WALTER JON WILLIAMS is the winner of two Nebulas and a five-time Hugo nominee. His most recent books are The Sundering, The Praxis, This Is Not a Game, and Quillifer. In 2006, Williams founded the Taos Toolbox, a two-week writer’s workshop for fantasy and science fiction writers. He was the guest of honor of the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki. Williams lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Kathleen Hedges.
File 770 reviewed his latest book, Fleet Elementshere.
MIKE GLYER: Fleet Elements is the latest novel in your Dread Empire’s Fall series. (Which I confess to thinking of as the Praxis series.) You once told an interviewer, “As for the Shaa, for now they’re all dead, but I reserve the right to alter reality at any point.” They’re still dead in Fleet Elements, yet you’ve managed to shed new light on them and turn their history into a mystery that might be important to solve. Other authors – Larry Niven, for one – talk about having to be careful that new stories that don’t violate some already-established part of their series’ universe. How do you overcome that challenge?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I keep copious notes, I try to re-read the books before starting a new one, and I have complex plot outlines on legal pads, with different colors for different characters, and lots of arrows and diagrams. Then I just cross my fingers and hope I don’t make a mistake.
(By the way, I call it the Praxis series, too.)
MG: A series balances the familiar with change and growth. What’s your strategy for character development?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: Character development is a consequence of trauma, so I try to keep my characters as traumatized as possible.
MG: The demise of the Shaa, of course, is the event that kicks off the Praxis series. Until then, the various sentient races of the Empire enjoyed a kind of equality in their subordination to the Shaa. When one of them tried to move into the power vacuum, humans were still aligned with the other nonhumans. But in the latest arc they’re on their own. Although milestone space operas from the Lensman Series to Starship Troopers to Ender’s Game set up genocidal conflicts between humans and aliens, that hasn’t been characteristic of your series before now. Are you going there, or will the end game somehow weave all these species together again?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I don’t really want to offer spoilers on whether the human race is exterminated by the end of the series. That’s giving away a little much.
At the end of the current series there will be an adjustment to the political system, which may well set up more conflict farther down the line. Plus I also guarantee more character-developing trauma for my characters.
MG: On one level the science fiction genre is a conversation, where writers see what’s gone before and say “I’d love to tell more stories like that” or “No, can’t you see how wrong that extrapolation is?” Who are some of the authors who inspired your interest in writing a space opera series like this, for either of those reasons?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: This is going to sound odd, but my inspirations for the Praxis books include Herodotus, Polybius, Livy, Cassius Dio, Edward Gibbon, and Thomas Babington Macauley, all historians writing on an epic (and at present unfashionable) scale. From them I learned how to tell a vast, complex story against a background of Deep History.
I might as well add HG Wells to that list, not only for the inevitable influence of his scientific romances, but for his concept of history.
MG: You have penned several different series – in fact, after reading The Accidental War I not only sought out the rest of the Praxis books, I proceeded to read most or all the books in four other series. And I see readers commenting on my blog about their hopes that you’ll do another Metropolitan book, another Quillifer, another Dagmar Shaw. Will you keep the Praxis series going beyond this latest arc? What are you working on now?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: The Praxis series was originally intended to run 9-12 books (depending on when I got bored), so there will be more if the publisher so desires. The Metropolitan series was cut short when my editor was fired and his entire science fiction line canceled, and I’ve been hoping to find an editor willing to reprint the originals and complete the series with a third book. (And yes, I know I could self-publish the third book, and I will if I have to.)
The Quillifer series was planned for six books, though I’ve contracted only for three. So if your readers want more of those, they should buy the hell out of the books now in the stores.
All this said, I have the urge to write some singletons, so once I finish with my current contracts I’m going to write a stand-alone or two.
MG: What are your sources of “inspiration” beyond just the literary? Someone once asked the composer Hoagy Carmichael where his inspiration came from, and his answer was “When the check arrives.” At this point in a successful career do you have more freedom to choose what to work on?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: While I’m not rich, I’m financially secure, and I don’t have to write anything I don’t want to.
And while I like having money, money has nothing to do with why I write. If all I wanted was money, I’d run a hedge fund or something. Except for a very few lucky people, a career in the arts is a perilous balancing act between inspiration and the need to pay the rent.
I have the wonderful privilege of creating something new every day. That other people might want to read what I write is a bonus, but I’d still be writing even if I had no audience.
And as for inspiration, usually it comes from other writers. When I was ten years old, reading great writers made me want to write something great. That hasn’t changed at all.
MG: How has your career changed today changed from when you were younger? What do you like or dislike about the changes?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: I have more security now , a lifetime of experience, and a large backlist available to readers. When I was younger I had a lot more energy, and a lot less cynicism.
The thing I most dislike is people assuming they know all there is to know about me. After all, I’m over fifty, right? I must have nothing interesting left to say.
I would like to submit that these people are wrong.
MG: What is one life lesson or writing skill you’re glad to have a chance to pass on through the Taos Toolbox?
WALTER JON WILLIAMS: What I tell my students is that they should be writing because they love it. Any other reason— money, fame, ticking off something on your bucket list— is inadequate, and will lead to disappointments.
You can’t control what shape your career will take— it could be killed by a single failure on the part of someone in production (which has happened to me). You can’t predict the readers’ reaction to your work. Odds are good that you’ll have multiple careers under multiple names, as the early careers founder (which happened to me)— but if you love the work, you’ll learn your lessons, become a better writer, and carry on.
Which also happened to me. Love of the work carried me through, and if you don’t do it for love, there’s no damn reason to do it at all.
By Mike Glyer: Walter Jon Williams’ Fleet Elements – out today — is set in the same universe as his Dread Empire’s Fall series, where the demise of the ruling Shaa created a power vacuum which their subject species – including the human race – are struggling to survive. Fans reading the series’ seventh book will find out whether the biggest threat to the beloved characters they’ve met in the course of the series is the war to reunite the empire — or the actual reunion of protagonists Captain Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula.
In the series’ opening trilogy the Naxids, an insectoid species ruled by the Shaa, made a failed bid to to take their place. In this continuation, humans have been blamed for the postwar financial collapses and are threatened with destruction by the remaining powers of the empire. Martinez and his allies move first to take control of a Praxis fleet and bring on a decisive battle in hopes of saving humanity. And while the Shaa are still dead in Fleet Elements, a discovery sheds new light on them and turns their history into a mystery that might be important to solve.
