Hartwell

He was a presence in my growing understanding of the professional side of science fiction for almost 40 years. He was the first book editor whose name I knew. I collected a slew of his Timescape imprints from Pocket Books, regarding the label as a mark of excellence in a volatile field that was often untrackable in terms of what was good and what was not.  Because of David G. Hartwell, a number of authors came to my attention whose work I have continued to follow to this day.

I was fortunate to know him. A little. Somehow. We crossed paths enough times to be acquaintances and he was always—always—-gracious and, more importantly, interested.

The first time I saw him was in L.A. in 1984, at L.A.Con II, in a party shortly after the news had broken that Pocket Books had pulled the plug on Timescape.  Among the other problems, apparently, was the fact that David kept buying books that wouldn’t sell.  By sell, I mean they would not make bestseller lists.  Her had this arcane idea, apparently, that a good book ought to be published, regardless of the numbers it might (or might not) generate.  Odd notion, that, in an era dominated by the quest for the next blockbuster.  But David kept acquiring and championing books that did not have that kind of potential.  Anyway, I saw him in a hotel corridor, his hair sprayed with red and pink highlights.  (In contrast, I recall his tie was relatively tame.)  We spoke briefly.  I was just a fan and a wannabe writer at that time.  We talked a bit about the books and publishing.  A few minutes.  He said, finally, “Yes, well, the books are out there now.”  He had won one over the corporates.  The books had been published, despite the disapproval of the suits.

We said hi to each other in Atlanta in ’86 and by then I was, with some temerity, trying to write novels. We connected again in 2000, in Chicago, where we spent a couple of hours talking at the Japanese party at worldcon.  I remember that especially because it was the quietest party I’d ever attended at a worldcon—-or any con, for that matter—and David spoke knowledgeably about Japan and fandom there.  In the midst of our conversation, a number of our hosts,in kimonos, stopped at the same time, producing a variety of small cameras, and snapped pictures of us, as if by pre-arrangement.  By then Allen Steele had joined us, so they were getting pictures of two famous SF personalities and one semi-obscure one.

A few years later I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book.  I’d just become its president and we were trying some new events, and one idea I came up with was what I called the Genre Forums.  We would do a public panel with a number of writers in a given genre, with a Q & A afterward.  The first one we did was science fiction, of course, and I had Robin Bailey come in from Kansas City, Carolyn Gilman, who lived in St. Louis then, Nisi Shawl from Seattle, and myself.  At the last minute, David called Robin.  He had seen a notice for the event.  He was coincidentally going to be in St.Louis for a family wedding that weekend and wondered if this was something he should attend.  Robin called me to see if I wanted David on the panel.  Rhetorical question.  We had a small audience, unfortunately, because it was a first-rate panel.  My partner, Donna, said it was the best panel she had ever seen, and by then we had both seen enough to judge.  His presence, his knowledge, his erudition graced our discourse with a sensibility difficult to describe, but it was wonderful.

After that he began soliciting work from me.  We never connected on a project, but we had several fine conversations afterward.  He was, I learned, a wine lover and I was able to introduce him to one.

Of course, he’s famous for the outré ties.  He possessed an antic quality that leavened his profound seriousness.  He had been instrumental in many careers.

He bridged the tail end of the Golden Age and the present. Elder statesman of the field seems a bit pompous, but in many ways it was true.  For a long time he ran the New York Review of Science Fiction—where I finally sold him a few things—and through that facilitated a high-minded, ongoing discussion of the workings, the objectives, the ongoing assessment of science fiction and, indeed, literature.

Here is the Locus obituary for more detail.

David took me seriously.  I am glad I knew him, sorry I didn’t know him better, and feel the world has lost a gentle, intelligent, wise light.

 

A Long Time Ago…

Yesterday, in fact.

Somehow, seeing the new Star Wars film on January 1st was the perfect thing to do. We went to the Moolah Theater on Lindell and had popcorn and sat back and became 12-year-olds for over two hours and it was…wonderful.

I have seen much back-and-forthing over this film the last few weeks, including some ill-advised and unwelcome splenetic blathering from George Lucas himself over how he disliked the direction J.J. Abrams has taken.  I have also seen for myself the new action figure set at Target which failed to include the key character in what must be considered one of the most blatant examples of denial in industry marketing since…I don’t know.  What?  You really don’t think little girls will buy these even with such a full-on kick-ass role model as Rey?  Or are you afraid they will buy them and we’ll have another round of how de-feminized the character is and how she’s a bad example for little girls who might opt out of the whole cute-girl-whose-brains-are-secondary track of socialization?

To get this out of the way right now, I think Rey is possibly the best thing about the new Star Wars.  Vertently  or otherwise, something significant has been achieved in her and I applaud it.  Take note, ye unwitting crafters of the female entity for screen and page, this is how you do it.  Simply put, she is her own self.  She does not define herself by the men in her life, she not trade herself for favors, she does not bow to fashion conventions that depend on genitalia.  She has her own concerns, her own goals, and runs her life on her own, the only constraints on any of that being the same exact constraints put on every other being in the world she inhabits.

And she is a deeply, deeply ethical and empathetic person.  One who is not afraid to act on her own judgment, consequences be damned.

And she pays for it with doubt and fear and the agon of the compassionate.

As if she were a real person.

Person.

(Why does he go on about this?  Why is he getting loud?  What’s the deal?)

The deal is, so seldom in something like this do we get to see a woman as Person First, self-consistent, competent, and heroic, who does the rescuing, fights (and wins) against the bad guy, and can remain herself as a human being.  She also has friendships.  Not lovers, there’s no suggestion of that, not even as foreshadowing. Friends.  They didn’t even try to dress her up in some form-accentuating bit of impractical gauzy revealing nonsense so we’d all see that while she’s running around kicking ass and being amazing she has cleavage and nice thigh.  She’s dressed for work, for survival, for movement, for function.  Her hair is even done practically.

By accident or intent, they did Rey right.

