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!
The SFWA Board and staff also thanked the volunteers who make up
the Elections Committee: Fran Wilde (Chair), Matthew Johnson (Member),
Laura Anne Gilman (Member), Maurice Broaddus (Member), and Kate Baker
(Executive Director & Adviser).
By Eugene Linden: My novel, Deep
Past, is a hybrid of sorts, with feet (if books can be said to have feet)
in both the science fiction and thriller genres. The novel grew out of a
thought experiment, which in turn grew out of decades of writing about the
evolution of intelligence, and a variety of topics that relate to the nature
and evolution of intelligence. Over the years I’ve come to believe that
intelligence/awareness is far more widely shared as an adaptive strategy than
was previously believed. We look around the world and we can see problem-solving
abilities in a host of animals, ranging in creatures ranging from octopus to
crows and parrots, to the great apes, elephants, and dolphins. True, as of yet,
there has been no evidence of a sentient creature that possesses quantitative
and symbolic abilities on our scale.
But – and this is
where the thought experiment begins – the great flowering of human abilities
occurred in a span of just a few hundred thousand years, and through most of
that span humans had very little in the way of material culture. If we had died
out fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors would have left few traces to show
that an intelligent species ever inhabited the planet. So, given that organized
brains date back over 750 million years, who is to say that over that immense
sweep of time, some other creature with intelligence on our scale hasn’t come
Certainly not me.
In Deep Past,
I try to imagine the discovery of just such a long-gone, intelligent animal.
Creating such a creature entailed developing a credible set of circumstances
that might give rise to the runaway growth of brain power in the distant past,
as well as the circumstances that would have hustled it off the evolutionary
Though I was writing
science fiction, I wanted the story to be credible, and a plausible outgrowth
of what we know about evolution. A theoretician of artificial life
named Christopher Langton who used to work at the Santa Fe Institute developed
a broad framework to explain how adaptations become maladaptive. He focused on
how simple organisms evolved into more complex systems. In this work he
discovered a see-saw between stability and instability as different organisms
try different strategies to exploit any given system. Eventually, one organism
comes out on top and proliferates until it destabilizes the system and it
crashes, leading to a new cycle. The lesson is that your best adaptive strategy
may ultimately hustle you off the evolutionary stage.
I also needed to
envision what external circumstances might both foster the rapid growth of
intelligence in a species, but then ultimately do the species in. Here I had an
obvious candidate: climate change, though in the deep past the climate change
would have been part of natural cycles, and not the self-inflicted wound we’re
in the process of perpetrating.
In a previous
non-fiction book, Winds of Change; Climate, Weather, and the
Destruction of Civilizations, I had explored research in the role past,
natural episodes of rapid climate change had played in the development of human
brain power. That role turns out to be major. Starting about 1.85 million years
ago, a series of violent weather upheavals that lasted about 100,000 years
coincided with periods of rapid evolutionary change in which the more
specialized of our ancestors tended to die out and the generalists (read
brainier) survived. And now that there are 7.3 billion of us, it’s open to
question whether we could survive the weather chaos that occurred in the past.
It’s bears noting that during the past 8,000 years, a truly goldilocks period
of weather for humans, our numbers increased more than 1,000 fold.
My research for Winds
of Change had given me a good road map of past extreme episodes of climate
change going way back in geologic time, and I set the period of my imagined
intelligent species (I’m not going to be a spoiler and name the species it
here) well back in the past, at a time when our hominid technological prowess
consisted of little more than throwing rocks.
I needed one more
thing for my evolutionary recipe for intelligence: isolation. One of the more
fascinating byways of evolutionary biology is E.O Wilson’s theory entitled
island Biogeography, and its precursor in eco-geography, the Island Rule, first
proposed by J. Bristol Foster. In vastly simplified form, these formulations
explain why islands tend to be less diverse than mainland ecosystems, and why,
in these less diverse situations, evolution tends to run wild, producing giants
and dwarf species as well as other exaggerated traits, perhaps even traits like
intelligence. In my case, I chose to situate my long-gone species on a virtual
island, a stretch of land isolated by inhospitable terrain, rather than a real
island, like the Skull Island of King Kong.
Once I had the recipe
for how to create a super intelligent being, I needed to decide what type of
intelligence that would be. Here I drew upon two more big ideas. In my
book, The Octopus and the Orangutan, I explore the question of
whether convergent evolution – the notion that nature tends to optimize a
creature for its particular ecological niche so that even unrelated species
tend to converge on the same shape if they face similar life challenges – might
apply in the realm of higher mental abilities as well as physical shape. For
example, humans and dolphins might live in utterly different circumstances, but
they both live in large, highly complex social groups, a situation that rewards
those members with enhanced abilities to understand and manipulate what their
peers are thinking and doing.
