Guest Post by V. S. Holmes: Science Fiction Fantasy as a genre is known for tackling massive scopes and complicated settings, from Blade Runner’s seedy cyberpunk cities to the galactic warfare in Ender’s Game. In the past decade, however, sci-fi has undergone a tonal shift from action-packed pages and explosion-filled screens to creeping subtlety. While blockbuster action films and space marines are still fun fan favorites, focus has shifted to reflect the audiences’ deeper understanding of our own world–and how it inspires SFF world building.
All genres rely on the reader for a piece of the experience. Art’s subjectivity lies in the fact that what a reader brings to the table doesn’t always fit with the framework an author crafted. Sci-fi and horror rely on a much larger contribution than many other genres. The most powerful books and films in the genre, both modern and classic, are those that trust their audience and respect them enough to toss an intricate ball of science or magic and social questions with a wink and say, “your turn.”
This is where subtlety’s power lies. Bombastic scenes and fire and explosions rock your system by overloading it–arguably mimicking the disorienting experience of firefights and disasters. Slow suspense and easing into a sense of, well, unease, puts the ball in the viewer’s court in a vastly more intimate way. We see this in the slightly-to-the-left world of Black Mirror, each episode extrapolating from its quiet world building. The only limit to the scene’s impact is our own imaginations. We see this effect across most fiction, from thrillers to historical dramas, but science fiction and horror lend themselves to these quiet tools on a deeper level, in part because that is where their roots lie.
Sci-fi’s conception sits in the speculative, the parent of all human innovation: what if? When crafting these stories, we build a huge framework for this question, leaping from concept to concept in an augmented version of Nightmare Before Christmas’s “What’s This?” While we might tease and tweak and slip in hundred clues as to how we, as authors, would respond to that question, the answer is ultimately up to the reader.
This is powerful because when we encounter analogous situations in our own world, we find their foundations in insidious complacency, atrocities protected by corrupt laws, and thousands who look the other way. That same uncertainty whether societies can change carries over and lends credence to the fictional worlds we create and consume.
I’ve seen readers remark on the accurate, slow-burn warfare in my Blood of Titans world, and how it leans away from fast-paced LitRPG and sweeping battles present in many of the genre’s classics. This is because war and revolutions aren’t won by a sudden cataclysmic battle. Most end with them, yes, but what sows the seeds for victory is actually that steady, quiet drive and the determined innovation of the unseen populace.
When writing, I strive to dig into the how and why behind the flashy excitement of divine battles and massive rebellions, and the part of craft that, for me, is a bit like volleying postulations between myself and my audience. While my prose might languish in the lyrical or rich, my worlds are built on the same understated complexity as our own.
My science fiction Starsedge: Nel Bently series is louder than my fantasy, on the surface. I love my dramatic shuttle launches and Rubik’s-cube mechanical planets as much as the next nerd! But under the veneer of those explosions and fire-brand personalities, is the question of where we are going, how we can possibly get there from the dark crossroad where we currently stand. With questions like these, I turn to my community, to my readers, and to the thousands of unheard giants who brought us this far.
So, why is subtlety seeing a resurgence in popularity? Tracing back some of the horrific or awe-inspiring concepts in world building, it’s no surprise that we find they mirror events in our own world. So many marginalized voices write incredibly impactful speculative works because we know there isn’t always a happy ending. We know how deep and knotted the roots of these systems reach in our own world because we’ve seen the underbelly. We’re privy to the depths our own antagonists will go. Some of the most powerful works of science fiction are woven by those exploring oppression–the Alien IP, specifically Prometheus, is an incredible analogy for abortion, and Viscera is a SFF made all the more powerful by the transgender perspective of its author, Gabby Squalia. As a disabled person and trauma survivor, seeing Furiosa’s nuanced character in a world as hard as cinematic as Mad Max brought so much inspiration.
As marginalized creators receive a long-overdue focus in the mainstream, we return to the genre’s genesis. After all, sci-fi was birthed by the likes of Margaret Cavendish (The Blazing World) and Mary Shelley (Frankenstein and The Last Man), marginalized for their gender, and many more who had to imagine a world in which our voices are heard.
The return of these themes in sci-fi is a reflection of what we see in the world today. As nations are rocked with change and communities reach a boiling point, we look back on the steps it took to get this far, the steps still needed to move forward. Where better to search for those roadmaps than fiction that speculates on where we could go or what communities we will build from the shambles of this one? The science fiction that speaks to me the most, both as a creator and an audience, are the ones that explore not only the terror that so many of us experience, but our power, our agency, and the incredible future we can create.
Like my fiction, I’ll end this with a postulation: where better to seek answers to “what if?” than the genre asking that question all along?
V. S. HOLMES is an international bestselling author. They created the Reforged series and the Nel Bently Books. Smoke and Rain, the first book in their fantasy quartet, won New Apple Literary’s Excellence in Independent Publishing Award in 2015 and a Literary Titan Gold Award in 2020. In addition, they have published short fiction in several anthologies.
When not writing, they work as a contract archaeologist throughout the northeastern U.S. They live in a Tiny House with their spouse, a fellow archaeologist, their not-so-tiny dog, and own too many books for such a small abode. As a disabled and queer human, they work as an advocate and educator for representation in SFF worlds.
Blood and Mercy, the final book in the Blood of Titans: Reforged series hits shelves June 27th 2020
By Mike Glyer: Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the top science fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (Hominids), the Nebula (The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Mindscan). He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2016 “for his accomplishments as a science-fiction writer and mentor and for his contributions as a futurist.” Sawyer’s new book The Oppenheimer Alternative will be released June 2 and is available for pre-order now.
MIKE GLYER: Why this book at this time?
ROBERT J. SAWYER: There are three reasons. First, this is the 75th-anniversary year of the birth of the atomic age: July 16 is the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test; August 6, the bombing of Hiroshima; and August 9, the bombing of Nagasaki.
