled imagination--stories I can't easily get without the SF/F component."

Interesting the comment on the visual aspect of reading and the attraction to fantasy over SF covers. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of photoshopped covers - or rather, they are the exception, not the rule at Pyr. Neither am I after the more lurid brass binini clad warrior maiden and dragon type. As I've said elsewhere, I think John Scalzi said it best when he spoke to the need to produce covers that neither hid their genre elements nor presented them in an adolescent light. Covers that were inclusive rather than exclusive. We are continually praised for our covers, so I hope that we are succeeding in producing books that announce their sense of wonder upfront without looking like something from a pulp digest of the 1950s. I do think that "bland" is NOT the way to go, not in an age of unparalleled consumer choice. The cover has got to draw the reader in, and so much of what I see either turns off or fails to stand out.

Towards that end, I'm also fascinated by this article on Bookslut, "Judging a Book by its Cover: The Dispossessed," which examines five different cover treatments for Ursula K Le Guin's The Dispossessed and what the writer, Heather Smith, thinks each communicates to her. (Thanks Emily for the link!) And I love her description of "
Chuck Norris being pursued by a giant space piggy." Now, that's what we need more of, surely!

Meanwhile, I've just found Cheryl Morgan's new blog url, where she addresses Kristine Kathryn Rusch's notion that we need more Star Wars in our novels, not less:

"I don’t think the same sort of writing is possible today. If anything, science, in the form of global warming, genetic engineering, pollution and the much hyped gray goo of nanotechnology, is seen as a threat to our lives, not a promise of hope. So are people going to be turning to science fiction for their upbeat happy endings? I think not. They are much more likely to turn to books set in worlds that are manifestly not our own: books that talk about fairies and unicorns; books in which good triumphs simply because it is Good.

Now of course we have things like Star Wars, but that isn’t SF in the way that Hugo Gernsback would have understood it (at least the original trilogy, which is all I’ve seen – Karen Traviss tie-in novels are likely to be another thing entirely). Lucas freely admits that what he did was create a mythological story in an outer-space setting. And he has The Force, which we all know will fix it so that the good guys win in the end.

Now sure you can write happy books with SF-like themes. Chris Roberson, for example, is making a career of doing so. But I don’t think we can make science fiction happy and upbeat with just a Picard-like wave of the finger and an imperious 'make it so'. We have to write from the cultural background in which we live, and if you are writing books about science then these days that means addressing people’s fears, not promising them fantasy endings. Ignoring that requirement will probably just get you laughed at. The 'that’s just science fiction' put-downs we see so often in the media these days are, I think, a product of belief that SF is still mired in the 1950s."

Absolutely, agreed. Then there is the Carol Pinchefsky's case subject "Nancy S," who likes things specifically because they are mature and uncomfortable:

"I liked the foreign setting, the coffee bar. I liked the descriptions. I like the bleak outlook and crushed spirits of the main character. When those quirky things happen, people took them in stride because of their bleak outlook, not something a normal person would do. The characterization was well done, it allowed for the unusual plot occurrences to be believable. It had things we can relate to, but having the miraculous in such pedestrian circumstances was fresh. It was more than adorable -- it was dark."

Thinking back on Kristine's example of how the mainstream is colonizing SF tropes, and my own rebuttal that said books are NOT packaged like Star Wars novels, and all the comments above, are science fiction readerships polarizing between those who like their entertainments lurid and those who are embarrassed by same? To reference my favorite superhero, there really are two Batmen - the Batman of Superfriends and the Batman of Dark Knight. One belongs to one audience, the other to a quite distinct one - and both are equally valid. Does science fiction need a Vertigo line? Really, it should be obvious that genre is a country, not a formula, and that all kinds of people live there. No one dismisses mystery as being wholey juvenile because it is home to both Silence of the Lambs and the adventures of Sneaky Pie Brown, crime-solving cat. Perhaps Carol's informal study is the best way to communicate this to that larger audience that exists for genre film and bring a few more potential settlers to our lands. When they get here, they can decide for themselves in which district they want to live.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Getting Even More Medieval

