Category: science fiction

I give a crap about genre (especially science fiction)

Yesterday, Jeff VanderMeer wrote about how he doesn’t give a crap about genre. Jeff wrote a wonderful book called Booklife which is among the finest guides to managing a writing career that I’ve ever come across. I’ve never met Jeff in person (although we both attended the recent Capclave) but his reputation proceeds him and I hesitate to disagree with him… but I will.

Jeff writes:

I find it more and more alien and odd that someone’s taste in fiction could be determined by whether or not there’s a dragon in it or magic or whether it’s set in the future or not.

The human mind naturally puts things into categories and trying to see things otherwise seems to me to work against our natural tendencies. People see movies because they are comedies and avoid movies because they are slashers (or vice versa). Some people prefer musicals while others prefer plays. There are baseball fans and there are footballs fans. These preferences are part of what make up the person and genre merely acts as a guide for identifying something that a person will potentially like.

I grew up on science fiction and when I want to be entertained, when I want to recapture my childhood joy, when I want to experience a sense of wonder, it is to science fiction that I go. In fact, I don’t like when people refer to the genre as “sci-fi” or “s.f.” or especially “speculative fiction”. The latter term seems to me to be an attempt to sound literary. The truth is, I don’t care if science fiction is perceived as literary or not. I’m not even certain I know what “literary” means, but I see it as a property of fiction, a kind of continuum, as opposed to a genre, which is a classification. Good science fiction can be literary: Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside are two excellent novels that come to mind in this vain. But even if a story does not contain literary aspects, so what? I enjoy “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov because it is a good science fiction story. I reread the FOUNDATION novels because of the sense of wonder they instill in me. I read a Michael A. Burstein story or a Robert J. Sawyer novel because they are examples of science fiction done very well. I read Jack McDevitt science fiction mysteries because I adore the puzzle he presents.

Science fiction set my preferences for a specific genre and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, and I think that is something that is important to learn. I’m not a huge fan of high fantasy for instance. The fact that someone is classified as high fantasy helps me make decisions on how to prioritize what I read. Genre, therefore, provides a useful function to the reader, by helping them align their tastes to what is available on bookshelves.  Of course my taste in fiction is determined by whether or not it is set in the future, or there is time travel involved, or spaceships, or parallel universes. Why shouldn’t it be? This is how I grew up.

That is not to say that I don’t venture outside my genre. I’ve read extensively in science and history. And I’ve forced myself to read many of the so-called classics. But the key word there is “forced”. In some cases, I fell in love with the books (anything by John Steinbeck or Mark Twain, for instance). In other cases, I couldn’t stand what I read (Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens). In the former cases I was surprised, but in the latter, I was merely turned off.

I know what I like to read and I read as much of it as I can manage. I enjoy the tropes, there is comfort in the familiarity of the genre. It makes me feel good when I read science fiction. And whether or not genre fiction has anything of value to say about the current human condition–well, that’s entirely up to what the individual reader brings to the table.

The bottom line: my life is better because of science fiction.

Isaac Asimov: Proto-blogger?

I have been reading some of Isaac Asimov’s essays on science fiction over the last few days. Over the course of his prolific career, the Good Doctor wrote thousands of essays ranging a wide variety of subjects. I’ve probably read most (although certainly not all) of these essays and it occurred to me yesterday that one might consider Isaac Asimov one of the earliest bloggers–or at the very least, a “proto-blogger”. In honor of his 91st birthday today, I thought I would discuss this in more detail.

There are some common features to most successful blog:

  1. They have an audience
  2. They are updated with some degree of regularity
  3. They often contain commentary on a specific topic area, although some run the gamut
  4. The engage readers in a discussion or dialog through the comment system

In the world of science fiction, blogging often involves any or all of the following:

  • Reviews or critiques of science fiction
  • Discussions of the writing process or the business of writing
  • Social commentary from the perspective of a science fiction writer
  • Occasional discussions of science as it relates to society (or science fiction)

And every now and then, the blogger will write about his or her personal life.