Science-fiction publishers are notoriously bad about promoting books — one senior editor once told me they literally have no idea how to do that — but I knew, given my track record, that I could get lots of mainstream media attention if my book tied into a major anniversary. I was so convinced of the importance of this that I turned down offers from bigger publishers who wanted The Oppenheimer Alternative but said they couldn’t get it out until 2021 or even later.
Second, enough time has passed for an appropriate reassessment. Everyone I portray in my book is dead except for Oppenheimer’s son Peter, although Freeman Dyson was alive when I finished the book. I sent him an autographed bound galley with my regards, which he received just before he died.
If you do a book today about Ronald Reagan or either Bill or Hillary Clinton or Elon Musk or William Shatner, the partisans descend upon you, but we all can look back now at the cast I used — not just Oppenheimer, but Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Leslie R. Groves, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Harry Truman, Wernher von Braun, and John von Neumann — with a degree of objectivity.
This sort of historical writing is somewhat akin to the science-fiction process: a scientist conceives of a great idea — Szilard, say, with the nuclear-fission chain reaction or Oppie with black holes — and we extrapolate forward to see what the ramifications of it will turn out to be. The difference is that in historical writing, we know the ramifications by now.
Third, there are profound real-life parallels today. The obvious one is the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation as rogue nations and the White House rattle their sabers. But, more subtly, the development of artificial intelligence — one of my favorite topics in previous books — echoes the Manhattan Project: a bunch of scientists, with virtually no oversight, deciding what is and what is not good for the rest of us.
You know, in 1942, Edward Teller had suggested that a single blast of an atomic bomb might ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or all the nitrogen in the atmosphere, destroying the world. Hans Bethe said, nah, you’re probably wrong — and so they went ahead and did a test without any public or Congressional discussion of what amount of risk-taking with an extinction-level event was acceptable. Likewise, almost all artificial-intelligence research is done today in deep secret by the military or by corporations, with no one but the scientists themselves deciding if and when to throw a particular switch that might unleash Frankenstein’s monster.
MG:The Oppenheimer Alternative is grounded in your extensive research of the history of physics and atomic weaponry. I recognized some of that history but it was only quite late in the book that I recognized the science fictional departures — the alternate history. Are they present throughout, or is your goal to take readers inside the Manhattan Project as it happened?
SAWYER: The point of departure from what is established fact occurs in chapter 14 out of 57, when Edward Teller and Hans Bethe start arguing about their conflicting solar spectrographs, Bethe’s from 1938, which seems to show the sun undergoing carbon-nitrogen-oxygen-cycle (CNO) fusion, and Teller’s from 1945, which seem to show it undergoing proton-proton fusion.
But I actually don’t call the novel an alternate history; I think of it more as a secret history. None of the events it portrays are contradicted by what we know actually occurred. Instead, I’m filling in the gaps in the record. And gaps there surely are. As I mentioned above, Oppie was responsible for the notion of black holes. As Freeman Dyson wrote:
“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”
And when Oppie was hauled before a security-review board, Deak Parsons, his second-in-command at Los Alamos really did go ape, declaring, in reference to President Eisenhower:
“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!”
In a bit of bad luck for Parsons — not to mention Oppie! — Parsons keeled over dead the next morning before he got in to see Eisenhower.
Even Oppie himself alluded to something huge going on behind the scenes. He really did say:
“There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.”
So I set out to tell that story: the tale of why Oppie never commented publicly again on his astrophysics research, of the truth about what was really going that Parsons took to his grave, of the “bigger story” Oppie referred to.
There’s a thorough discussion of what’s real history and what’s my invention on my website: https://sfwriter.com/ffoa.htm
As you’ll see when you get to the chapter-by-chapter breakdown, the book is about half events we know actually occurred and half ones that are my own plotting.
MG:Many of the scientists whose characters are drawn on your pages died in the Sixties, like Oppenheimer himself, but others remained active for decades, like Hans Bethe, or Freeman Dyson (who I saw speak in 2013). Did you ever meet any of these scientists yourself? If so, how were you able to use those experiences to shape their characterizations in your book?
SAWYER: The only Manhattan Project figure I got to meet was Nobel Prize-winner Luis Alvarez; he graciously spent an afternoon with me at UC Berkeley on September 7, 1983, although my interest then was more in his work on identifying an asteroid as the cause of what we now call the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinctions.
But I’ve enjoyed having long conversations with four other Nobel laureates — Elizabeth Blackburn, Arthur McDonald, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert W. Wilson — and I drew heavily on those encounters in trying to portray the Nobelists in my novel.
Unlike the geeks portrayed on The Big Bang Theory, by and large these were people who were just as interested in the arts as the sciences, who were as happy to talk about their kids or pop culture as about their specialties, and who, although entitled perhaps to some arrogance, were actually all quite humble and nice.
There’s a zen that comes with reaching the pinnacle of your field. Of course, at the beginning of the Manhattan Project, of the physicists who appear in The Oppenheimer Alternative, only Neils Bohr, Arthur Holly Compton, Albert Einstein, and Enrico Fermi already had their Nobels; the ones for Luis Alvarez, Hans Bethe, Patrick Blackett, Richard Feynman, and I.I. Rabi came later.
Naturally, I’d seen Freeman Dyson speak many times on TV, and his son George gave my novel a very nice blurb, but I never got to meet Freeman or the others except Alvarez, although, of course, I’ve read all the biographies and autobiographies, and I’ve been to Los Alamos and the Trinity site.
MG:How should the A-bomb have been used? You show how Leo Szilard, who got Einstein to write to FDR urging the creation of an atomic weapon, circulated a petition calling for a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese experts, rather start out using it on Japanese cities. The petition was suppressed and the leadership chose to drop the bomb to end the war. My father was a Marine on a troop carrier floating around Okinawa by then, so the idea that this was done in alternative to invading the Home Islands was real to him. Others now write that it was used with the intent to establish a post-war order with America as the only superpower. There are also some who look on its use as the product of an overpowering narrative, like Chekhov’s gun — “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” What’s your take on why it was used?