Fleet Elements, like every book in the series, plunges ahead with a forward momentum that would make Miles Vorkosigan gasp. Along the way the inexhaustibly inventive Williams continually fills you in about flowers to be seen, the ecology, the art and lavish architecture, all the beauty surrounding his characters whether planetside or in space, yet the story never slows; he doesn’t feel a need to stop and admire the things he’s thought up – he’s already on to the next one.
In the universe of the Praxis wormholes facilitate interstellar travel – but voyages to and from them are at sublight speeds, raising navigation and ballistics issues worthy of Heinlein juveniles and setting up fleet battles between clouds of ships in the Lensman tradition. Characters face external challenges to their careers and physical survival, complemented by internal struggles to discover who they are, what they believe in, and to overcome adversity and setbacks
We are now in the second book of the current Praxis story arc, and our hero Gareth Martinez has been maturing into a family man despite his starcrossed attraction to Lady Caroline Sula, each playing the candle to the other’s moth. But SPOILER ALERT! Have I mentioned how much I don’t want to read about broken marriages and fathers alienated from their children?
On the other hand, Walter Jon Williams has been weaving the tragic derivoo musical tradition through Lady Sula’s whole biography. No matter how much we may be pulling for her we can hardly expect things to end well. However, they haven’t ended yet.
Lady Caroline Sula’s origin story flows from her youth around crime gangs, and a murder. As a reader I questioned why was I rooting for her criminal success? Was it because that’s so obviously the gate through which I must pass to get to the story I want to read? I asked myself the same question about Colleen McCullough’s version of Sulla, the future dictator, in The First Man in Rome series, who had to murder a woman to afford to start his career.
Lady Sula’s background reemerges, often to great advantage, like when she makes the gangsters she knows the backbone of the Secret Army that resists the first alien coup attempt. But the ones who are still alive in Fleet Elements are a complication for someone like Sula, ambitious to climb to the top.
Before the demise of the Shaa, the event that kicks off the series, the various sentient races of the Empire enjoyed a kind of equality in their subordination to the rulers. When the Naxids tried to move into the power vacuum, humans were still aligned with the other nonhumans in resisting them. But in the latest arc humans are mostly isolated and on their own. Many space operas set up genocidal conflicts between humans and aliens, however, Walter Jon Williams wasn’t telling that story before now. I look forward to the next novel to learn the fates of Martinez and Sula, and if the end game will somehow weave all the Empire’s species together again.
Kathrin Hutson has been writing Dark Fantasy, SFF, and LGBTQ Speculative Fiction since 2000. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Kathrin lives in Vermont with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Brucewillis.
Sleepwater Static, Book Two in the LGBTQ Dystopian SF Blue Helix Series by Kathrin Hutson was released May 26 by Exquisite Darkness Press.
Wyoming’s Sleepwater chapter is on the run, hunted for their ability to spin a beat. With little time to mourn the members they’ve lost, Bernadette Manney takes the group to the one place she swore she’d never see again: the cabin in Hollywood, South Carolina. It’s remote enough to lay low and catch a break, but not for long.
Their beats are condemned as mutations, radical terrorist tactics, and felonies punishable both by and outside the law. Bernadette thought Sleepwater would be safe here, but returning to her Southern roots unleashes more demons than she left behind.
MIKE GLYER: In your Blue Helix series, the condemned mutation that confers special abilities — the beat – almost floats in a colloidal suspension where it comes in contact with the profoundly human stories that you want in the foreground. Instead of a big comic book bang, we see how individuals or families relate and conflict, only with more tools that may or may not help them. The genre elements tend to be pushed to the margins while focus is on the human relationships, romances, family histories and conflicts. What what was it specifically that attracted you to science fiction and fantasy as a setting?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I’ve always been more attracted to science fiction and fantasy as genres in general, and I think that came mostly from my desire as a kid, adolescent, and young adult to escape what was happening around me in my real life. Today, I choose to write in these genre for a few reasons. First, story always comes first. For me, the story is more exciting when I can work with these genre elements (even if they’re pushed to the margins) in order to create that sort of surrealist escapism while still keeping it grounded in what we as readers are all able to identify with – fleshed-out characters and profoundly human stories.
Second, these genres are just so dang fun. With fantasy especially, I get to work with worlds to change them and shape them in whatever way I see fit. As long as it fits the overall story too, of course. With the Blue Helix series, which is all I’ve written in the science fiction genre so far (dystopian and very “light” on the science part), I had to do a lot more research to create this world and these characters than I really have ever done for any of my other work, all of which is fantasy. But I did choose dystopian science fiction very specifically for the Blue Helix series because of what I wanted to say within the broader context of this “condemned mutation” found in my main characters and supporting characters. Originally with Sleepwater Beat, Book 1, I wanted to create an only slightly different world from our reality — a parallel universe, if you will. I believed it was really important to be able to show these parallels between worlds in order to highlight the disparities between marginalized communities and “the majority”. So I looked at these marginalized groups – the LGBTQ community, BIPOC, drug addicts, addiction survivors, victims of emotional and physical abuse, the homeless, the disenfranchised, those struggling with mental illness, disabled peoples, and anyone living on the fringes of society — and used this fictionally marginalized group in the books who have this special-ability mutation to open a window into the injustices, double-standards, and outright ridiculousness of bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. As it turned out, this parallel universe I created and fully intended to be farther in the future (2031 in the Blue Helix series) ended up having so many eerie similarities to what the world and specifically the United States has been experiencing as each book was published. They’ve been called timely and prescient, though I think I ended up giving “the future” too much credit for being farther away than it turned out to be.
MIKE GLYER: These books maintain a wonderful dynamic between characters on the run and rich sense of the location they’re presently in. I saw an author say he starts his stories from a sense of place—where do you start?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I start my stories from a sense of character and really getting inside their heads first. I think this is a lot easier for me to do than starting from a physical location or a sense of place because my “record” for the longest amount of time lived in one house in the last twenty years is two and a half years… and that was just recently reached in my last house in Vermont (my family moved to Colorado this past July, so now I’m starting over). One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned personally through always moving around for most of my life is that I can still be myself and carry everything I am and want to be with me, no matter where I end up. I hope that my characters provide that same feeling of “self” throughout my stories, even when these characters are fleeing across the country from persecution and holing up wherever they can find a roof over their heads for the night. Sometimes even just a car roof. But then when I have the characters down (and they don’t change who they are at the core, even with a different setting – unless it’s part of the story, of course), I get to play with bringing the setting to life almost as much as the people inhabiting it. I’ve lived in four different states in the last eight years – Colorado, South Carolina, California, and Vermont, in that order – and have gotten a decent sense of what each place feels like, what kind of people are found there, and how a physical location can play less or more or just as much of a role in the characters’ experiences as the people around them or the plot itself. But always, characters come first. And the fun lies in choosing how they do or don’t interact with the space around them when it changes.