Isaac Asimov’s thousands of essays meet almost all these criteria and then some:

  • He had a huge audience, one that continued to grow from the mid-1950s (when his essays became more regular) until his death.
  • The essays appeared with an unprecedented degree of regularity. He wrote 399 consecutive monthly essays on science for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; he wrote columns for American Way for a decade or more; he wrote columns for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate; and he wrote editorials for each issue of Asimov’s for more than 15 years.  In addition, he had essays appearing in all kinds of other places from TV Guide to the New York Times, to say nothing of the hundred of introductions he wrote for other people’s books.
  • Several of his columns focused on a broad area, such as science. Others were political commentary, or literary critiques, or personal essays about writing or about science fiction.

The most significant difference between Asimov’s essays and blogs today lies in the discussion aspect. And even there, readers of the essays could and did write to Asimov to engage him on various points and opinions in his essays. And where he could, Asimov responded (there were more than 100,000 letters in his files, according to his brother).

Reading Asimov’s essays on science fiction (many of which appeared as editorials for Asimov’s Science Fiction), I can’t help but look at them as a primitive form of blogging, a kind of Whatever, twenty years before Scalzi’s pioneering blog appeared. They often talked about science fiction or the writing of science fiction, but they sometimes also commented on some kind of social or political issue, and his views were discussed by fans in the letter columns, a kind of primitive comment system. He was what I call a proto-blogger.

I wonder what would have happened if he had lived into the early 21st century. Would he have become a full-fledged blogger? I suspect not? He was set in his ways and already had a vast audience for the essays he wrote. I think he would have approved of the notion of blogging, but I don’t think that he personally would have embraced it (in the way that, say, Frederik Pohl has).

Happy 91st birthday, Isaac!

What Secret Santa left for me

I came home from vacation to find this waiting from me from my Secret Santa:

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(Click the image to see a larger version.)

It’s a stack of Asimov’s and Analog magazines from the 1970s and includes the premier issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (the one showing). It also appears to include most issues of Analog from June 1977-August 1978.

Thank you Secret Santa!

I have no desire to see Tron Legacy (and other sci-fi films)

Because many of my friends and coworkers know me to be a science fiction writer, I am often asked if I have seen the latest sci-fi blockbuster and what did I think of it. The truth, I’m afraid, tends to disappoint them.

I generally hate sci-fi movies.

There are some exceptions–very rare ones–but the truth of the matter is that I get bored almost instantly and if I stick it out too long, I can find myself growing angry over things in the film that probably mean little to anyone else.

But as a science fiction writer, how can I hate science fiction films?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Science fiction films are often based on source material originally found in science fiction literature, and in these cases, they are almost always far worse than the books. In fact, I can think of only one science fiction film that measured up to the book upon which it was based, and that is Carl Sagan’s Contact. Most people I know who like sci-fi movies, hated Contact. Go figure.
  2. The sole purpose of many science fiction films is to demonstrate how far we’ve come in terms of special effects. But when I read a book like Foundation or Rendezvous with Rama, I get all of the special effects I need by combining the words on the page with my imagination. So far, Hollywood as not been able to outdo my imagination when it comes to special effects.
  3. Science fiction films tend lean much more toward fiction and much less toward science. They tend to be fantasies more than anything else (take the entire Star Wars saga as an example).
  4. Science fiction films have taken audiences away from written science fiction. People are generally lazy. When Star Wars came out with its dazzling special effects, anyone who wanted to see spaceships battling it out among the stars could drop by their local movie house–which was much easier to do than to pick up a book like The Forever War and actually sit an read. Reading requires active participation. Watching a film is almost entirely passive.

This is nothing new for me; I’ve always been this way, and I admit, I am somewhat of an anomaly, I think, even among science fiction writers. I can’t recall ever seeing the original Tron, and I have no desire whatsoever to see the sequel.