The fact that humans
and dolphins both have large, complex brains connects to another concept that
helps explain how intelligence might have evolved. This is the idea of
“ecologically surplus abilities.” Simply put, this means that a capability that
evolved in response to one set of challenges might turn out to carry with it
other benefits. In terms of intelligence, the evolutionary pressures that
produced the dolphin’s big brain had to do with the survival benefits of using
sonar to “see” surroundings and prey in the relatively opaque underwater
environment. But, in equipping dolphins to precisely decode the signals its
sonar produced, nature also might have been equipping the dolphin to think
symbolically. This idea allows us to see how higher intelligence might have been
a byproduct of practically driven, prosaic abilities.
All of these factors
drove me to think of an intelligence similar in some respects to ours, but
coming from very different circumstances and building on a very different base.
We humans like to manipulate particles and objects, but what if our past
evolutionary history had oriented us towards waves and interconnections; what
is our intelligence had more in common with the strange qualities of quantum
mechanics rather than Newtonian laws? That was a fun, but daunting avenue to
While I had some
experience trying to understand many of the sciences I drew upon in writing Deep Past, I also had to dive into
disciplines with which I was much less conversant such as geology and remote
sensing. Even though Deep Past centers on the discovery of
something widely viewed as impossible, the story is built on solid
science. If there’s any overarching belief that informs my book, it’s that,
over time, the ordinary workings of nature can compose magical creations out of
the most mundane materials.
THORNTON: Would you like to introduce yourself to our audience?
JASON HELLER: I’m
a writer, editor, and musician from Denver. I do lots of writing about music
and books, including reviews and essay for The
New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NPR. I’m also the former nonfiction
editor for Clarkesworld, and I won a
Hugo as part of that editing team in 2013.
Since then, I’ve edited a couple of fiction anthologies,
most recently Mechanical Animals with
Selena Chambers. I’ve been playing in bands for many years, and my current band
is called Weathered Statues. We just toured Europe last fall, and it was pretty
amazing to get up from behind the writing desk and hit the road with my guitar!
What inspired you to write a book about the relationship between SF/F and
JASON HELLER: My
first concert was seeing David Bowie in 1987, and at that point, I was already
a huge fan of science fiction. I devoured books and music as a kid, and the
deeper I got into Bowie, the more I began to pick up on these hints and
fragments of futurism and science fiction in the music I heard on the radio,
including bands like Rush, Devo, and Parliament.
Years later, after becoming a professional music journalist,
I began writing lots of essays about the crossover between my two biggest
loves, and in 2015 I started shopping around a book proposal for a history of
this crossover. When Bowie died in 2016, I was already in the midst of writing Strange Stars. He was always going to be
the central figure in the book, so that heartbreaking loss lit an extra fire
Basically, I’ve always thought that music has never been
given due credit for being one of the most fertile and inventive vessels for
science fiction concepts and storytelling. In a nutshell, I wanted to set the
record straight and show how so many works of popular music should be
considered part of the science fiction canon.
What kind of audience do you envision for the book?
JASON HELLER: I
hope that anyone remotely interested in the realms of science fiction or
popular music would find something to float their boat in Strange Stars. I tried to walk the pathway between the two as
sensitively as I could; I didn’t want to assume that all science fiction lovers
are huge music nerds or vice versa (although, of course, many are, myself
Of course, I hoped my fellow Bowie fans would be
particularly intrigued, but the book is not about Bowie only. Everything from
obscure disco to underground punk is covered in Strange Stars, along with the huge artists you might automatically
expect, such as Pink Floyd and Rush. I made every attempt to tease out to the
bigger picture, the overall narrative arc, that connects everything from
Heinlein to Kraftwerk to Star Wars,
so there’s a story to be absorbed, not just a guide to great music for people
THORNTON: How did you decide to use David Bowie’s career as a recurring
theme in Strange Stars?
JASON HELLER: If
all the musicians who were influenced by science fiction in the ’70s, David
Bowie was the most visible, not to mention the most visibly science-fictional.
