Harlan

Some people just get in.

In this instance, though, the process was years at work.

Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018, and I have been off-balance, riled, and melancholy ever since I saw the first notice, at work, doing something else on-line. It had been coming for a while. He was not well. He was never going to “recover” from the last few years. A stroke had wreaked havoc with him, although it had left him with access to all his faculties. This was expected. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, if not a total surprise, and the aftershocks have been working through me ever since. This one hurts. Deeply.

How, exactly, did this happen? I did not know the man so well. If I had to guess, I would say we had spent less than a week of actual face-to-face time together. We had spoken on the phone a total of maybe twenty hours in a number of years. I’d written him a few letters and he had written back. And yet, at least on my part, I counted him as a friend. I know that can happen, that people can know each other a very short time and somehow create a connection which, with other people, would ordinarily take years to build. It may well be only on my part, but I don’t think so.

How, I ask again, did this happen?

Well, there was this review I wrote about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. But it didn’t really start there.

Back in my youth, I used to read all the SF magazines. From time to time I’d come across a story that stood out. Zelazny, Silverberg, Tiptree. Those kind of stories. Among them were fey pieces by this guy Harlan Ellison that troubled me. They troubled me because while I read them eagerly and felt moved by some of them, I suspected I didn’t really “get” them. These were not like most of the other stories. In fact, they weren’t like any of them, really. And they bothered me. So much so that at about age 15 or 16 I swore off them. If I stumbled across a Harlan Ellison story, I avoided it. I was uncomfortable with them, they disturbed me in ways no one else’s work did.

And I more or less forgot about him.

I was unaware of scenarists back then. When the credits rolled on a tv show or movie, I never paid much attention to the Written By. Or much else other than who was acting in it. I was dimly aware that the Star Trek episode which has subsequently come to be regarded as the best of the original series was different. For one thing, when I saw it the first time I was startled by a curse word. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk says. That was practically unheard of on television then. That “hell” stood out.

But what did it mean? The rest of the episode stuck with me more clearly than most of the other episodes, but then time passed and everything else piled on top, and I forgot.

I had no knowledge of Fandom then. I was ignorant of that world, so the controversies being generated by this guy who had written stories that bothered me enough that I avoided them were unknown to me. The next time his name crossed my awareness was in the pages of OMNI when I read two things. One was a short story, called On The Slab and the other was a profile of an attempt to turn Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot into a film, and Harlan Ellison was going to adapt it. Harlan Ellison. I remembered that name. Why did I know that name? Oh, yeah, he wrote those weird, unclassifiable things that bothered me. Huh.

In 1980 I met my partner, who read the rather malformed things I’d written and encouraged me to try to publish them, and suddenly I was fully invested in this science fiction thing. Friends told us about conventions and we started going. We began meeting people. Joe Haldeman, Phyllis Eisenstein, George R.R. Martin, Rob Chilson, Vic Milan, C.J. Cherryh. I started submitting stories and I began paying closer attention to the magazines again, trying to divine the secrets of writing this stuff. The first convention we went to was Archon 6 and we heard stories about the one and only world science fiction convention that had been held here and Harlan Ellison figured prominently in relation to it. We listened to these stories and wondered, “Who is this guy?”

In the 1980s a new publishing line came out, Bluejay Books, and they reissued Ellison’s work with marvelous new covers, and I bought them and started reading them.

And suddenly they were not off-putting. Maybe I had grown into them. Maybe it required more of me than I had at 12 or 14 or 16. Maybe I was paying attention to Other Things. Whatever the reason, I tore through them, unable to get enough, amazed and awed and startled and terrified and intimidated and thrilled. I wrote a review of them (which never got published) which involved dinner of crow. Harlan Ellison’s work suddenly ranked alongside Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’d missed this way back when, I hadn’t understood, but it filled me up then. It might have been that I was in the process of trying to do this thing and was open to influences in a way I had never been before.