MIKE GLYER: In The Blue Helix series, the special gifts the characters have in common bring them together because they are persecuted. Would that thing be enough reason to organize together if they were free to express their gifts?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This is a fantastic question. My immediate reaction was actually to think, “Well, it’s common ground. Common interests. Of course we’re drawn to other people like us.” But is that really the reason for gathering with like-minded individuals when we aren’t facing danger, persecution, and hatred simply for personal traits, beliefs, orientation, skin color, age (you name it) that we have no control over whatsoever?
I think there are two different reasons for these characters with “the beat”, who later joined to form the organization Sleepwater, to come together as they do in these series. Before their ability was weaponized, demonized, and relegated to something the rest of the world was told over and over again to fear and hate, yes. Beat-spinners gathered together to listen to each other’s individual abilities and form a sense of community around what made them different. Even when the rest of the world wouldn’t understand or had no idea of what they could do. There’s always a chance that “being different” will give others who fall under “normal” (like there’s even such a thing as “normal” anyway) a reason to taunt, make fun of, villainize, or otherwise act out against us. Take the overused (and sometimes still very real) trope in any YA entertainment media where high school is involved. We have “the nerds”, and even though “the nerds” get picked on by “the jocks” (or insert whichever high school clique you like) for being who they are, they still come together to play videogames, trade comic books, play chess, etc. because that’s a part of who they are. And they enjoy those parts of themselves (to be clear, I’ve done all of those things but play chess. I did, however, play D&D in high school, so there’s that). And in this hypothetical high-school setting, being “a nerd” isn’t necessarily a life-threatening “label” to carry. Sure, it makes things more difficult sometimes. I’m fortunate enough to have been “a nerd” in high school and still didn’t experience any bullying because of it, so I can say that seeking out like-minded individuals with similar interests and abilities in a relatively safe environment does absolutely exist.
On the other hand, when the danger and the discrimination become so wildly disproportionate to whatever makes us “different”, then yes. There is more of a reason to band together – for support, encouragement, hope, and to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels like we’re being persecuted for who we are on a core, raw human level. I wish more people had the opportunity to experience community in the former arena, i.e. within safe spaces and because we are drawn to people like us, even during good times. That’s part of the reason I wrote this series in the first place.
MIKE GLYER: Who was your favorite character to write?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I love this question, because the answer surprised me so much. While each of the characters in the Blue Helix series were phenomenally fun to write (and gave me more insight into myself and my understanding of the nearly infinite scope of individual human experiences), the character I enjoyed writing the most was Donna. And when I set out to write Sleepwater Static, Book 2, I had no idea that I would be writing her as much as I did. Honestly, I expected her to remain a mentioned side-character in the pen-pal letters between the main character Bernadette and her best friend Janet. But then I realized I needed to put Bernadette and her boyfriend Darrell into a room with Janet and Donna to explore some more ideas of interpersonal relationships I was playing with, and it happened more than once.
Donna is a sharp-witted, charismatic, well-educated, affluent, biracial lesbian living in Vincent, Alabama in the 1980s who also happened to have this beat-spinning ability herself. She is Janet’s partner through most of the book, and she later becomes the spearhead of a revolutionary movement/rebellion by a group of people with this same “mutant ability” even before the rest of the world knew what Sleepwater and people like them could do. She was so much fun to write precisely because she is so complex, and not always in a good way. I wanted to write her in as a character (including that full description above) that I found lacking in speculative fiction when it comes to BIPOC characters, especially in the South and especially in the ’80s. And while Donna knows how to play a room to her full advantage, how to win people over with her gorgeous smile and her go-get-’em attitude, how to organize and stoke the fires of inspiration and action in others, she’s one of the most insecure characters in this series. She’s manipulative, sensitive, emotionally abusive toward Janet at times, and terrifyingly territorial. Nothing stops her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to circumvent any obstacle standing between her and what she wants, even if it happens to be her own partner. I didn’t intend to use writing Donna and Janet’s relationship as a way to juxtapose a “seemingly normal” relationship that’s actually quite dysfunctional with a purely healthy, loving, respectful relationship we see between Bernadette and Darrell. But as I kept writing, that’s what it became. And it served another purpose “layer” of showing how impossible and senseless it really is to “judge a book by its cover” – or, in this case, to judge a person by physical, economic, financial, and intellectual status. I also really love writing sharp-edged characters you can’t help but admire and appreciate even after seeing glimpses of their “masochistic side”, and Donna most definitely fits that bill.
MIKE GLYER: Have you ever received any pushback from editors or readers when you’ve included marginalized characters in your stories?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This was one of the things that I was actually quite nervous about experiencing when I wrote both Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten any blowback whatsoever. In some ways, that still throws me for a loop, and I’m always expecting that feedback to come down the line at one point or another (I’ll chalk it up to knowing I have to have that “thick author skin”, and if I’m expecting it, it’s not that heavy of a blow when it happens). But so far, the worst feedback I’ve received from anyone — and it was a reader — was “some people may like reading about the seedier sides of other people” but the story “wasn’t happy enough”. That garnered me a two-star review for Sleepwater Beat, which I was actually thrilled to receive. I did not in any way set out to write this series with the intention of making it a happy-go-lucky sci-fi read with action and intrigue thrown in for fun. That’s just not what I write. And even though it was a two-star review, it still solidified in my mind the belief that I’m writing exactly what I want to write with this series. Not everyone is going to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to read fiction about “the darker underbelly of society” that just isn’t “happy enough”. And that’s okay. The people who do want to read it, like myself, appreciate it for what it is.
