Another Year Gone By

I’ve been doing these annual assessments for a while now and this weekend began wondering why.  Maybe a way of marking time and keeping track.  Not quite keeping score, I’ve never been much concerned with that.  At times, maybe, but I really am not competitive that way.

I’ve also never been one for keeping a journal.  This blog has been the most sustained attempt at something like that ever, but if it had all been about my life and what I did today or last week, it wouldn’t have made it much past the two month mark, which was the longest previous attempt at maintaining a journal or diary.  I’ve noted before that I don’t consider myself very interesting and if proof of that claim is required, there it is.  I find myself too dull a subject for continuous consideration.

Which has had the curious consequence of making my fiction difficult.  My protagonists have pretty much all been, in first or second draft, the least interesting characters in their stories.  I write by seeing through the eyes of the viewpoint character, which for that period means I am that character.  My own lack of appreciation for any “special” qualities I may possess translates into a muffled persona on the page.  I find myself having to go back in later and insert all the stuff that makes the character worth following.

But the secondary characters thrive under this problem.

Turning around and using that insight to look at my own life yields some…troubling observations.  While wanting in many ways to be the hero of my own story, I give far too much, sometimes, to everyone else.  They’re important, not me.  My granting them that importance is both habitual and a desire that they see what I’m doing and reciprocate.  I want my friends to be important so that when they then see me as a friend it must mean I’m important.  It can be a tortured way of validation.

(And a bit too complex for any sustained reality—I have my friends first and foremost because I love them.  How I deal with them is another matter.)

But it has gifted me with some very good friends and a workable framework for writing.

That assumes I’ve always done this, always used this, always moved accordingly. There’s a certain amount of disempowering going on regarding my friends, as if they had no choice but to accommodate my particular peculiarities according to the way I wanted them to. They accommodated me, sure, but on their terms.

As far as the writing goes…

I put out two new books this year, both of them collections.  Gravity Box and Other Spaces is published by a local small press, Walrus Publishing, and a fine job they did of it.  John Kaufman, a local artist, did the amazing cover.  I’ve bragged about this before.  What I would like to add here is that most, over two thirds, of the stories are new, previously unpublished.  So far I’ve heard nothing bad about any of them.  People have their favorites, their less-than-favorites, but no one has said anything negative about the word, which bemuses me somewhat as there’s a reason these stories have first appeared here and it goes to the question of career trajectories and choices and values.

The other is a reissue of sorts, The Logic of Departure, from Yard Dog Press.  Yard Dog was an early supporter of my work.  A micropress, they put out two chapbooks by me and a short novel as part of a series of “doubles” (two short novels back to back, like the old Ace Doubles).  Logic… is a reissue of the two chapbooks along with a brand new story which I wrote to fit that particular background.  They are loosely connected but all three share a theme of getting out, getting away, getting free.  I’m very proud of these stories, this is a good collection.

I’m looking at these two books now and trying to understand how I got here instead of somewhere else.  I’m looking at my shelf of published works, which now contains about 60 short stories as well as 10 novels.  Twelve books.

Donna Tartt, in a career spanning about the same length of time, has published 3 novels and a handful of shorter works. She’s won a Pulitzer and is a regular on bestseller lists.

There’s no comparison between us other than the fact that we are writers who write for publication, which is another way of saying we want to be read by strangers and be, on some level, relevant to the culture at large.

I had plans to have closer to 20 novels out by this time, but plans are often like farts in the wind.  You make them, they dissipate, sometimes you don’t even remember making them.

If I have a new recognition this year, today, it’s that I have no likelihood of getting anywhere close to those old plans anymore.  I’m not being pessimistic just realistic.  I have now turned 60.  In most important ways, this means nothing, but importance is relative, and perspective is all important.  I’m 60.  I am now, in the estimation of my childhood, an Old Man.  It’s just a number but I remember clearly wondering how it was possible people could live that long and still be able to walk.  Some childhood assessments are difficult to shed and this is one that I find myself wrestling with now.