Ian McDonald has picked up on my previous post, "Getting Medieval on Reality's Ass," in an LJ post entitled "These fictions that sustain us." In same, he adds to my bricks of the house metaphor for what we find entertaining, when he says:

"Because entertainment is the mortar than holds our bricks of story. It's a basic and primary as good grammar and syntax. It's not an end point. It's a beginning point. The reader should no more have to ask 'is this entertainming' any more than they shoukld have to ask, are these readable sentences, or, is this printed on paper? It's as fundamental as spelling, if you're serious about your writing. Now, many things entertain. It's not necessasily plot, or cleverness of plot, or speed of plot. I, and many other readers, find the long, seemingly plotless exchanges on shipboard life in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series wonderfully entertaining. Character entertains, and yes, language entertains. Sense of wonder entertains; sense of estrangement entertains. A novel has a totally different structure and purpose and rules of appreciation and criticism from a movie or a teleision programme. It takes place in a different narrative space; it can handle things those other forms cannot --as they do things that the novel canot. Each has its own story-space and language."

Then he references an editorial in the October/November Asimov's by Kristine Kathryn Rusch called "Barbarian Confessions" in which Rusch opinions that:

"Is current SF writing influenced by Star Wars? No, not nearly enough. We need more grand adventure, more heroes on journeys, more uplifting (if not downright happy) endings. Yes, we can keep the good sentence-by-sentence writing, the good characters, and the lovely descriptions the New Wave steered us to. We can even keep the dystopian fiction and the realistic, if difficult-to-read, sf novels, so long as we do them in moderation. They cannot—and should not—be the dominant subgenre on the shelves."

As you might imagine, Ian's opinion of this sentiment is not very high.

And my own thinking on the matter is far more to the side of Ian's than Kristine's. Far more, as readers of this blog will undoubtably realize.

But again: Quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

Ian agrees, when he says:

"Fallacy fallacy fallacy: Cartesian dualities in fiction. Either plot or character. Either action or literary value. Nonsense. We're aiming higher than that. I want it all; and by Christ, I may seldom, if ever attain it, but that's not going to stop me trying to be much more than just entertaining."

And Rusch agrees with this too, when she cites Michael Chabon's lament that "Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people, some of whom write short stories, learn to mistrust and even revile it. "

But despite all this agreeing, the thing is I strongly disagree with Kristine's call to essentially roll back the New Wave, with her ideas of what exactly she feels has to go and why, though I disagree with Ian that TV can never equal the novel. The novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy changed my life. So did the film The World According to Garp. And I loved it when Paul Cornell referenced my single favorite piece of cinema ever when he commented that:

"Where is our Casablanca? That is, an extremely populist work of extremely high quality."

But Kristine is right in diagnosing a problem when she reports that:

"The figures I quoted above for 2004 are down from 2003. In that year, SF counted for 7 percent of all adult fiction books sold. In 2001, SF counted for 8 percent. The literary trend spirals downward while the media trend goes up. Half the new television dramas introduced in 2005 were science fiction, fantasy, or had a fantastic element. Most of the movies in the top twenty for the past five years have been SF. Nearly all of the games published have been SF. If we bring even one-tenth of the people who play the games, watch the movies, or read the tie-in novels into the literary side of SF, we’ll revive the genre. In a few years, we could overtake mystery or even, God forbid, romance."

Again, readers of this blog will know that the disparity between the audience for filmic SF and literary SF is a major concern of mine, but so too is the disparity of the quality between filmic SF and literary SF. And I am not a proponent of format prejudice. The production of quality SF&F is a perfectly attainable goal for either medium, and it is possible to produce highly commercial works while achieving this goal. Lord of the Rings, Dune, Ender's Game, Neuromancer, Altered Carbon, American God's, the Baroque Cycle, even the Harry Potter series, films and books, say what you will.

But I again site the recent USA Today article as growing evidence that the type of SF that is currently flowering is the Paul McAuley take-the-world-to-task variety, or else it very soon will be as the pendulum Ian mentions swings back this way.