A month or two ago, I finally got around to seeing Avatar because it showed up on HBO. I hated it. Absolutely despised it. The special effects were stunning, but the story was terrible, the characters were cardboard cutouts and the plot was recycled from a dozen or more science fiction classics. Even the dialog was terrible and made what I considered to be amateur mistakes in speaking to the audience as opposed to the characters in the story.  One example: the bad-guy colonel says, at one point, that if your not careful, “They’d suck your eyes out like Jujubes.” This is a story that is supposed to take place at least several hundred years in the future. I doubt that anyone in that time would know what the hell the Colonel was referring to, even if he himself knew it was a type of jelly candy.

I did like the movie based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. It was simplified a bit, and there were some things left out of it, but the thrust of the novel came across clearly and it was a well-done, well-acted film. Most people I know didn’t like it.  The same is true for the The Bicentennial Man, which was based on Robert Silverberg’s expansion of Isaac Asimov’s Hugo and Nebula-award-winning story of the same name. The film starred Robin Williams and even Williams later made fun of it in one of his standup routines. But I think the film captured the essence of the original story, which happens to be one of my favorite all-time pieces of short science fiction.

It is ironic that bad science fiction films are gold at the box office, while outstanding science fiction novels rarely made the bestseller lists, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that this played into my frustration with science fiction films. But the fact it that I love the literature of science fiction so much that I have no need for a visual medium in which to imagine my favorite stories. What goes on inside my head is good enough, and seeing it on the big screen might ruin for me an otherwise cherished image.

There will be some movies that I would go see out of sheer curiosity. If they end up making a movie for The Forever War, I’ll check it out. Ditto for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But I have no high hopes for them. Perhaps they will surprise me, but I doubt it. (The truth it, I’ll be surprised if they get made at all.)

Many years ago, when I lived in L.A., I attended a private screening of The Puppet Masters starring Donald Sutherland. We had to rate the film afterward and discuss it with a panel of people who were getting our opinions before release. I think I was the only one there who’d read (and enjoyed) the Heinlein novel upon which it was based. The movie was so terrible that I absolutely refused to see Starship Troopers when it was released. To this day, I haven’t seen that film.

I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, but generally liked the first half better than the second half. I didn’t like the sequel, 2010 at all.

This is why I have no desire to see Tron: Legacy. Special effects don’t impress me. 3D doesn’t impress me. What impresses me most is a compelling story that fits neatly together with rich characters that come to life and for whom I want to love or hate. That’s pretty rare in science fiction in general, but it’s almost a recipe for disaster for a science fiction film.

January 12 talk on science fiction at the Arlington Writers Group

On January 12, I will be giving a talk on science fiction for members of the Arlington Writers Group. This is the first time I’ll be doing something like this and I am both excited and nervous about it. We critique stories every other week. On the alternate weeks, we have some kind of discussion or talk. In the past (before I was a member) people have given talks on other genres (Romance, for example). These talks are supposed to be designed to give people an idea of what the genre is about, especially those who are not familiar with it. My talk is blurbed as follows:

Celebrated science fiction writer and group member Jamie Todd Rubin will lead a discussion of his favorite genre.

We’ll examine the history of science fiction writing, the tenets of the genre, and Jamie will introduce us to some favorite works by authors we may know. He’ll also introduce us to writers in the field we’ve maybe never heard of.

And no, I did not write the blurb. Our Fearless Leader deserves credit for that.

I have a rough idea for my talk and I’m beginning to shape it up. My biggest concern is making the talk interesting, even to those who don’t know anything about science fiction–or better yet, those who don’t really like the genre for one reason or another. We’ll see how it goes.

And we may even have a Special Guest in attendance for the event…

If any of my science fiction friends (particularly those who have given talks on the subject before) have advice for me, I would be in your debt and very much appreciate your wisdom.

Tenetative convention schedule for 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, here is my tentative convention schedule for 2011. Obviously this can change, but this is where I am planning on being:

I still have yet to attend either a WorldCon or a World Fantasy Convention but the timing for each of these doesn’t work for me this year. I do plan on being at Chicon in 2012. I am also going to try to make it to the SFWA Author & Editors reception again in 2011, if I can manage it.