During this time, we’d become friends with another writer, Ed Bryant, who was one of Harlan’s best friends, and we heard more stories. At our first worldcon we got our first look at the man himself when, at L.A.Con II he made a surprise appearance in order to honor his first editor on stage during the Hugo ceremony. We picked up some of his nonfiction there and I became acquainted with that side of him.

Gradually, almost glacially, we became Aware. We found out about the Enemies Of Ellison (what?) and his involvement with Clarion (the workshop) and started hearing about his public contentiousness, the dispute with Roddenberry, the activism, the rumors, the extremes he generated in people. No other writer seemed to do these things or spark this kind of response. Piece by piece, a portrait assembled, but how could you trust it.

It’s fascinating sometimes to realize how much information one can accrue by means, vectors, and sources one is often completely unaware of. We saw him again in 1986, in Atlanta, and spent about four hours in an auditorium listening to him, both solo and then, when he ran over, in a panel which had been physically moved to that auditorium in order to have Harlan on it. We had had an exchange of dialogue that day over a book I’d bought in the dealers room (the only time a writer told me I should get my money back for a book with his name on it), and somehow we knew that he had found his soulmate, Susan, and she was with him, and Donna opined that it seemed she had calmed him somewhat.

How did we know that?

I applied for Clarion the next year and was accepted into the 1988 class. I had a book, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Ed Bryant and Harlan Ellison. Ed had signed it for me years before. Ed happened to be in town one weekend to help a mutual friend of ours move. He lifted that book and sent it to Harlan for his half of the autograph. (Ed was a wonderful, kind man.)

And somewhere during that time, he had become Harlan.  Just Harlan. To my knowledge, he’s the only writer I know of who is recognizable by his first name, at least the only writer of fantastic fiction so known. But how did that happen, that somehow a certain presumption of intimacy had occurred? Except for that one occasion in Atlanta, we never never met, did not know each other. (Not that unusual, though, many people who have never laid eyes on him call him “Harlan” as if they know him.)

More stories, more essays. He was by then a regular part of my reading.

Clarion happened. I began publishing. I rarely thought about “Harlan Ellison” unless I came across a new story or new collection, but Harlan had become part of a gestalt associated with my writing, a background presence.

We heard about the heart attack.

Then in 1999, Allen Steele suggested we come to Massachusetts for Readercon. Harlan was going to be guest of honor. He and Allen were buddies. We could finally meet.

We went. It was an incredible weekend. I had a chance to sit and talk to Harlan, to watch him, to see what all the fuss was about. And to hear him read aloud. That was a treat. Few writers are good public readers, but Harlan was incredible.

Allen introduced us. Harlan was talking to Gene Wolfe, whom we know slightly, and Allen brought me up and said, “Hey, Harlan, I’d like you to meet my friend, Mark Tiedemann.” Allen then proceeded to recite a list of my publications.  I am perversely shy about that, more so then, and I cut him off with a self-effacing, “Yeah, I’ve all over.” Harlan, without missing a beat, said “Oh, yeah? What’s it like in Tuva?” My brain skipped a beat. One of the few times in my life under circumstances like that it caught up and somehow pulled an answer up. “Very flat and cold, but if you’re into monotoned nasal music, they’ve got a great scene.”

Harlan said nothing for about five seconds, then cracked up, stuck his hand out to shake mine, then said “When were you last there?”

But my powers of repartee deserted me then and I had no reply.

Saturday night that weekend, I was wandering the hotel late. About to give it up and go back to my room, I waited before the elevators. The doors opened and a crowd poured out, led by Harlan as they made a beeline for one of the function rooms, which the hotel opened up so they could continue the party which had gotten them booted from a room on the fifth floor. I was swept up in the throng, carried into the room, and ended up sitting two down from Harlan, who was regaling his audience still with jokes and stories. (Somewhere there exists a photograph of him that night and you can see me, sitting, I think, beside Warren Lapine, who is right next to Harlan.) It was one in the morning and after a grueling day Harlan was still On. He seemed to vibrate from the stress and tension, but he was delivering his 110%.

After that, we had no contact. I pursued (desperately) a career that never got off the ground and thought not at all about any relationship with Harlan Ellison.

