No Super Bowl? 9 Books to Read

Now that I’ve got your attention…here’s the link to that feature, which includes Annihilation but also a bunch of really fascinating titles, some of which I haven’t read. Also some nice design featured.

Even if you are watching the Super Bowl, you could do worse than spend half-time listening to NPR’s To The Best of Our Knowledge, which today featured stellar interviews with Sofia Samatar, Nnedi Okorafor, Lauren Beukes, and Claudia Rankine, and more. In their last hour, they re-ran this feature on weird fiction, which includes an interview about the Southern Reach novels.

Nnedi talked more about her novel Lagoon in this LA Times piece I wrote last year, about autobiography in SF/Fantasy. Also featuring Lauren Beukes.

If none of that floats your boat, I strongly suggest you check out Broad City, which is available on Cable on-demand. An amazing, hilarious show that’s kind of what Girls could’ve been, with more zany.

Southern Reach Trilogy

Vintage Science Fiction Readings #2: What Did 1980 Mean?

Ann and I are now in the process of reading for The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, which will appear in 2016. This huge anthology of well over 500,000 words will collect the best and most unusual SF stories from approximately 1900 to 2000. This requires a lot of reading and research. Every so often I will report back about current reading, although not in any systematic way. In fact, almost deliberately not in a systematic way.

In this case, all quotes are from Nebula Award Stories 16, edited by Jerry Pournelle, published in 1982.

Stories included, all from 1980:

“Grotto of the Dancing Deer” by Clifford D. Simak; “Ginungagap” by Michael Swanwick; “The Unicorn Tapestry” by Suzy McKee Charnas; “Rautavaara’s Case” by Philip K. Dick; “The Ugly Chickens” by Howard Waldrop; “Secrets of the Heart” by Charles L. Grant.

[Nebula Awards ballot for 1980 stories and novels.]


From Jerry Pournelle’s introduction:

2298957“Campbell groomed a lot of writers…It was a traditional route, and it worked, but it depended, more than we knew, on editors like Campbell and Gold. But now it’s 1981, and Mr. Campbell is dead and Horace Gold has retired; and no one has come forward to replace them. Maybe no one can…But for whatever reason, there are few magazine editors working closely with new writers. One exception to that rule is my editorial assistant, John Carr….He doesn’t get to work with very many new writers, because we don’t buy many original stories [for our other anthologies]; but more than once we’ve received stories that aren’t good enough to publish—one was plain awful—but which show unmistakable signs of talent. They must be rejected, of course, but I’ve watched John Carr write nine-page encouraging letters. One result of John’s editorial work was that a writer got a cover illustration for his first published story. I wish that could happen more often; but we can’t do it, and not many others seem to be interested in trying.”

“This is a strange field. I’m editing the Nebula Awards volume, and there’s almost no chance that I’ll ever win a Nebula. There’s a fair chance that when I’m old and gray they’ll vote me a Grand Master, but I doubt I’ll ever write a story that wins.”

“It’s traditional for the Nebula editor to write about science fiction as literature, but I can’t do that. I don’t know much about literature.”

“Alas, it didn’t take long for the [Nebula] awards to become ‘controversial.’ There were accusations of lobbying and vote-swapping. Writers were accused of voting without reading all the contenders; other writers were castigated because they never voted at all. Each year’s Nebula Awards Ceremony saw one or another writer walk out in disagreement with the rules. Each year’s annual meeting saw introduced a resolution abolishing the awards.” [in a context of believing the awards have gone to “very good” stories]

[Read more…]

Over at The Atlantic: A Southern Reach Tell-All

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Over at The Atlantic’s website, you’ll find my 6,500-word behind-the-scenes essay about writing and touring behind The Southern Reach Trilogy. It’s a kind of tell-all and as such that comes with certain risks.

Revealing weakness or eccentricity can influence a reader who then goes on to read the novels. Being candid about the life of a full-time writer—which is both fraught with uncertainty and one of the best jobs you can have—is also dangerous, especially when many think book tours don’t happen any more and that most writers self-publish. Encountering a narrative suggesting that traditional publishing is still going strong can be bracing. Encountering a narrative suggesting that you can be a full-time writer can be bracing, too. (Full disclosure: I’ve been full-time since 2007, but sometimes made my living from editing anthologies and writing nonfiction, and until recently I supported only myself, with a firewall between my finances and my wife’s finances—for her protection.)