I still think John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence is letter perfect SF, in that it's space opera with a hero on a quest traveling across exotic settings while encountering ideas and artifacts that instill Golden Age levels of sense o'wunder, is chocked full of karate, sword and blaster fights, has FTL spaceships and strange new worlds, epic battles, dark enemies, and even manages to have an unbelievably uplifting ending, but damn is it smart. It's absolutely part of that Science Fiction Village Walter Jon Williams' bemoans, drawing as it does from Ann McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, even Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it's so new and original that I wouldn't mind it being my own son's entry level work when he's of an age to start handing him books. Go check it out already. I was touting the UK edition for years before Pyr came along, and I'm sure not going to stop recommending it just because I publish it in the US.

But I do think that the image of Star Wars and Star Trek does put off a lot of readers who think that's all we are. When Kristine mentions that the mainstream are embracing supposedly discarded aspects of SF in novels like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Plot Against America, she neglects to point out that they are NOT marketed with the type of SW cover designs and copy she seems to seek out and prefer and that the mainstream readers of those books would not be attracted to the mystery work she cites as exemplar of where we need to be.

Now, I agree with John Scalzi that we need more respect for those writing entry level works, and I agree with Ian McDonald that we need the SF that forgoes your beer money and competes for your "triple-distilled whiskey money." I hope that I publish both at Pyr, with most of the books at the center of the bell curve this range represents.

There is a huge range between Martin Sketchley's The Affinity Trap and George Zebrowski's Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia, and I'm damn proud to have published both of them. Both are smart in their own way, and both are entertaining books, though their respective entertainments differ. Thanks to Ian and Jeff Vandermeer for pointing out that one man's meat is another man's poison and that entertainment is subjective. But for my money, Ian's own River of Gods is the novel that blows my mind with sense o'wunder, holds its own against any literary work you care to put it up against, exposes me to a beautifully realized new world and new civilization I'd never explored before, makes me care and laugh and cry and think, and even has an uplifting ending. And it has been garnering an enormously positive critical response - pretty much universally proclaimed as one of the most important books of the year by everyone that reads it- while being commercial successful for us. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too? Where Kristine is wrong is that - if I am interpreting her thoughts correctly - River of Gods is the type of book that should be culled or curtailed or marginalized in her estimation. Whereas I don't think you can have enough Ian McDonald-esque writers in our genre, and I wish we had a hundred more of him. (Wiliam Gibson & Neal Stephenson are in the same vein as Ian, btw, and look how successful they are.)

Look, whatever you write, aim for the top, not the middle, whatever your genre or medium, whatever your personal idea of "top" is. You may not always find your target, but if you aim for the middle, you may not hit that either. Only one thing is certain, if you aim for the bottom, you're sure to strike it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Getting Medieveal on Reality's Ass

Recently I deleted a comment on an old post here from someone who suggested it was "retarded" to apply critical analysis to a movie. I deleted the post because the author of same tossed out their insults behind the cowardly "anonymous" label. People are welcome to say anything here, but insults must be owned up to if they are going to remain. Little children who play ring-and-run do not get indulged.

However, this is not the first time that someone has cast disparaging remarks on posts that examine film and television in detail. The phrase we so often here in these cases is "It's only a movie."

I got to say, that sort of quip really gets my goat. It's a vacuous statement. Meaningless. To Kill a Mockingbird is only a movie too. Citizen Kane is only a movie. So is The Godfather. For that matter, Cry, the Beloved Country is only a book. Hamlet is only a play. Hey, New York is only a city. Christianity is only a religion. Earth is only a planet.

It is fine for the analysis and appreciate of art to be equal to the effort that goes into its creation.

Weekend at Bernie's Two may be only a movie. But when you look at all the effort, all the thought, all the awareness of genre history that went into crafting something like Batman Begins or the Matrix, there is nothing wrong with time spent reveling in examination of the end result.

Hey wait - you say. Those are fun movies. I thought you were going to hold up an example of something like 5 Easy Pieces or The Deer Hunter. Not a comic book adaptation and a martial arts flick. Do people really care what goes into their summer blockbusters?