Then the documentary came out. Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a singular work. It may not be very complete history but it certainly gives a vivid picture of the person. I wrote a review of it and posted it on a blog site I’d been guesting on for a few years.  (I put it on my blog, too, but I thought the film deserved a signal boost that might do some good, so it went to Dangerous Intersections.)  A month or so after it appearance, the webmaster emailed me to say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be Harlan Ellison who wanted to talk to me, could he get either my phone number or let me know. My friend was suspicious so passed it by me without responding.

Well, it was from Harlan. His phone number was attached. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

I called.

Harlan wanted to personally thank me for the review. He thought it was insightful.

From that point on, we called each other occasionally. Never a lot, a few times we spoke for over an hour. He offered once to intercede on my behalf with an editor. I thanked him but declined. I think he respected that.

And then came Madcon in 2010.  We spent a goodly amount of time with him there. I honestly did not know what he thought of me, but he made himself available, and during what was a very hectic weekend for him, he was generous with his time.

We thought we would never see him again.

Then came the stroke.

And then the whole Archon affair, of which I’ve already written about.

The last time I saw Harlan was the morning he was leaving for the airport from the Collinsville Doubletree. Donna and I had picked Susan and him up the previous Thursday, others of his friends were taking him back. He had been using our transport wheelchair all weekend (long story, never mind) and this was where he had to leave it. Donna hugged him, I hugged him, he got into the van. The door closed. He looked at me through the window and put his hand on the glass, splayed out. I was a little startled, but I reached up and pressed my hand to glass opposite. He smiled and gave a small nod.

We spoke on the phone a few more times after that. Short conversations. He said he had had a wonderful time at Archon. We needed to come out to see him, to see the house (the wonderful house, Ellison Wonderland). We had no other reason to go to L.A. though, so we prevaricated. Then it was announced that the Nebula Awards would be in L.A. in 2019. We could attend and see Harlan and Susan again. It would work. A bit pricey, but hey. I was planning to call him to tell him. I was going to.

I should have.

Somehow, between the stories (and the Stories) and the few encounters, and then the all-too-brief time when we actually knew each other, he got in. His passing hurts. It’s strange to miss someone you knew so short a time, even if in some ways it was a lifetime.

Harlan Ellison was a singular person. Enormously talented, voracious in his approach to life, generous, unpredictable. Harlan, I think I may say, was a friend.

I miss him.

 

New (ish) Venture

 

So I am considering—no, that’s not quite accurate—I have decided to open my galleries as a commercial venture. I’ve been toying with this for a long time. Many reasons have kept me from doing it, not least among them is lack of time. But. I have thousands of photographs from a long career and I’m making new ones. Time, perhaps, to do something with them other than let them molder after my passing. or before it.

With that in mind, stay tuned.  I will make announcement when that happens. I intend offering images as art, not go back into commercial shooting. There will be options. In the meantime, a new example of where I’m at with it.

 

 

No, this does not mean I’m giving up writing. Never that. I’m working on new short stories. But I do have work in other media and this might be a good time to make it available. As I said, I will announce the particulars here when things are up and running.

Meantime, enjoy.

 

P.S.  Drop a line and let me know if you think this is a good or not so good idea. I’d appreciate hearing from you.

Take care

 

 

 

 

Picking Nits

To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.

Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.

And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.

What does this have to do with writing and publishing?

I’m glad you asked that question.  In its own way, just as much.

The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in.  (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.)  Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?

I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.

But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place.  Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.

Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.

The book had been released into the wild too soon.  It needed more work.  It needed “finishing.”

This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand.  When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures.  None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.

But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards.  It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry.  Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.

Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.

And it’s not like this is hard to see.  Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look.  Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination?  And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.

Time-consuming, yes.  Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.

You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work.  And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.

I needed to get that off my chest.  Thank you for your patience.

2018

Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.

So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.

The things I love are still with me.  Top of the list, Donna.  We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.

Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm.  Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more.  Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work.  Coffey is a joy.

