Getting Out Of Your Own Head

I didn’t know Samuel R. Delany was black until I’d read damn near all his books, a project that took some time.  I’m talking about a revelation that came sometime in the early 80s.  Now, you might think I was a bit of an idiot for taking that long, but I had zero involvement in fandom prior to 1982 and if there were no jacket photos of authors I had not clue one concerning the first thing about them.  (Mainly because I actually didn’t much care; it was the work that concerned me, not the celebrity.)

Still, you’d think that the original cover illustration for Heavenly Breakfast, with a portrait of Chip, would have clued me in.  But it didn’t.  Not because I assumed he was white (or, later, straight), but that I didn’t care.  One of my favorite writers from the big trunk of books my mother had kept from her days in the Doubleday Book Club was Frank Yerby.  One of them had an author photo on the back so I knew he was African American, but it didn’t register as noteworthy because I honestly didn’t think it was important.

Mind you, I’m not saying I had no racist attributes.  Like any white boy growing up in St. Louis, I had my share of prejudices (and I’ve written about some of them here ) but I was always something of an outlier and a good deal of my prejudice had little to do with skin color and mostly to do with what I perceived as life choices.  It never occurred to me blacks (or any other ethnic category) couldn’t do anything I could do if they wanted to.  (I was young and stupid and the lessons of 20th Century institutional discrimination had yet to really sink in.  Bear with me.)  But I will confess that unless it was put before me directly I sort of defaulted to the assumption that most writers were white.

It didn’t bother me when I found out otherwise.

That was the world I lived in and while I question many assumptions I didn’t question all of them—that can get exhausting and perhaps even a little counter-productive if that exhaustion leads to a desire to stop worrying about everything.

But as I grew older, anytime I discovered a new writer I liked was other than my base assumption, I had a little frisson of delight.  I never once felt threatened, it never occurred to me to feel besieged or that I was in any danger of losing something.  You can do that when you belong to the dominant culture.  You know, in the very fiber of your being, that these other folks pose no such threat to you and the hegemony in which you live.  You can be…gracious.

Which is kind of an ugly thing when you think about it.  Why should I have to be gracious just because somebody who doesn’t fit a particular profile does something other members of my culture don’t think they (a) can or (b) should?  Gracious implies permission.  Gracious implies special circumstances.  Gracious implies accommodation, as if you have the authority to grant it.  Gracious, in this context, means power.  (Everyone interested in this should read Joanna Russ’s excellent How To Suppress Women’s Writing to see how the process of marginalization and delegitimizing works.)

As it turned out, I have both been reading diversely and reading based on false assumptions about merit for a long time, but it was a problem, once I realized it, caused me no pain other than momentary embarrassment.  It was an opportunity to expand my reading.

Sure, it opened me to works which called certain attitudes with which I’d lived my whole life into question.  But, hell, that’s one of the primary reasons I read. What’s the point of reading nothing but work that does little more than give you a pleasant massage?  Those kinds of books and stories are fine (and frankly, I can get plenty of that from movies and television, I don’t have to spend valuable hours reading things that feed my biases and act as soporific), but they should only be breathers taken between books that actively engage the intellect and moral conscience.  Which books tend to piss you off on some level.

Depending on how pissed off you get, this may be a good way of finding out where perhaps you need to do a little personal assessment.  However, that’s up to the individual.  You can just as easily choose to revel in being pissed off and take that as the lesson.

“But reading stories is supposed to be entertainment.  If I want edification I’ll read philosophy.”

Two things about that.  Yes, fiction is supposed to be entertaining.  If it isn’t, it’s not very good fiction.  But there are two meanings to the word “entertain” and while one of them is about sitting back and enjoying a ride the other is more nuanced and has to do with entertaining ideas, which is less passive and, yes, edifying.  Because the second thing is, just what do you consider reading fiction if not reading philosophy?  Guess what, if you read a lot of fiction, you’ve been reading philosophy, at least on a certain level.  Because philosophy is, at base, an examination of how we live and what that means and all stories are about how people live and what it means to them.  (This is one of the ways in which fiction and essay often rest cheek-to-cheek in terms of reading experience.)  The deeper, the meatier the story, the more philosophical.

Which is why some books become cause celebrés of controversy, because everyone gets it that they’re talking about life choices.  Catcher In The Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn… how are these novels not fundamentally philosophical?

Which is why the idea of telling the truth in fiction has real meaning.  “How can a bunch of made up stuff—lies—tell the truth?”  A simpleminded question that assumes fact and truth are somehow the same.  Yes, they’re related, but truth is not an artifact, it is a process and has to do with recognition.  (Do you sympathize with the characters? Yes?  Then you have found a truth.  You just have to be open to the idea.  It’s not rocket science, but it is  philosophy.)

The most important factor in hearing a truth is in listening.  You can’t listen if you shut your ears.  And you can’t learn about a previously unrecognized truth if you keep listening to the same mouths, all the time.  You have to try out a different tongue in order to even expose yourself to a new truth.  Furthermore, you can never find the point of commonality in those alien truths if you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying.

Commonality seems to disturb some people.  Well, that’s as it should be.  Commonality is disturbing.  It’s mingling and mixing, it’s crossing lines, violating taboos, and reassessing what you thought you knew in order to find out how you are like them.  Commonality is not one thing, it’s an alloy.  More than that, it’s a process.  Because as you find commonality with the foreign, the alien, the other, they’re finding commonality with you.

Which brings me to the main subject of this piece, namely the challenge put forth by K. Tempest Bradford  to read something other than straight white male authors for a year.  Go to the link and read the piece, then come back here.