SAWYER: This is a sensitive issue, and I want to address it with an appropriate degree of respect. Most people think of me as a Canadian writer, but I’m also an American citizen, and I intend no bashing of the US here. Indeed, Canada is culpable, too: the three countries that collaborated on the development of the atomic bomb were the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
So let me start obliquely. I know exactly what I was doing on Sunday night, January 19, 1975: I was watching the first-ever broadcast of the episode “The Last Kamikaze” on The Six Million Dollar Man, written by Judy Burns, perhaps best known for previously having scripted “The Tholian Web” for Star Trek.
In this episode, United States Air Force Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut and the very symbol of US patriotism, finds a Kamikaze pilot who thinks World War II is still being fought. In trying to explain that the war is over, Steve says this, verbatim — just about the longest speech Lee Majors made in the entire series:
“I’m afraid your Emperor didn’t have much choice. It’s not easy for me to tell you this. The United States invented an atomic bomb, a powerful bomb that could destroy a whole city with one explosion. At the time it seemed the best way to stop the war was to drop the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities. I wish it wasn’t true. Most Americans wish it never happened. But it did. Two Japanese cities were completely destroyed. Many, many people were killed. Your Emperor saw the wisdom of surrender. The fighting stopped September 1945, almost thirty years ago.”
I was fourteen then, and I was floored. Never before had I heard anyone say that most Americans — or Brits or Canadians — regretted using the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remained alert for similar assertions, but it wasn’t until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s short story “The Lucky Strike,” which was first published in 1984 but I didn’t discover until 1989, that I again heard doubts being raised about the necessity of dropping those bombs.
I don’t gainsay your father’s feelings or experience for one moment, Mike. That the bombs had to be dropped was the line he and everyone else was fed then — and that most people still accept today. But it’s just not true (a) that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb at all, (b) that it was necessary to use it on civilian targets, (c) that the bombings in fact reduced the number of American war dead, and (d) that the bombings even reduced the number of Japanese war dead.
In truth, Japan had been making back-channel overtures to surrender for a year before the atomic bombs were dropped, wanting only one condition: that Emperor Hirohito, whom they considered divine, retain his throne. This seemed reasonable to both Churchill and Roosevelt — after all, there’d have to be some sort of functioning government in Japan after the war. But FDR went off-script in a briefing that was broadcast on radio and called instead for _“unconditional_ surrender.”
Churchill was gobsmacked, but said — as quoted in Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb — “Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort,” and because of that one slip of the tongue the official demand became unconditional surrender. Well, asking the Japanese to renounce the emperor in 1945 wouldn’t be much different from demanding the US renounce Jesus then if America had been the country needing to surrender — a complete non-starter.
On the day of the Trinity test, July 16, 1945, General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, said — his own words as he reported them in his autobiography, Now It Can Be Told — in response to someone declaring the war was now over, “Yes, after we drop two bombs on Japan.”
Two bombs. He was hell-bent on testing both of their two competing bomb designs — the straightforward gun-type “Little Boy” and the complex implosion “Fat Man” — on civilian populations. At Groves’s request, a few Japanese cities had been spared the firebombing that had already ravaged Tokyo and other places precisely so that they could be used as pristine testbeds for atomic explosions.
Indeed, Groves was so afraid that he wouldn’t be get to test the second bomb design on Japan that he rushed the bombing of Nagasaki. He had it occur just three days after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima, even though word of what had happened in that city was only just reaching the Tokyo government, because thunderstorms were forecast for the subsequent few days. He knew that if he waited, the Japanese might surrender before he got to drop a Fat Man on the planned target of Kokura; it was only because of overcast skies there that Bockscar actually dropped its atomic bomb on Nagasaki instead.
Of course, once both bombs were dropped, we of the Allied powers happily accepted surrender and freely gave Japan the one condition it had always wanted: Hirohito the divine retained his throne until his death forty-four years later in 1989.
This topic always engenders a lot of heat, and a lot of people — including my US publisher, Shahid Mahmud — have gone back and forth with me over the issue. To at least give people a current overview of the topic, rather than what they might have learned in history class decades ago, I’ve put up a sourced discussion of this on my website: https://sfwriter.com/suoa.htm
Okay, enough preamble; let me answer your questions directly, Mike. In the first place, the atomic bomb never should have been built at all. I’ve read the Farm Hall transcripts made of secret recordings of Werner Heisenberg and others after the war, and it’s clear that Germany was nowhere near having, and really not seriously trying to develop, an atomic bomb.
Indeed, I’m in the camp — although this is certainly debatable — that believe Heisenberg, a German patriot but one who couldn’t stomach what Hitler was doing, threw the game and made sure the Fatherland would never develop an atomic bomb for that madman to use.
Second, Leo Szilard was right: if you had to show the world you had such a bomb, either as a deterrent or to explain to the taxpayers what you’d spent two billion 1945 dollars on, all you needed to do was invite Japanese observers and journalists to a remote site, set off the bomb there, and let people see what it could do.
The only reason I can see that this approach was unacceptable to Groves, who scuttled Szilard’s petition supporting this idea, was that he and others didn’t want the Soviets — the real audience — to know just that the US had a hugely powerful new weapon but also to have them know that the US had the balls to actually use it against civilian populations. No safe demonstration would have conveyed that message, and Truman, who by this time had succeeded FDR, delusionally believed that the Russians would “never” — his word — get the atomic bomb, so he felt there was no need to worry about them ever doing the same thing to the West.
So, I’m with Steve Austin from all those years ago: I wish it had never happened.