Well, yes, some do. And some people care about what goes in. And the qualitative difference between The Lord of the Rings and the Dungeons & Dragons movie is profound for this reason. Yes, the vast majority of Hollywood studio projects may be about making a quick, sure buck pumping out something puerile and predictable. But there are filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, or Ron Howard, who would probably take issue with the statement that what they produced was "only a movie." And all of them make commercially successful films.

The drummer Steward Copeland, formerly of the Police, was once asked by a reporter why he went to such lengths with his riffs, traveling to Africa to learn unusual beats and bringing them back to incorporate into his music. "Are any of your listerners really going to understand what it is you are doing here?" the reporter asked. "No, of course not," came Copeland's reply, "but they'll appreciate the music the better for it, even if they don't know why."

Again: It is fine for the analysis and appreciate of art to be equal to the effort that goes into its creation.

But also: It is fine for art to strive for excellence regardless of whether those who will live in the house appreciate or even notice every brick that went into its construction.

Some of us enjoy examining the bricks. Admiring the craftsmanship. Seeing how they pieces fit together. Studying what worked and what didn't. This is fun. This is also instructive for those who might harbor aspirations to "go thou and do likewise."

One of the first lessens I hope to impart to my young son is that the world is divided between passive and active participants. In the past, a very small portion of people, largely gathered in a few key geographic locations, produced the media that the majority of us consumed. Now, thanks to the democratization of the Internet, we are all potentially active participants in our entertainment and this trend will only increase rapidly in the coming years. You like music? Get on your Apple and start mixing your tracks. You like videgames? Get to work programming one. You like movies - here's a digital camcorder. You like special effects and model work - go subscribe to Make. There's never been a better time to be creative - the threshold for entry has never been lower. And in a level playing field, quality of product will be more important than ever.

So, you can be a couch potato all you want, and more power to you. But personally, I think the idea that any creative media, whether it's a book, a movie, a cartoon, or a comic book, should limit its aspirations of quality, is, well, "mentally deficient." Format prejudice is ugly. There are moments of real briliance on Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock. (The latter, btw, was pitched to HBO as a children's show that would end war. Okay, they didn't actually succeed in that aspiration, but that's a much better goal than just moving a few plastic toys in an Happy Meal, isn't it?.)

Now, again, I'm not talking about War and Peace here. Or the art house film that only plays in a few select cities. ("Not that there is anything wrong with that," he says in his best Jerry Seinfeld.) I'm talking about commercial entertainment and the attitude that says because a thing is popular it can't or shouldn't be good.

Quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

Recently, Alan Beatts, owner of one of my favorite bookstores in America, Borderlands Books, and a very wise and smart man, wrote in his October newsletter, Dispatches from the Border:

"But when people (writers and editors especially) forget that we're in the business of providing entertainment, the result is crappy fiction that doesn't sell. That's not to say that the lofty ideas that I mentioned can't be served by genre fiction or that genre fiction can't or shouldn't aspire to the highest levels of writing. But the story and the entertainment has to come first because that's why people buy and read this stuff. They want a good story, a fun ride, something to relax with and take a break. And if they don't get it, they won't read it and the work cannot accomplish anything, neither something base like entertainment or lofty like changing people's
lives or their world."

Yes, absolutely. Couldn't have said it better myself. I go on a LOT about the importance of science fiction, but the prime component of fiction is entertainment and without that, it's not going to accoomplish much else. I have very little patience with writers or performers who complain that their audience doesn't understand them or aren't smart enough to appreciate their genius. Fiction is about reaching people. (And I hope that, with the average Pyr book, readers come away enjoying fiction that is both action-packed and thought provoking. That's the goal, anyway).

Again, quality and popularity need not be mutually exclusive.