Sixty.  As a matter of practicality, barring any kind of revolutionary change in the culture of which I am a part, I’m on the downslope.  Most of my life is over.  What this means to me primarily is that I don’t have the time now to have the kind of career I imagined for myself when I embarked on it.  Barring something extraordinary, I’m likely going to remain a small-press author, publishing books a small audience will buy and read.  A couple of years ago I was encouraged greatly about the trilogy I’d been working on, that it might open major publishing doors for me, and I had good reason to be encouraged, but as time has dragged on without a publishing offer I am beginning to conclude that my writing is simply not what major publishing wants or knows what to do with.  If I could write it differently to accommodate whatever the disconnect is I would.  (I’ve recently read a synopsis of a new SF novel which suggests strongly that certain elements of my Secantis Sequence have been imagined by someone else and will now inform their career, not mine.  No, I’m not suggesting plagiarism in the least.  Wheels get reinvented all the time.  The resurgence of Space Opera flowered a couple years after my publisher began to implode and so none of my stories now get included in any retrospectives nor my name mentioned with those who are credited with this renaissance.  Am I annoyed by this?  Sure, but at whom should I direct it?  It is pointless envy.)

There were supposed to be at least six Secantis novels by now and perhaps two short story collections set therein.  As it transpired, I didn’t think the original three were viable to be marketed elsewhere and without them further novels would be orphans of a sort.  I wrote one more Secantis novel and turned my attention to other things which have likewise been unwanted by the market.  Since I do not know why it is near impossible for me to change the way I do them.

I have a supportive agent now.  She’s helped quite a lot with the writing.  She’s one reason I haven’t simply given up.

In a very real sense, this is a relief.  I can now stop fretting about my career.  It is what it is and, being as objective as I can be about something this personal, it ain’t bad.  I can now write the next book or short story without the extra weight of wondering how it will “further” my career.  I feel right now, today, that my career isn’t going to be what I wanted it to be.  I could pick it apart and name a dozen reasons why—sure I made some bad choices, didn’t do certain things I might have, went with some ideas that were perhaps not as good as I thought they were at the time—but it changes nothing.  I’m still where I am.

I went to the gym on my birthday.  My right arm has been rather nastily injured lately, so I’ve been finding my routine truncated and often painful.  I should probably not work out at all for six months, but by then I would resemble a bowl of mashed potatoes and I don’t have the energy anymore to start all over after that long of a lay-off.  I’m stuck with what I have.

That said, I leg pressed 920 pounds.  Ten reps.  Not shabby.

For my birthday, they gave me a free smoothy, a very healthy one with blueberry and banana and whey.

I came home and found that Donna, my partner for going on 35 years now, laid out a birthday feast for me that just made me want to cry for happy.  We ate, drank good wine, and watched an excellent film (The Hours) together.  No pressure.  Wonderfulness.

On those off-moments when I’m not obsessing over this or that, I have to admit my life is pretty damn good, and I’m just happy to be able to recognize that fact.

Even in my dotage.

Later this week I intend to write a post about my fiction.  Time for a (self) critical assessment.  Till then, thank you all for bearing with me.

Why Science Fiction?

I found out several years back, when my career started wobbling, that my dad, concerned, wondered aloud to my mom, “Why’s he writing science fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to do something people will buy?”

Of course, he didn’t understand that the odds of making money at writing are pretty much the same in any genre, that it’s as much luck as talent, more than a little being in the right place at the right time sort of cosmic alignment, and personalities are always involved.  There’s a bit of playing the lottery in trying to launch a writing career.   Once you start publishing, it’s natural to think things will get easier or at least more predictable.  But stability is a distant shore you keep rowing toward.  You bump into a lot of other boats on the way.

His concern was over financial matters and it might not appear evident to anyone not involved in the writing business how these things play out.  In my own case, I will say that it might not have mattered what I chose to write about, the trajectory might have been much the same.  The business aside, though, the question has validity in terms of the artistic choices we make. Why this and not that? What is it that inspires you to do what you do and not something else?

I’m currently working on a new novel.  As I’m writing, I find myself venturing more and more into what is recognizably literary mainstream.  The choices I’ve been making about the way I approach the characters and the themes feel less genre-soaked.  I sense I’m pitching my prose toward a wider audience.  That said, it is definitely science fiction, insofar as I’ve set it in the future and I’m talking about the changes in human conditions brought about by technological and cultural shifts.  I’m very interested in how then will be different from now.

Isn’t that what “mainstream” does as well?  Detail the difference in a character that emerges after a series of transformational events?  Trace the path of those changes and show how people evolve over time, under pressure?

As far as I can tell, the chief difference between mainstream and science fiction lies in the nature of the change.  In mainstream, characters evolve in perfectly recognizable ways to become something perfectly recognizable to our current apprehension and experience.  In science fiction, those changes connote differences we may not recognize and cannot yet achieve because they require the world around us to be different.  That “What If” in science fiction is qualitatively different and sometimes quantitatively distinct.

Yet it’s still change.  It’s about character.