My friends are all reasonably well.

I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer.  Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education.  I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store.  I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.

I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.

I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can.  This is all but a straight historical in many ways.  I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish.  Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.

After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…

This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions.  No, I won’t tell you what they are.  I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough.  But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.

I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover.  I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.

Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay.  I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh.  If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.

I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration.  One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all.  “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.”  “You have 12 books out.”

That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.

I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills.  I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.

But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.

I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.

With that in mind, 2018 awaits.

Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally.  All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be.  But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more.  So many people never get the chance.

So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it.  And be aware of what is good.  And that we’ve experienced it.

Travel well, travel far.

At the Nebs

Recently (last weekend) we attended the Nebula Awards in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Actually, we went to visit our good friends, Tim and Bernadette.  Tim—Timons Esaias—is an accomplished poet and a solid SF writer.  You should go find his work, it will improve your mind.  Bernadette, his wife and partner, is a physician and one of the finest people I’ve ever met.  The gentleman with the magnificent mustache is Douglas Gwilym, whose acquaintance we had just made. And, of course, that’s Donna beside me, my sweetie.

This is the night of the reception and award ceremony, so we’re all appropriately attired. It was a fine night and the tributes to the writers and the craft and those we have lost this past year left me seriously moved. In any case, proof that we were there and that  I at least can clean up well. More later.

 

Photograph by:     Larry Ivkovich

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling me that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of the things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on the way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.

Way Station

It’s getting down to the wire. That will make sense later.  For now, a contemplation and a photograph.

This weekend past was Archon.  Number Forty. 40. Donna and I have been attending this, our hometown con, since 1982, number six. I’ve missed a couple, I think we missed one, but by and large it has been a regular thing. In years past, some of the vitality seemed to go out of it. They had some hiccups, which are now quite obviously in the past. This one was pretty damn good. Writing and books were more evidently on the menu and the panels I attended were well attended and well received. Even the Sunday ones.

For my part, there was a pre-con event last Thursday evening at the Brentwood Recreation Center.  I hope to establish this as a regular thing, a Thursday evening event with the GoH, Toastmaster, and perhaps one other writer, sponsored by Left Bank Books with the convention. This year, Ellen Datlow and Bradley Denton were our guests, along with Ann Leckie.  It was a fun evening. My intention is to broaden the scope of science fiction/fantasy for a general audience, draw attention to Left Bank Books as the go-to bookstore in St. Louis for speculative fiction (as well as all the rest), and spotlight these writers and editors for people who don’t normally attend the conventions. I ferried Ellen and Brad across the river to the event and moderated the talk, which took on a life of its own.

It seems remarkable that, in hindsight, we’ve made friendships which depend on annual visits.  Great people show up at these conventions and I got to see them. Lynn and Selina of Yard Dog Press, who publish my work but, more importantly, are part of the rich community I am pleased to be part of.  Vic Milan, the apparently permanent M.C. for the Archon masquerade, which always produces some remarkable entrees. Mitch Bentley, artist, as well as Allison Stein, John Kaufman (who did the terrific cover for my short story collection Gravity Box), Michelle and Rich, who run the art show, which is now becoming another regular feature for me.

Connecting up with Brad was a treat. I guess I’ve known him since 1992 or so.  He is a fine, fine writer, a blues musician, and one of the best people I know.  He’s had a rough few years lately and I wish him all the best.  I’d like to read more of his fiction.  If you haven’t read Brad, do so.  Find his books.

I got to meet one of my favorite actors, if but briefly.  Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, a show Donna and I have been binging on since the unfortunate death of Jerry Doyle, who co-starred as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi.

All in all it was a good con. If I am a bit melancholy it’s only because I get to see some of these people at such long interludes and the pressure of time weighs more each year.

But.  The art show.  I actually sold a piece this year.  This one, in fact.  But I had a couple of new pieces as well.  This is one, which I call Way Station.

Way StationOthers may interpret it differently, but I’m sticking with the title, a reference to Clifford Simak’s terrific novel.  (Another one which, if you haven’t read it, do so.  Too many good things are forgotten because they get buried under the avalanche of shiny new baubles.)

