Science Fiction is Devouring Itself

I’m a lifelong fan of the science fiction genre. Novels, short stories, movies, art, comics… all of it. When I started writing fiction again a few years ago, most of the early stories I wrote were SF. My first published short story, “Remodel With Swan Parts,” was near-future SF.

For a while, that’s what I thought I wanted to focus on. I loved the way science fiction lets you invent some story element, whether it’s a social shift or a new piece of hardware technology, and use it to say something about where we are, where we’re headed. I wrote stories about genetic modification, artificial intelligence, space travel and colonization, alien contact. All kinds of stuff.

I’ve drifted away from writing SF, in favor of weird fantasy and horror. I never really thought about it, just started writing more of what felt right, and following my inspirations. This morning, though, listening to a podcast discussion about where SF came from and where it’s headed, I realized why the genre lost (for me) its sense of possibility, of limitless potential.

So much of the SF community, meaning established authors, reviewers, editors, and outspoken fans, seem to agree upon lists of things that are no longer acceptable to do in science fiction.

Don’t write about the “singularity,” because nobody really believes that any more. Brain uploads, robotic carriers for human intelligence… not gonna happen. Kurzweil’s a crackpot, right?

We really shouldn’t write any more stories about colonizing planets outside the solar system. It would take too long to travel there, would cost too much in terms of energy expenditure, so it’s not worth talking about.

Writing about artificial intelligence just shows a writer’s naivete. Who really believes we’ll ever understand the human brain sufficiently to model it? Of course it wouldn’t be possible to use computation to emulate a learning system.

The list goes on. Time travel. Free/clean/safe energy sources. Faster than light travel. Post-scarcity. Lately all the smart, outspoken people in SF fandom seems to turn up their noses at every technology that can’t be easily, directly extrapolated from what we currently know and understand. Sure, there are still a few of the old guard writing trans-galactic space opera, but none of the opinion leaders seem to take those people seriously. There are endless debates, in blogs, in podcasts, on panels at conventions, and everyeone seems to agree there’s a whole list of things that have been invalidated because “we just don’t believe that’s possible any more.”

I find this puzzlingly restrictive, and so unbelievably dull. I don’t want science fiction writers to stop writing stories that use a bit of handwaving.

An element of fantasy, a bit of “what if?” — what’s wrong with that?

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SF Academy 08 – Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

I’ve been a reader of John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, since long before I had read any of his work. The first thing of his I encountered was his installment in the five-author collection Metatropolis, where I found Scalzi’s humorous, breezy blogging style carried over to his narrative fiction. Old Man’s War is similar, despite mostly focusing on a more serious subjects such as war and colonialist expansion.

scalzi-oldmanwar

John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

I don’t think I’ve seen a single mention of this book that didn’t refer to Robert Heinlein’s work, most often Starship Troopers, and after reading this, it’s not hard to see why. It really is fairly straightforward in its influence, but that similarity never makes Old Man’s War seem derivative in any negative sense. The setup is simple: on Earth a couple of centuries from now, 65 year olds have the option of signing a contract to join the Colonial Defense Force, so that when they turn 75 they undergo some kind of mysterious physical transformation process to become fighting machines, and leave Earth forever to bounce around the galaxy, fighting various weird aliens for control of habitable planets.

The CDF initiates discover the nature of the process that allows them to go from elderly to fighting form, and as in Starship Troopers, we follow the new recruits from training to initial skirmishes, and watch them lose friends to the inevitable effects of war. We also learn more about various interesting elements of the CDF, including the “Ghost Brigades” (title and subject of the first sequel to Old Man’s War).

Scalzi is a stronger storyteller than a stylist, but the characters and dialogue are entertaining and likable. I find myself ready to follow along in this series and learn more about the CDF and their various interesting technologies (a “Skip Drive” for example, which is more a quantum reality-shift device than a true drive), especially the “ghost brigades.” Scalzi has created a great premise, and even if I hadn’t come to this book so late that multiple sequels had already appeared, it would have been plain enough to me that subsequent development could definitely be done in this story’s world.

Overall, an enjoyable, well-executed work, and one that makes me want to read more by Scalzi, both in and out of this series.

Notes on a trip to the bookstore

I live in Portland, land of one of the world’s great bookstores, Powell’s Books, which I used to visit several times every week. I don’t live as close as I once did (I used to WALK to Powell’s several times per week) but still, bookstores are one of life’s real pleasures, and who wants to go through life buying everything at Amazon, anyway?