That being said, I do feel that speculative fiction in specific has an additional role to play beyond the laudable goal of being entertaining. As I have said elsewhere, I grew up in the Deep South, at a time when it was considerably deeper than it is now. My childhood peers frequently told racist jokes, used the N-word, and when we came of age to drive, more than once we amused ourselves by throwing eggs at the local gay bar. (Ideally, this was accomplished while one or more patrons was in the doorway). And, not knowing any better, I partook of all these shameful activities myself. Nor was this atypical behaviour for Southern teenagers. Who went to church and had good parents and attended good schools. But the dominant social atttidudes were not those of tolerance. And the only difference between me and my companions was that I had a father who shoved A Princess of Mars into my hands and ordered me to read it despite my protests. And an uncle who was into the original Star Trek. And it is very hard to not to question bigotry against fellow human beings when one is onboard with Klingons and the green men of Mars.

My late grandmother hated minorities (and would probably have disowned me as having "betrayed my race" for marrying a non-white had she lived to see it). When I was grammar school, we took her on a trip to Disney World. When the animatronic Abraham Lincoln stood up in the Hall of Presidents to give a speech, she growled out loud enough for the whole auditorium to hear "Sit down, traitor!" I showed her and her second husband an episode of The Next Generation once. It was their first exposure to Star Trek and they saw right through it. Before the first commercial break, they had decried the show as liberal propoganda, funny foreheads as metaphors for the idea that we should all just get along. They hated it. They knew it was a deliberate and calculated assault on their world view. They knew it was a legitimate threat. They were absolutely correct.

For all its faults, Star Trek changed the world. It's message of tolerance and its depiction of a universe blessed with "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" was radical for its day and still vital for our day. So science fiction for me isn't just an alternative to romance novels and cop & laywer shows. In a very real and meaningful way, speculative fiction is an alternative to throwing eggs at homosexuals.

I have a bi-racial son who understands more Mandarin than English. And that's not something you could have predicted had you met me in the 1980s.

Didn't Brian Aldiss remark once that it wasn't truly science fiction if it wasn't subversive? Recently, the very wise Paul McAuley reminded us all of science fiction's obligation to be subversive on the blog Meme Therapy:

"Science fiction is the holy fool of literature. It can say what it likes and get away with an examination of truly radical and subversive ideas because no one takes it seriously. When it’s at its best, we’re generally in trouble. Science fiction flourished during the social and economic upheavals of the 1930s, during the Cold War, and during the Iron Age of the 1980s. It should be flourishing now, damn it, but too many people who used to hang out with it have wandered off into some kind of fluffy make-believe world or other. Real science fiction doesn’t make stuff up. It turns reality up to eleven. It takes stuff from contemporary weather - stuff no one else has bothered or dared to question - and uses it to make an end run on reality. It not only shows us what could happen if things carry on the way they are, but it pushes what’s going on to the extremes of absurdity. That’s not its job: that’s its nature. And what’s happened to science fiction lately, it isn’t natural. It’s pale and lank and kind of out of focus. It needs to straighten up and fly right. It needs to reconnect with the world’s weather, and get medieval on reality’s ass."

While I applauded McAuley's words, I was disheartened by how many writers didn't say the same. I felt a bit like Bill Maher, wondering why the traditional news media waited so long to call this administration's bullshit. But hey, Bill Maher, John Stewart, Steven Colbert. They're only comedians, right? They shouldn't actually be trying to say anything relevant should they?

Remember that USA Today article I found so encouraging, "Science Fiction Gets Real". The one in which quite a few prominent tv & filmmakers talk about science fiction's importance as legitimate social criticism. Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema, says pretty much the same thing as McAuley:

"Historically, science fiction springs from tension. The big boon we had in the '40s and '50s came from war and Cold War tensions. When times are tense, it causes us to look forward and imagine what it's all going to mean."

So Hollywood has gotten it right once. And let's pause right here and praise Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, whose blog Making Light does just about the best job of addressing that tension as anyone in our field, writer or editor, is doing. But I would suggest that science fiction's job has never been more important and while it can't do that job if it isn't entertaining enough to reach its readers, it very much has a job and this is very much the time to remember that.

Which brings me to the two-hour premier of season three of Battlestar Galactica and to a show that isn't perfect, but certainly knows what science fiction is for.