I’m particularly pleased with the fantasy images I’ve been producing the last few years.  I’m getting better, I think.

I don’t know when the next con I’ll attend will be.  No doubt Archon 41, but other than that?  It depends on much.  I’ve handed in the current novel to my agent, I’m working to finish another one (possibly a YA),  and I need to write some short stories, some by request.  I’ll be busy this winter.

Meantime, to all my friends who I see far too seldom—be well. I’d like to see you again, sooner than later.

Finished

I have completed the current version of my new novel. Nits have been picked, threads tucked, and spells checked (I hope!) and it is off my desk.

Every time I get to this place, I crash.  Yesterday I hit the couch for some of the deepest nap-time I’ve had in recent memory. When I come out of it, I look around at the ruined landscape of my environment, at all the things that have been on hold while in hot and sometimes panic-driven pursuit of the final draft, and I plan on how to put it all back into some kind of order. Cleaning. Getting reacquainted with the dog.  Maybe attempt to  catch up on some reading.

But that first day or so after is usually taken up by just drifting from room to room, contemplating what I am not about to do in the next hour, being lazy. Sighing a great deal. Maybe playing some music (not well) or doing some photo work.

Which I did this morning.  Archon is coming up and I’ve elected to be in the art show again.  I have some new images that need finishing up and prepping.  I did a couple of those but mainly I played.

So until I get serious about tomorrow, here’s an image as place holder.  I shot this in Kansas City recently, with my phone.  Now, the pixels in the phone and the resolution leave much to be desired, but it ain’t bad, and if I work some magic in photoshop I can get some interesting stuff.  For this, though, I went old school, just because I like the lines and the mood.

kansas-city-convention-center-night-bw-august-2016

Now, compare that to the one below, which I shot in Dallas with my SLR.

chairs-bw-dallas-july-2016

A bit of a theme going on here?  Yeah, well.

I have a ton of work to do in the coming year. Fingers crossed, you will be seeing some new short stories from me. I’ve been invited into a couple of anthologies and while in K.C. at the worldcon I got more than a few “Where’ve you been and when will you send something to me?” from some people.  I know, it surprised me, too.  Who knew I’ve been missed?

So, recovery for a couple of weeks–Archon in two weeks away–and the more grindstone time.  My nose is diminishing even know.

Radical Futures and Conservative Sensitivities

At the world science fiction convention just past, MidAmeriCon II, an event occurred which may well displace much more deserving matters, but which was significant enough to spark dialogue over a subject that has been at the center of debate within the science fiction field for several years now.  A debate which regrettably led to the attempt to “game” the Hugo Awards by a disaffected element determined to deny the validity of current trends in new writings.

I refer, of course, to the Sad Puppies and their subsequent impressment by the Rabid Puppy movement, which was more or less the sole creation of one person who took advantage of the situation to push slates onto the Hugo ballots and otherwise poison the pool of discourse with a degree of venom that has adversely affected those among the Sad Puppies who argued these issues in good faith and on the merits of the fiction produced. Actions have been taken to see that slates are no longer likely and the entire consequence of this year’s Hugo Awards seems to have been nothing less than a massive repudiation by fandom in general of the whole argument that science fiction is being “ruined” by certain kinds of fiction at the expense of “truer”, somehow purer SF of a more traditional variety.

However that aspect of all this may eventually sort itself out remains to be seen. Debates over story content, style, approach, the æsthetics of the genre will continue and all to the good of what continues to be a vibrant, vital art form.

For now, though, I want to talk about the event mentioned above. There was a panel called, I believe, The State of Short Fiction.  By second-hand accounts it turned into a row due to the upfront introductory speech by its moderator, Dave Truesdale, who took the opportunity to make a statement consistent with Sad Puppy sentiments and to derogate what he called Snowflakes whose sensibilities seem so delicate that they had to attack or censor what I presume he considers more robust, “traditional” SF.  He proferred a string of pearls “to clutch” should “the vapors” threaten them when confronted with arguments that their preferred form of fiction might not be good for the field.