MG:Science fiction written in the Thirties contemporaneously with the period where your novel begins tended to be populated by altruistic superscientists — thinking for example of E.E. Smith’s Skylark series, and John W. Campbell Jr.’s stories about Arcot, Wade and Morey. Growing acceptance of scientific leadership on the issues of the day was once considered part of sf’s mission. But no matter what problem they’re working on, creating the atomic bomb or saving the human race from the calamity posed in your novel, your characters are utterly human, with questions never far from their minds like: Who gets the prizes? Who gets the good jobs? Who gets to work on the most interesting topics? Can sf readers handle the truth?
SAWYER: Excellent question. Science fiction, as a field, long held these truths to be self-evident: all scientific knowledge is worth having; government oversight is an impediment to progress — only those supercompetent Heinleinian lone wolves (read: we science-fiction fans) have the moxy to propel us into the future; and as long as our side is the one with the superior firepower, we’ll only use it virtuously. But all three of those are demonstrably hogwash.
Scientists are as human and as fallible as anyone else; they have — as Oppie contended throughout his life — no special moral insight; and most are, like people in any profession, careerists and opportunists trying to build reputations, make money, and get ahead.
One of my favorite bits in The Oppenheimer Alternative, wholly fictitious as far as I know, has Oppie, who was the manager of a team of Nobel laureates but never won the prize himself, getting to hold I.I. Rabi’s Nobel Prize: “Oppie rubbed the medal between thumb and forefinger, an atom or two of gold transferring to him, a few molecules from his body making a new home on the disk. Soon, he hoped; soon.” That sort of ambition is real, driving, and often blinds one to reality.
Can science-fiction readers handle the truth? I hope so. The ideal of the scientist as unbiased, rational truthseeker, as a Godlike beneficence, as an infallible oracle is simply not supportable. One of the great joys of reading — and writing — sf is getting inside the heads of realistic scientists and seeing the myriad conscious and subconscious forces that color their perceptions.
MG:Sf has become a more skeptical genre, more interested in mythmaking than science. What kind of stories would you like to see more of? And are there people you could point to already working in those areas?
SAWYER: I mentioned my friend Kim Stanley Robinson earlier. He and I do seem to be part of the very small group still left whose members generally write optimistic science fiction; the days of Clarke and Asimov and their mostly sunny futures are long behind us. But it’ll be interesting to see how the field morphs after the COVID–19 pandemic: all those dystopian visions perhaps don’t seem nearly as entertaining as they did before.
Science fiction never predicts the future, but collectively, on any given topic, it should predict a smorgasbord of possible futures — and I firmly believe that, unless we put some positive scenarios on the table, the negative ones will become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Despite what I said earlier, for instance, I don’t think that artificial intelligence will necessarily be our downfall, although that was what almost all written and media sf was telling us, and so I wrote my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder to add a win-win scenario to the discourse on the topic.
But finding similarly good-hearted, upbeat books is hard; cynicism is often presented as if it were a de facto measure of both literary worth and personal maturity. I recently went back and read a bunch of James White’s Sector General hospital-in-space books because I needed a dose of that good old-fashioned the-future-will-be-a-better-place science fiction.
MG:What projects do you have in the works?
SAWYER: I’ve been lucky, as genre authors go. A lot of foreign-language popularity, some good Hollywood deals, and so on, have left me with the luxury of taking my time with books now. It’s been four years since my last novel, Quantum Night, and I’m only very slowly gearing up to write my next (which will be my 25th).
As always, I start with research, research, and more research. I have a vague notion for a novel about the future relationship between people and artificial intelligences, and I’ve been doing background reading related to that for months now — but I haven’t written a word of the novel yet.
I usually start with a topic, develop a theme, create characters that will let me explore the multiple facets of that theme, and only then work out a plot. At this point, I’m still developing my theme — the fundamental thing I want to say. As the old fanzine writers would have put it, I’m thisclose to having pinned it down, though.
I also just wrote a pilot script based on my 1997 novel Illegal Alien and I’ve got some nice Tinsel Town interest in doing a TV version of that book. And I’m in negotiations to do an original project for Audible. But, most of all, I’m just reading and thinking … and seeing where my curiosity leads me next.
Us in Flux, a new series of stories and virtual live events about community, collaboration, and collective imagination in times of transformative change, has been launched by The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. They will publish an original flash fiction story every Thursday, and the following Monday at 4 p.m. Eastern, they’ll host a conversation between the author and an expert in a related field.
The first story, released April 9, is “The Parable of the Tares” by Christopher Rowe, about food, monoculture, and communities that draw together the human and non-human. On Monday, April 13 at 4 p.m. Eastern, they will host their first virtual event, putting Rowe in conversation with Michael Bell, chair of the Community & Environmental Sociology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Their press release outlines the mission —
“The only lasting truth is change.” — Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower
As the ground shifts under our feet and we ponder the far-reaching effects of this global crisis, Octavia Butler’s words ring true. Uncertainty abounds even in the best of times, and our responses to it determine our fate. Understanding, anticipating, and responding to change is at the heart of science fiction— envisioning ourselves amid the strange and the fantastic attunes us to the unexpected and helps us chart a course to a better future.
With this in mind, we’re proud to launch Us in Flux, a weekly series of flash fiction stories and virtual events about community, collaboration, and collective imagination in the face of transformative change. But fear not: these aren’t tales of the apocalypse. We’ve invited a group of talented authors, scholars, and creators to give us glimpses of new worlds; of people and systems in transition; and of the different ways we might flourish in times of adversity.
Upcoming pieces will be by Kij Johnson (April 16), Chinelo Onwualu (April 23), Tochi Onyebuchi (April 30), Tina Connolly, and Nisi Shawl.