The issue of all three novels being published in one year led off a New York Times article on “binge reading,” which raises the question, too, of “binge writing.” Yet any writer will tell you that you can spend a decade writing a bad novel and nine months writing a good one. Depends on the situation and the novel. In my case, I was lucky to have more uninterrupted time to work on the Southern Reach than ever before, if in a slightly compressed number of months. Although not mentioned in the essay, I was given additional time, too, during the editing phase. FSG was kind enough to let me make substantial changes long after the proof pages would be locked down in a simple proof-read. That, and a disciplined day-to-day writing schedule—something that in its sheer repetition doesn’t make for good reading in an essay—brought me through and meant the novels as-published are exactly as I meant for them to be.

Along the way,  I had really amazing editing from Sean McDonald  and great support from everyone over at FSG. Publicist Alyson Sinclair was amazing, too. When you know you have that kind of support, it makes the writing and revising very easy. You’re willing to take more risks and you relax into the writing. It also helped that I had a partner in my wife, Ann, with whom I could discuss scenes in progress and novel drafts when finished. She also took a lot of other projects off of my plate, meaning she did almost all the work on our time travel anthology and took over management of other book projects, too.

I’m also truly blessed and fortunate that so very many readers have embraced the Southern Reach trilogy. So, what the hell–why not a tell-all? It’s certainly in the tradition of my usual “debriefings,” including this one about City of Saints and Madmen. (Thanks to the Atlantic for their enthusiasm, too–really great people over there.).

Soliciting Your Suggestions: The Big Book of Science Fiction From Vintage

We are editing The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage and would like to solicit your ideas between now and the end of March of this year. This is a massive anthology of more than 500,000 words scheduled for 2016 publication.

As we conduct our own research, we would love your own recommendations. We know readers of SF are passionate about what they read. You can email us at [email protected] Due to expected volume of emails, we cannot reply but rest assured we will read all recommendations. Please read this entire post before sending us a recommendation. - Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

–The Big Book of Science Fiction will publish short stories originally published during the period 1900 to 2000.

–We define short story as any work of fiction under 10,000 words. Works under 6,000 words will have the best chance.

–We define “science fiction” very broadly, from realistic hard SF all the way to surreal material with a science fiction flavor. This includes what might be called “science fiction myths.” However, we do not define SF as including traditional stories about ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires, unicorns, etc.

–Whether recommending the stories of others or your own work, please provide: the title of the story, the author’s name, the date of original publication and the publication source. 

A sentence or two describing the story and author would be helpful–as well as why you are recommending the story. You may make multiple recommendations in one email, but whether single or multiple please list at least the author last names in the subject line of the email.

If recommending your own work, please limit yourself to three stories.

–As possible, attach a scan, PDF, Word, or RTF document of the story. If the story is online, a link is sufficient.

–We are very interested in international SF originally written in English.

–We are very interested in existing translations of international SF originally published in a language other than English. (In such cases, the date of original publication, not the translation date, must fall between 1900 and 2000.)

–We are very interested in commissioning a limited number of new translations. We would love recommendations if you read in a language other than English and have encountered a mind-blowing story. (We have translator resources in place already.)

If the story appeared in a Nebula Award reprint anthology, or an anthology edited by Judith Merril, Michael Moorcock, David Hartwell, Damon Knight, Kathryn Cramer, or Robert Silverberg, we are probably already aware of it.

–Keep in mind that we are already aware of the best fiction by iconic writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury.

Thank you in advance for sharing your opinions–we appreciate your time. We wish we could reply to all emails. However, we will be in touch if we have questions or further interest.

(Art by Richard Powers, just ’cause we love his work.)Richard Powers art

Sweet, Cute Ann and Beastly VanderCurmudgeon Featured in Origins Magazine

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Origins Magazine asked Ann and me what makes a relationship work. Ann said plenty of drugs while I’m talking helps and $$ penalties for putting up with my stupid. Or maybe we both said laughter goes a long way long-term. As does mutual respect and sharing the same passion for certain things.