I was especially nervous about the potential for negative feedback when I wrote Sleepwater Static, because in addition to touching on the marginalized communities I explored and shed light on in Sleepwater Beat, Book 2 in this series also focuses a lot on racism, racial discrimination and injustice, interracial relationships and families, and the difficulties BIPOC face on an every day basis. The closest I felt I could respectfully get to touching on these issues, as a white woman who’s been the target of other forms of discrimination but not those based on skin color, was to write from the perspective of a main character who: is a white woman; has been the target of discrimination but not discrimination based on the color of her skin; is in a healthy romantic relationship with a black man in the South and has a child with him; and finds herself willing to do whatever she can to protect the people she loves, even if she happens to take it too far and make mistakes she deeply regrets along the way. My editor was such a huge part of reaffirming for me that I hit the points in Sleepwater Static delicately and respectfully. The other instrumental resource in ensuring I didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes, cross the boundaries into acceptable representation, or get things flat-out wrong was using a sensitivity reader. Fortunately, this sensitivity reader agreed with my editor, and I didn’t have to make any changes to the manuscript. I suppose I didn’t have to agonize over doing this “the right way” for as long as I did while writing this book, either, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless.
I recently was a guest on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast with The Dome and Cam to talk about Sleepwater Static, and they told me something after the show that was so invaluable for me to hear and that I think is a pretty important nugget for any writer wanting to tackle bigger issues within a work of speculative fiction. In a nutshell, they told me that the difference between writing on a large scale like this to the same effect of standing up on a soap box with a megaphone — spouting “political or social stances” — and writing in a way that is clear, versatile, and accessible to everyone, without becoming didactic or overblown, is whether or not we as writers are tackling these issues and writing our stories from a place of anger and fear. That was a hugely enlightening moment for me. I’ve written so many of my own personal life experiences into the Blue Helix series — some of them remarkably traumatic at one point in time — after I’d already found a place within myself where that rage and that fear could be removed. Not completely ignored or erased, because I’m well aware of the fact that the causes of that rage and fear (and the work I’ve done in my own life to move past them) will always be a part of who I am. But they are detached from my writing process, and it allows me to create stories like these that don’t feel didactic or like I’m trying to “sell” readers on any particular stance. Because I’m not. This is the one of the things, in my opinion, that may be a reason why I haven’t received a lot of pushback from editors or readers of the Blue Helix series since Sleepwater Beat released in November of 2018. I just want to offer readers a chance to look at the world around them from a different perspective, maybe even to realize that they’re not alone in how they think or feel or what they’ve gone through, and in doing that, I always prioritize the quality of my craft – good story, robust characters, real moments — first.
MIKE GLYER: Corporate villains, family betrayal, chemical addiction, racism, and sexual self-discovery, aren’t just issues explored in your books, they’re decision points a character may pay the price for with their lives. In one of your bios you talk about “Happily Never Afters.” What are the keys to writing stories like this that appeal to readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions?
KATHRIN HUTSON: Answering this question as so many layers I could probably keep peeling back forever. But the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m already well aware of the fact that we as writers can’t possibly appeal to everyone. Fiction would become quite bland indeed if that were the endgame. But I think that appealing to these readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions is made possible through what I believe is the cornerstone of every good story, which is that human connection. Despite race, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, education level, religion, belief system, any and all demographics I could list here, we all have something in common. We are all living, breathing, feeling human beings who hold personal values and care about something. Appealing to this shared human experience through fiction, I believe, is the best way to reach so many more people who would otherwise not have been open to reading about these things in the first place, or maybe even reading dark fiction as an overarching genre.
As an example, I met with a book club last year in Vermont who’d all read Sleepwater Beat beforehand. When this group came together to talk with me about the books (and it really turned into an hour-and-a-half-long discussion of them mostly describing their experiences and thoughts when reading, which was phenomenal), I was blown away by the demographics represented just in this small group — BIPOC, men, woman, straight cis-gendered men, LGBTQ people, parents, people without children, and the age rage went from 25 to 76. Each and every one of these book-club members had something to say about different parts in the book that spoke to them, touched on their own experiences, made them think differently, made them feel like they were seen and recognized, and helped them tap into the gratitude they carried for what they had in their own lives. And this was possible, I’d like to say, because of the fact that I do choose to put human relationships and “profound human stories” into the foreground of my work, especially with the Blue Helix series. We all have different experiences, and many of us break away from what we’re “conditioned” to believe, feel, think, understand simply through interactions with other humans and their experiences. I’m lucky enough to say that after everything I’ve been through in my life (and there’s plenty more of it to come), I’ve found my own version of a “happy ending”. And I think that by writing Happily Never Afters, at the very least, I may help others come to understand that reaching theirs is actually possible and not just relegated to fairytale resolutions.
MIKE GLYER: Finally, would you like to tell us about any other new or upcoming releases you have?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This may sound like a complete 180 after answering that last question, but my next upcoming release is the first in a Dark Urban Fantasy series called Accessory to Magic. Book 1 is The Witching Vault, which will be available on December 10th, 2020. I’m trying something a little bit different with this series, going for a “lighter” approach to fiction more for entertainment purposes than the complex levels of picking apart “the human struggle” found in the Blue Helix series. But, of course, the Accessory to Magic series still has my dark spin on it and quite a bit of my own experiences peppered throughout: An apprentice witch with a criminal past inherits a magical bank that can think for itself – and the clientele are almost as dangerous as what’s inside their safety deposit boxes.
I’m excited to see how my darkness-loving readers will react to something a little more on the fun-escapist side with a heck of a lot more snark. And, of course, I’m also working on Book 3 in the Blue Helix series, which will release in Spring of 2021. So readers have about eight months to prepare for that one, and it’s shaping up to be the series wildest ride yet.
(1) BRADBURY’S 1986 WORLDCON GOH SPEECH AND OTHER TREATS. History site Fanac.org has two segments of video highlights from the 1986 Worldcon in Atlanta.
ConFederation, the 44th World Science Fiction Convention, was held in Atlanta, GA in 1986, with Ray Bradbury and Terry Carr as Guests of Honor. Hosted by Eve Ackerman, this is “ConFederation (1986) Worldcon – Best of Confederation w/ Ray Bradbury Guest of Honor speech – Part 1” and includes candid scenes around the convention, an excerpt of a (very funny) performance on the recent history of SF, a little filk, and a little programming. Best of all are long excerpts from the Guest of Honor speeches. Terry Carr talks about his fannish past, and after that there are 20+ minutes of Ray Bradbury’s captivating Guest of Honor speech. Ray touches on fandom, Ray Harryhausen, John Houston, EPCOT Center and more, ending with a stirring affirmation. This is an outstanding talk by Ray Bradbury.” Thanks to Ron Zukowski, co-chair of ConFederation for permission to put this online.