During this live event, Christopher and Mike will talk about the origins of the story, their shared passion for agroecology and politics, and what this story has to say about our current moment. The discussion will be broadcast live on Zoom and available on-demand shortly after. Register today!
latest Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF) Deep Dish Reading series was
held on October 3 at Volumes Book Cafe in Chicago, Illinois. Co-hosted by
award-winning author Mary Anne Mohanraj and Chris Bauer, the event featured
readings by G. Scott Huggins, Jane Rosenberg LaForge and Silvia
Moreno-Garcia. Other readers included Sue Burke, Anaea Lay, Jeremiah John
and Mary Anne Mohanraj. These periodic free events are sponsored by the SLF
with assistance from SFWA grants. The next reading will be held in March of
2020. We’re currently open to interested readers.
latest Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF) Deep Dish Reading series was
held on August 8 at Volumes Book Cafe in Chicago, Illinois. Co-hosted by award-winning
author Mary Anne Mohanraj and Chris Bauer, the event featured readings by Scott
Woods, S.L. Huang and T.J. Martinson. Other readers included Dawn Bonanno,
Richard Chwedyk, Beth Kander and Aurelius Raines II.
periodic free events are sponsored by the SLF with assistance from SFWA grants.
The next reading will be held October 3, 2019, 7 p.m., at Volumes Book Cafe,
1474 N. Milwaukee; all are welcome. Readers will include Jane Rosenberg
LaForge, Siliva Moreno-Garcia and Sue Burke.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies, public policy, and society. Beginning in 2016, Future Tense commissioned a series of stories from leading writers that imagined what life might be like in a variety of possible futures. Future Tense is a selection of those pieces.
Carl Slaughter had sent Charlie Jane Anders these interview questions a couple of weeks before he died in an automobile accident on August 11 (see Carl’s obituary here). We are very grateful to the author for helping Carl complete his final project.
SLAUGHTER: Let’s start with a recap of io9. What was the
vision? Did it achieve its goals? What was the attraction?
What was your contribution?
JANE ANDERS: io9 feels like a very long time ago
for me now. I can’t really speak to the vision behind it, because that was all
Annalee Newitz, and they were the real founder. I was incredibly grateful to be
brought on board to help bring their vision to life. I think the most exciting
thing about io9 was that we were combining science and science fiction,
and we were trying really hard to have credible science coverage alongside
geeking out about movies, books, television, comics, etc. We talked a lot about
finding ways to explore the idea that science fiction had become mainstream
culture, because we were living in a science-fictional time. For me, the most
fun part was getting paid to obsess about storytelling by interviewing
creators, writing reviews and critical essays, and doing stuff like my writing
“how to” articles. This felt like I was getting paid to go to grad
school, and I’m still intensely grateful for the opportunity.
your work these days primarily fiction or nonfiction?
CJA: I’m mostly doing fiction lately, which
is the luckiest thing ever. I can’t believe I get to make up stuff for a
living. I still do the occasional feature or piece of criticism here and there,
and of course Annalee and I are doing our podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct. But I’ve been fortunate enough
to get into a position where I’m getting to soak my brain in made-up worlds and
CS: I’m quoting Wikipedia:
“…but it was not until her science fiction novelette “Six Months, Three
Days” won her a Hugo, that she realized what readers were
after…” What are readers after?
CJA: Wow… I wish I knew. I think
what that’s referring to is maybe that “Six Months, Three Days” was a
legit creative turning point for me. It was the first time I felt like I got
really close to capturing actual emotion and the complexities of relationships
in my fiction. I had written a lot of stuff along those lines before, but
always felt like I was just kind of poking at the surface of the emotional
stuff, instead of really inhabiting it. “Six Months” was something
that very easily could have been a cerebral puzzle box, about two different
kinds of clairvoyance. I felt like I had a “whoa” moment where I
somehow coaxed myself to burrow into the emotional substrate a bit more, and I
was overjoyed when the story got such a positive response. It did feel as
though I had unlocked another level, or something. But then of course, the next
time you try to repeat that or access that level of emotion in the next story,
it’s always harder than you expect — writing is often a matter of starting
from scratch and trying to rediscover something that you previously got at.
your strategy for character development?
CJA: I think that for me, as a writer,
I need to be curious about a character. It’s not that different from being a
reader, honestly. I need to find something about a character that makes me
interested in them and want to know more about them, and I have to be invested
in what happens next for them. It’s all about connecting emotionally with the
character. I also think that a lot of writing is actually acting. You have to
“get into character” when you’re writing about someone, and you have
to try to imagine how it feels to be them, and what’s going through their head
as they go through a particular situation. I also think a lot of what I wrote
your story for Future Tense.
CJA: In “The Minnesota
Diet,” New Lincoln is a brand new smart city that is entirely green and
high-tech, with a lot of shiny virtual spaces and vertical farms and stuff. And
New Lincoln’s residents aren’t even aware of how dependent they are on external
food sources, to the point where the city begins to starve pretty quickly when
the self-driving trucks stop showing up. I came up with this idea because I was
obsessing a lot about famine, as both a present and future problem. There are
huge food crises happening in East Africa, Yemen and Sudan right now, and
unlike in the 1980s with Ethiopia, it’s really difficult to get people in the
United States to pay attention. So I thought it might be helpful to depict
famine and food-insecurity happening to middle-class professionals in an
advanced metropolis. Once I started researching the story, and especially after
from ASU’s Christopher Wharton, I started to realize this story’s scenario was even closer to
reality than I had imagined.
your approach at Our Opinions are Correct?
CJA: I’m so incredibly lucky to be
working on this podcast with Annalee, and so grateful to everyone who’s
listened to the podcast and supported us. We do a ton of prep before every
episode, assembling a whole list of books and other works that are relevant to the
episode topic, and making audio clips that we can feature in each episode. We
seldom get to talk about everything on our list, but it’s good to know what the
important works are, so we don’t inadvertently skip over something really huge.
We try to keep the episodes very conversational and unscripted, but between the
reading lists and the clips we know we’re going to include, there’s always some
built-in structure. The fun part is that we often think of stuff as we’re
talking, and the episodes are usually more spontaneous than what we’ve prepared
for, because it’s such a fun conversation.
projects are you actively involved in?
