My favorite legs. Ever. Because it’s Saturday. And, y’know. Love.
I have been trying to decide where to put this—here, in the Muse, or on my critical blog, the Proximal Eye—and have finally decided it should go here, at least for the time being. I may cross-post later or I may do something more to which this will link. I’ve decided to put it here, though, because it pertains to culture.
The last time I was able to vote for the Hugo Award, the science fiction field’s oldest and most popular award, was 2004. Now, to be clear, I always wanted one once I learned about them. It’s a cool trophy and I like the idea behind it, basically that it is a fan award, voted on by those who pony up the money to attend the world science fiction convention, wherever it may be in a given year. Or, if not attend, then support. After becoming involved in the field way back in 1982, I found that we’re not talking about a particularly large pool of voters. Even in years with record attendance, actual ballots cast have been modest. People go to these things for many reasons, not all of them having to do with books and stories. Even those who do go because of the books may have many reasons for not voting—they haven’t read any of the relevant texts for that year, nothing struck them as particularly award-worthy, or they aren’t going for the literature. Or they may think the whole idea the award for best whatever is silly or pointless.
On this last I find myself, after 30-plus years of paying attention to science fiction as a field, having some sympathy. Like the Oscars, I think such awards are useful for drawing attention to a field, for promoting the idea that work is being done that merits serious attention, but the notion that any given book or short story in any given year is somehow The Best is naïve. Secondarily, that anyone could read enough of what is produced and published in that year to be able to have a good idea of what is worthwhile in comparison to everything else is kind of unlikely. There was a time, long ago, when such a thing was possible, but we’re talking about hundreds of new books a year, never mind all the short fiction. The best novel might easily be a book published by a press only 50 people know about and will sink beneath the turmoil of a crowded field where prominence is as often determined by print run and ad campaigns as by the quality of what one finds between the covers. I’m not being defeatist here, just realistic.
So it might be reasonable to say that those books chosen are representative of what’s trending that year. If the mix is lively, then we see a preliminary ballot with a variety, from high fantasy to nuts-n-bolts science fiction to what used to be called “soft” SF (meaning the science is not dominant and might be just a bit on the anthropological side rather than the physics side*), so several “trends” are represented and among them the top trend wins the award.
This in no way detracts from the works that actually win, because it’s a given that they must be in the top tier in order to garner the attention in the first place. So out a dozen possible “best” examples of, say, space opera, the one that wins is in the vanguard of the work produced that year. Any one of those dozen might have ended up on the ballot and even winning, but for the vagaries of the process and the particular atmosphere of the field. Quibbles may ensue among supporters of one over the other, but we’re still talking about by and large excellent work. Excellent, that is, in terms of what fans think. Obviously professional critics, academics, and colleagues may have quite different opinions, and often do.
As with anything to which the public subscribes and has a say, the Hugo Award is more about what people like than the finer points of the book. This is not to say that those who actually vote are incapable of assessing those points and in the past some very fine work, work judged in other venues as fine, has won. But the Hugo remains, at the end of the day and after the smoke clears, a popularity contest. Inevitably, sales are relevant, which means marketing is a factor, and so lobbying comes into it, as in all more or less democratic processes. And with lobbying comes the inevitable screeching of those who suspect nefarious machinations behind the scenes to exclude.
We’re hearing it again. No, I shan’t name them. Suffice to say there is a vocal group currently organizing to shove itself into the upcoming awards race on the basis that their particular brand of writing has been and is being snubbed by the field at large or, implicitly and otherwise, by the secret manipulators working to keep them out for political reasons. I’ve read some of their positions and find some merit in the claim that their “brand” is getting short shrift when it comes to the big time awards-driven red carpet arenas of the field. But that there is a cohesive effort to keep them out?
I can’t help but hear the echoes. We’ve heard this before. Many times.
The first time I understood it, the cries came from the science fiction field as a whole, complaining that the so-called “mainstream” ignored us, derided us, denied us our rightful place at the table of popular culture. Talk of being in a ghetto rippled around the perimeter, and there was considerable truth in the complaint. Of course, there were lesser convulsions within the field, namely the one between fantasy and science fiction and which came first and which was a subset of the other. Earlier, fantasy writers complained at being overlooked when science fiction was dominant, then science fiction writers felt imposed upon when fantasy topped SF in popularity (and sales). Reading in older chronicles of the times, the schism between traditional SF and the New Wave was loud and heated. (When Delany’s Einstein Intersection won the Nebula Award, James Blish wrote that upon hearing the news he went into the next room and bit his cat.) Time and again, factions form and hiss at others.