So how come she’s not in the action figure collection?

I have my opinions and they are not charitable.  But it may turn out to be beside the point.

As to all the other dross being spake about how it stacks up to the rest of the films…

Sure, it’s a broad retread of the very first film.  So what?  This is myth, which is cyclic, and the value is in reaffirmation and validation.  It is a Hero’s Journey and going all the way back to Gilgamesh certain forms remain constant.  There are tests and trials and the plot matters much less than the manner of challenge and the quality of its confrontation.  George Lucas forgot that when he made episodes 1, 2, and 3.  He tried to turn a quest fantasy into science fiction, he tried to interject politics, he tried to justify things in a way that didn’t so much subvert what he had done before as crack the road in front of the calabash.  J.J. Abrams, or whoever was principally responsible for the storyline here, went back to the Campbellian mythic underpinnings (Joseph not John W.) and brought back what mattered and made the first couple so compelling.  Certain mythic forms reoccur, time and again, and Joseph Campbell understood this and Lucas sort of did, we think, at least in the beginning, but it went off the rails when a certain gravitic pull to compete with Star Trek seemed to drag everything off in an inauspicious direction.  In spite of the superb craft of those later films, the genuinely well-executed action, and even the plot logic of much of it, they were curiously empty.  One thing after another, with only a few moments of transcendence that failed to rescue them from essentially tales about bureaucratic failure.  Lucas can be as snarky as he likes, but Episode VII has gone back to what made the first three films work.

And did it very well.

Episode IV and V were all about Becoming.  Episode VI was about coming to terms with what you have Become.

Episodes I, II, and III were all about breaking things.

Episode VII is about Becoming.

And Rey?  Pay attention, fellas.  This is how it’s done. This is what a human being looks like.  This is a hero.

This Doesn’t Happen Every Day

Ethan Hawke has a new book out.  Yes, that Ethan Hawke.  And this Saturday past he stopped at Left Bank Books to sign copies of it.  On top of it being Small Business Saturday, it was a rather intense day, and to have this cap it off was…very cool.

Hawke 6One more, just because I think it’s a cool image.

Hawke b&w

Peak Experiences

This past weekend was Archon 39. Our local science fiction convention.

Donna and I have, with a couple of exceptions over the years, gone to just about all of them since number 6, which was in 1982 at the Chase-Park Plaza hotel.  The guest of honor then was Stephen King, which meant that everything was exaggerated and gave us a seriously distorted set of expectations of what this convention was normally. The guest list that year was a who’s who of authors, who were then the rock stars of the convention scene. We met Joe Haldeman, Robert Bloch, Robin Bailey, George R.R. Martin, and several others. We were, you might say, agog. It was a bit overwhelming and in retrospect it was a peak experience, at least as far as conventions go.

The problem with such things is, you never know that’s what they are until some time afterward, and even then there might be some question as to how peak it was.  So you go into them a bit unprepared to really appreciate them.

Not so this Archon just past.  We knew months in advance that this was going to be a peak experience.  Because Harlan Ellison surprised everyone by agreeing to appear, despite ill health and considerable impairment from a stroke a year ago.  I knew about this immediately because I instigated the whole thing and ended up promising to be his gofer for the weekend.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to do that, Harlan has minions, and they came. But I didn’t know that until they actually arrived, so the month or so leading up to this I found myself getting more and more stressed by the responsibility I felt.

Note I say “felt” rather than “had.”  What my actual responsibilities were compared to what I felt them to be were somewhat mismatched. I found myself at one point asking myself “What the hell is it with you? Calm down!”  Did no good. But everything came off fairly well. Not everything that was intended to happen, did, or at least not in the way planned, but I’d say a good 70% of it worked, and the stress served one positive function other than making me obsessive about details.  I knew this would be a peak experience.

Harlan is in a wheelchair.  He’s partially paralyzed on his right side.  There was some question as to whether or not he ought to have done this, but he would not be denied.  If sheer willpower counts for anything, Harlan has enough to do pretty much what he sets his mind to doing, even in his present condition. Donna and I picked him and Susan up at the airport Thursday night around nine o’clock and took them to the hotel in Collinsville. We sat in the lobby together for a while.  Two of his best friends showed up, Tim and Andrea Richmond, who we now count as friends.

By Friday evening’s opening ceremonies, Harlan’s presence at the con was unmistakable. harlan at opening ceremoniesI wheeled him up on stage after he had spent over an hour signing books.  He’s slower, sure, but the mind is as alert and sharp as ever.  He was pleased to be at the convention and he disarmed everyone.

We who have been involved in SF for any length of time know The Stories.  Harlan can pop off at the drop of a moronic comment and hides have been flayed (metaphorically) and sensibilities challenged.  If I heard it once I heard it fifty time, “He’s so gracious!”  Yes, he is.  He has  a heart of enormous proportions.

He was physically unable to do as much as he clearly wanted to, but under the circumstances what he did do was generous and impressive.

Peak Experience time.  I got to be on a panel with Harlan Ellison.

Let me explain. I grew up reading stories by the giants of the field when most of them were still alive and many still publishing.  For me, the pantheon includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, C.L.Moore, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh…well, you get the idea.  And Harlan, who wrote like a fey combination of Bradbury and Bester with a touch of Borges stirred in and made everyone react viscerally in ways they did not react to their other favorites.  I recall getting very turned off by Harlan when I was, say 15, and then later coming back and trying his work again only to find that I had missed almost everything important about the stories the first go-round. He was like a tornado whirling through the more deliberative winds of his peers. I’m still not sure I “get” everything that is going on in an Ellison story, but that’s the sign of a work worthy of ongoing consideration.

Of the aforementioned bunch, I shook Asimov’s hand, chatted with Bradbury and Cherryh, never met Bester, Heinlein, Moore, Russ, or Sheldon.  There are a couple of dozen other Greats I’ve had opportunity exchanged words with.  I’ve been on panels with Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Elizabeth Ann Hull, a number of others. So many are just gone.