CJA: I have a bunch of stuff going on
right now, but the most important thing by far is the
untitled young-adult space opera trilogy that I sold to Tor a while back. This is one of the most complex
projects I’ve ever done, in part because there’s a whole bunch of alien races
and a whole layered backstory to keep track of, and in part because I have to
make sure all three volumes form a satisfying adventure story that goes
somewhere. The good news is, the first book of the trilogy is finished and has
already gone through a lot of editing, and I’m about halfway through writing
the second volume. It’s a lot of fun, and unlike anything I’ve ever written
projects are in the works?
CJA: I’m turning one of the
unpublished novels that I wrote and shopped around before All the Birds in
the Sky into a novella right now. That worked out quite well for Rock
Manning Goes For Broke, which was originally a novel I tried to publish in
around 2009ish, and then got cut down to around 23,000 words. I find some of
these older novels of mine suddenly seem a lot stronger when they’ve lost all
of their extraneous subplots and meandering middle sections. This time around,
my unpublished novel (an urban fantasy in the mold of Richard Kadrey or Jim
Butcher) is requiring a lot of revision to fix some structural problems that
became apparent once I stripped away some of the extra junk. But I think it’s
going to be super fun when it’s finished.
feelers from Hollywood?
CJA: Absolutely, but nothing I can
talk about right now. There’s definitely some interest in adapting some of my
stuff for the screen, but most of the time I try to stay chill about it. The
best part of having something optioned is that you get to go back and rethink
something you wrote ages ago, in conversations with some really smart,
experience writers and producers, and it’s fun to visualize how the story could
be told in a different way. If anything actually gets made, THEN I’ll freak out
CS: Are you on the convention circuit?
CJA: Sort of… I do Worldcon and
Wiscon every year, and then I seem to get invited to be guest of honor at the
occasional con as well. I seem to do Comic-Con every other year these days,
which is just about perfect for that exercise in sensory overload. I’m
discovering that smaller local conventions are often the most fun, because you
can actually hang out with people and have real conversations. I miss
Dragon*Con, and really want to get back there.
does the future hold for Charlie Jane Anders?
CJA: Hopefully? Uploading my brain
into a giant mecha and building a space elevator to a LaGrange point where we
can have outrageous spoken word events and parties all the time.
Guest Post by Aurelia C. Scott: [Reprinted
company named Deep Space Industries is working on a plan to harvest minerals
from asteroids. Not immediately, but as soon as they can configure “high
performance propulsion systems, deep space buses and precision control
systems.” Once they’ve done it, the asteroid mining subplot in Martha Wells’s
marvelous MURDERBOT series
(read by Kevin R. Free) won’t be fictional science anymore. Rocket trips aren’t
for me, but a deep-space bus? That I could do. Today’s Audio Adventures leave
start on an independent mining station within the Teixcalaan Empire, where the
new ambassador from Lsel, Mahit Dzmare, arrives to discover that her
predecessor has been murdered, the technology she needs to communicate with her
home planet has failed, and her own life is threatened. Arkady Martine’s debut
space opera, A MEMORY CALLED EMPIRE,
is an other-world murder mystery cum political thriller that has critics
raving. Our reviewer applauded Amy Landon’s “cool, calm narration” and her
skill in differentiating characters while navigating the fascinating diplomatic
subplot. Even better, it’s the first in a proposed series.
continuing with space-thriller adventures in ONE WAY and NO WAY by S.J.
Morden, a planetary geologist and winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for
science fiction writing. Both recent novels are well narrated by William Hope
and take place on Mars, where our ex-convict/everyman hero, Frank, has been
sent to help build a corporate research station. Absolutely nothing goes
according to plan, and without giving too much away, I’ll say that Frank must
plumb all his smarts and inner resources in order to survive. The science stuff
is as fun as the drama.
of us not in space will soon be dealing with a changed home planet. In the
first two installments of Rebecca Roanhorse’s terrific The Sixth
World series, TRAIL OF LIGHTNING
and STORM OF LOCUSTS,
energy wars, devastating climate change, and governmental disintegration have
flooded the planet. The Navajo tribal land of Dinétah is one of the few
dry places in North America. There we meet monster-hunter Maggie Hoskie,
beautifully voiced by Tanis Parenteau, who’s won rave reviews and an Earphones
Award for narrations that honor Native intonations and rhythms. The first book
pairs Maggie with an unconventional medicine man as they search for a missing
girl. The second sets her on a quest for a mysterious cult leader. Throughout,
mythic gods, heroes, and monsters walk the land along with people, which is
just as complicated and exciting as it sounds.
do you feel about games? Not the digital kind that divert the attention
of my nearest and dearest (one of whom fell off a curb into traffic while
playing Pokémon Go). But traditional, wholesome games such as chess,
backgammon, and hide-and-seek. Well, World Fantasy award-winning author Claire
North turns that wholesomeness upside down in her mind-bending novel THE GAMESHOUSE,
which combines three earlier novellas into one. The “gameshouse” can appear
anywhere in the world in any era, and inside, the most talented players compete
for unimaginable stakes. Narrator Peter Kenny is a marvel as he transforms
himself into a myriad of characters. Think of them the next time you’re
considering whether or not to join your friends in an Escape Room.
I also recommend Claire North’s 2015 THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY
AUGUST, for which narrator Peter Kenny won an Earphones
Award. The titular Harry is a member of the Cronus Club, composed of rare
people like him who live many times and remember everything. Club members keep
each other from trying to change the course of history. Then someone tries, and
in this terrific blend of fantasy and literary fiction, it’s up to Harry to
fun in the future, everyone.
Author and audiobook fanatic, Aurelia Scott often falls asleep at night with earbuds still attached. She can also be found at www.aureliacscott.com.