And all through this, suggestions of SMOF** cabals arranging the furniture to block certain books and writers and formats and…
…I find myself finally in a place where I can just chuckle and wonder at the complaints.
Times change, tastes evolve, there is growth in the field. One of the ironies with which we now contend is that the ghetto doesn’t actually exist anymore. Science fiction—and Fantasy—“won” the debate with the mainstream. I see articles talking about the “shrinking marketshare of literary SF” and wondering how this could be the case when more and more literary writers are writing science fiction (and fantasy), which is simply not being published with the old SF or F on the spine, but as literary mainstream. (A recent example is Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which is about interstellar travel and colonization. It is simply not being marketed as science fiction but that’s what it is.) I recall talk in the late 80s when certain people, under their breath, grumbled about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “defection” because her books were being marketed as mainstream. Even then I found it an odd reaction—wasn’t this the point of the struggle, to find acceptance in the mainstream?
Evidently not, and possibly for perfectly sound reasons, namely that there is pleasure within the confines of any genre as genre. Which is why we still have a vital mystery genre.
But on another level, this success is a call to all writers to do their work better. The literary science fiction market is not shrinking, it is simply losing its genre markers. Partly that means the writing appeals to those not conversant with the deep-core conventions and conceits of the field—at least, not the language. Likewise, it means that such writers have learned how to tell a certain kind of story, a more character-centered story, set within SFnal worlds.
Why would we deny awards to people who do good science fiction just because…?
But that’s not the complaint. The complaint, in certain more pointed protests, is that all these books and stories are talking about things and in ways that the complainers find distasteful.
I’m seeing the term SJW popping up in a lot of these posts. SJW. Social Justice Warrior. And I can’t help but see the squeal of those who simply don’t want their Worlds of Warcraft sullied by genuine human issues. That may be an extreme way to put it, but then why attach that derogation to one’s complaint if it’s not the case?
Because that label—SJW, used that way—is leveled as code for categorizing someone whose arguments you have already decided are not worth listening to. (If it’s just the approach one or another person takes in pursuit of their ideals that’s offensive—and I get that, yes I do—then why not just call them assholes and be done with it? Why bring their cause into it to smear along with their unpleasant approach? Well, because it’s not just the person making the argument, it’s the argument you don’t want to hear, and having a handy label like that allows you to pre-dismiss them.***) So last year’s big winner becomes second-rate fiction because of the SJW nature of either the work or its supporters.
And what is being defended by the folks intent on letting everyone know what they think of SJWs? A lot of it seems to be military SF. Not all, but much of it.
Now, however one feels about this subgenre, two things about it in relation to awards are bothersome. One, it’s not as if military SF has never won any awards—Lois McMaster Bujold and Orson Scott Card come to mind, not to mention Joe Haldeman and C.J.Cherryh—but it seems to me that if one of the purposes of an award is to celebrate cutting edges and innovation, then it is reasonable that certain tropes will fade in and out of popularity and some may fall away from consideration completely, because if that is the defining characteristic of the work then it stands to reason that it will, over time, have less utility in finding that cutting edge. Other things will emerge as new and interesting.
But two, I have to ask, in all honesty, how many times can we rewrite Starship Troopers and expect it to look like something new?
Unless you use it to do other things previously not done with the form.
Which, of course, means such work won’t look like what you might expect.
Find the untrod path, follow it honestly and truthfully, and it might surprise you what comes out at the end.
Or write what you really like and have fun writing. But then don’t be surprised if a lot of people find what you do derivative. Which doesn’t mean it will be bad or even unpopular. But it might not be obvious awards material.
But complaining that those who are getting tapped for awards are doing so because they follow a political line with which you disagree is stretching things a bit. If there is one thing I’ve learned about the science fiction field and fandom over the years, one should not expect cohesion. There isn’t any.