Here’s a photo from a recent workshop we ran that demonstrates that wearing serious hats is of use, too.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Ann’s smart, cute, hilarious, and much better with a tool kit than I am.

Anyway, the issue hits newsstands this week and it’s kinda cool to be featured as one of their top couples. (Thanks, Nancy H., for recommending us, and thanks to Francesca Myman, who took the photo that’s in the mag.)

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Boxing Up The Southern Reach

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I can’t even tell you what it feels like to box up the entire Southern Reach trilogy–every last major draft, print-out and handwritten scrawl, every notebook and scrap of scribbled inspiration. But it’s done because it needs to get out of the house and into storage just as a de-cluttering issue. And after I took this photo I found another box full of Annihilation drafts I’d forgotten about. A total of three years of work including touring behind the novels–the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.

A fair number of notes and scene fragments are written on torn-out pages from an advance copy of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Loved the novel, but found myself in a situation where I had no paper and needed to write some stuff down. And, yes, there are also some notes written on leaves, while I was out hiking and ran out of anything to write on. (I’ve written a behind-the-scenes tell-all that will appear some place very cool in the next couple of weeks.)

I’m happy to have tamed this monstrosity–if I’d left it longer, I think Area X would’ve formed in my office. Here’s what it looked like yesterday:

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Books Shelved: Archipelago, Centipede, Dedalus, Europa, New Directions, NYRB Classics, Penguin, Semiotext(e), Subterranean, Tartarus, & More

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One nice thing about being home for a while–I finally got around to shelving some of my favorite books, into one bookcase of awesome. Certain publishers and imprints I collect because I know that most everything they produce I’ll gobble up. Ranks and ranks of Dedalus anthologies of international fiction, along with decadent novels. Great European lit from the 20th and 21st century from Europa. That often eccentric mix from NYRB Classics that I enjoy so much–a willingness to publish a lot of things that are more surreal, existing somewhere between Dedalus and Europa. Along with the rather stunning Penguin reissues of classic supernatural fiction.

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The Tartarus shelf, with miscellaneous sundries hanging off the edges, is a deceptively simple-looking arrangement, given that those dust jackets hide some rather amazing designs on the boards. If you’re not familiar with Tartarus editions, you have to check them out. The best of uncanny fiction, selected by experts.

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Subterranean editions of Thomas Ligotti’s fiction, a smattering of Dalkey, foregrounded by as much Aira as I could load up on from New Directions, giving way to Archipelago and then Semiotext(e).

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A more random shelf, anchored by the massive Centipede Press megaliths on the far right. If I were to try to make any of these collections complete, I’d bankrupt myself, but I’m happy to have them all in one bookcase at least. Now, I just have to find time to alphabetize it all. And figure out where to put these latest editions, which just this second arrived, courtesy of a favorite indie bookseller, Ziesing Books.

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Vintage Science Fiction Readings #1: Quoted Without Comment

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Ann and I are now in the process of reading for The Big Book of Science Fiction for Vintage, which will appear in 2016. This huge anthology of well over 500,000 words will collect the best and most unusual SF stories from approximately 1900 to 2000. This requires a lot of reading and research. Every so often I will report back about current reading, although not in any systematic way. In fact, almost deliberately not in a systematic way.

“Along with everything else he has to do to make his story believable and intelligible, the science fictioneer has to name his not-yet-invented things and methods, so the reader will recognize them. How shall he go about it? Well, he can use logic. It works sometimes…For example, you probably didn’t know that television and TV were first used in a magazine called The World Today back in 1907! Yet engineers and researchers persisted in calling it distant electric vision until halted by popular usage. Cellophane could also have been coined by the same classically educated writer; it comes from cella, small room, plus phanein, to appear, to seem. Instead, however, authors all settled on glassite as the term for transparent plastics, which did not survive. So much for logic; it’s not how things get named these days.” – from H. L. Gold’s introduction to The Weird Ones anthology, 1962