Glen GoodKnight (1941-2010) lived in a home decorated the way many fans would like, the walls all covered with bookcases. Glen filled his shelves with multiple editions of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, not only in English but in many different languages — collecting them was his lifelong passion. And now his family has made sure Glen’s collection of Inklngs rarities will remain intact by donating it to Azusa Pacific University.
Glen started reading and acquiring the works of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams as a teenager, writings he valued so highly he founded the Mythopoeic Society in 1967, devoted to the study of mythopoeic literature, particularly the works of members of the informal Oxford literary circle known as the Inklings.
That same year, 1967, Glen’s collection took First Prize in the Student Library Competition at CSULA, though in size it was less than 3% of what it would become. By 1992, the Tolkien portion alone amounted to 700 volumes published in 29 languages and, he told a reporter that he lacked only the versions in Armenian, Moldavian and Faeroese, a language spoken on islands near Iceland. In 2010, Glen’s website devoted to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Editions and Translations showed that series had been published in 47 languages or scripts other than English (including Braille).
Family members transferred the GoodKnight Collection to APU this
summer, where it is being processed and cataloged. In July, Roger White invited
me to see some of the amazing things that will be available to future scholars
thanks to this donation.
Perhaps the rarest Tolkien collectible GoodKnight owned is the small paperbound copy of Songs for the Philologists (Tolkien & Gordon, 1936), printed by students in hand-set type as an exercise on a reconstructed wooden hand-press but never distributed because permission had not been requested from Tolkien or Gordon. The stored copies burned when the building where they were kept was bombed during WWII. However, a few copies survived in the hands of the students who printed them.
Another old volume, with some of Tolkien’s early published poetry,
is Leeds University Verse 1914-1924, an anthology with three of his poems.
collected examples of Tolkien’s scholarship, such as the 1932 article on “The
name ‘Nodens’” published as an
appendix to Report on the Excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and
Post-Roman Site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, a discussion of three inscriptions found
at the excavations which he concluded is the name of an unrecorded deity.
Collection contains 100 English-language versions of The Hobbit – ranging
from the 1938 first American edition, to a 1968 copy from Tolkien’s own library
with his notes.
There are many inscribed books, such as a copy of The Hobbit (1937) signed by the author’s son, Christopher Tolkien, and a boxed set of Lord of the Rings which Christopher Tolkien signed when he attended the 1987 Mythopoeic Conference at Marquette University.
GoodKnight built his collection through a combination of diligence
and good luck. In the days before the internet, he made discoveries by checking
bookstores in every city he visited, combing through book dealers’ catalogs, and
bidding on items auctioned at the annual Mythopoeic Conferences. On top of that,
he had the good luck to visit England in 1975 and meet Priscilla Tolkien, then selling
books for charitable purposes that had belonged to her father (who died in 1973).
About half of these were first edition translations of Tolkien in various
languages. He bought all he could carry away in two empty suitcases.
Among the works once owned by Tolkien as part of his personal library are:
Foreign translations of The Hobbit in Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch (first edition, with Tolkien’s pipe ash where the pages meet in several places), Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Spanish and Swedish.
In de Ban van de Ring (3 vols.), the Dutch first edition of The Lord of the Rings published in 1956; signed by Tolkien.
Mythlore (first issue) – with handwritten comments by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings inscribed by members of the Tolkien family.
Preface to Paradise Lost 1942 first edition inscribed “with kind regards, C.S. Lewis, Jan, 1943.”
The acquisition of the GoodKnight Collection adds greatly to the Inklings-owned books already held by APU, which includes the Owen Barfield Family Collection.
More than 250 books from the
More than 300 family photographs
Postcard collection from the
Assorted personal documents and
Lewis called Barfield “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers.”
APU’s Inklings Collection also owns a number of books that were formerly part of C.S. Lewis’ personal library, acquired from Lewis biographer George Sayers. One is C. S. Lewis’s annotated copy of E. M. W. Tillyard’s Milton, a book that prompted an exchange between the two men that led to their jointly authored work, The Personal Heresy. Some of Lewis’s books include handwritten notes he made on end pages, plus the dates he read or reread them.
There are 50 books from Priscilla Tolkien’s personal library – for example, a Sir Walter Scott novel received as a present from Christopher Tolkien in 1943.
APU even possesses
the manuscript of Humphrey Carpenter’s group biography The Inklings.
Glen’s friends will
be delighted to know that his collection is being preserved, and that in years
to come scholars will be able to use it to do innovative research projects
about this group of writers.
The Horror Writers Association has formal guidelines that describe the right and wrong ways for members to promote work for the organization’s top award. In what were formerly called the “Etiquette Rules,” now the “Guidelines for Promoting Works for Bram Stoker Award Consideration” HWA gives positive examples of ways to publicize fiction to Stoker Award jurors and other members, some hosted on the organization’s own social media, and warns against unacceptable conduct that can disqualify a work from consideration.
HOW THE STOKER WINNERS ARE PICKED. The Stoker Award winners are chosen by a “partial jury system.” A dozen award categories each have their own small jury panel (and “You may not spam the Jury” is one of the rules.) There is a preliminary and a final ballot. The preliminary ballot lists 10 nominees in each category, five works that have received at least 5 recommendations during the year from members, if there are that many, and the rest of the slots filled by the jury. Members vote on the preliminary ballot for five works in each category to go on to the Final Ballot. The final round of voting determines the award winners.
THE GUIDELINES. The 2,200-word Guidelines begin with a list of
five acceptable ways to promote a work, for example —
A. PUBLICIZE: The very best way to promote a book for a Bram Stoker Award® is to publicize the book as widely as possible. Most HWA members who participate in the Bram Stoker Award process are voracious readers and enthusiastic film buffs, and subscribe to a variety of magazines, newsletters, and web sites that offer reviews and ads for horror-related material.
HWA also tells how to promote work through its own publications
and social media, within limits that promote a level playing field.