One of the clearest distinctions between SF and Literary Fiction I ever read put it this way: science fiction always privileges premise over character.  In other words, the normal SF story is about its conceit more than it is about its people.  I can understand that, but then I have to ask: Well, isn’t the standard historical novel more about the history than it is about the people in it?  I pick on historical fiction because it shares the most with science fiction in terms of approach and purpose.  Both are about people in conditions and contexts separated from the here and now by distinct differences in culture and technology.

(I could point out here that, even were this to be generally accepted, received wisdom would make the fact that Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, winning the Man Booker Prize raised almost no eyebrows, but had something like Ann Leckie’s currently much-praised novel Ancillary Justice even shown up on the long list for that esteemed Literary award there would have been dismay and more than a smidgen of ridicule.)

To be fair, a great deal of science fiction has treated the changes in technology and culture like suggestive exoticisms rather than as serious considerations.  A lot of this may have to do with maturity more than any inherent problem with the conceits themselves. Speaking for myself, when I began writing (as a teenager especially) I included as much strange stuff as I could imagine simply because it was strange.  It rarely served the story, not because I didn’t want it to, but because firstly I thought the strangeness was the point and secondly because I had a long way to go before I understood how one makes such things relevant to the story.

Insofar as science fiction emerged from an adolescent-driven pool of interest, this makes perfect sense.  In my own case, it was many years before I found myself consciously caring about character.  I was most interested in event, in novelty, in that exoticism I mentioned.  I was interested in the “coolness” of the thing, not the emotional inner lives of the people living in that coolness.  No more than I cared about the personal insecurities and childhood regrets of any of the gunslingers in the westerns which I also indulged because of their innate coolness.  In that case we wouldn’t necessarily call it exoticism, but it was.  It wasn’t here or now, which seemed dull and annoying.

With growing experience and maturity we eventually discover that, on a fundamental level, it really always has been a question of character that brought us back again and again to the particular stories we loved.  We just didn’t think of it in those terms or have the intellectual or emotional stuff to recognize and expect more from that part of the story.  We could grasp the emotional significance of swords and guns, or spaceships and rayguns, but not be equipped to handle an existential crisis in the midst of the changed milieu in which the story was set.  That milieu seemed easier to grasp, like next year’s new car models or a new fashion just on the scene.  Experience teaches, gradually, that such things have little value with the viewpoint of the people living with them.

So the question becomes, since character eventually emerged to dominate my concerns, why then do I still write science fiction?

Because that appreciation of the exotic and the cool factor did not erode simply because my appreciation for what others hold to be all-important grew.  Because I am in many ways still 12 years old.  And lastly (though not, perhaps, finally) the world seems to have caught up with science fiction and to do it honestly and rigorously and with due attention to all æsthetic concerns demanded of good art is to write perfectly good Literary Fiction.  If we can regard stories about England under Henry VIII as  “literary” then we can so regard stories about the interstellar diaspora.  Both eras may be equidistant in terms of relevance to the present and both may serve as substrates for telling us things about ourselves.

Finally, though, I write it because I love it and to do any art really well love has to be involved.  I may be able to write an essay about something I find only somewhat amusing or interesting but my ficti0n requires viscera and I’m only able or willing to supply that if I am in love.

Although my reading is no longer largely science fiction and I have grown pickier about it than I was in times past, a good science fiction story still pumps my imagination and drives my senses more than any other form.  It takes a lot of work to write fiction and if I’m going to devote that much to it I’m only going to do so if I love it.  I find that while I feel just as strongly for individual works in other genres, I do not feel that way about other genres in toto.  If they were neighborhoods, I’d only want to live in the SF district.  I can visit the others as much as I want, but I’ve built my house on the Foundation of science fiction.

And I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me to see other neighborhoods adapting the style and coming here to visit more often.

All that said, it does sometimes pain me to see so much in the field still written as if the neighborhood was still under siege, a ghetto where a certain want of technique is regarded as a kind of gang color and a disregard for more refined observations as a sign of defection, where the obstinate insistence that fine writing—which can only really derive from closer scrutiny, greater empathy, and more honest assessments of character—is somehow the mark of someone who doesn’t “get” SF, and where the simple recognition that the world and therefore the universe is a multiplying heterogeneous metaplex and should be written about as such is a form of betrayal.  Genuine experience must be conveyed through the lens of genuine observers, i.e. characters who are real and complex as we can make them.  This is the only way to deal out truth, which at the end of the day is our stock in trade.

At least, that’s my opinion.

And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why I still write science fiction.