The bookstore visit that prompted this, though, wasn’t to Powell’s, but one of those mass-market-ish chain stores that starts with the letter B. The stuff on their shelves is much more slanted to the BRAND NEW along with PROVEN LONG-TERM SELLERS. Can’t blame ’em, that’s how they roll. But when you stroll through the SF/Fantasy section there, you see a whole different range of stuff than when you shop for your favorites at Amazon (where browsing Ubik gets you recommendations for Valis and Man in the High Castle and similar things), or a used book store, which has all kinds of new and old, popular and obscure.

Yeah, my favorite genres look a lot different from that vantage point.

It seems all the Fantasy now is written by women, and all the SF is written by men. Oh sure, more SF writers have always been male, and Fantasy has always had more female writers than SF did. But now I’d say Fantasy is a 90/10 split toward female writers, and SF is the reverse.

Speaking of Fantasy, it appears traditional, Tolkienesque “high fantasy” is dropping way off in favor of modern/urban fantasy. This means, you know, fewer book covers with dragons flying over the mountains, or armor-clad bands of adventurers comprised of wizard plus dwarf plus elf plus berserker/warrior human, carrying swords and axes. Instead, more books with a thin, athletic-looking single woman in tight-fitting clothes, a black pony-tail, and at least one very prominent tattoo. Maybe a demon in the background, or alternately some kind of cool animal familiar, if the heroine is “witchy” in nature. Seriously I must have seen books by two dozen authors, on a variety of publishers, with the exact same cover template. Nowhere else in the bookstore do you see such homogeneous covers, except in the Romance section.

You also get the sense the great majority of SF people are reading is movie tie-ins (Star Wars and Star Trek books), or video game novelizations (Halo, Mass Effect). I thought there used to be a stigma about “real” SF writers doing these novelizations but there seem to be plenty of decent writers doing them now. Maybe that’s a good thing. For the longest time, those books were a joke. Are they better now?

There are several authors I hadn’t considered “major” who have several shelves of their books all lined up, while several others who seem to have higher profiles (judging by mentions in the various SF blogs, and the awards, and the pages of Locus) have nothing at all on the shelves, or maybe a single book.

All in all, a rather strange and depressing view of the SF/Fantasy genres.

I need to get myself back to Powell’s.

SF Academy 07 – Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I briefly mentioned a few days ago my excitement at this wonderful new book, Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first of four books in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun Tetrology.

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’

This is my first “Science Fiction Academy” entry in a while, partly because I’ve been reading a bit less this past couple of months (spending more time writing, which is fine in the short run, but in the long run I’ll have to stoke the fire by reading more), partly because I’ve been reading less science fiction stuff, and partly because I’ve finished a few books that I haven’t gotten around to discussing yet.

Shadow of the Torturer is a great way to start this blog feature rolling again, because this is an incredible book. I feel like I’ve just stumbled onto one of my new, favorite writers in Gene Wolfe. This past few years I’ve sorted back through various science fiction of the sixties, seventies and eighties (and to a lesser extent those “classics” in decades before and after that range), and I’ve been struck more than anything else by the generally very poor quality of the writing in the genre. There are notable exceptions, like the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, and the breezy, masculine confidence of Heinlein, but far more sf writers create prose at a much lower level than the quality of the ideas. It’s such a relief to come across someone like Joe Haldeman, who writes in a clear, straightforward way that never interferes with the story or makes me roll my eyes.

Gene Wolfe, though, may be the best pure writer ever to work in the science fiction or fantasy genres.

This book applies elegant, poetic language to the compelling story of a torturer expelled from his guild for taking pity on a “client” (torture victim) with whom he’d fallen in love. The story is expressed with great sensitivity, and delves into metaphysical and ontological questions along the way.

If there is one drawback, it’s that this first book in the series ends rather abruptly. This is remedied by the recent release of Shadow of the Torturer together in a single volume with Claw of the Conciliator, the second New Sun book, so the reader may continue on without too much frustration. I can imagine readers being frustrated with this one when it came out, though, with no sequel at hand until a year or two later.

This work is so accomplished, so compelling and overall so successful that I find I have less to say about it than I would most novels. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who claims to love science fiction or fantasy, as it somewhat straddles the line between the genres. It feels like a fantasy novel, with swords and armor, horses and witches, and dark towers. Yet the story is based on a far-future Earth, where much has changed, and virtually everything we now know has been forgotten. I’ve seen this series referred to as “science fantasy” and though that’s not a term I normally like, here it fits.