Besides, bitching that something is “message” fiction, “social justice” fiction, that this somehow renders a work less—what exactly does that mean? Because really, show me a first rate SF novel that isn’t in part a social justice novel. Ender’s Game certainly is. The Dispossessed. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. We can go on and on.
I suspect the complaints are based on apprehensions which have to do with aspects of story having nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of the genre. Ancillary Justice, being the novel that took almost all the awards last year, is a space opera. It’s a military SF novel. It’s about AIs and distributed intelligences. Its main character is the condensed remnant of a vast AI that was once a ship now confined to the brainspace of an individual. What more could you want? This is as skiffy as things get.
Oh, but it does that little thing with gender pronouns that seems to bother a lot of people. I guess that’s what makes it the work of a Social Justice Warrior.
Except that the writer didn’t actually make any kind of statement about how this might be a preferred model for social construction. It’s simply a thing that defines her empire as culturally distinct from others. So it doesn’t actually do any “gender bending.”
But it does make the reader deal with the idea of gender markers in a different way.
I thought that’s what SF was supposed to do, make us see things in a different way.
Which would put Ancillary Justice out there near where the form is evolving…
Before I get too caught up in defending a given work against charges that may or may not be relevant, let me get back to the main point, which is the time-honored bleating of those who seem to misunderstand the reason they don’t get nominated for awards. They have always been there. In retrospect, one can often see why they didn’t make the cut, but it’s not quite so obvious at the time. But conspiracy has always been an appealing way to explain self-perceived failure. The world is against me. “They” won’t let me in.
Well, I’ve indulged my share of feeling exactly that way.
I was wrong.
This will pass and some new group will coalesce around feeling slighted. But it would be nice if in future it stayed centered on the matter at hand instead of dragging in cultural movements that have nothing to do with the stories in question…but everything to do with the prejudices of the complainants.
* But in practice meaning that the author has paid what some may consider too much, perhaps unhealthy, attention to character and culture rather than problem-solving and world building.
**Secret Masters Of Fandom.
***This has been going on seemingly forever, and in some respects this reminds me of John Steinbeck, whose novel The Grapes of Wrath, which talked about then-current social realities with an unblinkered honesty brought derision upon Steinbeck and accusations that he was a communist. He was seen, by talking about the plight of people being made homeless because of banking fiascoes over which they had no control and took no part in, as somehow suspect in his motives. In his own hometown the book was burned. A century earlier, Herman Melville was castigated by both sides of the slavery debate for his short novel Benito Cereno, each side—slaveholder and abolitionist—feeling he was taking a shot at them when really he simply told what happened. People start leveling their version of the SJW charge usually when something jabs them in a soft spot, where they know something is wrong but they just don’t want to be made either to feel responsible for it or to do something about it.
Last year I did one of these, declaring that stating intentions was more honest and less guilt-making than resolutions. As it turned out, I fulfilled virtually none of my stated intentions, although I did manage to make a dent in several of them.
So this time, I’ll ramp it back a little and just sort of ramble about what I’d kinda sorta like to do and maybe might get a chance to.
Rambles, by their nature, tend to be disorganized, stream-of-consciousness thingies with no real direction—though they may have a center. With that in mind…
I’d like to read more books this coming year. This is hardly a new one. I always want to read more books. As I said in my year-end summation, I read at a lot of books, but I only finished a few. I have a large to-be-read stack still left over from 2014 (with maybe a few from 2013) and as I work at a book store, you know there will be more on the pile before 2016. I have two TBR stacks. There’s the main one, the big one, in my office at the base of my south wall bookshelf, then there’s the more modest stack at the end of the couch in the living room. The latter is comprised of books I’m either reading now or intend to read next, though really some of them have also been there for months. I am finally making progress on that stack, though, and here is a firm intention, to finish that stack before adding any new ones to it.
Then there’s the large pile…
The problem is time, obviously, and to a lesser extent opportunity. Maybe they’re the same problem. In fact, I’m sure they are, just different ends of the same equation. I’m still working on new fiction and when I write, obviously, I’m not reading. Common problem. So with that in mind I have resolved that one of my intentions is to figure out how to distort the space-time continuum in order to allow for more reading time. I have a book by Kip Thorne on the TBR pile that talks about some of that and I hope to gain enough insight to accomplish it. So if in the coming months I seem a bit slow to you, don’t worry—it’s not me, really, it’s just a difference in time.