We Were Just Talking

A couple of decades of online conversation has revealed many thing about our culture, about our selves. One is how little most of us seem to consider what we say before we say it.

I recently saw the term “flaming” used in a description of certain problematic exchanges in a forum I till recently frequented.  I’m sure it’s still in current usage, but I hadn’t thought of the term in some time because I long ago vacated forums and chatrooms where this was a common problem.  One of the more congenial things about FaceBook is that while flaming (and trolling and all such related hate-baiting tactics) still happens, users aren’t locked into the thread where it occurs. With multiple conversations going on all the time among many different arrangements of “friends” it is not a problem requiring something like a nuclear option to deal with.  You just stop commenting on a poisoned thread and move over to a new one, often with the same people.  True, the flamer might move with you, but the mix-and-match nature of FaceBook makes this less convenient.

Unlike a dedicated forum with a regular membership, etc.

You can find one, filled with like minds and congenial conversation, which can run on for some time till one day someone you thought you “knew” (solely from the interactions in the forum) says something wholly baffling and even hurtful, but certainly unexpected and baiting.  Or a new member shows up and after a few days or weeks turns into an aspersion-casting, logic-defying, unreasonable twit.  Such people indulge, usually, in the ancient schoolyard game of “let’s you and him fight.”  They get everyone stirred up, create a toxic situation, and then, often, leave.  “My work is done here.”  People who were once friends, or at least friendly, are now on opposite sides of issues they had no hand in either creating or aggravating.  Mistrust, defensiveness, and a new attention to certain words and phrases dominates the forum and arguments flare at the drop of a phrase.

Partly, it seems to me, this is one of the unfortunate factors in what we know to be human nature.  Some people are only enjoying themselves when they create a mess.  In my opinion, it’s the same kind of mentality that gets off on obscene graffiti, incendiary phone calls to talk shows, or gossips who spread rumors about people they hardly know.  For such people communication was invented in order to sow discord.  People getting along nicely is something they cannot abide because where’s the fun in that?  In a way, this is related to the more refined pleasure of honest debate and philosophical enquiry, wherein positions are taken and defended in order to find a higher accord.  But it has the same relationship to this as Tae Kwon Do has to a drunken fist fight in a bar.

Another part of this, however, is less perverse but more difficult to define and that has to do with the difference between written discourse and casual conversation.  Two people sitting across from each other—at a barbecue, having a beer, over dinner, what have you—just talking do so within a set of protocols that, when transferred to the written word, are at best “loose.”  We rely on a whole suite of cues that have nothing to do with the actual words we use.  Tone, inflection, regional accent, body language, gestures, facial expression, and the all-important momentum of the exchange work to add multiple players of interpretive possibility to the dialogue only the better fiction writers seem able to encode in words on the page.  They manage this by careful attention to which words and how they are placed within a scene and contextualized according to the emotional framework set up.

Which means that great care is taken to achieve a particular effect.

Not something the vast majority of people “chatting” in forums, online, get anywhere near doing.

Instead, we type our words and send them out knowing in our own heads what we meant and unaware that without the full holistic surround of an actual face-to-face conversation such intent is completely absent and the person reading them may have a completely different set of circumstances dictating how those words will be interpreted.

It’s amazing anything meaningful gets transmitted and received at all.  But it does, because many of us, maybe even most of us, learn over time how to write a dialogue, which is a different thing than when we’re talking.

Some never figure out the difference.

Hence the thoughtless ingredient thrown innocently into a stew stirred by many hands, resulting in a soured moil of potential vitriol.

The great essayists make it look easy.  Just write, like you’re talking to someone, and your meaning will be conveyed.  Right.  Of course it will.  The reason we regard great essayists as great is that they make it look so easy.  We can read it and understand it, it ought therefore to be within our power to do the same thing.  It’s just talking.  Do that all the time.

But putting words down is very different than speaking them.  For one, they remain there, precisely as written, to be gone over again and again, to be reinterpreted, again and again, to be copied and pasted in responses that can be shoved back in our faces angrily.  Embarrassment, defensiveness, or egotistical refusals to understand why what we said wasn’t understood for what we meant, all this can feed into an impossible collection of antiphonal postings that quickly have nothing to do with the original topic and are now about hurt feelings, impatience, and perhaps even past events that have nothing to do with the present “conversation.”

Letter writing is even more considered than most of what passes every hour on the internet as epistolary exchanges.  Until mailed, the letter is not finished.  It can be reread, reconsidered,  reviewed. It can be thrown away and begun again.