As Paul Levinson says on his blog (and which I hope he will forgive me for quoting in its entirety here, since what he says is on the money and not everyone has a MySpace account):

"I thought the two-hour premier of Battlestar Galactica on the SciFi Channel tonight was mind-blowingly powerful and extraordinary in its continuing probing of excrutiating ethical issues. One that made even me a little uncomfortable was the depiction of some humans as suicide bombers in their resistance to the Cylon occupation of new Caprica. The implication - or, at least one of the implications - is that the U.S. forces in Iraq are the Cylons. As much as I am unhappy about our conduct of the continuing war there, I don't think we're quite as bad as the Cylons - the worst of whom (which is pretty much all of them, except two) - kill with complete amoral abandon. And certainly the Israelis, who have far more of a right to be in Israel than we do in Iraq, have no resemblance to the Cylons at all. (Hezbollah seems to have more in common with the androids and robots.) But I've got to admire Battlestar Galactica for daring to insert this and other difficult and painful issues into its story. Treatment of political and ethical issues in science fiction on television certainly did not begin with the current Battlestar Galactica. The Twilight Zone more than once, brilliantly, addessed the insanity of nuclear war. Star Trek looked at the Cold War, race relations in the U.S., and other searing topics in the 1960s. The original Battlestar Galactica back in the late 1970s had plenty of Cold War analogies, too. But none of those hold a candle to the current BG in its consideration of wrenching issues. The first two seasons had some of the best military vs. civilian power confrontations in a democracy - in a time of life-and-death all-out war - I've even seen or read in any genre. And if tonight's episode is any indication, we can expect stories that will make us think - and squirm - even more in the months ahead. It's the end of space opera as we know it. A journey into the heart of darkness and light of space realism. I'm looking forward."

Amen. And anyone who watched the episode, whatever they thought of it and its politics, will understand why notions that "it's only television" make my blood boil. Because somewhere out there today is some kid who's still telling N-word jokes and hurling eggs or worse at those who are different, or if not that extreme, simply someone with a less considered opinion about the morality of our current invasion/occupation, and he or she has tuned in to Battlestar Galactica for the action and the robots, and is surreptitiously getting a lot more than they bargained for.

Does this matter? Or are Ron Moore and company just being "retarded," as horrendously pretentious as that Jim Hensen fellow was to think they can impact how people think about war. You decide.

After all, an open mind is just an alternative to a closed one.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Sono in italiano!

My story, "Crowd Control," has just been published in Robot, issue number 49, as "Soluzioni contro l'affolamento." At least I think that's issue 49, and not a price. Either way, I am thrilled to add Italian to a language list that also includes French, German, Greek and Danish and excited to see more foreign love for a story that pretty much sank without a trace in its native land. One day, I will play the Budokan. Just you watch.

Incidentally, when you run the Italian title through Babel Fish you get "Solutions against the affollamento." For some reason "affolamento" won't translate, either as part of the title or on its own. But whatever it is (I suspect it means "crowd"), we had best come up with some solutions against it. (Update: Silvio from Robot has corrected my spelling in the comments below. I have amended "affolamento" in the title but not in my subsequent use so that it is clear why Babel Fish remains a divine instrument.)

Grazie, robot. Sono felice di essere in vostra pubblicazione meravigliosa.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Skeletons of Spacemen

I'm convinced that Robyn Hitchcock is actually a science fiction writer who doesn't know it yet (even if he never will), which is one of the reasons that I've roped him into contributing two poems to my upcoming anthology Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge. I've been a long time admirer of his stories - both penned and spoken word - as well as his music, for the haunting imagery laced with equal parts absurdism, despair and humor. His lyrics - frequently referencing time travel, the future, outer space, transformation and regeneration (both monstrous and magical) - are evidence of someone who has internalized the iconography of science fiction and reprocessed it as musical pop culture. (And check out the HG Wells reference in 1995's sure-to-please-Jeff-Vandermeer song "Victorian Squid.") The science fiction angle has been in evidence as early as his late 70s band The Soft Boys - who took their name from William S. Burroughs' The Soft Machine - and has carried straight through his career. It's not the basis of my affection, but Hitchcock has that rare ability to weild the surreal as a weapon for uncovering the painfully true in a way that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously. I'm described him before as a combination of Bob Dylan and Doctor Who, and that's as apt a description as any.