I expect the same technique will help with the writing as well. Maybe even the housecleaning.
It appears that I will require surgery this year. Nothing life threatening, just seriously annoying. Back in August I injured my right arm. I’ve been to the doctor, had the MRI, gotten the verdict. Partially ruptured biceps tendon. I can function…just not comfortably or at my previous level of strength. They’ll have to Go In. The biggest inconvenience with this will be the two weeks of complete immobilization of the right arm as it starts to heal. (This could really help with that pesky reading time problem.) I was told that it will be a total of four months recovery time and then I should be back to normal. (But I want to be MORE than normal, I want to be GREAT, I want—shut up, sit down.)
One might expect that I did this at the gym, but no, I did it at work. Dumb.
So one of my other intentions for this year is to NOT HURT MYSELF AGAIN!
On the writing front, I’ve been ruminating on how to follow-up the coolness of my first short story collection, Gravity Box (which, may I suggest to any and all, that they get and read and spread the word, and write a short review on, I dunno, Goodreads or that other place I try not to feed but is there nevertheless and provides a space for reader reviews, you know the one I mean, don’t make me say it), and get more books published. To that end, a modest survey, to whit:
How many of you would like to see a new Secantis novel? How many of you would like to see reissues of the first three? Especially in ebook format?
(Now, I don’t expect a lot of response to this, because over the last several years I’ve come to expect not much response on this blog. I have no idea how many regular readers I have, but even among those who do read it regularly I don’t receive much comment. But talk among yourselves about this and keep it in mind that I’ve got Plans, so when I announce them here you’ll know one way or the other what you might want.)
So a follow-up intention from 2014. I am working on two novels. I intend to finish them both. This year. At which point I have to make a decision about what to do next. There are options. Depending on, well, everything, I’ll make a decision some time after finishing these two books.
Minor intentions. More and better photography. Some real cooking.
Oh, and we’re starting up a new reading group around the core of our last one. We did Dante last, this time we’ll be doing Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I haven’t read this since high school, so it’ll practically be all new to me. We were leaning toward this even before Ferguson happened, but I think it’s a good choice because of Ferguson, since it is one of the earliest social justice novels.
Finally, it is my intention this year to be a better companion to Donna, who has been a wonderful companion to me. A better friend to those who already are and to those who are becoming good friends. It seems I got people. More than I deserve. I’d like to reciprocate.
I don’t think that’s too much, do you? As intentions go? It fits on a plate. Large plate, maybe, but…
Thought I’d give this a try for a while. It’s very clean and the left-hand sidebar might take a bit of getting used to, but I kind of like it. Change is good, because even if it turns out to be the wrong new selection, it clears out the old stuff that needed to be gone. Fresh start.
We will probably be hermits for New Year’s Eve again, which is our habit. Staying up till the ball drops ceased being a thing for us years ago. Waking up to a new year, while merely a calendrical artifice, is nonetheless a pretty potent metaphor and an opportunity. I reread last January’s blog post about Intentions and find that I accomplished very few, but then I kind of expected that. I have further intentions for 2015. More on that…next year.
In the meanwhile, please, everyone, be safe, play nice, and stick around for another trip around Sol. We’ll see you on the flip side.
Should I start with the good…or the bad? Or mix them up?
I’ve been muttering for the last couple of months that I’ve never been through a year I will be so glad to see gone, but the last couple of weeks have been not so horrible and a more sober assessment may be possible. Sometimes, though, sobriety is overrated.
The last time I had a year so replete with highs and lows was maybe 1979. But it was all one thing, then, the high and low orbiting the same subject. This one, this 2014, has been just one-damn-thing-after-another kind of up and down.
Firstly, I turned 60 this year. That in itself occupies neither side of the scale, unless one wishes to suggest that just arriving at this age mostly intact, largely sane, and relatively whole is a net success, which puts it firmly in the positive column. As they say, consider the alternative. So, fine. I turned 60.