Theoretically, so can something about to be posted to the internet, but it would seem we treat it more like that face-to-face at the picnic than as letter-writing.  So we dash it off and hit SEND and then what happens happens.

Unfortunately, those words, unless deleted by an administrator, are always there, unlike the unfortunate way you said something at the picnic, which can vanish from foggy memory as soon as the topic changes.  People looking for something to focus on can find them and use them against you.  You were not, no matter what you thought, “just talking.”

Still, even this is instructive for those who will be bothered to learn.  A thoughtful reconsideration of how we say things reveals how much of our conversation is less actual information than ritual.  It could potentially teach us how to say things we really want said instead of just mouthing sounds that are the conversational equivalent of greeting cards.  Understanding the host of assumptions supporting a sentence would be a very good thing for us to learn.  Because even at the barbecue sometimes someone says something so void of any real substance and yet so potentially inflammatory that you know the speaker really doesn’t have a clue what that sentence really means.

Or maybe they do.  And that is instructive as well.  In either case, we should consider our response…carefully.

Monday Morning Surprise

A friend of mine called while I was out. He left a message (which I thought had to be a mistake) to the effect that apparently my new book, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, made the local (St. Louis) independent bookstore bestseller list of the week ending June 29.  Post-Dispatch page here.

Well, not one to be fooled, I looked it up.  And there it is. (See link above)

I’m stunned.

I’m…well…stunned.  Gravity Box Cover

I mean, the last thing I expected was for something like this to occur with this book.

Not that I had a list of expectations, mind you.  I was just very pleased with the finished product and that it arrived on the shelves.  I was gratified right down to my socks that people showed up at the release party.  (No, that’s an understatement, I was beyond gratified.  I never expect people to pay any attention.  I’m always surprised and pleased and blown away.)  If I got a couple of positive reviews and the book sold well enough to justify my publisher’s commitment, well, that would be great.  Beyond that, no expectations.

Hopes, on the other, I got plenty.

But to be real, it’s a short story collection.  Best seller?  Granted, it is a local list, but even so, I’m in the top three with Gone Girl and Orange Is The New Black.  What?

So right now I am about as happy as a writer as I have been since…

Well, since I sold my first story.  Then sold my first professional story.  Then sold my first novel.  I was elated when I was informed that I’d made the short list for the Philip K. Dick Award.  And again when I made the short list for the Tiptree a few years later.  Yeah, I’ve had some moments in this insane business.

But this!  Wow.

So, what would be very cool would be to see this happen elsewhere.  I doubt this will be anything other than a word-of-mouth success.  That being the case, please—say something.  Push your local independent bookstore into getting it.  Talk to people.  With a little help from my friends (well, maybe a lot of help) I may yet have a decent career.  It would be really strange if this were the book that made the comeback for me.  But I wouldn’t be the least bit unhappy about that.

For those of you who have already bought the book, thank you very, very much.  Picking up a book and laying out cash for it is an act of faith.  One that, I hope, will be justified in this case.

…and another shoe falls…

By all appearances, I seem to be having a good year.  After my new collection came out last month from Walrus Publishing, a second book has now been released by Yard Dog Press.  The link to this “new” title is here.

Logic of Departure is a neat thing.  Last year, the marvelous Selina Rosen, chief cook and bottle washer of Yard Dog, called me to ask permission to reissue the two chapbooks of mine they had published.  Extensions and Diva are novellas which, being novellas (and notoriously difficult to place), made their debut as nifty chapbooks.  Yard Dog has consistently sold them for years.  The strangeness of publishing being what it is, it is now more economical for them to issue them together, in a perfect-bound edition, than to continue pushing the chapbooks—which are, of course, both still available singly as ebooks.  Of course I said yes, and then suggested they hold off a bit, as I was then working on a new story that might fit in very well with those two.

Without intending it, Extensions and Diva both fit a loose background universe.  So I wrote a third novella set in that milieu, called Raitch, Later.  I was inspired to write it by a wonderful short story by Adam-Troy Castro called Arvies, which I urge you all to look up.  It’s one of those logical projections of a current thing that blows the mind.  A few days after reading it I had what I considered a suitably nasty idea and started work.

It took the better part of the last six months.  This past year has not been the most conducive to writing I’ve ever had (though not by any means the worst), but the end result is something I’m good with.  Lynn and Selena took the piece and now the completed book is available, with cover art by David Lee Anderson.

LogicOfDeparture_small   I don’t write very many novellas.  Mainly because they’re damnably difficult to sell, but also because most of them end up becoming novels.  That happened with the last Secantis novel I wrote—in fact, the last two, because Peace & Memory began life as a novella as well—an unpublished novel called Ghost Transit which is lying fallow, awaiting the day when.

