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.

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.

Interview

I did an interview yesterday. Here’s the You Tube of it. It’s not as smooth as I’d like but it’s the result the fact that I’m in the Bronze Age, technologically. I had a difficult time hearing Sally Ember here, though that may not be readily apparent from this. I really need to upgrade all my systems. It would be nice if life would stop throwing me curve balls that keep costing me money I’d prefer to spend on new computers. However, I offer it here as one my few video bits. I recommend checking about Sally’s site, she has a lot of interviews there. CHANGES.

Spoiling the Punch

This is almost too painful.  The volume of wordage created over this Sad Puppies* thing is heading toward the Tolstoyan.  Reasonableness will not avail.  It’s past that simply because reasonableness is not suited to what has amounted to a schoolyard snit, instigated by a group feeling it’s “their turn” at dodge ball and annoyed that no one will pass them the ball.

Questions of “who owns the Hugo?” are largely beside the point, because until this it was never part of the gestalt of the Hugo.  It was a silly, technical question that had little to do with the aura around the award. (As a question of legalism, the Hugo is “owned” by the World Science Fiction Society, which runs the world SF conventions.  But that’s not what the question intends to mean.)

Previously, I’ve noted that any such contest that purports to select The Best of anything is automatically suspect because so much of it involves personal taste.  Even more, in this instance, involves print run and sales. One more layer has to do with those willing to put down coin to support or attend a given worldcon.  So many factors having nothing to do with a specific work are at play that we end up with a Brownian flux of often competing factors which pretty much make the charge that any given group has the power to predetermine winners absurd.

That is, until now.

Proving that anything not already overly organized can be gamed, one group has managed to create the very thing they have been claiming already existed. The outrage now being expressed at the results might seem to echo back their own anger at their claimed exclusion, but in this case the evidence is strong that some kind of fix has been made.  Six slots taken by one author published by one house, with a few other slots from that same house, a house owned by someone who has been very vocal about his intentions to do just this? Ample proof that such a thing can be done, but evidence that it had been done before? No, not really.

Here’s where we all find ourselves in unpleasant waters. If the past charges are to be believed, then the evidence offered was in the stories and novels nominated.  That has been the repeated claim, that “certain” kinds of work are blocked while certain “other” kinds of work get preferential treatment, on ideological grounds. What grounds? Why, the liberal/left/socialist agenda opposed to conservatism, with works of a conservative bent by outspoken or clearly conservative authors banished from consideration in favor of work with a social justice flavor. Obviously this is an exclusion based solely on ideology and has nothing to do with the quality of the work in question. In order to refute this, now, one finds oneself in the uncomfortable position of having to pass judgment on quality and name names.

Yes, this more or less is the result of any awards competition anyway.  The winners are presumed to possess more quality than the others. But in the context of a contest, no one has to come out and state the reason “X” by so-and-so didn’t win (because it, perhaps, lacked the quality being rewarded). We can—rightly—presume others to be more or less as good, the actual winners rising above as a consequence of individual taste, and we can presume many more occupy positions on a spectrum. We don’t have to single anyone out for denigration because the contest isn’t about The Worst but The Best.

But claiming The Best has been so named based on other criteria than quality (and popularity) demands comparisons and then it gets personal in a different, unfortunate, way.

This is what critics are supposed to do—not fans.

In order to back their claims of exclusion, exactly this was offered—certain stories were held up as examples of “what’s wrong with SF” and ridiculed. Names were named, work was denigrated. “If this is the kind of work that’s winning Hugos, then obviously the awards are fixed.”  As if such works could not possibly be held in esteem for any other reason than that they meet some ideological litmus test.

Which means, one could infer, that works meeting a different ideological litmus test are being ignored because of ideology. It couldn’t possibly be due to any other factor.

And here’s where the ugly comes in, because in order to demonstrate that other factors have kept certain works from consideration you have to start examining those works by criteria which, done thoroughly, can only be hurtful.  Unnecessarily if such works have an audience and meet a demand.

For the past few years organized efforts to make this argument have churned the punchbowl, just below the surface. This year it erupted into clear action. The defense has been that all that was intended was for the pool of voters to be widened, be “more inclusive.” There is no doubt this is a good thing, but if you already know what kind of inclusiveness you want—and by extension what kind of inclusiveness you don’t want, either because you believe there is already excess representation of certain factions or because you believe that certain factions may be toxic to your goal—then your efforts will end up narrowing the channel by which new voices are brought in and possibly creating a singleminded advocacy group that will vote an ideological line. In any case, their reason for being there will be in order to prevent Them from keeping You from some self-perceived due. This is kind of an inevitability initially because the impetus for such action is to change the paradigm.  Over time, this increased pool will diversify just because of the dynamics within the pool, but in these early days the goal is not to increase diversity but to effect a change in taste.  What success will look like is predetermined, implicitly at least, and the nature of the campaign is aimed at that.

It’s not that quality isn’t a consideration but it is no longer explicitly the chief consideration. It can’t be, because the nature of the change is based on type not expression.

Now there is another problem, because someone has pissed in the punchbowl. It’s one of the dangers of starting down such a path to change paradigms through organized activism, that at some point someone will come along and use the channels you’ve set up for purposes other than you intended.  It’s unfortunate and once it happens you have a mess nearly impossible to fix, because now no one wants to drink out of that bowl, on either side.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  There will be those who belly up to the stand and dip readily into it and drink.  These are people who thrive on toxicity and think as long as they get to drink from the bowl it doesn’t matter who else does or wants to. In fact, the fewer who do the better, because that means the punch is ideally suited to just them. It’s not about what’s in the bowl but the act of drinking. Perhaps they assume it’s supposed to taste that way but more likely they believe the punch has already been contaminated by a different flavor of piss, so it was never going to be “just” punch. They will fail to understand that those not drinking are refraining not because they don’t like punch but because someone pissed in the bowl.

As to the nature of the works held up as examples of what has been “wrong” with SF…

Science fiction is by its nature a progressive form. It cannot be otherwise unless its fundamental telos is denied. Which means it has always been in dialogue with the world as it is. The idea that social messaging is somehow an unnatural or unwanted element in SF is absurd on its face.  This is why for decades the works extolled as the best, as the most representative of science fiction as an art form have been aggressively antagonistic toward status quo defenses and defiantly optimistic that we can do better, both scientifically and culturally.  The best stories have been by definition social message stories. Not preachments, certainly, but that’s where the art comes in.  Because a writer—any writer—has an artisitic obligation, a commitment to truth, and you don’t achieve that through strident or overt didacticism. That said, not liking the specific message in any story is irrelevant because SF has also been one of the most discursive and self-critical genres, constantly in dialogue with itself and with the world. We have improved the stories by writing antiphonally.  You don’t like the message in a given story, write one that argues with it. Don’t try to win points by complaining that the message is somehow wrong and readers don’t realize it because they keep giving such stories awards.

Above all, though, if you don’t win any awards, be gracious about it, at least in public. Even if people agree with you that you maybe deserved one, that sympathy erodes in the bitter wind of performance whining.

 

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*I will not go into the quite lengthy minutiae of this group, but let me post a link here to a piece by Eric Flint that covers much of this and goes into a first class analysis of the current situation.  I pick Eric because he is a Baen author—a paradoxical one, to hear some people talk—and because of his involvement in the field as an editor as well as a writer.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.