The clearest recommendation I can make is that I not only intend to finish the series, but the related “Long Sun” and “Short Sun” series, and possibly everything else I can get my hands on by Wolfe. Truly one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Sometimes you shoot for an omelet and end up with a scramble

For a while now I’ve been planning some more “focused” entries to this blog, but this here life has been such a mad dash lately, so my entries end up being a mix of whatever comes to mind.

First there was the Writers Weekend story which I had to submit by June 15, and finished a day early. Then I came down with a nasty cold which ruined this past weekend.

More recently I’ve been back to finishing up my Writers of the Future story, a big long zoomy space story thing. I’m very happy and relieved to finally be done with that. I’ve certainly written longer stuff, but I haven’t actually finished (as in, polished all the way to a submittable final draft) a longer story than that since I started writing again last year. This thing wound up at 9,600 words and I’m quite proud of it. It introduces a new character and a new angle of exploration, plus a cool new artifact/tech device I’m anxious to explore in other stories. And I now think of it as “the WOTF story,” while I always referred to it in my head, as I was planning it, as “the Analog story.”

Now, I rarely write a story with a specific market in mind. I’m usually driven by an idea or an image, something I want to see happen, or a character I want to follow in a certain situation. Then I have to build up story and conflict and plot around that starting point, and only when I’m mostly finished do I start thinking things like “What’s this all about, then? Where will I send it?”

This time I made a conscious effort to write something less character-focused, more about plot, action and conflict. Plus I wanted technology and space travel to be prominent parts, because I really wanted to finally write a story I could see sending to Analog SF magazine. All these touchy-feely “literary SF” stories of mine, with people feeling ways about stuff, certainly have their technological components, and some of them even meet Analog editor Stanley Schmidt’s dictum that the “proper Analog story” shouldn’t function with the technology removed from it. But I wanted to write something that didn’t just sneak into eligibility as an Analog story, but was clearly, definitely about cool tech ideas, off-Earth locations, futuristic travel concepts, and a lot of focus on how human beings will one day travel from here to places very far away.

Now having finished the story, it’s occurred to me that I’m missing out on a potentially useful market for my stories by not submitting to Writers of the Future. I don’t normally enter contests, but I’m assured by all kinds of people who really do seem to know what they’re talking about that so long as you’re eligible for the WOTF contest (they only take stories from unpublished writers), you ought to enter. The prize money is good, and actually winning the thing, if you can pull it off, ends up being a nice platform to get people aware of you in a hurry. So, “the Analog story” ends up going to Writers of the Future first, and I’ll keep on entering this contest (it’s quarterly, with a mega-roundup contest for quarterly winners once per year) so long as I remain eligible.

Now I’m back to starting a few new stories I’ve had cooking, as well as revisiting some problematic or even “broken” stories I started previously and put on the shelf. I have two that are pretty close to being finished, so if I can wrap those up these next two weeks I may be in a position of actually finishing and submitting four new stories (counting the two just finished) in a period of a month. That would certainly be my greatest period of productivity, and would indicate that the extra hard work I’ve been putting in has been worthwhile.

Now Working, March 2010

I often mention my own writing in general terms here, but I’d like to start talking about more specifics. Not so much because I think a lot of people out there (or ANY people out there) are following my work at this point, but because I believe spelling out goals and processes helps clarify them for myself.

Also once I’m an established bestseller, it’ll be a fun larf for people to scroll back to these earliest blog posts and think, “Gee whiz, remember how it was then?”

OK, this is really more about that first reason than that second reason. Quick breakdown, then, of what I’m working on lately. I just finished a short story (when I say “finished” I mean revisions totally complete, not “I wrote a first draft”) about a murderer imprisoned in a strange penal colony, which happens to be on the moon. Plagued by nightmares, he volunteers for a strange experiment related to dreams, which he hopes will cure his nightmares, though that’s not the experiment’s aim.