I got to be on a panel with Harlan.  The 12-year-old in me was having a field day. This, I thought, is as good as it gets. At least in my list of cool things to do.

After 2010, I never thought I’d see Harlan again.  Certainly not at a convention.  He’d said he was done with them.  Harlan at ArchonWho could blame him? He’s tired. We talk on the phone occasionally.  I like him, but most of the time I don’t quite know what to say to him, other than some variation of Thank You For Being a Powerful Aesthetic Presence In My Life.  Of all the acquaintances I thought I might make in this curious life and profession, his was unexpected.

So when this opportunity came up, by a series of unexpected steps, I was torn.  Certainly his health is problematic and he’s 81.  This probably was not, for a number of reasons, a good idea.  On the other hand, when I reach that point in my life and there’s something I want to do and believe I can do it, I hope there are people who will help me do it. I do rather doubt I’ll see him again.  I don’t know when we’ll be able to get to L.A. anytime remotely soon.  But I did get to spend a good chunk of this weekend with him and it was surprising and rich and bittersweet.

He charmed practically the whole convention, signed a boatload of books, gave of himself until he just couldn’t.  I’m sure he got as good as he gave.  I will confess that I was waiting for someone, anyone, to start anything negative with him. It would not, had I been there, lasted long.  But no one did, everyone seemed so gobsmacked pleased to see him.

We did not take him back to the airport on Sunday. Other, closer friends did that.  He recorded a thankyou and goodbye for closing ceremonies, which was classic Ellison.

I confess, it’s strange.  Coming from a place in life never expecting to ever say a single sentence to him, he has become one of the major influences and associations in my life. All told, I doubt we’ve spent a week’s time together.  But it’s always been memorable. I’m about to wander into mawkishness now, so I’ll wrap it up with two final images and maybe one more line.   harlan 2-1harlan's shoes

So there we have it.

Peak Experience.

I hope he hangs around for many more years, as long as his mind is clear and his imagination active and he feels welcome.  There are a lot of people—a LOT—who are very glad of his presence.

I know I’m glad to know him.

Updates

This coming weekend is Archon 39, our local SF convention.  For the last two months I’ve been rushing about, often only in my own head, to prepare.  This year is special in a number of ways.  Harlan Ellison is attending.  Now, unless one keeps abreast of such things, that alone is no explanation for the level of anxiety I’ve been feeling about this.  For one, I instigated this event, largely without intending to.  For another, I’ve been involved in arranging things for him and his wife, Susan.  I’ve consequently been more involved in Archon than in previous years.  But today, Monday, I can honestly say I have covered as many bases as it is possible.  The unforeseen is…e=unforeseeable.

That’s not the only thing going.  Those of you who have been following me on Twitter will know that I have been updating my computers.  That has been both less bothersome and more annoying than it ought to be, but is now largely done.  (I have one more thing to get, but it will keep till later.)  I’m now well into the 21st Century on that front and not a moment too soon.  This morning I took care of the last  bit of bother for Archon that is in my power to take care of, so I spent the last twenty minutes playing with the theme on my blog.  I think I’m sticking with this one for a time.  How do you like it?  I feel it is a theme of great nift.

Recently, Left Bank Books hosted an event with Sammy Hagar.  He has a new cookbook out (yes, that Sammy Hagar, and, yes, I said a cookbook) and we ushered through a myriad of his ecstatic fans and sold a ton of them.  So for no other reason than I have it on hand, here’s a photo of Mr. Hagar.Sammy 4

We have all more or less recovered from the chaos and excitement of that day, which was one day in a week filled with notable events.  Jonathan Franzen was also in town and we (not I) worked that event.  And earlier we hosted Mr. Jeff Smith, former Missouri state senator who went to prison and has, since release, dedicated himself to prison reform.  He has a new book out about it.  I did work that event and must report that some of what he said, while not surprising, was nevertheless disturbing.  The whole fiction of “rehabilitation” in regards to incarceration…

Well, I may have more to say on that later.

I’m unwinding as I write this, so forgive me if I wander about from topic to topic.  Last night we had friends over to dinner and it was terrific.  Good food, great conversation, laughing…we don’t do nearly enough of that.  Partly it’s the time thing, but you know, you can lose the habit of being social, and over the last several years we’ve seen our skills erode.  We may be coming out of a long hibernation, but then there is still the time thing, and I have a book to write over the next several months.  (Hence the new computers.)

On that front, this Saturday past I was one of eight local authors invited to attend the Carondolet Authors’ Brunch.  Strange thing that it was, it was nevertheless fun.  They arranged tables and set it up like speed dating.  The authors would visit each table for 15 minutes, then move to the next, and so on.  I was delighted that no two tables produced the same conversation, although some variation of “where do you get your ideas” came up each time, but that was only one of two questions that I found repeated.  The other was “Do you teach?”

There were a couple of household repairs I tended to this morning and now I’m procrastinating here.  I should be writing something serious, profound, or at least with the potential to earn income, but I’m fooling around with my blog theme and gossiping.

…And I just realized I have one more thing to take care of for Archon.

That said, this Thursday we’re trying something at Left Bank Books that I hope will establish a tradition.  We’re having three of the major guests in the store for a kind of pre-con event.  Jacqueline Carey, of Kushiel’s Dart fame; Esther Friesner, of multiple fames; and Vic Milan, who has been the toastmaster at Archon’s masquerade since forever, and if you like costuming and haven’t been to an Archon masquerade, you’re missing a real treat, of which Vic is a major part.  So, seven o’clock Thursday night, October 1st, be there or be a tessaract.

After Archon I intend to find a corner and melt down into it.

Until then, thanks for stopping by.

I Don’t Read That Stuff

What follows is a completely personal, wholly biased view.

On average, I read between four and seven books a month.  That’s cover to cover.  From time to time I have a month wherein I manage ten to twelve, but that’s getting rarer.  Between four and seven is what it comes out to and at that rate I’m reading fifty to eighty books a year.