Not finished with this opening salvo, the other panelists, who included among the best editors in the field today, interrupted and tried to pull the panel back to the topic. You can listen to the whole thing online.  I will not link to because there is some question over whether Mr. Truesdale had permission to record and post it. If you wish to go look for it, feel free.

The panel never did get onto its topic, but it did become very interesting.

However, one result was that Mr. Truesdale was expelled from the convention.  On the surface, this appears to be an overreaction.  If part of the intent was to punish him for an inappropriate message, it has backfired.  Even if that was not the intent, it has resulted in this panel receiving substantially more attention than some might wish.

Whatever one’s feelings about that, what I wish to discuss here concerns the points Mr. Truesdale was trying to make regarding SF and this whole subject of “ruining” SF.

This is not the first time by a long shot that this has enveloped the SF community.  At the very first worldcon there was such dispute among the fans that one faction called the police to bar the other from even getting into the hotel, all over the direction science fiction would take.  SF readers are passionate.  Passions have overwhelmed intellect more than a few times.

There are several aspects of Mr. Truesdale’s assertions that require examination. I’ll deal first with his claims that SF is being “ruined.”

The question is, How? Right now, especially in short fiction, the outlets are so many and so varied, discerning any kind of “trend” is virtually impossible, a point made by Gordon Van Gelder (F & SF) during the panel. At one time, as he explained, you could discern a direction because the field was dominated by three or four major magazines and a handful of original anthologies. What saw print in these outlets contoured the public perception of what constituted science fiction (and fantasy). Now? While those magazines still exist, there are many more and online publishing has expanded the pool of story outlets so much that the field is in continual froth.  Any look at the table of contents of the several Best of the Year annuals shows very little overlap, and yet each one can legitimately claim to showcase the best in the field for a given year. Reading those annuals…

Here is where personal taste enters into it to a large degree. But only to a degree.  I have been reading science fiction since I was ten years old. That’s fifty one years. I no longer read as widely in short fiction as I once did, and in some years I have read nothing in less than novel length. But when I have come back to short fiction, I have generally been pleased to see improvement over what went before.  Improvement in craft, in concept, in execution. The stories have widened their scope, become more inclusive in terms of subject matter and sentiment, characterization has deepened, and overall there has been a marked maturation.

When I became well enough acquainted with the field to follow it as a literary movement, I became aware of the insecurities manifest in the relationship of SF with the wider reading public. What became known as the SF Ghetto was at one time a very real thing. What we call mainstream tended to regard the genres as a whole and SF specifically as the redheaded stepchild of “real” literature. That began to change after the New Wave ructions of the mid to late Sixties and the eventual absorption of those experiments in the body of SF writing throughout the Seventies, until by the end of the Eighties it was becoming evident that SF could not be so relegated to the sidelines by the mainstream. The result is that today, mainstream has taken SF into itself and writers who otherwise would never be considered SF writers are writing solid science fiction and selling it to mainstream audiences.  The “culture war” to gain validation and legitimacy for our field has been won.

That seems to underly the disaffection of the group within SF that goes by the Sad Puppy label. The stories now being written, published, and lauded as science fiction at its best seem no longer to express their preferred idioms or æsthetic concerns. Even as several of them appear to do quite well in terms of sales and fan support, the quest of winning awards for their preferred work is becoming less and less achievable. Even as some of their novels sell well enough that they might make their living on them, no one is nominating them in sufficient numbers to secure a spot on the final ballot of the premier awards.

Instead, according to them, the awards are going to works which seem to have little to do with science fiction or express viewpoints at odds with their politics, their cultural assumptions, and their personal values.

Exactly what are those politics, assumptions, and values?

Mr. Truesdale, during an exchange at the panel, asked what I consider the telliong question: “Where is all the conservative SF?”

In all seriousness, I don’t know what that means.