But these three I doubt could be expanded, at least not as conceived.  So this is a neat thing, having them between covers, all together.  I think they work well together.

So I can now officially claim 12 books to my credit.  Published books, that is.

The link above is directly to Yard Dog.  Please, if you intend to order it online, do so directly from them.  They are a very small house and buying their product through Hamazon, ahem, while not profitless for them certainly takes a bigger bite out of their bottomline than is comfortable.  And while you’re there, check out some of their other titles.  A lot of fun work gets put out by these smaller publishers, work that one occasionally scratches one’s head and wonders, “how come Simon & Schuster didn’t take this…?”

I’m hoping this bodes well for the near future.  Maybe the freeze is beginning to thaw and I can get some of my other books in the pipeline to print.  I have learned in this business than 95% of it happens at a glacial pace, balanced in the end by 5% that requires time travel to complete.

(I just finished reading a time travel novel for my reading group.  What if…?)

A word about the stories included here.  This is a near future world, just on the brink of breaking out of the solar system.  You could easily read them as (loosely, very loosely) part of the Secantis universe.  They’re about class divisions, underdogs struggling to overcome, and the byzantine workings of social systems are laid bare for the reader’s scrupulous examination.  They are all about knowing when it’s time to leave.  Beyond that, I wish to leave everything else for you to discover.  Enjoy.

News and Such

I have another book out, from Yard Dog Press, The Logic of Departure.  More on that later.

I’m having something of a productive year, career-wise.   To recap, the official release party for my first short story collection, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, if this coming Wednesday at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid, St. Louis, MO, at 7:00 PM.

Also, I’ll be doing another program with the St. Louis Science Center at the end of July.  More on that when things are firmed up.

But on July 11th, we’ll be celebrating the 45th birthday of Left Bank Books and for that we’ll be doing something wild and crazy and insane—you know, normal fare for Left Bank—called Writers Under Glass.  I have roped, er, enlisted the participation of three very talented local writers for this.  We’ll be writing a story in the window of the store. Scott Phillips, Ann Leckie, and Kevin Killeen will be tag-teaming along with me in this endeavor and who knows what we’ll produce, but it will be fun and there will be refreshments and it will be for a good cause and, well, it’s a party and a show, so not to be missed.

I’m writing two books more or less simultaneously, did I mention that?  More crazy, but it needs doing, for many reasons.

But right now I want to talk a bit about the books.

I always considered short story collections to be a kind of marker that a writer had “arrived.”  There was a time when they constituted a substantial part of an author’s published œuvre, equal to the novels, but that changed while I was growing up and beginning my career.  Received wisdom in the industry is that anthologies and collections “don’t sell” and hence I came to see such things as the equivalent of “best of” or “greatest hits” album, something not likely to sell as well (if at all) but an indicator along the road that one’s work is worthy of attention.  I saw them as a bone thrown to the writer by a publisher if the sales of the novels seemed to merit it.

Which would mean that I was unlikely to have one.  For many reasons, some of which I’ve discussed here, my sales are…not what I’d prefer them to be.

So it is with considerable pleasure (and pleasurable surprise) that an opportunity more or less fell into my lap when Lisa Miller of Walrus Publishing approached me about a project several years ago.  She was starting up her publishing company, looking for projects, and she asked me what I wanted to do.  I confessed that I would really like to put out a collection.  After looking over some stories, she enthusiastically agreed, and here we are.

Gauging one’s impact in this business is difficult at best.  I’ve published just north of 50 short stories and to the best of my knowledge none of them garnered much notice.  I’ve consistently failed to be nominated for awards in short fiction and I’ve had to date only three stories anthologized (one in a best of the year!) and my production of short fiction fell off after I began selling novels.  For all I know, few people thought much of my short fiction.

Initial reaction to the release of Gravity Box has been surprisingly positive, though.  The echo chamber in which many of us work may be returning some of our early shouts finally.  I choose to be hopeful.

I am very proud of my short fiction.  I never worked so hard at anything.  My inclination was always to be a novelist.  Short stories were not my preferred form, but in order to be a professional I thought I needed to learn how to do them and in fact they taught me a tremendous amount about craft and character and all the small indefinable yet indispensable things that comprise “story.”  Time permitting, I desire to write more of them.  I came to genuinely enjoy the form.