I put that out there so that what follows may make more sense than the usual kind of argument about taste in reading matter and why I don’t wish to waste time on certain things.

I’m sixty, which means I have maybe fifteen, maybe thirty years left to do the things I want to do, and I’m getting picky about what fills my time.  Too much trivial nonsense does simply because that’s the way life is.  And it’s hard to break habits made when you were much younger and it felt like time was plentiful.  I’m not being morbid, just practical.  Trivia has a function.  Upon trivia, friendships cement, the culture binds itself together, and the time between important things is bridged with something that at least keeps us engaged.

Anyway, given all this, plus the very important fact that I’ve been reading books (without pictures) since I was eight years old (at least—and I’m not, believe me, being critical of comics, I actively read them till I was 18 or 19 and still consider them worthwhile) and my tastes have…

I was going to say, “my tastes have changed,” and that’s certainly true, but it’s just as if not more accurate to say my tastes have evolved.  I still like the same kind of things I did way back, but not in the same form I did then.  When I was 12, the Lensmen were the ne plus ultra of fiction, the absolute coolest of the cool. Today? Not so much.  But I still love space opera as a form.  Only now I want a better example, language pitched to my level or higher, and maybe some subtext and a story that isn’t just about finding the next biggest weapon to defeat the slimy aliens but maybe tells me something interesting about human nature under unique conditions, which means characters that inhabit more than two dimensions.  While I can’t get through Triplanetary anymore, I can still read Delany’s Nova or Iain Banks’ Culture novels with pleasure.  Why?

No single reason, but a constellation of them resulting in what we start to recognize as serious literature.  The fact is, I pick up Embassytown by China Mieville and I have an experience which simply cannot be duplicated by—

Ah, there’s a problem.  We verge now on comparisons.  And that gets tricky, because I don’t wish to denigrate anyone’s work.  I have always tried to address the different pleasures of fiction, top to bottom, without resorting to saying So-and-So is great while Such-and-Such is crap.  For one thing, a lot of people may very much like Such-and-Such and by calling it crap I am by definition saying they have bad taste.  It becomes elitist in a particularly counterproductive way.

For another, this hasn’t much to do with what one likes.  That word covers a lot of territory and means many vague things having to do with pleasure. No one has cause to say anyone’s pleasure is somehow less important because of its position on some presumed scale of relative value.

But that’s not the same as claiming all experiences are of equal merit.  All books are not the same and yes, some are better than others.  “Like” has little to do with those assessments, though.

A well prepared filet mignon is obviously “better” than a hamburger from a fast food chain.  The fact that McDonalds has sold billions upon billions is not an assessment in any way that their burgers are better than the steak you’ll be served at a five-star restaurant.  Popularity is not an endorsement of quality.

A rough comparison at best, but I make it to establish the idea that while you may eat more burgers than filet mignons garnished with champignon mushrooms, you know the difference and you also know it’s a question of experience that allows us to recognize the distinction and understand it.  You’re going to have a deeper culinary experience with the latter.

Unless you have no taste at all and can’t tell the difference.  That’s certainly possible and by the evidence of certain groups would certainly seem the case.

Enough with the culinary analogy, let me get back to choice of reading material.  What I do not read any longer has to do with opting for the deeper experience.  I read slowly, relative to some, and I don’t have time to tear through mediocre books.  I have developed to the point where Doc Smith just doesn’t do it for me any longer.  I mean, the ideas are great, the seeds of later pleasures, but the execution is pitched to the bright 12-year-old and eschews any kind of nuance.  For one thing, you begin to notice eventually, if you read with any kind of acuity, that while we’re all in the far future, everyone acts and talks as if they lived in 1932 Brooklyn.  Even the aliens.  If it were satire, I could understand, but it’s not, it’s meant to be taken seriously.  And, really, it’s the far future and everyone (even the aliens) is so white.

I want something special.  I want my synapses engaged as fully as possible.  If I have to do a little work to understand the full substance of a sentence, great, especially if the work pays off exponentially.

Which has resulted in a long, gradual drift away from the slam-bang of what once represented the bulk of my reading choice toward material that causes me to react in ways I find much more satisfying.

Some books require more from a reader.  The reader has to rise to the level of the book.  Experience teaches us to recognize these books when we find them—and sort them out from those that may be obtuse just for the sake of hiding their lack of anything to say—and experience also gives us the desire to have those experiences.  Which, perhaps unfortunately, leaves us unsatisfied with less nutritious fare, fare which once filled out requirements.

This is akin to growing up.  You just don’t find the things that fulfilled you as a kid to be all that wonderful as an adult.

Assuming we’ve grown up.

Okay, I am here at the point where I either have to give a concrete example or leave this whole thing a vague, kind of hand-wavy bit of stuff with the message so buried as to be useful only to those of an archaeological bent.  Ordinarily, I would not feel I need to do so, but given events and circumstances in my genre of first love—science fiction—maybe I should just bite the bullet and go for it.  After all, names have already been named and assertions made and being polite to the point of swallowing meaning serves no useful purpose.

I will not, however, name names.  If I do, it will be those who are long dead and whose day is past. Unlike some who have dragged the discourse that is science fiction to the level of a political convention floor fight, I will not point at specific works currently in play in order to say “Here be crap” and make the bones of my argument on the unnecessarily scoured sensibilities of people who toil earnestly at their craft.

Earnestness does not inoculate anyone against doing mediocre work.  Nor does it guarantee exemplary work.

What do I mean by mediocre writing?

Writing that exhausts itself by one reading, fails to fulfill the potential of its ideas, and/or rests upon cliché to make the page turn.

Good writing by contrast allows for multiple readings from which deeper meaning and new interpretations  can be derived.

Sometimes you can see the difference sentence by sentence.  Often scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

When you’re 12 years old, the better writing may leave you baffled, because it is not always straightforward and single-pointed.  So no one should feel bad for not getting Joseph Conrad at that age.

