The Pull of Science Fiction

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Lately, after several years away, I am once again feeling the pull of science fiction. I’ve found myself staring at the s.f. books on my shelves, picking one up and starting it, and then decided that it wasn’t what I was looking for and trying another one. I continued to read other things–I’m back on a baseball kick right now, and in the midst of Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, Big Fella. But the pull of science fiction has been there in the background, like the subtle gravity well of some distant planet.

When I started to write s.f., my experience with it was fairly limited. I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, some Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, and not a whole lot else. The first s.f. magazine I read with any regularly was Science Fiction Age, not long after it debuted in the early 1990s. Back then, most magazines suggested reading the stories they contained to get a feel for what they published. I rarely did that (SF Age was the main exception). I was too impatient. Besides, I wanted to write my stories, not stories like the ones I read in the magazines.

I was young and naive.

Perhaps this is why it took me 14 years of writing and submitting before I finally sold a story. Or perhaps it took that long to hone my craft to the point where it was salable. Who knows?

In the fall of 1997, I read Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell and in the immediate aftermath of that book, I expanded my range in the s.f. world, reading in rapid succession books like The Stars My Destination, Rogue Moon, The Demolished Man, and Dying Inside. It was a beginning. A decade later, I read another fantastic Hartwell & Kramer book, this time, The Hard S.F. Renaissance. It was then that I decided that I enjoyed “short” s.f. more than novels. The shorter pieces seemed to pack more of a punch, they were necessarily more dense, and they seemed to experiment more than novels, perhaps because the overall investment was less. Not long after that, I began selling to Analog.

Still, my experience with “current” short fiction was limited. I read stuff my friends wrote and published. I occasionally read beyond that. Mostly, I spent my time vacationing in the golden age of science fiction, reading issues of Astounding Science Fiction from cover-to-cover beginning with the July 1939 issue. I discovered some wonderful gems in there. I even wrote a guest editorial in Analog, “Gem Hunting” about these wonderful stories.

At some point, the stories I was writing began to change. They began to be less science fictional, although always retained at least a tenuous connection to the genre. Whatever passion I had seemed to be fading, and I pretty much stopped reading s.f. altogether, with a rare interlude here or there. I tried not to worry about this, too much. I was reading a lot of nonfiction and enjoying it, and fiction took away from that.

Lately, though, the pull is back. I decided to go back to the beginning and try reading some short s.f. I pulled out The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1, edited by the late Gardner Dozois, and began reading it. So far, it seems to be sticking. I’m reading it for pleasure, dipping in during idle moments when I don’t feel like continuing the book I am reading. But I’m also doing it with a curiosity. What made these stories the best of the year? I’m taking a lot of notes. I am, in short, doing what I should have done from the beginning: reading the stories that were published in the magazines to get a sense of what they were looking for.

I don’t know where it is going or how long it will last. What I am most hopeful about is finding the real gems among these volumes. It’s hard to know what story will turn out to be a gem, but it’s like what they say about pornography: I know it when I see it.

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  1. If you do Facebook we have a group devoted to reading and identifying the best short SF/F. We group read best of the year anthologies and retrospectives anthologies.

    I also have a website devoted to identifying the best SF novels and short stories by statistical means using fan polls, awards, anthologies, best of lists, recommended reading by editors, authors, and critics.

    1. James, thanks for the link to the Facebook group and the csfquery site. The latter in particular is impressive. As my post mentioned, I kind of burned on on s.f. a while back and am just creeping my way back in to see if I can find the enjoyment in it that I used to have. So I’m probably not a good candidate at the moment to be part of a devoted group of readers, but I will definitely be dipping into your site, and I’ve added the CSF blog to my reader. Thanks for calling it out to me.


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