Keeping up with short (science) fiction

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One area in which I have a difficult time keeping up is short science fiction. I subscribe to all of the major magazines (and a few of the smaller ones as well) and yet during the course of the year, I don’t really read many of the stories in those magazines because I simply don’t have the time to sift through them all. I probably read 10 or 15 total, and those ones I do read are either by writers I admire or that I know personally. This doesn’t allow me to be introduced to newer writers, or writers with which I don’t have much reading experience.  But what can I do? It’s hard enough just to keep up with regular reading, my writing, family life, to say nothing of my day job.

Two years ago, around this time, we headed down to Florida for vacation. I brought with me David G. Hartwell‘s The Hard SF Renaissance and I had a blast reading that book while relaxing on the beach in Florida. It was almost idyllic in its delight. That, plus the fact that I am refocusing my goals on my own short fiction, gave me the idea to start a new tradition. Much as I reserve the month of April to reread Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies, I am going to reserve the month of December to read two of the most recent Year’s Best volumes.  The volumes I’ve chosen are The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois, and The Year’s Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell.  Of course, it means that I am reading the stories from 2009 at the end of 2010 (and at the end of 2011, I’ll be catching up on the stories for 2010), but at least it will expose me to what two of the most influential editors in the field think is the “best” science fiction of years.

Why both volumes?

I’ve found by reading other anthologies that I have a strong preference for the type of stories that Hartwell picks for his Year’s Best series. They suit my tastes for the kind of stuff that I enjoy reading. Dozois and I don’t always agree on what makes an enjoyable story, but I respect his opinion in the field and I think I can learn a lot by reading his selections–which tend to be what I would call more “literary” science fiction.

Last night, I started reading Dozois’ The Years Best Science Fiction, 27th Annual Edition, which covers 2009. He writes a remarkable introduction that covers all aspects of the health of the field of science fiction. And while I’ve only gotten through the first story so far, I must say that I am impressed by that first selection, “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson. When I finish Dozois’ book, I’ll turn to Hartwell’s book. And since I’ll be in Florida again, I look forward to the delight that I experienced the last December I was there.

As I read these stories, I am not just reading for entertainment. I’m trying to understand why they were picked. I’m looking at the techniques the authors used and trying to determine if those techniques were successful. I’m trying to understand what worked and what didn’t work. In short, I’m using these hand-picked examples to try to make myself into a better short story writer.

We’ll see how things go.

Science fiction mysteries

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I had an epiphany the other day.

There is a certain kind of science fiction story (including novels) that I particularly like. It’s been hard for me to classify what these stories are. In the past I’ve thought of them as space opera, like Isaac Asimov‘s FOUNDATION series or Arthur C. Clarke‘s ODYSSEY series. But I’ve read other types of space opera and sometimes, I don’t come away with the same sense of excitement as I do with others. What’s the difference?

The difference, it occurred to me the other day, is that the stories I like best are science fiction mysteries. Back in the day, these were called “puzzle stories”. It was an epiphany for me in multiple senses because not only are these my favorite type of stories to read, they are also my favorite type of stories to write. (My story, “Take One for the Road”, coming out in Analog in 2011 will be my first published science fiction mystery.)

I enjoy the FOUNDATION stories so much because they are, at their core, puzzles.  I enjoy Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels so much because they, too, are puzzle stories. Even a novel like Joe Haldeman‘s THE FOREVER WAR is to some extent a puzzle story. And some of my favorite types of stories involve time travel and those are almost always puzzle stories. Not all science fiction stories are puzzles stories or even intended to be. And it would seem that the trend holds for me. If I got back through the list of science fiction books I’ve read, I tend to rate stories with a greater mystery or puzzle element higher than I do those that lack it. There are exceptions, but the general case is true. For instance, I did not particularly like Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOW’S END. And in looking back on it, I don’t see that as much of a mystery or puzzle story.  On the other hand, I loved Connie Willis’ DOOMSDAY BOOK and there was a definite element of mystery and puzzle-solving in that story.