I pick Conrad because he wrote rousing adventures.  But they are so much more than that, and it’s that so much more that has seen his works continue to be published, read, and appreciated by large audiences.  Once you’ve internalized the sea-going thrills and fighting in something like Lord Jim you find that, upon further or more careful reading, there is so much more.  And that so much more actually calls into question the heroic æsthetic of the surface read and causes—presumably—a deep reflection on the the meaning of heroism—and cowardice—and the mythic templates we accept that define them.

Boring?

Well, if you’re bored by such contemplations, then stick with action-adventure.

If beautiful sentences bore you or you are blind to them, stick to simple plot-thickening prose.

If you are not emotionally moved in ways other than by pure adrenalization, then stick to the slam-bang thrills and avoid anything that talks about the soul in multiple ways.

(If you can read Dante’s Inferno and believe that it has anything to do with the afterlife, then stick to work more facile and less steeped in metaphor.  You will do less disservice to Dante and perhaps yourself.)

In short, if a sentence like “It was strange that even sex, the source of so much solace, delight, and joy for so many years, could overnight become an unknown territory where he must tread carefully and know his ignorance; yet it was so*” reads like gibberish, seems pointless, or causes the kind of reaction that refuses to allow for the possibility that more is going on here than simply your inability to decode meaning and apprehend the layers involved, then you may have reached your limit with sentences like “What he really needed was a session with a pleasure unit in order to clear his mind for the ordeal ahead.”  If you can’t understand why the former sentence is a richer text, revelatory of character in ways that the latter sentence simply not only fails to be but in some ways actively resists being, then—

But I border now on insult.  In light of the current kerfluffle going on in the field, it’s hard not to, though.  The essential nature of science fiction is being challenged, all in the name of what appears to be a petty rejection of message.  As if science fiction has not always been message fiction.

In terms of plot and idea, if calling into question the basic assumptions by which civilization, culture, and the very lives we lead promises to be an impenetrable drudge, then I have to wonder why you claim to like science fiction at all.  Because that’s what it’s all about, dislodging the reader from cozy assumptions of self-justified rightness.  And no, stories wherein humanity must wage war against an alien race in order to preserve an identity which goes largely unquestioned do not represent the chief benefit of the form.  The physiognomy and bloodlust of the aliens is exciting for only a brief time if there is nothing more to the story.

Yes, I’m indulging a bit of elitism here.  I have nothing against well-done action stories.  I read one recently that offered, or at least promised, a nice twist on the formula, but then failed to deliver and turned into a pat good-guys-cleverly-defeating-alien-menace-with-cool-explosions story.  I enjoyed the ride but will never read that book again.

And that’s okay.  It was even well-written in terms of character, exposition, pacing.  It’s not a question of condemning things just because they aren’t Dostoevsky.

But using the author of Crime and Punishment as an example, to argue that work deserves an award precisely because it isn’t Dostoevsky is a seriously flawed idea, especially when the award in question is supposedly for the Best of Field.  We give awards to the Dostoevsky’s in order to set bars and celebrate potential, not congratulate ourselves for reveling in mediocrity.  To insist that the better work is undeserving because it does things differently from the usual is a statement of adolescent resentment.

However, that doesn’t seem to be the source of the spleen.  It’s not that SF is message fiction, but the message being conveyed that has sparked all this contention—and who is delivering it.

It can be asserted that overall, since 1926, a good deal of SF, especially of the planetary romance and interstellar adventure variety, has been, in subtext if not overtly, imperialist.  Brave Earthmen venturing forth to conquer and pacify an alien and maleficent universe.  By default if nothing else, most of those high principled adventurers have been white males.  That aspect wasn’t the main point of the choices made, just the default assumption based on current standards of perceived merit.  John W. Campbell, jr. was an unapologetic champion of this ethic, so much so that he eventually annoyed many of his best writers with his chauvinism.  Nevertheless, the model stuck, because it allowed for the continual generation of really cool stories.

Came a time, though, when we finally became a bit more introspective and realized how parochial much of it was, how chauvinistic, and, yes, how racist much of it was.  So, like any healthy art form, stories began appearing that questioned these assumptions.

And the questioning resulted in a lot of really cool stories.

It may be that some folks still like the old ideas and forms so much and, coupled with a weariness of continual reassessment and moral reevaluation, yearn nostalgically for days of unquestioned heroic virtue, that the current noise in opposition to what has been derogatorily labeled as the work of Social Justice Warriors is just their way of stamping their feet and demanding unequivocal action adventure of the so-called Golden Age variety.  From some of the sales numbers I’ve seen, there is a healthy market for such stories.

Speaking personally, though, please don’t try to tell me work built guilelessly on discredited values and outgrown sentiment is award worthy—and by that I mean exemplary of the best, indicative of the future, and representative of the limits of possibility.

I end this now because I am coming perilously close to venting spleen and getting personal.  I’ve watched this advent over the Hugo Awards with dismay and bewilderment.  There has been too much doubling down on false pretense and too much empty fury and not enough genuine debate over what is actually at issue in terms of the work.  Those who have brought this to fruition have placed many of their colleagues in unfortunate situations for no good purpose, or at least for purposes poorly stated if not seriously misrepresented.  If, by their lights, the “wrong” work wins a rocket this year and they continue to erupt in fury over a perceived injustice in the direction of the field, then in my opinion they seriously misunderstand the nature of the endeavor of which they claim a share.

In any event, I have looked at the work at issue and, from a purely personal vantage, like so much else in what is too little time to spare, I have to say, I just don’t read that kind of stuff anymore.

 

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*Okay, I’ll name one name.  That sentence is from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, whose works I suspect, were they being written and published today would bring down the disdain of those who have made loud and gaseous cause over “social justice” fiction.

Bragging

My collection, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, has received some attention since it came out last year.  (Last year?  Really? Yeesh!)