But more than that, his very influential contributions to science-fiction music
bookended that decade perfectly; he released his first science-fiction hit
single, “Space Oddity,” in 1969, and he released “Ashes to
Ashes,” the sequel to “Space Oddity,” in 1980. The ’70s fit
perfectly between those songs, and as it turns out, Bowie’s on-off fascination
and engagement with science fiction that decade perfectly paralleled so many
larger events and trends that were happening in both science and science
fiction, as well as in popular music. To use him as the barometer of science
fiction rock in the ’70s just felt like the most natural thing I could do.
Almost all roads in science fiction music lead either to or from Bowie in the
THORNTON: What was it like to work with editors on a book about the
intersection of two minutiae-oriented pop cultures?
JASON HELLER: I
loved working with my editor at Melville House, Ryan Harrington, who is not
only brilliant but also very good at pointing out how my crazy, sprawling idea
for a book could be focused into something tighter and more accessible. He
helped me immensely when it came to making Strange
Stars a book that both music fans and science fiction fans could relate to.
ROB THORNTON: Who was your favorite interview for Strange Stars and why?
JASON HELLER: I
actually didn’t interview anyone for Strange
Stars! It was all meticulous and exhausting research, including lots of
quotes from past interviews with the musicians I covered in the book. Since
Bowie died while I was in the process of writing Strange Stars, the possibility of interviewing him was sadly off
the table. I figured if I couldn’t interview the main person in this book, it
would feel imbalanced if I interviewed many of the lesser figures in my
narrative, as important as they each are in their own right.
And it turned out there was simply no shortage of research
material out there! As it is, I had to leave out tons of great quotes and
anecdotes that weren’t entirely necessary to the story I was telling. If I’d
had another few tens of thousands of words of original interview material to
incorporate into Strange Stars, it
would have vastly exceeded the wordcount my publisher gave me to work with! But
I think everything worked out for the best.
What was the most rewarding audio discovery you made while you were writing the
JASON HELLER: I
made so, so many discoveries while working on Strange Stars. I went into this project thinking I had a pretty
deep knowledge of science-fiction-influenced music, but as it turned out, I
knew maybe half the story. Of all the musical rabbitholes I went down while
researching for the book, the one that delighted me the most was science
fiction funk. I’d always known that funk (and disco) were important parts of my
story, and I collect funk and disco records from the ’70s, but none of that
prepared me for the wealth of groups and artists of the era who contributed to
the canon of science-fiction funk, besides the big names we all probably know
If I had to pick a favorite discovery, it would be the 1979
song “Dark Vader” by Instant Funk. In it, the story of Darth Vader is
retold from a sympathetic perspective — remember, this was before the
revelations about his character seen a year later in The Empire Strikes Back! — that folds Star Wars fanfic and blaxploitation swagger into Afrofuturism. As I
point out in Strange Stars, the song
does for Darth Vader what Wicked did
for The Wicked Witch of the West decades later.
THORNTON: What surprised you the most during the research for Strange Stars? I was amazed to learn
that Ian Curtis wanted to work with Michael Moorcock!
JASON HELLER: That
was definitely one of the biggest surprises to me too! It’s hard to imagine
what a collaboration between Joy Division and Michael Moorcock would have
sounded like, but it’s amazing just to know they actually conversed about the
prospect prior to Curtis’ death in 1980. Joy Division are so deeply associated
with the bleak futurism (no-futurism?) of the post-punk movement, and Moorcock
resides at the other end of the ’70s science-fiction-music spectrum thanks to
his close ties to Hawkwind.
The kinship between Curtis and Moorcock is one of those
startling little anecdotes I dug up that really tied so much of Strange Stars together for me. Likewise,
so did the discovery that Paul McCartney asked Gene Roddenberry to help him
write a science fiction musical for Wings in 1975! It never came about, of
course, but wow, if only.
THORNTON: How would you describe the relationship between popular music and
JASON HELLER: It’s
an interesting relationship. Neither popular music nor science fiction/fantasy
acknowledge each other that openly. Crossovers pop up all the time — and as I
detail in Strange Stars, they were
especially rife in the ’70s — but there’s almost an introvert/extrovert
dichotomy the two. That’s a massive oversimplification, but I think it does get
to the heart of it, in a way.
Music is an openly joyous and collective thing; SF/F, and literature in general, is more intimately and personally experienced. But when the two feed off each other, the results can bring out the best in both. I’ve always wished the SF/F world in particular would pay more attention to the many musicians who struggle to find an audience with their science-fiction music, but I’m just happy people still make such music and pay attention to its rich history at all. Which is why writing Strange Stars was such an honor for me.