A long, long time ago, back in grade school, I was tasked with one of my first writing gigs, penning a series of future history portraits of my classmates as we approached graduation from 8th grade. I was told to project ahead 50 years or so and tell where I thought we’d all be. I remember imagining myself and one of my classmates as being art gallery owners on the moon. About this year.
Well, so much for the predictive capacities of science fiction! (I was at a party recently where a gentleman I’d never met before found out I write SF and began regaling me with the virtues of all the neat stuff “sci-fi” foresaw. I listened politely and then tried, gently, to explain how few things written in SF stories ever came true and almost never in the way they were depicted, and then tried to explain the true virtues of the genre, but his eyes glazed over and later, when he declared in front of a roomful of people that Bernard Goetz was a hero of his…well, it sort of encapsulated in sardonic form much of my experience of this past year.)
I am still writing, though. Currently I am working on two novels. I’d hoped to get one or both done this year, but life, as it will, had other plans. I’m doing okay, though, on that score. I’m 2/3 done with one and I’m pretty excited about it. If I pull it off it will be a wholly unexpected work for me. Not at all what I thought I’d be doing at this stage.
One of the most fun writing gigs this past year was the Left Bank Books birthday celebration, wherein I and three others local writers—Ann Leckie, Scott Phillips, and Kevin Killeen—jointly wrote a story in the shop window. Took a few hours, we had ideas from customers, and we actually came up with a story. I’m toying with pulling it out and polishing it up.
So about that 60 stuff…yeah. How has that affected me? I admit I’ve been having more trouble psychologically with it than I thought I would. But Kris, my boss, told me that it’s a good age, because now I can own whatever wisdom I may have. I’ve been thinking about that a lot since she said it. Still thinking, but it was a good observation.
The thing that bothers me most about turning 60 is the consciousness that most of my life is behind me, barring some unexpected breakthrough in medicine that will extend our lives out past 120, which is entirely possible but highly unlikely to benefit me. And it’s not that all those years are behind me so much as the fact that I feel like I still have too much to do and now maybe not quite enough time. I’m not where I wanted to be at this point.
After wallowing in that kind of depressing assessment for a while, I am rescued from just digging a hole and pulling the earth over my head by the fact there where I am is pretty amazing.
Back in May, I achieved one of my physical goals. I broke a thousand pounds on leg presses. Got up to 1040. (This morning I went to the gym and I’m still pressing 920, so I might still get back up over a thousand again before my body goes phftt.) Believe me, that made me feel pretty good. Along with that I was doing a full weight-lifting schedule and aerobic workout.
In July, at work, I tried to lift something (one-handed) that I probably shouldn’t have, and something in my right arm popped. I’ve had pain and weakness since. I went to the doctor, had an MRI, and voila! I have a partially-torn biceps tendon. I’ll need surgery to fix it.
(See what I mean about this having been a mixed bag year?)
After that, it seemed I kept catching one damn bug after another and it’s been months of bleh! Some of this is depression. I’ll get to that later.
In July, at the beginning of the month, I had my release party for my new book, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, at Left Bank Books. I can’t fully express how pleased I am about this book. My first full short story collection, it has a wonderful cover, my publisher (Walrus) did a fine job on it, and my coworkers at the store did a terrific event. We packed the store. It was a banner night.
Subsequently, Walrus has merged with another local publisher, Blank Slate Press, which has a bit more of a track record, a different approach to their books, and it looks like in one year I’ve acquired two new publishers. I’ve spoken with Kristi, the owner, and she Has Plans. Stay Tuned.
(A word here about Left Bank Books. Kris Kleindienst, Jarek Steele, Wintaye, Randy, Jonesey, Lauren, Erin, Shane, Cliff, Mariah, Kea, David, Jenni, Bill, Sarah…they are all amazing people and I have not been so glad to work somewhere, with a bunch of people, since the years at Shaw Camera Shop with Gene and Earline. We are an independent book store that is not only surviving but thriving and I put it down to the brilliance and dedication of the people working there, who account for most of the new, very good friends I have found over the last few years. This is one of the things that has made this past year not only bearable but in many ways pleasurable. So.)
I also had a second book-length work come out this year from the good folks at Yard Dog Press. The Logic of Departure is a collection of three novellas set in the same milieu. Two of them are older works published by Yard Dog, but I fleshed it out with a new novella, Raitch, Later, which I hope has some teeth.