Other examples:

I didn’t particularly enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s FALLING FREE, Samuel Delany’s BABEL-17, or Ray Bradbury’s FROM THE DUST RETURNED. As I can recall them, none had a particularly strong mystery element. However, I loved Joe Haldeman’s THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE, Barry Malzberg’s BEYOND APOLLO, and Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, all of which had stronger mystery and puzzle elements.

It is a great relief to discover this for a number of reasons. First, of course, it better describes what I enjoy reading and I can actively go seek this kind of stuff out more easily, now that I know what I’m looking for. Second, it helps me to understand why I don’t enjoy some of the more–shall we say, literary–efforts in science fiction that many of my friends and colleagues seem to love. I was not blown away by THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS or THE WINDUP GIRL the way others were, and I’ve always thought that to be a problem with me. In fact, those books simply don’t match my taste for the type of science fiction I really enjoy. It is a relief to discover that.  It also helps to explain why absolutely love David G. Hartwell’s mammoth anthology THE HARD S.F. RENAISSANCE.  Hard s.f. stories tend to me more puzzle-oriented.

This is not to say that I won’t or don’t read other science fiction or that I won’t or don’t attempt to write other types.  But for pure enjoyment, for slipping back into my vision of a Golden Age, the science fiction mystery is my drug of choice. There have been a lot of good writers in this subgenre over the years and it solves for me another mystery: why I like Jack McDevitt’s book so much:

He specializes in science fiction mysteries and in my opinion, there is no one better than Jack at this art.

InterGalactic Medicine Show, Issue #20 is online

For those who enjoy good science fiction and fantasy, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, issue #20 is online today. I have a soft spot in my heart for this gem of a magazine since they published my first story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” way back in issue #5.

In particular, Id’ call your attention to Erin Cashier‘s story, “Beneath the Shadow of the Dragon” (which is also available in audio form).

Also, Issue 11 is currently free to read through the end of the year.  And if you like what you read, consider subscribing to the magazine.

An hour in the Golden Age

The Science Fiction Oral History Association has started a series of podcasts called their Space Dog Podcast and the first of which is an interview from 1976 with Arthur C. Clarke, followed by an extraordinary panel interview with Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Lester del Rey and Gordon R. Dickson.  I’ve heard individual interviews with Isaac Asimov and even Frederick Pohl before, but never have I heard an interview in which these four men bantered like they do here, talking mostly about science fiction and writing.  For an hour, I felt like I was sitting in a room with these giants of the genre and it was an absolutely delightful experience.  It made me realize how lucky I am to have read their work, and especially, how lucky I am to be considered a science fiction writer, even a lowly one, and be associated with their ranks.  If you like science fiction, you must listen to this interview.

Frederik Pohl v. Mark Rich

Ever since Frederik Pohl started blogging about his experience reading Mark Rich’s biography of Cyril Kornbluth, the hits on my review of said biography have gone up.  I thought the book was phenomenal and fascinating.  It’s one of those rare books that I rated at 5-stars.  But in my review, I also said:

The book does not paint a pretty picture of Frederik Pohl, which came as a surprise to me, considering their collaboration history as well as what Pohl had to say about Kornbluth in his memoir.

Today, Fred posted about some correspondence he had with Mark Rich earlier in the week in which he proposes offering rebuttals to much of what Rich had to say about him, and in which Rich responded that he was pleased that Fred would be “correcting” any mistakes.

I find this both fascinating and sad.  I enjoyed Mark Rich’s book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the field of science fiction and in particular, as a guide to one of the most remarkable writers the field has ever seen.  At the time I read the book, I felt that it was well sourced, and Rich seemed to have compelling evidence backing the things in which he said.  But as I said in my review, the picture Rich painted of Pohl came as a surprise to me, and now Pohl is crying foul and as someone who admires Pohl’s writing and Rich’s book, I’m not sure where to come down on this.  The fact is: I wasn’t there.  I don’t know what happened.  Rich wasn’t there either, but got his information from sources that were there.  Or from correspondence from those sources.  But Pohl was there and he knows what happened.