Two critics in particular have been kind to it.  The first, from the estimable Rich Horton, who does one of the Best of the Year anthologies (and I urge you all to check it out), wrote the following in LOCUS last December:

“Mark W. Tiedemann is the author of a fine space opera trilogy, The Secantis Sequence, that deserves a wider audience, as well as of strong stories in places like SF Age and F&SF. He hasn’t been entirely silent the past several years, but he hasn’t been as much in evidence as I’d like, so it’s nice to see a new collection, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, appear featuring a few reprints (including his outstanding early story “The Playground Door”) and a number of original stories. My favorites include one fantasy and one SF story. “Preservation” is about a gamekeeper in service to a King who commands him to poach the horn of an einhyrn, reputed to determine if a woman is a virgin. The King wants to make sure his son’s intended bride is pure, but it’s soon clear that dirtier politics than that are involved – not to mention that the einhyrn are a protected species. Solid adventure, and involving characters. I liked “Forever and a Day” even more, a time dilation story about a woman in a polyamorous marriage, who turns out to be unable to tolerate new treatments conferring immortality. Her husband and wife become immortal, while she joins the crew of a starship, gaining a sort of immortality due to time dilation. A cute idea in itself, though hardly new, but the story asks effectively how any relationship can survive centuries – indeed, how one’s relationship with one’s own self can survive centuries, and whether immortality is better than the sort of continual revivification star travel might bring.”

And now this from Paul di Filippo, in the July Asimov’s:

“The title and cover image of Mark Tiedemann’s Gravity Box and Other Spaces…might lead you to believe that its table of contents hold nothing but hard SF.  But instead we find a panoply of genres.  The book opens strongly with a Stephen King-style contemporary bit of weirdness titled “Miller’s Wife.”  A futuristic story involving robot nursemaids/surrogates of a sort, “Redaction” evokes feelings similar to viewing Spielberg’s A.I.  “The Disinterred” is a strong blend of steampunk, specters, and religion, as a man goes searching for his lost wife and runs into a scientific expedition instead.  And the title piece tracks the fortunes of a teenage girl who must rebel against the ignorance of her family and the laws of society to attain a future in space.  Tiedemann’s range is large, his heart big, and his skills and insights deserving of your attentions.”  Paul Di Filippo, July 2015 Asimov’s SF.

I’m blushing.  No I’m not. Well, maybe a little.  I am very grateful.  For the record, these are the first reviews of one of my books I ever received from either of these publications.  Just goes to show, it’s never too late to have a good start to one’s career.

Work History, Wages, and Doing The Things

The other day I was taking with friends about that pesky subject, wages. Minimum wage is in the news, a big argument, and the politics are necessarily touchy.  Comparisons were made and my own situation caused a bit of raised eyebrows and “What’s up with that” detours through personal histories.

According to some, among people who have known me a long time, I have always been seriously underpaid throughout my working life.

Before we get into that, though, I would like to reference this article, written by my boss, Jarek Steele, about the current anxiety-laden question of raising the minimum wage.  Go read this, then come back here.

First off, I would like to say that I work at a wonderful place.  Left Bank Books is now family.  As you can tell from the essay, they are thoughtful, concerned people with no small amount of brainpower and good bead on life as it is and a solid moral sense.  I’m lucky to work there.  I’ll come back to that later.

Now. Most of my adult life I have been relatively unconcerned about my wages.  I don’t know where I got this from, but I’ve always felt they were secondary to several more important factors.  Some of this is naïveté, but some of it is a result of early on making a choice between security and fulfillment. For many people, money serves as fulfillment, and for some it genuinely is.  They work to have.  I offer no judgment here, everyone is different, and it’s all a question of degree anyway, because we fall along a spectrum.

For myself, I’ve always worked to Be.

Perhaps a small difference to some, but a huge difference over time. I came out of the box, as it were, with intentions to be a certain kind of person, to do certain things, to make a crater in the world that looks a certain way, and if the pursuit of money got in the way of that, then I ignored the money.  Not consciously, because I always just assumed that somewhere along the way I would have it, mainly as a consequence of having done all the stuff that fulfilled my requirements of Being.

Now, if this all sounds a bit zen and possibly foolish, so be it. I’d be willing to bet many if not most of us have career-type dreams at some point that focus mainly of what we’re doing and not how much money we’re going to make doing it.  But this is America and identity is conflated with owning things, so it becomes very difficult to tease apart the doing from the reward.

Which brings me to my rather jagged career path, which saw me graduate high school intent on a career in photography, which I pursued as an art first and foremost and, in the end, only.  I never figured out how to make it pay.

So I worked for a major photofinishing chain, then a period as an in-house commercial photographer for a marginal advertising company, then as a delivery driver for a custom lab, and finally as the darkroom jockey of one of the best camera stores/black & white labs in town.  That last for 20 years.

I never became the photographer I thought I’d be, at least not commercially.  I did all the things.  Portraits, landscape, art and abstract, architectural.  Occasionally I did them for clients, but mainly I did them because they were cool to do and they produced images I wanted to see.  I was Doing Photography and that was the important thing. I was fulfilled.

All the while I drew my wage from my job, which supported the art and all the other stuff.

Then I picked up the writing again.  Time passed, I learned my craft, started selling stories, and then that 20 year stint of a job ended with the close of the business. Two years later I applied to and got another lab job, at which I worked for 11 years, most of them rather unhappily.

(And here the concerns over money enter in the most annoying way, because money would have been the means by which I would have been able to just write instead of having to work at something I no longer loved in order to eat.)

The story sales never added up to enough for me to quit that job.

But I was getting published.  I was fulfilled, at least in the desire to Do The Thing.