Sometimes recording with the Egyptians, sometimes solo, lately Hitchcock has been achieving some very interesting sounds by working with some new collaborators. First there was his team up with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings for 2004's folksy Spooked (concerning which I interviewed him for the March 2006 issue of the Believer). Now, he's recorded with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin as Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3. The result, Ole! Tarantula - with a cover that looks like a sketch of a JW Potter image - is one of his most rocking offerings in years. As he says, "To me, the whole record is sadness cloaked in fun. But under that fun, more sadness."

Naturally, the SF is back, apparent right from the first track "Adventure Rocket Ship."

Adventure Rocket Ship,
the lover and the slave,
the skeletons of spacemen unzipper me with love.
I'm coming for you someday,
as fathful as a mummy discovered in a crator,
Hemaphrodite in style.
You crash upon a star...

As are those wonderfully little bits of nonesense that are Beatles-esque in their ability to sound like pop profundities, like this verse from "Belltown Ramble":

You can walk a square.
You can walk an oblong.
Even just walk straight.
You'll still be standing there.
Though you think you did the job wrong,
you did it great.

But it's actually the last track, "N.Y. Doll," that is my favorite of the CD. An ode to the late Arthur Kane, whom I didn't know much of anything about before looking up his wikipedia page. Kane was in the New York Dolls, who prefigured a lot of both punk and glam rock attitudes in a lot of ways without ever really hitting it big themselves. Forced out of the group after the departure of bandmembers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, Kane fell into dispair in later life watching a succession of rockers achieve success with styles and attitudes they'd pioneered. Frustrated, he left rock and roll, struggled with drugs and alcohol, destroyed his marriage and even attempted suicide, before eventually joining the Mormons. Late in life, Morrisey reunited the Dolls for his 2004 Meltdown Festival, which coincideded with a rockumentary about Kane's life and brought about a Live reunion CD and DVD on Morrisey's label. But on July 13th, 2004, Kane checked into the hospital with what he thought was flu, was diagnoses with leukemia, and died within two hours. As tragic as this is, having felt bitter and unappreciated for so many years, perhaps this was not such a bad way to go if one must. A bit like Roy Orbeson in that Kane mangaged to regain the limelight after a long absence, and died feeling vindicated/appreciated at what must have been a highlight of his career.

Meanwhile, it seems that Kane's nickname, Killer Kane, was thought to have been paritally inspired by a character in the William Peter Blatty novel, Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane, later filmed as The Ninth Configuration. Blatty, who wrote the first Excorcist (and the third), wrote & directed a little known almost-masterpiece called The Ninth Configuration, staring Stacy Keach as a psychologist assigned to an asylum in a castle in the pacific northwest full of Vietnam soldiers who are probably faking it, and one very confused astronaut who probably isn't. Scott Wilson plays Captain Billy Cutshaw, who is terrified of dying in space. Keach is the psychologist determined to uncover the reason for his fear. I saw the movie in Film 101 at the University of Virginia, later purchased it on VHS, and have probably watched it 20 or 30 times over the decades, though not in at least 6 years. Anyway, this weird connection between the film and the Dolls, as well as poignant sentiments like the following, make this my favorite song on the CD.

I was the pulse of it all,
but there's always poison to drink alone or share with friends.
One in a million people hit you like a window pane.
Sincerely I remain, Arthur Kane.

Hitchcock says, "I never met Arthur Kane but his story is another example of how precious a life becomes when it's over." Amen. Meanwhile, although I've already recieved Ole! Tarantula in the post from Yep Roc Records, apparently one can still "pre-order" it and receive the limited download "Embryo Twirl."

Incidentally, Blatty once remarked that The Ninth Configuration was the "true sequel" to The Excorcist, and that the astronaut that the sleepwalking Regan warns "You're going to die up there," is in fact The Ninth Configuration's Captain Cutshaw. The skeletons of spacemen indeed...