I’ve spent most of my time this week brainstorming an idea for a novel, not that I intend to actually write the novel any time soon. I’ll keep focusing on short stories the next six months at least. But enough rough ideas for this novel had accumulated that I wanted to coalesce them into a short synopsis, set of outlines/plans, and character lists. It’s set in a near-future Seattle, drastically changed not only from today’s Seattle, but the rest of the world too. It delves into body modification, experimental biotech, brain implants, pleasure games, various forms of addiction, AI tools for trading financial instruments, and more. I’ll probably work on this here and there through the summer, try to hammer out a clear synopsis of 20-30 pages, make sure the interlocking relationships are worked out, then set it aside to gel.

I’m in middle revision stages of the most “space opera” thing I’ve written. It takes place in a transit station at the outer edge of the solar system, where humanity is trying to extend outward by building a series of jumping-off points. It involves a nifty transportation technology I can’t wait to explore further (in other related stories), as well as other cool, strange details I had fun inventing but don’t want to give away here. This was was a lot of fun, with a sort of retro science fiction feel. It’s also the longest short story I’ve written, about 10k words, and I’m trying to decide whether to just go with it, or lose a lot of great stuff by paring it down to under 7500 or so. This one’s fun, sexy, strange, full of wonder, adventure and even a little action. Hell, it’s got ray guns and spaceships! I’d love to write more like this in the future, get away from the too-internalized, slower-paced, “literary” trap I often get stuck in.

I’m also doing final revisions on a long-ish story set 50 or so years in the future, following an apparently wealthy guy from resort to resort around the world, starting in fun, still flashy, future Las Vegas. But this fella’s not an ordinary rich guy, seems to find an unusual amount of trouble, and worries a lot about people following him. I tried to create an enjoyable ride, watching him bounce around while learning who he really is and why he lives like this. I hope to have this one finished and sent out by the end of April.

I have four stories in circulation at various magazines, including the first one I mentioned. My goal is to finish at least one new story per month, and start enough new ones to keep the assembly line fed with raw material. I tend to do many revisions, somewhere between ten and twenty drafts, so in the past that’s meant keeping at least eight or ten stories working at any given time, in different stages. Right now I’m trying to make each revision go a little deeper in to the story, and do fewer “rounds” of revision. In other words I’d rather do seven really intensive revisions than twenty that are mostly surface-level.

Currently I have a list of about thirty “seeds” for stories — brief ideas, partial outlines, or full synopses — and I seem to add to this list of rough stuff faster than I withdraw from it. Often, though, I’ll end up combining two or even three separate ideas into one more complex idea: “Hey, maybe the ‘mind-controlled babysitter on a laser-rifle killing-spree’ story can be combined with the ‘silicon-based aliens from Mercury attack Earth’ story?!” Listen, man, don’t steal that idea!

Recently I set aside all my pre-SF stories, of which six had been completed, and decided not to spread my attention too thin by trying to find markets for those, at least for now. To keep things clearer for myself, I’m working on SF only at this point, setting aside all other work whether finished, in progress, or just planned.

So, quick recap: I’m trying to finish roughly one new story per month, start approximately that many new ones, keep adding raw idea stuff to the list of upcoming story plans, and spending a little time on the side planning the Seattle novel. I have four short stories finished and circulating among short fiction markets. That’s where things stand, and I’ll try to post updates whenever anything changes in an interesting way, like if I get published, switch to writing porn, or whatever.

SF Academy 04 – Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first novel in Iain M. Banks’s highly-regarded “Culture” series. I’ve been meaning to jump into these books for a while but when you look at them all stacked up next to each other the book store, all those thousands of pages, it can be daunting. Banks is known not only for his science fiction but for some edgy-but-mainstream books (which he differentiates by going as Iain Banks, without the middle initial), and the writing here is at a high level. This is definitely not a case of a “literary” writer slumming in sci-fi and just throwing a few spaceships and alien planets into the mix. There are sections that seem less adeptly written than others, which makes sense given that this is an earlier work by Banks re-written into publishable form after his first novel was released. Most of the book exhibits the confidence and polish of Bank’s more recent work, and overall the story keeps the reader swept along.

The story has quite a bit of action and violence, and covers a very broad swath of space. In the “Culture” series, at least at the beginning, there’s a war between The Culture (a very advanced race, or collective of races, who rely on powerful artificial minds to make live in the Culture one of utopic leisure) and the Idirans, which are a strange race of very large, shell-covered, three-legged beings who don’t age (but can be killed). The war arose due to the Idirans expansion or empire-building (driven by religious fanatacism), which the Culture determined to stop. Banks leaves no question which side he considers morally justified, and his dislike for religion comes through pretty clearly as well. Interestingly, though, the main character (a member of a shape-changing race) is actually working for the Idirans on an agent in their efforts against the Culture.

