Vintage Science Fiction Readings #6–“But That’s Not Science Fiction”

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 in an ad hoc way about current reading related to the anthology. I don’t claim these are systematic reports.

The following excerpt is from Judith Merril’s introduction to George P. Elliott’s “Among the Dangs,” published in the Merril-edited The Year’s Best S-F, 7th Annual Edition, published in 1963. “Among the Dangs” was first published in Esquire.

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But that’s not science fiction…!

Even my best friends [to invert a paraphrase] keep telling me: That’s not science fiction!

Sometimes they mean it couldn’t be s-f, because it’s good. Sometimes it couldn’t be because it’s not about spaceships or time machines. (Religion or politics or psychology isn’t science fiction—is it?) Sometimes (because some of my best friends are s-f fans they mean it’s not really science fiction—just fantasy or satire or something like that.

On the whole, I think I am very patient. I generally manage to explain again, just a little wearily, what the “S-F” in the title of this book means, and what science fiction is, and why the one contains the other, without being constrained by it. But it does strain my patience when the exclamation is compounded to mean, “Surely you don’t mean to use that in ‘S-F’? That’s not science fiction!”—about a first-rate piece of the honest thing.

For some reason, this comes most often from other editors—and most irritatingly from the editor who first bought and published the story in question, and does not want to think that he printed that kind of story. But the ultimate frustration is to hear the same thing from the editor who is publishing me

[It is hard not to add commentary here, since Ann and I have experienced the same frustration. What the tribalism of genre usually results in is invisibility for some authors and an incomplete understanding of the amazing constellations of fictions that make up the entire SF and fantasy universe. What it does, too, is wear down those editors and writers who try to breach these boundaries, who want to present the complete picture. I’ve rarely read such an evocative description of the frustration inherent in dealing this issue. – JV]

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Vintage Science Fiction Readings #5–1971-1975, Presented 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 in an ad hoc way about current reading related to the anthology. I don’t claim these are systematic reports.

“The dead astronaut: The phrase is filled with anxiety, the words themselves evoking the tension and anguish, the words themselves evoking the tension and anguish that gripped the whole world in that fateful month of April 1970, when a technical malfunction came close to costing the lives of astronauts Lovell, Swigert and Haise…All but one of the stories in this book were originally published before anyone set foot on the moon. And yet these stories foretold the perils of space travel, often with uncanny accuracy and curiously precise detail.

“A case in point is ‘Here Comes John Henry,’ [by Ray Russell] the protagonist of which is a black astronaut. The story was written in 1967, just a week or two before the announcement of the first real-life black astronaut, Major Robert Lawrence (since deceased). That appointment compelled the editors to delay publication of the story for over a year, to help dispel any erroneous assumptions that the fictional astronaut was based, even remotely, on Major Lawrence.” – from the introduction to the Playboy anthology The Dead Astronaut, published 1971

“Some of the ideological declarations that have been made concerning the New Wave have been as meaningless as they have been asinine. Proponents of so-called traditional science fiction have declared that the New Wave does not exist, while out of the other sides of their mouths attacking this supposedly nonexistent phenomenon as nihilistic, anti-rational, involuted, and a threat to the special virtues that supposedly distinguish science fiction from the ‘mainstream.’ For their part, some of the writers and critics who have become associated with the label New Wave…have expended a great deal of energy in attempting to substitute the label ‘speculative fiction’ for the label ‘science fiction’ when classifying their own product.” – from Norman Spinrad’s introduction to The New Tomorrows, described on the first page as “a predestined collision of fifteen first-rate stories of somewhat scientific speculative fiction”, published 1971

“[In The Mirror of Infinity anthology,] James Blish, that most erudite and academic of sf authors, can be discovered mourning the loss of the stringent plotting demands of the extinct pulps, and giving a little succinct advice about the art which gave rise to Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula (an invaluable work, to be found on the shelves of all those much loved and sadly departed masters of interplanetary adventure). Who would remember Whip Queens of the Scarlet Asteroid, Mr. Blish implies, if that narrative of courage in extremity had not been founded on a ‘sympathetic character with whom the reader can identify’?…[followed by discussions of types of sympathy, bad and good in the writer’s estimation and reviews of novels by Blish and Jack Story, which leads to…] If the genre as a whole imagines that it has somehow become worthwhile [because of mainstream attention], that its relationship to real life has been consummated, because a few men have walked on the moon, then it had better stop and think. Because until…the Master Plot Formula and Mr. Blish’s ‘sympathetic viewpoint character’ are replaced by a little observation of reality and human understanding, it will never become relevant to anything.” – from M. John Harrison’s essay “The Problem of Sympathy” in New Worlds Quarterly #4, published 1972

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Vintage Science Fiction Readings #4: Talk to the Hand

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 and conversations about the anthology.

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Also from the past week.

“That was a movie, not a short story.”

“That was written in 1834.”

“That wasn’t an alien. That was not an alien.”

“Because there was no internet, he got away with it–look at the copyright page.”

“That was it? That’s all that happened?!?!!”

 

Science Friday and The Lost City of Z: Further Thoughts

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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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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.

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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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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

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