In Cake Literary’s upcoming middle grade novel Last Gate of the Emperor—from co-authors Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky) and Prince Joel Makonnen—a young boy living in a technologically dense near-future grapples with the reality that while the world’s arguably become a more advanced and developed place, its bounty still isn’t exactly available to everyone.
(3) TARDIS MUST DODGE THE SUPER BOWL. The pandemic has forced Los Angeles Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One to call off its 2021 edition. The postponement to 2022 was announced today. The exact date in 2022 remains open, as the NFL has committed to play the Super Bowl in February in LA’s new stadium and has not fixed its own date yet.
It is with deep sadness that today we must announce that we are officially postponing the 2021 Gallifrey One convention to the first quarter of 2022, due to the ongoing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic emergency.
Gallifrey One has run successfully every year since our first event in 1990, and we’ve never intended to take a year off. But these are extraordinary times: infection rates are climbing, there are unknown factors regarding safety and community exposure, and there have been ongoing edicts from local and county officials in our area prohibiting all mass gatherings, so this news should come as no surprise to anyone. There is simply no way we can continue planning our event for next February with the same goals in mind, given that it’s very likely our lives won’t return to any semblance of normalcy until after a vaccine is proven effective and is widely circulated to the general population… which according to the medical community won’t be happening until at least sometime in the middle of next year.
(4) MIND IF I SMOKE? A satellite has traced smoke from the US wildfires over Northern Europe reports the German-language site Wetteronline. Here is a computer translation to English:
….For days, the smoke has been billowing over the skies of the US West Coast. In San Francisco, the sky turned into a deep red in the middle of the day. The column of smoke from a fire in California reached a record height of 17 kilometers. So far up, the particles with the jet stream can shift particularly quickly to the east, which has now happened.
A NASA satellite analysis shows how particles were transported from the west coast, first over North America and then across the Atlantic with a low pressure area. According to an analysis by the European Meteorological Satellite organization, the particles reached Central Europe on Friday.
(5) MEDIA ANNIVERSARY.
September 12, 1993 — seaQuest DSV premiered on NBC. Created by Rockne S. O’Bannon who was also responsible for Defiance and Farscape, it counted Steven Spielberg among its legion of executive producers. The actual producers were Steve Beers, Gregg Fienberg and Oscar L. Costo. The cast was large and included Roy Scheider, Jonathan Brandis, Stephanie Beacham, Don Franklin and Michael Ironside. It lasted three seasons and fifty-seven episodes but it never had great ratings and was canceled. Three novels were written during the first season, two by Diane Duane and David Bischoff. There were also comics, action figures, replica badges and even t-shirts but a seaQuest DSV never made it out of the prototype stage alas.
(6) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.
[Compiled by Cat Eldridge and John Hertz.]
Bon September 12, 1897 — Walter B. Gibson. Writer and professional magician who’s best known for his creating and being the first and main writer of the pulp character The Shadow. Using the pen-name Maxwell Grant, he wrote 285 of the 325 Shadow stories published by Street & Smith in The Shadow magazine of the Thirties and Forties. He also wrote a Batman prose story which appeared in Detective Comics #500 and was drawn by Thomas Yeates. (Died 1985.) (CE)
Born September 12, 1917 – Han Suyin. (Han is the family name.) She never liked Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (H. King dir. 1955; she is portrayed by Jennifer Jones) which she felt distorted her novel. The Enchantress, her last, is ours; eight others; eight memoirs; seven historical studies including two of Mao and one of Chou (or as mainland China now prefers, Zhou). (Died 2012) [JH]
Bon September 12, 1921 — Stanislaw Lem. He’s best known for Solaris, which has been made into a film three times. The latest film made off a work of his is the 2018 His Master’s Voice. Both iBooks and Kindle have generous collections of his translated into English works at quite reasonable prices. (Died 2006.) (CE)
Bon September 12, 1922 — John Chambers. He’s best known for designing Spock’s pointed ears, and for the prosthetic make-up work on the Planet of the Apes franchise. Some of those character creations, including Cornelius and Dr. Zaius from the Planet of the Apes series, are on display at the Science Fiction Museum. He worked on the Munsters, Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Mission mpossible, Night Gallery and I Spy along with uncredited (at the time) prosthetic makeup work on Blade Runner. (Died 2001.) (CE)
Bon September 12, 1940 — John Clute, 80. Critic, one of the founders of Interzone (which I avidly read in digital form) and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (with Peter Nicholls) that I use every day for these Birthdays, and of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (with John Grant) as well as writing the Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction. All of these publications won Hugo Awards for Best Non-Fiction.and I’d be remiss not to single out for praise The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror which is simply a superb work.(CE)
Bon September 12, 1942 — Charles L. Grant. A writer who said he was best at what he called “dark fantasy” and “quiet horror.” Nightmare Seasons, a collection of novellas, won a World Fantasy Award, while the “A Crowd of Shadows” short garnered a Nebula as did “A Glow of Candles, a Unicorn’s Eye” novella. And “Temperature Days on Hawthorne Street” story would become the Tales from the Darkside episode “The Milkman Cometh”. The usual digital suspects have decent but not outstanding selections of his works including a few works of Oxrun Station, his core horror series. (Died 2006.) (CE)
Born September 12, 1942 – Marge Simon, 78. Edited Star*Line 1991-2011. Three Rhyslings, second woman to be named a Grand Master; two Elgins, one Dwarf Star, three Stokers, one Lord Ruthven. One novel, seven dozen shorter stories, four hundred fifty poems, a hundred twenty covers (see here, here), three hundred interiors (see here, here). Various co-authors including husband Bruce Boston. [JH]
Born September 12, 1946 – Don Brautigam. Eighty covers; here is Michaelmas; here is the Feb 83 Asimov’s; here is Virtual Light. (Died 2008) [JH]
Born September 12, 1957 – Deb Vanasse, 63. No Returns (with Gail Giles) for us, three other novels; six picture books, two nonfiction, about Alaska, where DV lived for thirty-six years. A Distant Enemy a Junior Literary Guild selection; it and Out of the Wilderness in John Gillespie’s Best Books for Young Teen Readers. DV and Andromeda Romano-Lax founded the 49 Alaska Writing Center. [JH]
Born September 12, 1958 – Jean-Pierre Normand, 62. Seven dozen covers, seventy interiors. Here is Solaris 100. Here is the Apr 04 Analog. Here is the Anticipation (67th Worldcon) Souvenir Book. Here is Orbiter. Here is Polar Borealis 6. Artbook Science Fiction Illustrations. [JH]
Bon September 12, 1962 — Mary Kay Adams, 58. She was Na’Toth, a Narn who was the aide to G’Kar in the second season of Babylon 5, and she would show up as the Klingon Grilka in the episodes “The House of Quark” and “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places” in Deep Space Nine. (CE)
Born September 12, 1989 – Jorge Jacinto, 31. Seven covers for us; much else. Here is Beneath Ceaseless Skies 112. Here is Le monde du fleuve. Here is Bücherköning. Here is his card for Invoke Prejudice. He’s Portuguese, so here is a a port and here is a ship. Website here. [JH]
(7) SFF-INSPIRED MUSIC. Bandcamp, which is a site for selling music from independent musicians and labels, has highlighted nine Asian electronic musicians who have been inspired by speculative fiction.