Consider Phlebas at Amazon.com

The novel has a few flat spots, and there were times I set it down and didn’t pick it back up for several weeks. Overall, though, the story’s world is compelling and its scope is truly impressive. I look forward to taking the next several steps in this series, especially as I understand the second Culture book, Use of Weapons, to be considered the best installment. The whole concept of the Culture spread across vast areas of space, creating utopic living environments free from poverty and disease, is intriguing and well-executed. I look forward to reading future Culture novels that focus more on the Culture and less on the Changers and Idirans.

Avid readers always hope every time they pick up a book by a writer new to them, they’ll be discovering a voice and a creative mind that will grab hold of them and make them want to read through everything the writer’s ever written. Consider Phlebas worked exactly that way for me, and I look forward to reading the entire “Culture” series (I’ve already purchased the next four books), as well as other works by Banks.

Do You Read Novel Excerpts?

I’m almost finished with the 2009 Nebula Awards Showcase collection, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an anthology sampling, as you might guess, stories nominated for Nebula awards (one of the big two annual Science Fiction awards). The stories were first published not during 2009, or during 2008 (when the awards were actually given), but during 2007. That’s not a problem, and it sort of makes sense that 2007 stories might be nominated for awards given in 2008, and it takes a while for the book to be assembled and published so they can call it the 2009 showcase. That’s fine, because I didn’t buy this book thinking these stories were brand new, but if you want to read a collection of stories from 2009 nominated for Nebula awards, those awards will happen in 2010 and the book will come out in 2011.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2009

I’ll write a more complete summary of what I found worthwhile and not so great in this space as soon as I finish up the last story or two, but as I contemplate whether or not to read each and every item in here, I realized: I hate reading “excerpts.” This collection includes a tidbit from Michael Chabon’s well-received novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book I’d consider reading, but I don’t want to give it a try. If I want to read the book, I’ll read it. I don’t want to give the excerpt a try and get all excited about the story, only to find myself stuck at page twelve.

Likewise, I hate serialized stories (you know, appearing in installments in a periodical), and I hate watching TV shows week-by-week with a wait in-between. My favorite way to watch TV, really just about the only way I’ll bother, is to discover the show on DVD after it’s been out for 3-5 years already, so once I start I can run just about straight through without any delay.

I also just finished a book by a favorite writer of mine, a little surprised to come to the end with such a thick chunk of pages remaining in the book. I thought maybe there’s some kind of essay or glossary or maps or something, but it was just a first chapter from the guy’s next book. I skipped it, because if I really loved it and wanted to read it, I couldn’t yet. The book isn’t available. Stop teasing me!

I’ll follow up with a post on the Nebula collection soon, but for now I’m just venting about those excerpts. I consider them a sort of tease without payoff, rather than a pleasant, enticing little sampler. I’ll have none, thanks.

Really Loving The Door Into Summer

I’m not quite done with The Door Into Summer yet, but really enjoying it. I was just thinking, as I read this, that Robert Heinlein reminded me an awful lot of Tom Clancy, then I stumbled upon a quote in which Clancy expressed admiration for Heinlein. Weird, because they wrote such different stuff, and to me the similarity was really just in the simple, old-fashioned masculine confidence of the characters. Both writers obviously respect hard work and military service and expertise in things like engineering and science and economics.

Anyway, this blog isn’t really meant for formal reviews, more like semi-formal expressions of enthusiasm or disdain, but I still haven’t quite finished the book yet so I’ll wait before writing more.

Just wanted to say this one puts a smile on my face at least once per day, and though it was written before I was born, the small dated aspects don’t bother me at all. Makes me want to read a bunch more Heinlein this summer!

Philip K. Dick on Blade Runner

First off, Philip K. Dick didn’t write Blade Runner, but he did write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story on which Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece was based.

Also, Dick never had a chance to see the completed film, but he did apparently have a chance to see a short clip, which was enough to inspire him to write this letter to the Ladd Company (producers of the film) expressing his pride and enthusiasm for Blade Runner.

If you know much about Dick, you know he was very troubled, and it made me feel good to read this letter. It’s too bad he didn’t get a chance to see the entire film, which is one of my favorite films in any genre. Speaking of which, I’m going to create a page on this blog to list some of my favorite books and movies. Lists are fun!

Via Kottke.