Science fiction, by its nature, is radical. It takes apart the given world and replaces it with something else. That is as basic as change can get.  That is anything but conservative. And that is what it has always been.  It may well be that writers have used conservative viewpoints for their characters, but even then there is a presumption that the world is no longer the same.

And if a writer uses a form to push a set of political principles, it usually turns out to be bad fiction.  Propaganda.

Science fiction has always been about how the world will be different. That is as not conservative as one can get.

Science fiction is progressive.  Now, sometimes the progress fails, the experiment collapses, things go wrong. Post-apocalyptic SF is all about that and one might see a lot of it in a certain way “conservative” insofar as the specific requirements of survival become essential to the plot.  But the goal is to rebuild and make it better, but almost never the same—since The Same would emulate the world that failed.

But back to that question.

If you write a story that is true to the characters in the story—and good fiction is about its characters and their situation—then how do you make it one thing or the other without auctorially interceding and making it something it may not organically be about?

I do not, however, believe that is what was meant by that question.  Context is vital and given the context not only of the SF community but of the world at large, I can only read that question as meaning “Where are the stories about how great our past visions of the future are?”

Past visions of the future.

A great deal of the fiction being published by those who are self-proclaimed Sad Puppies tends to be of the military SF variety.  Not all, but a lot. A few examples contain overt missionary elements.

Briefly, the so-called Golden Age, while in no way monolithic, is best remembered by its planetary romance, its space opera, its colonial æsthetics.  We were going to stars to settle new worlds, conquer aliens if need be, and, at least under the overt programmatic editorialism of John W. Campbell Jr., prove our superiority over any and all.

I doubt anyone would argue that colonialism was not a major aspect of that era. Imperialism informed a lot of it.  In many instances, it seems t have been an unexamined given.

Quite a bit of newer fiction is in fact about the consequences of such questions. Counter-colonialism, post-imperialist examinations of costs and calamities, and a study of the underlying psychologies and assumptions appertaining to much of what we recognize as Golden Age SF.  (To be fair, a lot of that SF also questioned these things, but somehow that was okay, perhaps because the “right” people were writing those stories. More on that later.)

I wrote about how my reading tastes have evolved here, so I won’t rehash.  What I will say here is that the complaints about a lack of “ol’ time rockets-n-rayguns” SF seems disingenuous at best.  I’ve been reading the new Expanse series by James S.A. Corey and given that these books are now the basis of a tv series and seem to sell quite well, the popularity of this kind of SF seems not at all diminished.  (Unless for some arcane reason these books don’t fill the bill, in which case further explication is needed from those complaining.)  Indeed, given the broad parameters of the complaints, the novel that prompted particular ire a couple of years back, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, seems also to fit within the stated parameters of the fiction claimed lacking in the field.  The only complaint about that book, which sparked considerable anger in certain quarters, that was in any way specific was that it was poorly-written.  I disagree.  It did its job very well.  But again, that’s personal taste.

(I will claim to have some experience both as a reader and a writer with good and bad prose and feel I have the requisite standards, at least for myself, to determine which is which and often why.  There’s nothing second-rate or poorly-written about Leckie’s work.  I suggested in a review what the real problem was and given the nature of further criticisms of the field, especially the tactic Mr. Truesdale used to launch his attack, I will stand by it.)

The clutched pearls and charges of “vapors”, whether he intended it this way or not, are symbols directly targeting women.  “Vapors” is an old-fashioned affliction suffered, presumably, by women and the effeminate.  Like it or not, there is no other way to read it.  Clutching pearls added another layer to that.  The problem, therefore, must, per this diatribe, be women or the feminization of the genre.  There was a general not long ago who complained about feminization of the military because medals were given to soldiers who saved lives rather than “broke things like they were supposed to.”  Given that the chief targets in the last few years of the Sad Puppies and their supporters seem to be largely if not entirely women—specific novels and stories held up as examples of “what’s wrong with the field” have all been written by women—it is fair to conclude that Mr. Truesdale rode that tide onto the beach.  It is fitting therefore that it was a woman who initially took him to task (Sheila Williams, editor of Asimovs SF).