The rules end with 10 prohibitions, including —
You may not send unsolicited emails or other forms of contact (such as Twitter) promoting your work for a Bram Stoker Award®….
While individual SFWA officers over the years have written advice about appropriate ways to pursue the Nebula Award, the organization doesn’t have its own formal guidelines. Only SFWA members can answer if one would help.
As to how well HWA’s rules work for them — I decided to ask.
The co-chairs of the Bram Stoker Awards Committee, James Chambers, C.W. LaSart, and Rena Mason, kindly agreed to answer File 770’s questions about the Guidelines/Etiquette Rules.
1. What are some examples of the problems that caused HWA to formulate the Etiquette Rules?
The Etiquette Rules were created to provide a positive process for members to share their work for Stoker consideration and preserve the integrity of the Awards. They ended a number of unpopular tactics some people used to promote their work. This included e-mailing members who were not interested in receiving works for consideration (or even sending them print books before the e-book boom), spamming members with multiple e-mails, attempts at trading recommendations, and campaigning in general for recs and votes. As more and more business moved online it became much easier to reach people and cross the line of acceptable professional contact, and the Awards needed to adapt for that. It’s one thing to make works available for those who would like to read and consider them. It’s another to badger and promote. The Etiquette rules closed the door to promoting works for Award consideration but left open the door to making work available to other HWA members in a respectful way.
2. Did these problems primarily affect who became finalists, or (apart from getting on the ballot) did they influence who won the Bram Stoker Awards?
Generally, no. They might have affected what works appeared on the Recommended Works list and could’ve contributed to a work reaching the Preliminary Ballot, but they didn’t have much influence over actual voting which is limited to Active members, who are members with a professional publication history.
3. The preliminary ballot is the product of a “partial jury system,” containing some works recommended by members, and additional works recommended by the jurors. What are examples of problems that cannot be overcome even with the inclusion of a jury?
The two-tiered preliminary ballot system does a good job of eliminating or minimizing the problems that arise in any awards process. The one thing it doesn’t do as well as we would like is inform the perceptions of those who want something to criticize, but who are not involved with the process and so operate off of often-erroneous assumptions about how works land on the ballot.
4. Who helped draft the original Etiquette Rules, and what year did they come into existence?
The etiquette rules have been around since the inception of the awards, added to every year by HWA Member suggestions, the Awards Committee, HWA Officers, and the Board of Trustees. They’ve been fine-tuned and updated by many HWA members over the years.
5. Are these rules enforced? What is the process for detecting and addressing conduct that violates the rules?
The Rules are enforced. It’s understood that breaching them can lead to a work being disqualified or can work against it by creating negative feelings within HWA membership. We often field questions from authors who want to make sure they don’t breach the etiquette. They take it seriously as do the vast majority of our members and non-members presenting their work. Any HWA member can report a violation. Members of the Awards Committee also monitor conduct. Violations are addressed directly with whoever breached the etiquette in accordance with our bylaws. Cases are discussed and resolved by the Committee.
6. The rules emphasize “the difference between promoting and soliciting,” and define the difference between those behaviors. HWA has a lot of infrastructure in its official publications and social media to help members gain exposure for their work without violating the spirit of the rules. Were such provisions as taking ads in publications, and one-time Facebook announcements, added to support the rules, or did HWA do things like that all along?
One-time Facebook announcements and limits on e-mail contact are more recent developments to respond to changing technology and support the rules, but there have always been rules or accepted practices guiding the process. The infrastructure has evolved and become better documented over the years. It’s there to facilitate sharing news with our membership in a positive way. Most of our members follow genre news pretty closely so just promoting work in general often puts it on their radar.
7. In your opinion, is campaigning for a Bram Stoker Award effective? If the answer is yes, is it effective for anyone, or more effective for a subset of authors, and what would distinguish that subset — name recognition, publisher, something else?
It’s not really effective. While all HWA members can recommend works for Stoker consideration, only Active members may vote. A campaign effort that somehow slips past the general membership and the Committee might land a work on the Preliminary Ballot based on the number of recommendations it receives. There it will be one of ten, but very likely the members who recommended it in response to a campaign won’t be voting members (only Active Members with a proven publication history can vote) so those works are very likely to drop off the ballot. There’s no particular subset of authors or works that’s more likely to benefit over another in a campaigning sense. Big name authors, of course, have wider recognition and larger readerships that can help them but that’s different from campaigning. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are not campaigning for a
Stoker, but they’re frequently recommended and nominated because a lot of HWA members read them.
8. What was the most recent improvement to the Etiquette Rules? Are there any proposed changes under consideration, and what are they about?
The most recent changes were the rules about posting on Facebook and providing links to works online via an Internet mailer that the HWA compiles and sends to members. An etiquette-related change is that we no longer display the number of recommendations a work has received on an ongoing basis, which removes a temptation for authors to try drumming up more recommendations when other works in the same category get ahead of them. There are no concrete proposed changes on the table right now, but the Committee and HWA officers are always observing the process and discussing refinements. Our membership has grown about threefold in the past eight years, too, so we’re always taking into consideration how that affects the Awards dynamic and looking for ways to improve it.
File 770 thanks the Bram Stoker Awards co-chairs for sharing
on the above for more information about each of the faculty via the Mysterious
Galaxy event pages.
year, the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop holds a
six-week Write-a-thon to coincide with the workshop. Like
a walk-a-thon, participants write to raise money for scholarships to support
This year, the Write-a-thon
will begin June 23, the same day that the workshop begins. Participants commit
to achieving their writing goals for the summer, whether that’s a daily word
count, number of chapters, stories or submissions, or just butt-in-chair
You can either sign up to do the Write-a-thon yourself, donate to individual participants, or just make a
general donation to the workshop. Everything helps achieve Clarion’s goal of
$15,000 to support the workshop and future students. The majority of the Thon
funds goes to scholarships for incoming students. Check it out and sign-up
or back a writer today!