Age does force one to confront certain realities.  Looking back, I realized that I had never pushed for more money.  I never once, in all the years of “working for a living,” asked for a raise.  Somewhere in the back of my head there floated the assumption that good work brought remuneration, so if the people I worked for chose not to give a raise, then it was due to my lack of good work.  I could maintain this attitude largely because, with one exception (that first job right out of high school) I have never worked for a large corporation.  Never.  I have spent my employed life working for small local businesses, the health of which I could see, right in front of me.  They all struggled.  I was part of that struggle, so adding a burden to them was not in my nature.  I never asked for a raise.

Instead, I lived a life that fit with my earnings.  One could do that at one time.  And I did get raises, so it’s not like I’m talking about trying to scrape by on minimum wage.  (Which was, btw, right around two dollars an hour when I graduated high school, and I worked for Fox Photo over a year before they granted me a ten cent an hour raise.)  But I never asked.  I was always grateful when they came, but I never asked.  The people for whom I worked were usually close enough to the ground to show appreciation when they could.  For a while I made a decent living.

Donna and I, however, had no children.  That one fact explains a great deal about how we could opt to work for who we chose (often) and live as we pleased without overly worrying about income.  We were careful.  When we bought a house, we paid it off early.  We carry no balances on our credit cards.  We owe no bank anything.

And we realize how unusual this makes us.

But it also points up the major disconnect many people suffer in their lives in terms of employment and compensation.  I never asked for raises because, by and large, I never had to.  Had we lived a more traditional lifestyle, money would have been the single greatest driver of all our choices.

However, my comment above about being underpaid…

Several years ago an opportunity opened for me to possibly take a job as an editor at a local magazine.  I’m not familiar with the task, but I’ve always been a quick learner, so I had no doubts about my ability to come up to speed, and I could offer myself for a bit less than others might.  I went over the requirements of the position with a friend who had been in this end of the industry.  She remarked as one point that the salary would probably be X, which was low, but in a couple of years I could probably come up to standard.  I laughed and told her I’d never made that much in a year in my life.

She was flabberghasted.  How, she wondered, could someone with my abilities have been so undercompensated?

Because it had never occurred to me for a long, long time that I had been.  I’d been Doing The Things, and wasn’t that what mattered?

No.  At least it’s not the only thing.  Money is the means by which we live the kind of lives we wish to.  I want “success”—monetary success—as a writer so that I can do that and nothing else.  But I’m not good at that kind of success. I’ve never been adept at parlaying skills and artistic ability into money.  Whatever it is that allows some people to be skilled at getting compensated, I’ve never been good at it.

And the owners of corporate America know that most people are like that.  They depend on it.  The main reason unions were so important is for that reason and that most people need someone who is good at understanding that game to struggle on their behalf.  But the fact remains, most people take what they can get and then worry about the shortfall.

Because we have consistently misunderstood the relationship between, in the classic terms, labor and management.  As the economy has changed, that misunderstanding is becoming critical, because we are collectively faced with the consequences of our failure to address it.

Business knows average people aren’t either interested or especially adept at Doing Business.  That alone gives business—and I’m talking business at the disembodied corporate level here—an advantage because they take it.  They can shortchange employees because they know how and their employees don’t know they have either any power or can find the means to engage management to worker advantage.  Had we kept abreast of the changes to labor’s benefit these past 30 years when we shifted predominantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, then the present strained issue of raising minimum wages would not be so traumatic.  The problem of catching up is putting strain on small to mid-level businesses that they should not have had to bear.  Because we’ve been underwriting cheap product and services for decades by a disproportionate-to-reality compensation formula that treats people like parts.  Read Jarek Steele’s breakdown above.  Numbers, folks, and realities.

Drastic measures become necessary only because of indolence in the system.  As long as the numbers of people receiving poor compensation for work that has become increasingly primary were low, the problem could be ignored.  It’s not even so much that so many are trying to make full livings on minimum wage but that all wages are commensurately constrained by the growing imbalance in consumer ability to pay for what we need and want.

Then there are people like me, who frankly have never known how to care about the money.  Or at least never felt the freedom to demand it, because we keep getting sidetracked by Doing The Things.

Because Taking Care of Business consumes the one thing that art demands—time.  I loved doing photography.  I hated running a business.  I love writing.  Paying attention to marketing and sales is frankly loathesome.  I wish sometimes (lately more than ever) that it were otherwise, that I had that ability to engage promotions and negotiations, but I am who I am and do it only because if I don’t then some day I won’t be able to do the art anymore.

Which, by completely unconscious intent, has caused me to work locally, for people I see everyday and can talk to as friends more than as employers.  I think this is a good business model, but because it is not primary in this country, because people who think very much differently set the parameters of what constitutes “business practice” for so much of the country, this is not the business model that trumps treating people like parts.

We’ve been arguing about this since the founding of the Republic, since the idea of the yeoman farmer and the independent artisan was turned into a romantic myth by the privileging of corporate giants saw a massive culling early on, when it became harder and harder for the independent owner to function in the face of cheaper prices and savage competition that stripped people of their own labor by turning them into wage-slaves.  The argument went on and on, the battle raging for over a century and a half, until finally the Second World War, the Cold War, combined to usher in the era of corporate hegemony that, while not eradicating the small business managed to place the entire economy in thrall to the requirements of giants.*

Hyperbole?  Consider what happens when a large corporation closes a plant or leaves a market and dozens of smaller, local businesses—those that survived the initial arrival of that corporation, at least (mainly by learning to service it)—find their customers drying up because so many of them are unemployed.  Taxes dry up as well, so relief doesn’t stretch as far, and we no longer have an economy that will support a regrowth in a timely manner.  Towns have been abandoned due to this cycle.

Doom and gloom?  No, I think there’s enough latent ability and power in local, small business to still have a good chance at not only holding its own but of succeeding and altering the standard model.  Because there is still value in prizing Doing the Things over Making the Buck, and compensation can flow in those directions.  We’re looking at a crucial time where those kinds of choices are more important than they have been in a long time.

Which leaves me back at where I started, admitting to a kind of aphasia when it comes to this money thing and by and large, as inconvenient as it is, still not much interested in changing who I am in order to meet some mogul’s notion of success.  I work where I work and do what I do because I can decide that “career” is not a synonym for sheer acquisitiveness.