So in this, my 60th year, I can say that I have 12 books to my credit. Twelve. And about 60 short stories. As has been pointed out to me, that is a career. How can I not be pleased with that?
Well, I am.
But I’m not done.
I have a new car. a bright, shiny 2013 Corolla. This was not in the budget or in our plans. But a large pickup truck hit me in the ass on Kingshighway and totaled my trusty ’98. I came out of it all right, but a bit poorer. (Mixed bag.)
This after I had to get new glasses because I’d lost my old ones by doing a thoroughly stupid thing—leaving them on the trunk of my car and driving off. I did find them later, crushed and irreparable. (I still have them. I may erect a monument.)
My oldest friend’s son got married this past year and I was asked to photograph the wedding. We spent a weekend down in Springfield and had a wonderful time. As it is with such things, it was close-run thing what with disaster shadowing the proceedings, but never manifesting, and I gotta say, Isaac’s partner, Bryttany, is a delight.
We could have used a few more of those kinds of weekends. One of the best was in November when our good friends Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge came to town on tour for Nicola’s novel, Hild (and if you don’t have a copy, why not? It’s a great book and I think, really, you ought to get one) and we spent a terrific weekend with them. They live in Seattle, which is far away and expensive to get to and we don’t see nearly enough of them.
The real downside to this year has been the time family matters of a not particularly pleasant nature have taken up for Donna, who has shouldered a massive burden. It’s worn on both of us, but mainly on her. I won’t go into details. Many who may read this already know much of what’s going on and if I haven’t chosen to tell you, then you won’t read about it here. We’re fine, though, as far as that goes, just…overwhelmed.
We went to a convention in May, the first time we’d been back to Kansas City in some years. We came home with some new hats and pleasant memories of seeing good friends.
We did not make it to Pittsburgh, which we had planned to do, something that has also been several years since last we’ve done.
We’re coming out of 2014 with a certain ambivalence. In some ways we’re doing better than we ever did before, in others…
I said I’d get to the depression. This might be a good place to put it, but in retrospect I have to admit that most of my “depression” has just been a combination of weariness and impatience. I don’t do depression, it’s not an organic condition with me, and I have never been down for any long stretch of time. I run on an even keel for the most part. But this year has tried my stamina sorely.
One thing that has made it not only bearable but outright good have been our friends, both new and old. We’re rich in that and I find each year that I appreciate them more and more. Friends make the difference between keeping time and living.
Looking forward to doing a lot more living in 2015.
I will be posting an end-of-year recap sometime over the weekend. For the time being, let me just say that 2014 has been…memorable. Some amazing things have happened this year, some of them really, really good. Some…not so much.
But it’s Christmas Eve and on balance I have to say it’s been a better year in most respects than 2012 and in some respects than 2013. So let me leave you with an image symbolic of my state of mind at the moment, which is as view through a glass darkly at what may lie ahead in 2015. I’ll leave it to all and sundry to ponder their own interpretation.
Meanwhile, I wish all my good friends—and I am fortunate to have many—a very safe, very happy Christmas.
On Thanksgiving, we spent the day with my parents. While there, they handed me a stack of prints and a pile of negatives I had completely forgotten about. Most of them are crap. They’re from 1971 for the most part and I was in the early stages of trying to learn photography. I was shooting a LOT of film and about 99% was ultimately junk. But this is the way I learn. I dive in and do a great deal of whatever it is I’m trying to do, largely ignoring instructions and books, which I consult only when I’m so hopelessly lost that I admit to needing expert help. It’s an absurd way to go about it, but when I do finally learn something it stays learned.
Anyway, among the negatives I found a couple shots my dad took of me at the keyboard. At this time I still hadn’t made up my mind what I wanted to do or be. Music was always a possibility, a big deal, but it turned out not to be. However, I had aspirations. (When you’re that young, you think you can do it all. At one time I simultaneously wanted to be an actor, a musician, a photographer, and a writer, and saw no reason why I couldn’t. The acting has, subsequently, faded completely from my list of ambitions.)
So, here I am being…well, I was getting my Keith Emerson on, clearly, as well as the serious composer bit.
Seems I couldn’t read my own notation…