One might argue that as the last man standing from those halcyon days, Pohl almost got away with writing the history of that time the way he wanted it to be remembered, but that Mark Rich came along and called him on it.  I think this argument has merit, but at the same time, I feel sad that this is unfolding the way it is.  Mark Rich wrote a terrific book, but his attack on Pohl might come across as beating up on an old man.  Pohl, on the other hand, may have done some of the things Rich attributes to him, which would be sad and which would diminish the man (but not his work) in my eyes.  However, Pohl may not have done these things but find it difficult to defend himself from attacks where evidence to the contrary no longer exists.  It then becomes his word against Rich’s word.

Ultimately, this is a sad, though perhaps not unexpected side-effect of an otherwise terrific book.  If there are errors, I hope that Pohl has a chance to correct them and I hope that Rich accepts those corrections gracefully, or refutes them with equal grace.  It is a delicate situation and I don’t envy either party.

Capclave 2010

I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday at Capclave, the local science fiction convention put on by the Washington Science Fiction Association.  I like Capclave because it centers around short fiction, which is what I write, and avoids media-related science fiction and fantasy.  I had a lot of fun at Capclave.  What follows is my summary of the convention.

Most of Friday night was for networking and catching up with people I know.  I saw Larry Hodges there, and also met James Maxey for the first time.  The three of us spent some time talking shop before heading off to Larry’s reading.  He read 3 pieces of flash fiction, after which the three of us retired to the bar for the rest of the evening.

On Saturday, I started off my day at the convention by attending 4 straight panels.  The first of these was “The Mule, Muad’dib, and Men Who Stare at Goats”.  The panel was described as imaging whether or not there could be superhumans.  I went into thinking there would be discussion of those “superhumans” mentioned in the title, but as it turned out, this was mostly a nonsense panel with the participants discussing things like ESP, telekensis, and other pseudoscience as if it actually existed. There were even claims of scientific evidence for such phenomenon and I was rather disappointed that seemingly intelligent people would discuss these topics with the level of irrationality at which it was conducted.  There was one panelist, however, Sam Scheiner, who was the voice of reason on the panel, correcting panelist about what the job of science was in the first place, and correcting the audience when one of our member was confused about how evolution worked.

The next panel, on ePublishing, was far more interesting and far more relevant to both writer and fan alike.  The panel was made of participants, each of whom had experience in ePublishing in different ways.  There was good discussion of many of the aspects of ePublishing, but one area that was missing was that of the aesthetics of eBooks.  Since this is something I have complained about before, I brought it up in the discussion.  Neil Clarke responded to this, seemed to understand the problem well and was sympathetic.

Next was Connie Willis, the guest of honor, who was supposed to read from her lastest novel All Clear.  However, when she got started, she said that she wouldn’t read from the novel since it was finally available and she didn’t want to spoil it (or Blackout) for those who haven’t read it yet.  Instead, she gave a delightful talk on the things that she found in her research that she could not put into the novel.  It was the first time I’d ever seen Connie Willis talk and she is a delightful and even more, a funny speaker.  She told many stories of the Brits from the Blitz.  She also talked about the novel she is writing next, a romantic comedy about alien abduction and Las Vegas, centering around Roswell.

Finally, there was a panel on World Building; Planning and Execution.  It was an interesting panel that never really got into the “planning and execution” phase and ended up being focused on other aspects of world-building in various types of genre fiction.

After a break (where I worked feverishly on the outline for my novel) I attended the interview with Connie Willis and she was utterly charming in that interview.

When it was over, I headed to the hotel lounge to get some food.  As it turned out, Connie Willis entered the lounge shortly after and sat down with several people at the next table.  Her husband, Courtney, who I’d met briefly in the bar earlier ended up sitting with me and over the course of the next 2 hours, we had a delightful conversation.

My final event of the convention was the book-signing.  Since I own both Blackout and All Clear on the Kindle, there was no way that I could get those books signed by Connie Willis.  So I brought my Easton Press edition of Doomsday Book put out by the Masterpieces of Science Fiction collection and that is the book that Connie signed for me.

The convention was a lot of fun for me, and I was thrilled to get to meet Connie Willis in person.  The next event I’ll be attending is the SFWA annual reception in New York City on November 22.