I am lucky, as I say, and do not in any way offer my life as an example of how to do this.  I might well have ended up in much worse places.  But it’s the people around me who have made the difference.  They all ought to be better off, but we’re all Doing The Things and making the world, at least around us, better off.  Meantime, I am grateful.  I can still Do The Things.

It would be good if more of us remembered or realized that that is why we work so hard.

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* Consider further the completely bass ackwards relationship between large corporations and local communities wherein the community is required by circumstance to bride the corporation to set up shop—a bribe done with tax money, which means the community starts off impoverishing itself for the “privilege” of hosting an entity that will then extract profits from that community to distribute among people who do not live there.  And when the latent wealth of that community has fallen sufficiently that the profits to the corporation are less than deemed desirable, they then close up shop and leave, the community having grown dependent to such a degree that, scaffolding removed, the local economy collapses, partially or completely.  What should be the case is the corporation ought to pay the community for the privilege and the relationship should be one where the community as host is a primary shareholder and gets compensated first.  Unworkable someone in the back says?  Not so.  Alaska did this will the oil companies decades ago and every Alaskan since gets a stipend from Big Oil.  Or did till recently.

“That Guy”

Confession time.  I have never assumed that I am a good writer.  I have never taken the position that I know what I’m doing, that I deserve respect, or that I am in any way special as a writer.  My default sense of self is that I’m still trying, still learning, still reaching, and I haven’t “got there” yet. If, therefore, I write something that touches a reader, that evokes a positive response, that, given the opportunity, causes them to tell me how much they liked that story or novel of mine they read, I am always surprised and quietly pleased and a bit more hopeful that one of these days I might fully allow myself to acknowledge my own talent.

But I never let myself believe I deserve anything like that. Ever.

Initially, this came out of an inborn reticence characteristic of the fatally shy and an aversion to being the center of anyone’s attention. But you grow out of that eventually, or at least I did, because you come to realize you have nothing special about which to be shy.  Also, that shyness is detrimental to your happiness when it causes you to pass up opportunities you might desperately want to embrace. It’s replaced, then, by a gradual sense of politesse, of what you might consider good manners, and a deep desire to be liked.  Braggards are generally not liked, so you hide your light so you don’t become That Guy.

Too early success can derail your journey to becoming someone you might wish to be by replacing a perfectly natural humility with the idea that, hey, you really are something special!  Nastiness can ensue.

I am very aware of my potential for being That Guy, the boor, the boaster, the “all about me” asshole.  Part of me wants to be all of that, or at least have all the attention that leads to that.  Why else would I have always been involved in work that has such a public aspect?  Art, music, theater (very briefly), and writing.  All of it has a Dig Me facet, especially if you have any ambition to make a living at any of it.  You have to put the work out there, you have to take credit, you’re the one people have to identify with something they like in order for you to get paid.  It’s all a recipe for assholedom, because you can so easily believe the hype that comes with success, and start acting like you deserve it all.

You don’t.  You’ve earned it, perhaps, but you don’t deserve it.

If you don’t see the difference, then try harder.  Deserving something in this instance implies believing it’s your due, regardless.  Just by existing in the world, certain accommodations ought to accrue, whether you have done the work or not.  We do have a category of things which fit that description—they’re called rights and everyone deserves them, they are not commodities to be dolled out according to some kind of intrinsic worth meter that suggests some people are better or more important than others.  For the special stuff, we work and earn regard.  It’s not “due” us by virtue of who we are.

But even in that, it’s not necessarily we who merit the regard but the work.  If it has our name on it, then we get to accept the award when it’s handed out, but it’s the work that’s being honored.

We are in no way in charge of that process.

This is hard, I admit. How is the work to be separated from the one who does it? You can’t do it, really, but that’s not the point.  The point is how what you put into the world impacts others and creates a space wherein honor and respect are given and received.  It’s a condition of regard, one that acknowledges distinctions, sometimes fine ones, in which the work may well deserve an honor but, if given, the creator can only be said to have earned it.

That’s a negotiation and depends entirely on the relationship between creator and audience.

That Guy forgets or never understands that the relationship is what matters here.  That in fact when respect and honor are given, it must be returned. Without that relationship, that process, there is no honor and awards are empty gestures.

So, all by accident, because I arrived here without a clear intent, I confess that I have never felt myself to be deserving of special consideration.  I don’t think of myself as a good writer, even though I would very much like to be and hope that maybe I am.  When one of my stories (or photographs or a musical performance) is praised, I am always surprised—and pleased—because it’s always unexpected.

It’s possible that, in terms of career, I have this all bassackwards, that I really ought to be pushing myself on people and, in the absence of praise, making scenes and telling people how ignorant or biased they are because they don’t like my work.  Maybe I should be actively campaigning for honors, prodding, coaxing, cajoling, hard-selling myself and insisting on my worth, letting people know that I deserve something which they seem to be denying me.  My sales might go up.

But I’d be That Guy and I don’t want to live with him.

One of the givens I practice in my dealings with readers is to never ask what they thought of the story.  Never.  That invites the potential for embarrassment.  You put them on the spot and you open yourself for criticism.  The common solution to that awkward exchange is dissimulation.  Certainly honesty is unlikely and perhaps unwelcome.  Never ask.  If the praise is not forthcoming without prompt, leave it alone.  Asking is fraught with pitfalls, the first of which is that comparisons are inevitably made.  Praise, like all courtesies, cannot be demanded, even politely, because the expectation subverts it.

And you then become That Guy.

Especially if you ask in public.

I’m being circumspect in this. I trust some folks will understand what this is, in part, about.  For everyone else, let it be the confession offered above, an explanation and description of one of the peculiarities of trying to be an artist in a public practice, a peak inside, as it were.

I never think of myself as a good writer.  And I hope I’m not That Guy.

Thank you for your time and attention.