Okay.  Contrary to what the nattering blind mouths of righteous indignation have been saying, Tempest is NOT saying give up reading what you’ve always liked.  She’s suggesting it would be worthwhile to try this for a year.  How is this any different than someone saying “Maybe it would be a good thing to read nothing but history books for a year” or “I’m taking this year to read nothing but 19th Century novels”?  Like any book club or reading group, she’s set the parameters of a challenge.  Take it on or go away.  Why the need to vent OWS* all over her?

I have my theories about that and others have mentioned some of them, but what I want to know here is why certain people take this as an attack on their “culture” and condemn the idea as bigoted when, at worst, it’s just push back against an unexamined set of assumptions that have prevailed all along?

What troubles me in all these reactions as well is a certain hypocrisy coming from my own group, namely science fiction writers.  We have felt under siege for decades by the so-called mainstream—judged, dissed, ill-regarded, consigned to the purgatory of “genre” and not invited to all the good parties—and we have, collectively, been justifiably irked by attitudes which, we believed, would evaporate if you people would just loosen up and read some of the work you’re putting down!  Look in a mirror, folks.

(A more reasonable objection to Tempest is expressed here by Laura Resnick, and she addresses part of the problem I began this essay with, namely that normally one has to go out of one’s way to find out personal information about the authors in question in order to do what she’s suggesting, and that does have the danger of displacing the merit of the work with an over-reliance on others factors.  However, it’s not as if this is (a) not a problem being talked about or (b) in any way easily addressed.)

There’s also an element of rage politics in this which is stunning in its idiocy.  It’s the way our current culture works, that everything can be made into a cause to be outraged.  “I prefer XYZ nailclippers to any other.”  “XYZ nailclippers are made in China!  Preferring them shows you to be an anti-American libtard self-loathing traitor!  True Americans use ABC nailclippers!”**

Really?  Are we so sensitive anymore that we can’t allow for a little more room on the very wide sofa we inhabit for a difference of opinion and maybe a little challenge?

The fury over last year’s SF awards generated by a certain group over what they perceived as an assault on their definition of science fiction by the evident expansion of what is considered good SF is indicative of a kind of entrenchment I would have thought anathema to science fiction.  It’s too easy to read the diatribes and think the whole SF community is in uproar over something it has been striving to overcome for lo these many decades.  This is the problem of the megaphone effect.

But what Tempest and others are talking about goes well beyond the SF world.  There is a problem with recognition of non-approved viewpoints and faces.  The ocean of publishing is constantly a-roil, so depending on where you look it may be hard to see, and if you’re committed to seeing only what you expect then you can very easily miss it in the chop.  But the question is, how does it harm anyone to consider the voices of others as relevant and entertaining as what you’re used to hearing? Why does the prospect of change so frighten people who have the intellect to know better?  Why is it necessary to tag someone a bigot when they suggest that maybe the homogenization of our culture is a bad thing?

I’d like to argue that you have nothing to fear, that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with White Culture, but just writing that line brings me up to the chief problem—what White Culture?  I mean, we have to assume, don’t we, that there is one thing that’s being described by that?  It’s really as erroneous and useless a descriptor as Black Culture.  Which one?  The reality is, in both cases, they only exist as a consequence of definitional tactics that seek to reduce experience into an easily codifiable box that leaves out more diversity than it could possibly include.  I am white, and in terms of writing, I can say pretty confidently that, say, Jonathan Franzen does not represent my “culture.”  It’s kind of an absurd statement on the face of it.  Attitudinally, I have almost nothing in common with him, or the kind of writing he represents, or the particular viewpoint he deploys.

White Culture is only relevant in terms of social power and its exercise and in that sense I can claim affiliation with it by default.  I can’t not be part of it because that’s how the boundaries are set.

But I don’t have to exemplify it in my own person.

This is what reading has given me—the ability to access experiences not my own.  And, by extension, understand that all experiences are not the same even as they share certain common traits.  And the entire purpose and value of deep reading is to be More.  More than what my context prescribes.  More than what my social situation allows.

So why would I feel threatened by Tempest’s challenge?  I might not stick with it, but I do not see her as claiming the work she would have me read is somehow superior to what I normally would, nor is she claiming that the white male work to which she refers is all intrinsically bad.  What she is not saying is as important as what she is.  She’s basically challenging us to do what we would normally do anyway, with one more filter in place to select for experiences outside our comfort zone.

On the one hand, it’s kind of “well, why not?” proposition.  What could it hurt?

On the other, it’s a serious attempt at overcoming the bunker mentality that seems to be the norm these last couple decades.  Retrenchment is the order of the day for some folks.  Any suggestion that the walls of the bubble in which people live are perhaps insufficient for the problems of the world gets treated to bitter denouncements.  It’s tiring.  It’s destructive.

No, Tempest is not being a bigot.  She prescribing a way—modest though it may be—of overcoming bigotry.

It’s an invitation.  She’s not being gracious about it.  She’s being welcoming.

___________________________________________________________________________

*OWS—Oppressed White Spleen.  If “they” can lob acronyms around to make their point, so can I.

**Yes, much of it is exactly that idiotic.  We find ourselves in otherwise casual interactions often forced to take do-or-die political positions over the most inane matters all in service to sorting out who’s in our group and who’s out.  I am talking about extremes here, but it pervades everything.  I recall a conversation once where the efficacy of ethanol was being discussed and when I brought up the actual inefficiency of it, both chemically and economically, the response I got had to do with energy independence and patriotism.  There was no room for the vast world of money or lobbies or special interests or alternatives.  I was either in or out.  We’ve reduced much of our normal discourse to the parameters of a football game.

 

Current Crises In The Fish Pond

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 DispossessedThe 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.

Intentions 2015

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!

Ahem. *cough*

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…

 

Lone Tree, Sward, December 2014

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…