Electronic music has historically had an uneasy relationship with narrative. While rock was elbowing its way into the category of “serious music” with the concept album, house and techno preferred to emphasize the kinesthetic utility of organized sound. Early producers often avoided the album format entirely, focusing instead on 12’’ singles that could be easily slotted into DJ sets, prioritizing emotional resonance over cerebral stimulation.
One notable exception, however, is electronic music’s association with speculative fiction, the system of literary genres that imagine alternate futures and realities. From the mystic Alvin Toffler-inspired futurism of techno progenitor Cybotron to the cli-fi storyline that underpins Grimes’ most recent album, there’s a rich tradition of computer-made music meditating on the technology that made it. Considering that electronic music almost by definition sounds futuristic, it’s perhaps unsurprising that its creators are so often interested in what that future will look like.
This tradition is being made richer by the recent explosion of electronic music created by East and Southeast Asian artists. Forward-thinking labels like CHINABOT and Do Hits have established brilliant rosters of producers either living in or hailing from Asia, all of whom are putting their own stamp on the genre’s decades-long dialogue with speculative fiction. In contrast to their more Eurocentric peers, these artists often incorporate components of Asian folklore and spirituality into their work, which are as likely to feature guzheng or suona samples as they are drum machines and synthesizers….
Lots of people are saying, “Hell no,” to the “Facebook Unblock Challenge,” this widely spread meme that insists we should unblock all the people we barred from our Facebook activities and then apologize to them.
The thing is, people seem to be treating this as if it’s merely someone’s piss-poor Utopian idea.
No. It is not that. It is worse.
It is trolling.
It is a stone attempt, possibly connected with the election, to gaslight those of us who didn’t want racists or trolls or abusive pieces of shit in our lives
…Well over a hundred people who I quite rightly decided, for one reason or another, I didn’t need on my page. And that is not all that many. I cited the number to Stonekettle’s Jim Wright once and he told me that it was downright adorable.
I’ll tell you what “Unblock and Apologize” is all about. It is an attempt — possibly Russian — to get good people to self-gaslight, to wonder if they were truly fair in all those cases where they had to dropkick people, to delete their asshole filters and to endure all that bullshit ALL OVER AGAIN. There is a reason it is taking place before the election. It is so the piece of shit you barely remember, who you blocked for advocating genocide, or something of equal vileness, can have access to you again. It is an attempt to break you.
This is not just a stupid idea. This is a disinformation campaign.
(10) THE LAST TAKEOFF OF JONNY QUEST. StrucciMovies makes a case that “Adult Swim just cancelled the best show on television.” CONTENT WARNING.
“What if a raunchy parody of Jonny Quest and other old school adventure cartoons grew into one of the richest, funniest, and most human shows on television? What if two pop culture geniuses and their tiny crew spent 17 years and seven seasons crafting a show that quickly grew tired of making fun of its world and instead chose to invest in it with layered mythology, complex characters, and fascinating mysteries? What if the crude animation of the early seasons evolved into quietly beautiful work, showcasing stunning action, brilliant character designs, and a downright cinematic framing? The Venture Bros. was the quiet miracle of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line-up, an always-evolving magic trick that was never content to sit still. A silly cartoon that learned to let its characters, and stakes, matter.”
(11) VIDEO OF THE DAY. A tribute to the late Diana Rigg.
[Thanks to Cat Eldridge, JJ, John King Tarpinian, Chris Barkley, Mike Kennedy, Andrew Porter, Michael Toman, John Hertz, Cora Buhlert, N., Rob Thornton, and Martin Morse Wooster for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Anna Nimmhaus.]
While looking for something in issues of Marty Cantor’s Holier Than Thou at Fanac.org, I came across several columns I wrote for him. I’ve added as “pages” two of them that Filers might find entertaining.
”And In The Darkness Bind Them” tells what I saw standing in line outside a Westwood theater waiting to see Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings in its 1979 first run. Dr. Seuss wishes he was there!
“Riverboat Gambler” gives readers a front-row seat in a LASFS den of iniquity as three experienced hearts players, including the near-legendary Lon Atkins, lightly fleece a newcomer with delusions of adequacy, young Mike Glyer.
Love Bites centers on two people trying to rebuild their lives – one in a very literal way.
…Two years after a painful divorce, Chloë is still struggling to leave the house, paralysed by anxiety and memory. So when she’s bullied into a night of dancing by her busybody aunt and finds herself in a goth club, on her own, in a strange part of town, she isn’t looking for anything more than to pass the time until she can leave.
Then she meets Angela, a smart, beautiful astronomy Ph.D. student whose smile makes her heart pound. In Angela’s eyes, Chloë can see a future. Suddenly, home alone is the last place Chloë wants to be.
…Angela and Chloë might just be perfect for each other. But how do you build a life together when one of you is already dead?
About the author:Ry Herman, born in the U.S., is now a permanent Scottish resident, and has been writing theatrical plays for most of his life. He acts and directs, and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. He is bisexual and genderqueer. Hobbies include baking bread, playing tabletop roleplaying games, and reading as many books as humanly possible.
MIKE GLYER: What was the inspiration for Love Bites?
RY HERMAN: I met the love of my life in a goth club, one night very close to the turn of the 21st century. Both of us had recently gotten out of awful relationships. That created a bond between us, in the shared understanding of what we’d both been through, but at the same time it made us reluctant to start anything new. That dynamic, that simultaneous drawing together and pushing apart, eventually formed the basis for the book.
MG: Legend, books, and movies give vampires various attributes and vulnerabilities. What have you added and subtracted from the traditional vampire? In fact, doesn’t one of your characters try to come up with tests to answer that for herself?