“…it is now clear that there is still plenty to argue about. The reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, said we could certainly agree that science fiction stands or falls by ‘style.’ Oh no we wouldn’t…Hostile critics will generally except Jules Verne from their strictures; indeed, it is a favourite sneer of theirs to lament the failures of his successors. [But beyond disagreements about characterization and style in SF] A final homely analogy. A mint julep is not a more subtle and complex glass of bourbon, nor is a bourbon a classically simple and authoritative version of the vulgarly prettified mint julep. Such associations perhaps befit what we intend, for our critics, as a plea for tolerance, real tolerance, nothing less than thinking again.” – from the introduction to Spectrum 5 edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, 1966

“Some time ago most people gave up trying to say what SF was, for all attempts (such as [Kingsley] Amis’s New Maps of Hell) failed miserably to place it, show its common concerns, or explain what it was supposed to ‘do’.” – from Michael Moorcock’s preface to the Langdon Jones’-edited The New SF: An Original Anthology of Modern Speculative Fiction, 1969

“Significantly, what utterly refused to fit in these U.S.-derived categories turned out to be the ethical and philosophical, i.e., the utopian, aspects of Soviet SF.” – from the introduction to Other Worlds, Other Seas: An Anthology of Eastern European Science Fiction, 1970

“The fashionable answer to that question [of the successors of Verne and Wells] is, of course, that there hasn’t been a writer with one hundredth of one percent of Wells’ ability since nineteen twenty. But even the briefest study of the output of more modern SF novelists shows this attitude to be nonsensical, if not merely snobbish. No, the real problem is one of sources, and its solution lies in the fact that the type of fiction generally produced by SF writers doesn’t originate with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne at all. It was developed from the work of Beatrix Potter…Influenced heavily by The Wind in the Willows and tempered by the outlook of the Wizard of Oz, this new fiction…has to do with comfort: the repetition of form and content [with] careful rationalization of any change in the status quo.” – from M. John Harrison’s essay “The Literature of Comfort,” New Worlds Quarterly #1, 1971

“Science fiction has been standing neck-deep in bullshit for so long that some of its practitioners have come to accept that condition as more than just a fact of life—in some mysterious way the bullshit has been transmuted into a necessity, the argument being that we need all that bullshit around us in order to recognize quality when it floats to the top. That argument itself is part of the bullshit we have to cope with.” – from David Gerrold’s introduction to his anthology Alternities, dubbed “All New Electrifying Stories of Original Science Fiction!”, 1974

[Read more…]

Rodrigo Corral’s Cover for the Area X Hardcover

Eye on Design has run a very nice piece on Rodrigo Corral’s cover for Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, including comments from Corral. I think the cover’s probably the best I’ve ever had for a book–simple yet complex, and daring from a commercial standpoint. There’s great attention to detail, starting with the deliberate juxtaposition of a natural element and an element in orange that suggestions caution/danger and something human-made. The play of shadows from the leaves against the orange stripe adds a three-dimensional aspect. The treatment on the spine continues a theme both of taking risks and a certain playfulness. It’s no wonder the New York Times chose Area X as one of its covers of the year.

As someone who has been the art director for an indie press and who also usually has a say-so in the creation of covers of my books it’s been a great joy to, quite frankly, be relegated to giving comments like “looks wonderful!” That’s a sentiment that extends to the marvelous trade paperbacks designed by Charlotte Strick with art by Eric Nyquist, and all of the rather ridiculously excellent foreign editions. Sometime soon it might be time to create a slideshow with all of them.

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Current Reading: Group 1

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Having finished co-writing an introduction to our anthology Sisters of the Revolution (May 2015) with Ann and writing an intro to an upcoming Thomas Ligotti reprint (Songs… and Grimscribe) from Penguin Classics, I’m engaged in a lot of reading. A fair amount of this reading is in some way applicable to Borne, the new novel I’m working on, but it’s never really possible to know what a new book will spark.

Currently, I’ve got three groupings of books on the table. Group 2 is current fiction, mostly short story collections, and Group 3 is comprised of reading for The Big Book of SF we’re putting together for Vintage. (One hundred years of science fiction, from roughly 1900 to 2000.)

Group 1, pictured above, could be loosely framed as an exploration of human irrationality and a study of violence. (A kind of Group 1-a subset consists of William Vollman’s seven-volume treatise on violence and a Group 1-b subset consists of his book Imperial.)

