Science Friday and The Lost City of Z: Further Thoughts


I was thrilled to be on Science Friday today along with host Ira Flatow, producer Annie Minoff, and space archaeologist Sarah Parcak. We were talking about the current SciFri Book Club selection The Lost City of Z by David Grann and you can listen to the show here.

I’m glad they’ve devoted several segments to The Lost City of Z over the past weeks as the book is too complex and too wide and deep for a single discussion. It details the Amazon expeditions of Percy Fawcett, one of the last Victorian explorers. The book also describes the author’s own attempt to retrace the footsteps of Fawcett, who disappeared during his last expedition in 1925. Grann also fills in the time between, during which many people went into the jungle trying to find Fawcett. Some of them could be termed professionals — professional explorers or scientists — but many were amateurs. And many of them died or disappeared in the attempt.

The ending of The City of Z turns much of the testament to human eccentricity present in the book’s first half into something profound and haunting. It is not so much a twist as a different way of seeing the landscape, and a commentary on something you see so often with early European explorers and even later anthropologists or archaeologists: the evidence is right there but they can’t see it. Either from lack of tech or lack of imagination or pre-set cultural expectations. Or through bad luck. So the book builds and builds until what’s absurd takes on a kind of quietly luminescent quality. It really is a classic.

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Vintage Science Fiction Readings #3: Please Let There Be a F*cking Spaceship in This Story

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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.

When you read for a big anthology, you become a little obsessed with being complete in tracking down “the good stuff.” The definition of “the good stuff” varies for every editor, but for us it tends to be international fiction, fiction that falls between the cracks of “mainstream” and “genre,” and choices that don’t come from the expected sources. That search is, of course, in the context of re-evaluating the classics in a category, in this case science fiction, and anchoring the anthology with the Usual Suspects who are indeed the Usual Suspects because their fiction is excellent.

The search for the good stuff doesn’t always lead to what you’re looking for, even if it often leads you to something great. Take these three anthologies: The Big Aiiieeee!: An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings & Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States, and Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction From Japan, 1913-1938. I spent a fair amount of my time last week reading just about every bit of fiction and nonfiction in these books, all the while thinking to myself “Please for the love of God, let there be a fucking spaceship in one of these stories.” Just a little spaceship, nothing spectacular. Just a hint of something extraterrestrial going on, maybe. Anything that will give me an excuse to bring it to Ann for further investigation.

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Wonderbook Workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference This Summer

This summer, Ann and I will teach a Wonderbook workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference (Faculty Session II). Ostensibly it’s for science fiction and fantasy, but really just literature of the imagination in general. In other words, even if you have a manuscript that’s not fantastical in some way, we wouldn’t mind seeing you there. The manuscript is only one component in our unique approach.

The workshop will use writing exercises, lecture, and discussion. Critique will largely occur before the sessions and any manuscript analysis be conducted in the one-on-one sessions after each morning session. During the workshop, you will use your manuscript as the catalyst or jumping off point for some of the exercises. The process will give you new insight into characterization, structure, and scenes–in the context of your own work. FOR OUR CRITIQUE, YOU MUST TURN IN YOUR MANUSCRIPT BY JUNE 1.

Participants will need to acquire Wonderbook and will need to be willing to write longhand in class. You’ll also have access to materials and images that weren’t included in Wonderbook. And we’ll field any and all writing questions the last day and in one-on-one sessions.

If you’re not familiar with Wonderbook, it’s the world’s first fully illustrated creative writing guide–you can find out more at the web site.

Together, Ann VanderMeer and I have over 60 years of teaching experience. We believe strongly in understanding what you’re trying to do with your writing and helping you achieve what you want to achieve. (Rather than pushing one particular approach.) You’ll also have my view as a writer and Ann’s as an award-winning editor. And, it’s fun!


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]

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Over at The Atlantic: A Southern Reach Tell-All


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.


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.)





Boxing Up The Southern Reach


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:


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


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.


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.


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).


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.