RY HERMAN: I tried to keep my vampires fairly traditional in their attributes. Mine are a bit more invulnerable than some. There are so many accumulated vampire legends, though, that every author has to pick and choose. One I didn’t include, but would love to see in a story sometime, is the arithmomania aspect; in some legends, one way to stop a vampire is to put a pile of millet or rice in their way, because they’ll be compelled to stop and count every grain.
And yes, the main vampire in my story is a scientist by training, and she immediately sets out to test how her newfound supernatural powers work. She becomes very frustrated, too, when some of them obstinately defy logic – she isn’t invisible, so why doesn’t she have a reflection?
MG: I enjoyed the wordplay – where else am I going to see a character say they spent a weekend learning to “cooper a firkin”? Language that suited the character just fine, I should add – she’s an editor at a publishing house, after all. But to tailor the vocabulary just right, did you have to “kill your darlings” sometimes?
RY HERMAN: I actually tend to hear character voices very clearly in my head from the beginning. I suspect that’s because I began my writing career as a playwright, and theater conveys information almost entirely through dialogue. But for the same reason, physical description was something I had to go through a long process of learning to write when I turned to novels. I think it was around the third draft when I realized that maybe readers would like to know what my characters look like – you never put that in a play, because you don’t know what actor will end up playing the part. In the early stages of the book, there were a lot of failed attempts at description, and a number of descriptive passages I initially quite liked but later realized had to be changed or cut.
MG: Lately I have seen several writers put into characters’ mouths the idea that life is composed of stories we tell ourselves. The figure in Love Bites who says that might be an unreliable narrator – (or might not!) – Is her advice a good strategy for changing your life?
RY HERMAN: Yes and no, I think. Many of the events that affect our lives really are external to us and out of our control, and there isn’t a way to alter them through sheer force of will. But I do think that the way we interpret and respond to events is, in a real way, an ongoing story we tell ourselves. It’s possible to change that narrative. And if we’re all the protagonists of our own stories, it’s important to remember that tragedies are traditionally about protagonists who can’t or won’t learn and change.
MG: Two of your main characters are abuse survivors from other relationships, and in a series of scenes threaded through the book you show us what one of them experienced. What’s one thing a writer needs to keep in mind when writing about a character in an abusive relationship?
RY HERMAN: I’m reluctant to make a blanket prescription for this, because I think everyone experiences abuse in their own way. For myself, I found it important to keep it as emotionally real as I could, even when that made it very difficult to write. But leaving out the difficult parts would have meant only telling part of the story.
MG: Who are some authors of supernatural characters that you admire, and why?
RY HERMAN: There are so many! I’m going to have to restrict it to a few. Robin McKinley created some of the best vampires ever written in Sunshine – recognizable as once being human, but at the same time creepily alien. For fairies, I might go with Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series. She makes them attractive and horrifying at the same time. The werewolves in Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books are pretty great. But I really could go on forever – Kirsty Logan’s mermaids, Tasha Suri’s daiva, Sophie Cameron’s angels, R. F. Kuang’s shamans, Robert Jackson Bennett’s gods, Max Gladstone’s craftworkers, Fonda Lee’s Green Bones, N. K. Jemisin’s orogenes, Rachel Hartman’s dragons, Victoria Schwab’s ghosts, T. Kingfisher’s witches, Tamsyn Muir’s necromancers …
MG: By the end of the book important decisions about sexuality and the fate of a relationship are not the only issues your main characters have to cope with, so are immortality, supernatural strength, and foretelling the future. Is there meant to be a sequel? The key relationships get resolved, but there are questions that didn’t demand immediate answers which could lead to another novel.
RY HERMAN: There will be a sequel! Bleeding Hearts, the second book about Angela and Chloë, will be coming out sometime in 2021. I wrote it because those unresolved questions eventually made me desperate to find out what was going on with the characters a year later.
MG: What else does the future hold for Ry Herman?
RY HERMAN: Hopefully, a lot more books after these!
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.
Now that “Star Trek” has beamed Jean-Luc Picard back up into its universe, the sci-fi franchise’s captain is already plotting its next course. And that may include mind-melding the film and TV universes after more than a decade apart.
When Viacom and CBS agreed to re-merge, after spending the past 14 years as separate companies, the film and TV rights to “Star Trek” once again came under the same corporate roof. CBS TV Studios controls the TV side, while Paramount has steered the Enterprise on the film part of the universe.
Alex Kurtzman, who oversees “Star Trek” for CBS TV Studios, believes it’s only a matter of time before the film and TV worlds of “Star Trek” collide.
“The ink has just dried on the merger and the doors are just opening. So I think anything is possible at this point,” he told TheWrap. “I can’t imagine that CBS and Paramount, in their infinite wisdom, would say lets create two ‘Star Trek’s and have them be separate. That doesn’t seem like it would be a good strategy to me.”
You can choose between seven different designs: animated Batman images for the character’s 80th anniversary; the Batman symbol; an animated Superman opening his shirt to the logo underneath; the Wonder Woman symbol; The Flash’s symbol; an animated Harley Quinn; and the whole Justice League in animated form.
Super-sized volcanic eruptions and giant asteroids crashing in from outer space are the stuff of disaster movies. They have listener Santosh from South Africa slightly concerned. He’d like to know what’s being done in real life to prepare for this kind of event.
Although the chance of these events occurring is low, Santosh isn’t entirely wrong to be worried: Earth has a much longer history than humans do, and there’s evidence that several past extinction events millions of years ago wiped out the dominant species on the planet at the time, as we’ve heard before on CrowdScience. The kind of extraordinary geological and extra-terrestrial hazards thought to be responsible for the death of millions of lives do still exist. So is there really any way that humans could survive where the dinosaurs – and plenty of other species – have failed?
Presenter Marnie Chesterton finds out by meeting experts who are already preparing for the remote but real possibility of the biggest disaster we could face. It turns out that in real life most things we can think of which could cause an extinction event are being watched closely by scientists and governmental agencies.
How worried we should really be by the possibility of a sudden super-volcanic eruption at Yellowstone in the USA, or one of the other enormous volcanoes dotting our planet’s surface? Marnie heads into an underground bunker near the remote Scottish coast to find out if hiding out is a viable survival option. Now a museum, Scotland’s Secret Bunker, formerly RAF Troywood, is one of a network of nuclear shelters built by nation states during the Cold War.