The Kills by Richard House is a re-read of selected passages that speaks to my current main focus, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. The two books share points of commonality, not least of which is how each, one in fiction and one in horrifying nonfiction, speaks to dys/functional fictional narratives let loose in what we think of as reality. If you’ve read both books, the semi-parallel between the sociopaths SWIGERT & DUNBAR in the committee report and the myth of Mr. Rabbit & Mr. Wolf in “The Kill” section of The Kills is interesting to ponder.

From there it’s a short distance to travel, from The Kills’ depictions of Italy at the end of WWII and the ideas set out in John Gray’s Straw Dogs and especially another book by Gray I’m reading, The Silence of Animals. Gray’s ideas are eye-opening to say the least. I’m still processing them, and vaguely thinking of experimenting with a character whose underlying belief system is informed by those ideas. This is not just good for the fiction in question but for a kind of field-testing of them on a personal level.

Cyclonopedia by Reza Negarestani, with its idea of sentient oil and U.S. “asymmetrical engagement with occultures,” seems even more relevant in the context of the report on torture, or, at least, timeless at this point, and useful. A re-read of Cyclonopedia with selections from John Gray and The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim (another re-read) seems to reveal the outlines of a fictional conspiracy. It is the kind of comprehension that rewires the parts of the brain that seek to tell more unique, or at least different, fictions.

Another current read, Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton, is at the heart of things and at the fringe right now, in terms of how it is messing with my mind. It encompasses everything in the other books, in some sense, and yet is also very specific and tactical in how it seems to apply to thinking about my new novel, Borne. I’m still struck by how elements of the Southern Reach novels mirror the requirements of Morton’s definition of a hyperobject, even though I had not encountered Morton’s work until this year. This is a challenging read for me, and one I’m absorbing slowly.

Meanwhile, the first sixty pages of The Infernal by Mark Doten have been both fascinating and to some extent frustrating. The novel invokes sophisticated uncanny iconography that flows seamlessly from advanced tech and reminds me of an unholy compromise between Michael Cisco’s novel The Narrator and H.R. Geiger (stripped of his fetishism). On the other hand, the design of the book evokes a hokey semi-semblance to the idea of secret files and espionage conspiracy that it would be better off without. In the use of versions of real people like L. Paul Bremer for viewpoint characters the novel’s brazen and bold, but also then makes itself vulnerable to scenes of questionable interior psychodrama that work so hard at the semblance of/adherence to some idea of accuracy of personality that it’s distracting. Even though I admire Doten’s bravery, I don’t know yet if the virtues of this novel will outweigh its liabilities.

One of those liabilities is beyond the author’s control, and it’s rapidly rendering a lot of fiction obsolete. Reality is in some ways usurping fiction’s role, even if the audience and the format seem to us as different from where we expect fiction to reside or project from–would a darkly absurdist view of a day in the life of the real L. Paul Bremer be that far removed from a kind of fiction? As an idea of an objective reality continues to fragment and as hyperobjects like global warming get closer to us–closer in the mental sense–the effect is to eclipse certain narratives or to contaminate them so they become a different story than the one the author meant to tell. It is impossible at the present moment to know what level of distance in what context will preserve “universal resonance” in a given fictional text, but a fair amount of fiction is headed for extinction, in this context.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture is, in one sense, “merely” confirmation of what we already knew. Torture is immoral. Torture doesn’t work. Torture deforms not just the victim but the torturer. But on another level, this report is a remarkable account of the creation of a vast fictional narrative (in the grotesque sense). It contains no heroes unless there is something heroic in a clear reportage of atrocity that also reads almost like a novel. But it does include two villains, who keep popping up almost like psychotic agents of chaos–disguised in their true nature because they are clothed with logic in the form of bureaucracy and chain-of-command. SWIGERT & DUNBAR, who were contracted to develop the enhanced interrogation techniques. In the course of reading the report on torture, it becomes necessary to ask if they are indeed villains in the personal, acting-alone sense or on some psychological level emissaries of a dark American desire that can’t even really be defined by the word “revenge.”

I read an Ian Rankin Rebus novel about addicts in between some of these readings and it seemed pretty upbeat. I pet our cats and took long walks and went to the gym. I looked at pictures of cute baby animals.