What people will find in Gravity Box and Other Spaces is a collection of stories orbiting around themes involving family and relationships tied to family.  The theme emerged during the process of assembling the pieces.  A third of them have been previously published, the rest are making their debut here.  I ignored subgenres—there are science fiction stories, full-blown fantasies, borderline horror, a lot of “slipstream” and a couple of quasi-historical magic realism types.  I feel they all fit comfortably within my definitions of speculative fiction.  Without wishing to seem presumptuous, I hope they appeal to an even wider audience looking for literary merit.

The second book now out is a happy accident.  Yard Dog Press has published a few of my longer short pieces.  They did two chapbooks for me, Extensions and Diva, both novellas.  Anyone in the business will tell you that novellas are damnably difficult to market.  Not long enough to be a book, not short enough to leave room in a magazine for everyone else.  I’ve written few of them in consequence.  Last year, Lynn and Selena, who run Yard Dog, contacted me to let me know they intended combining the two chapbooks into a single, perfect-bound edition.  At the time I was wrestling with a new story that seemed determined to sprawl into a novella, but which also seemed workable as part of the background world in which these two chapbooks shared.  I asked their indulgence to wait till I finished and perhaps they could publish the three of them together.  It still took me an inordinate amount of time to finish the third novella, now entitled Raitch, Later.  But they were happy with it and now the three pieces, under the title The Logic of Departure, are out.  Serendipity.

Now I’m back at work on the novels, hoping for further good news this year.  We could use some, given certain other things that are going on (and not for public consumption).  Be that as it may, I am thrilled right now and of course I look forward to seeing throngs at the release party this Wednesday.

I will be updating everyone on the other events as details come in.

In the meantime, my thanks to Lisa Miller and John Kaufmann and the terrific people at Left Bank Books.  See you all Wednesday.

Dining Disruptively

This is a cool thing.

Dan Reus of Disruptive Diner contacted me a bit over a month ago and asked me to participate in this. Naturally, I had no real idea what I wanted to say or how I would say, which was compounmded by the format—Pekchuka, which means literally fast talking. I came up with something, which is posted above. I had fun. I’d have fun doing it again.

So…

Come One, Come All!

One of the things I have been notably bad at over the years is promoting myself.  I’ve published ten novels and still have a hard time sounding my own trumpet.  So this is a departure for me.

Announcing the official release party for my new book, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, published by Walrus Publishing.

June 25th, 2014, at Left Bank Books— here —we’re having a book release party.  There will be refreshments, there will be fascinating people, there will be copies of my new book (plus copies of some of my other titles).  Seven PM, in the Central West End, St. Louis, MO.  Did I mention to go here for more information?

This is my first book-length short story collection and I am very proud of these stories.  As a bit of a departure from the normal collection, most of these stories are new and previously unpublished.  A number have seen print elsewhere.  I have been graced with a wonderful cover by the brilliant John Kaufmann.

 

Gravity Box Cover

I’ll be posting updates when I have updates to post.  But for now, be aware, this is a happening thing.  I’m sending out direct invitations via email to various people, but consider this notice as well that, if possible, you should come to this event.  It would make my heart glad.

More later.

 

Award Season

The Hugo Award nominees have been announced and, imagine this, there is Controversy.

I don’t have a dog in this hunt, as I have nothing on the list nor have I published anything in the last year or two that would be eligible. That will change this year, as I have a short story collection coming out soon which includes a number of Brand New Previously Unpublished stories, but for this year, I’ m not involved.  None of this affects me.

But controversy, oh my.

First off, let me send a big congratulations to Ann Leckie.  Her really excellent novel, Ancillary Justice, has made the short list on a scad of awards.  She did not take the PKD, which kind of puts us in the same company.  Both our first novels (counted as the first novel that was entirely our own original work—my first published novel was a franchise work) made the PKD shortlist and we both did not win.  (I prefer that to “we both lost” but it may appear a quibble to some.)  Ancillary Justice is a fine piece of work and I will be writing up a review of it any minute now over on The Proximal Eye.  It’s on the Hugo ballot and for my money should take the award.  Of course, it’s also on there against Charlie Stross, who writes my kind of skiffy as well, so…

Which brings me to controversy number one.  Robert Jordan’s entire Wheel of Time series is on the slate as a single work.

Long ago there was a Hugo given for best series, which Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy won.  (It was up against Lord of the Rings, which causes me to ponder which would win today, but I’ll leave that for another post or another blogger entirely.)  Why they didn’t find a way to continue the award is one of the mysteries of the Hugo, especially since series always have been and today are even more prominent in the genre.

But this thing is 15 books, all of them massive.  By sheer volume, the Wheel of Time makes Game of Thrones appear to be light reading.