Two things about this from a cultural standpoint.  Dominant members of a culture get frantic when the numbers of what had previously been minority or exception representations rise to levels where they can no longer be passed off as Special Cases. The visibility of women and minorities in SF has been going up for decades.  It may be that a critical threshold has been reached and passed and they must now be regarded as normative examples of work being done.  Hence the spleen vented by those claiming privileges for “traditional” writing.

The other thing is a bit trickier.  It may well be that the future is no longer safe for those same traditionalists. Not even 20 years ago one could assume that the futures being written about would not manifest in our lifetimes.  Certainly 40, 50, or 70 years ago one could very safely write about all manner of social change and economic and cultural novelties and still assume that the world outside one’s door would never get anywhere near any of it.  I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison wherein he had an encounter with John W. Campbell’s wife concerning Jimi Hendrix and a similar point was made.  The Future was not something she was ready to embrace, especially not one exemplified by the new music and the social changes it represented.

But that safe distance is gone.  Except for starships and actual nonhumans (and maybe time travel) we are living in the future imagined by those writers and it is evident that tomorrow will be another future sitting right on our doorstep.  In many ways, it isn’t fiction anymore.

And now the fiction calls into question safe assumptions about the hegemony of those past futures imagined but perhaps, by many, not desired.

Personally, I find all this angst over the direction of science fiction a dubious exercise in attempted grandstanding.  The works speak for themselves and the accolades garnered are symptomatic of public tastes, except in those instances of collegial recognition, like the Nebula.  Charges that cabals bar people or works from competition fall apart on the basis of who is doing the selecting.

But partly this is a consequence of the dissolution of boundaries currently going on by virtue of the fact that, to put it crudely, science fiction won. Emily St. John Mandel, Eric Cline, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Helen Phillips, Ben Winters, and on and on are all writing recognizable science fiction and doing a masterful job of it.  They are not “in the club” as it were and therefore not “of the chosen.”  That old complaint about the ghetto is now not so much a complaint of being kept in but an attempt to keep Them out.  The ghetto walls have fallen and SF writers are not solely the bearers if cool futures.  Others are writing in what once was a small pool where the comradeship of the besieged provided the basis of a shared experience.

But back to that singular question, “where is all the conservative science fiction?”  Where has it ever been?

The problem is that today, in the current climate, the kinds of works that emerge as examples of conservative SF seem to be—I stress, seem to be—military SF.  Is that the only hallmark we go by anymore?  The insistence that war will not only happen but that our heroes must necessarily be those not only skilled at it but quickly willing to step forward to engage it is a questionable basis for dominating what has become a radically diverse field of literature.  It bears some similarity to arguments about what may or may not be “real” rock’n’roll, which as time went on becme an increasingly impossible argument to win.

Damon Knight once said “science fiction is what I point at when I say the words.”  Going back and looking at the best of the field, that has always been true.

So what are the issues?

In my opinion, nothing that has anything to do with the stories being written and published other than by extension.  Unfortunate as it may be, the criticisms being leveled seem to come back to who is writing them and what they are writing about that contradicts a preferred cultural narrative. (When I hear criticism of a novel that for all intents and purposes is exactly the kind of work being argued for that it is bad SF because it is supposedly a social justice novel, when it is not, and the only things that separate it from the preferred model is a pronoun shift and sexual ambiguities, I cannot but conclude that the criticism is entirely a reaction to a perceived threat to a present-day norm which is not even being called into question within the novel.  Transference, anyone?)  And not even that so much as what stories are winning awards, which is an especially small aspect of the larger project.

At the end of the day, the “snowflakes” would appear to be those who are reacting  to stories that criticize the Golden Age cultural assumptions, not the writers of those stories, nor, in my experience, those rewarding said stories.  These stories are talking about matters at hand in new ways and leveling criticisms at issues. Their detractors seem more concerned with who is writing them. I do recall a tradition in SF of writing stories in response.  I wonder what happened to that?

Of course, that presupposes a good story.