Disclaimer:  I tried to read the first book.  Tried.  Gamely charged at it three or four times.  I realize there are fans out there who probably have named their children after characters  in the series, but frankly this is really not my thing.  To me, this is like reading a full genetic chart of category Fantasy and I found it mind-numbingly boring.  I have since been told by people who read maybe seven or eight of them that basically they’re the same book over and over again and that this is indicated by the series title.  Wheel, get it?  But this is simply what I’ve been told, I did not make it past 50 pages of volume One.

To put a whole series up, though, directly competing with individual, standalone novels seems at base unfair.  I’ve always had some ambivalence about single novels within a series winning awards, because how can they not be at least partly judged by what went before?  So the award goes to a work that has an edge to start with.  But I concede that it is entirely likely that a single novel in a series can rise above the rest, so…

But to intentionally nominate the whole series?  No, I think this is a touch unfair unless it competes against other series.

This, however, brings us to the fundamental truth of the Hugo Award which many people tend to overlook.  This award is not about the work, it’s about the fan.  A work derives kudos, certainly, from what the fan decides, but the only metrics being time period (when was it published) and how many people liked it, it doesn’t matter about the work so much as it does about the reader.

Which brings me to the second Major Controversy.  A writer who goes by the nom de blog Vox Day has a story on the ballot.  This has caused consternation among folks who know something about this guy.  He was expelled from SFWA last year, the first time a member has ever been ejected.  He is a vocal presence on the internet and his opinions are, to put it mildly, eyebrow-raising in the extreme.  His name popping up on the Hugo Ballot has caused a lot of noise to bubble up about “fixing” the ballot, as if he could not possibly have gained such a slot because he wrote a worthy story.

Gaming the Ballot has happened in the past.  It’s based on membership to the world science fiction convention.  Buy enough memberships, vote them all, whatever you want to see on the ballot can be there.  (Yes, I know, it’s not quite that simple, since supposed safeguards have been put in place, but on the other hand, yes, it is that simple.)  There have even been nominees in the past who were a bit embarrassed by their continued presence year after year because of the efforts of a group of dedicated (and presumably moneyed) fans.

As to Vox Day himself, I will only say that, based on what I’ve read of his posts (which fed into his getting ousted from SFWA), he and I do not share a world view.

But again, it doesn’t matter, because the Hugo is not about the story as much as it is about the reader.  We can’t say to one group that their choice of nominee is invalid because this other group over here thinks the author is a world-class curmudgeon.  (If that were the basis of qualifying nominees I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my head who should never have gotten on the ballot.)   Vox Day didn’t get on the ballot, he was put on the ballot.  By readers.

Everyone has their own set of standards about what ought to be.  There are other awards where such things matter more.  This one—the Hugo—is based on reader reaction.  The fans.

Which is not to say I undervalue it.  I’d love to be nominated for one of those sleek rockets.  More, I’d like to bring one home.  It means people like the work.

Not me, so much.  The work.  That’s the part that matters.  It’s not about you (me) it’s about the reader and how much he or she likes the work.

So as another season of controversy unfolds, maybe it would be a good idea to keep that in mind.

So good luck to the nominees.

Updates, Etc

Okay, it has been a while.  I’ve been busy.  I have two novels in the works, which will take up most of my free time this year, but that’s no excuse to ignore everything else.

So first off, an upcoming event.

At the Missouri Regional Library on April 29th, 7:00 PM, Professor Tom Dillingham and I will be doing a presentation on the value of science fiction.  What Science Fiction Can Teach Us will be a discussion of the potential scholastic, edifying, and just plain useful aspects of SF.  This is the talk that would have happened back in February had the Second Ice Age not threatened glaciation.  This should be a fun evening.  Tom is a delight and I sort of know a thing or two about the subject.

So—April 29th, 7:00 PM, Missouri Regional Library, 214 Adams Street, Jefferson City, Missouri, 2nd Floor.

Also, hopefully, fingers crossed, the short story collection will be out in mid to late May.  We’re going to do a release party at Left Bank Books, the specific date still a bit up in the air, but either the 14th or the 21st.  I will let the world know when I know.

I’m changing the night of the reading group I moderate at Left Bank Books to the first Thursday of each month, starting May 1st.  The title at hand is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is available at Left Bank Books now at 20% off, so for all you local folks, go get a copy, support your local independent bookstore, and consider attending the meeting.  Thursday evenings, 7:00 PM.

No doubt there is more and I will get to it as soon as I remember what it is.  For now, have a good weekend.