And she hears about one of the combined space agencies most ambitious projects yet: NASA and ESA’s Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission to crash an impactor into an asteroid’s moon to find out whether we could knock any potentially problematic collisions off-course well before Earth impact
(5) PAUSEWANG OBIT. [Item by Cora Buhlert.] Gudrun Pausewang, a German YA author who
occasionally ventured into SFF, died on January 24 at the age of 91. Ms.
Pausewang’s forays into science fiction were mainly dystopian such as the 1983
novel The Last Children of Schewenborn, a story about life and death
(but mainly death) after a nuclear war, and the 1987 novel The Cloud
about the fallout from a nuclear disaster, which sits on the reading list of
many German schools. She also wrote less gloomy fare on occasion such as the
1972 modern fairytale “The Merman Behind the House”. I wasn’t a huge
fan of her work – way too gloomy for my tastes – but she was certainly an
important voice. Here is an English language obituary: “Anti-nuclear author Gudrun Pausewang dies”.
(6) TODAY IN HISTORY.
January 27, 1980 — Galactica 1980 premiered on ABC. A spin-off from the original Battlestar Galactica series, it was the result of a massive letter writing campaign in the days before email which made the network actually pay attention. Alas it performed quite poorly and was canceled after the initial order of ten episodes. I remember Lorne Greene as Commander Adama was the only major returning cast member, but I’ll freely admit I’ve not seen either series in decades so that could be inaccurate. The DVD release twenty seventy years later would be carry the tagline of “The Original Battlestar Galactica’s Final Season”.
January 27, 1998 — The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy premiered on UPN. Written by Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist, it was directed by Joe Dante. It starred John Corbett, Carolyn McCormick, Rod Taylor, John Pyper-Ferguson, Elisabeth Harnois and J. Madison Wright. It was intended as a pilot for The Osiris Chronicles series but that never happened though similar concepts can be seen in Roddenberry’s Andromeda series. It is available for viewing here.
January 27, 2008 — Attack of the Gryphon premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel. It was directed by Andrew Prowse, with a cast led by Amber Benson, Jonathan LaPaglia, and Larry Drake. It was one in a series that included a film called Mansquito. Really. Truly. Like most of the Sci-Fi Pictures original films series, neither critics or reviewers were impressed with the story, SFX or acting. It’s got no rating at Rotten Tomatoes and the scant number of Amazon ratings are all over the place.
January 27, 2008 — Journey To The Center Of The Earth premiered. It was directed by Eric Brevin. It starred Brendan Fraser, Anita Briem, and Josh Hutcherson. Surprisingly, at least to me, it received positive reviews from critics, and was a huge box office success. It currently holds a 51% rating among reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes.
(7) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.
[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]
Born January 27, 1756 — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the strength of The Magic Flute. (Died 1791.)
Born January 27, 1940 — James Cromwell, 80. I think we best know him as Doctor Zefram Cochrane In Star Trek: First Contact , which was re-used in the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly (Part I)”. He’s been in other genre films including Species II, Deep Impact, The Green Mile, Space Cowboys, I, Robot, Spider-Man 3 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. He played characters on three Trek series, Prime Minister Nayrok on “The Hunted” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Jaglom Shrek in the two part “Birthright” story, Hanok on the “Starship Down” episode of Deep Space Nine and Zefram Cochrane once again as noted before on Enterprise.
Born January 27, 1950 — Michaela Roessner, 70. She won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer for Walkabout Woman. Her The Stars Dispose duology is quite excellent. Alas, none of her fiction is available digitally.
Born January 27, 1956 — Mimi Rogers, 64. Her best known known SFF role is Professor Maureen Robinson in the Lost in Space film which I did see in a theatre I just realized. She’s also Mrs. Marie Kensington in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and she’s Orianna Volkes in the Penny Dreadful hitchhiker horror film. She’s got one-offs in Tales from The Crypt, The X-Files, Where Are You Scooby Doo? and Ash v. Evil Dead.
Born January 27, 1957 — Frank Miller, 63. He’s both an artist and writer so I’m not going to untangle which is which here. What’s good by him? Oh, I love The Dark Knight Returns, both the original comic series and the animated film, though the same not no true of Sin City where I prefer the original series much more. Hmmm… What else? His runs on Daredevil and Electra of course. That should do.
Born January 27, 1958 — Susanna Thompson, 62. She played Dr. Lenara Kahn in Deep Space Nine’s “Rejoined” episode and was the Borg Queen in three episodes of Voyager. Back here on Earth, she was Moira Queen on Arrow. She’s also had roles in Alien Nation: Dark Horizon, The Lake, Bermuda Triangle, Dragonfly, Kings, The Gathering and she had two different one-offs on Next Gen before being cast as the Borg Queen.
Born January 27, 1963 — Alan Cumming, 57. His film roles include his performances as Boris Grishenko in GoldenEye, Fegan Floop In the Spy Kids trilogy, Loki, god of Mischief in Son of the Mask (a really horrid film), Nightcrawler In X2 and Judas Caretaker in Riverworld.
Born January 27, 1966 — Tamlyn Tomita, 54. I’m fairly sure I first saw her in a genre role on the Babylon 5 film The Gathering as Lt. Cmdr. Laurel Takashima. Or it might have been on The Burning Zone as Dr. Kimberly Shiroma. And she had a recurring late on Eureka in Kate Anderson, and Ishi Nakamura on Heroes? She’s been in a number of SFF series in one-off roles including Highlander, Quantum Leap, The Sentinel, Seven Days, FreakyLinks, Stargate SG-1 and a recurring as late as Tamiko Watanabe in The Man in The High Castle.
Born January 27, 1969 — Patton Oswalt, 51. He gets his Birthday Honors for voicing Remy in Ratatouille, a truly lovely and rather tasty film. He also played Eric, Billy, Sam and Thurston Koenig in a recurring and fascinating role on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. And let’s not overlook that he’s been Max for the part several years on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Damn, I almost forgot he voiced Space Cabbie on Justice league Action!
We Terry Pratchett fans have been lucky in recent years. We were given Good Omens, which thanks to co-author Neil Gaiman’s shepherding and incredible performances from David Tennant and Michael Sheen, was a joy to watch. And we were told that BBC America was developing The Watch, a series based on Pratchett’s stories about Ankh Morpork’s City Watch. Yes, we were a little nervous to read that Pratchett’s fierce, dark, sardonic stories were to become a “startlingly reimagined … punk rock thriller” that was “inspired by” the books. But we stayed faithful, for it was promised that the show would “still cleav[e] to the humour, heart and ingenuity of Terry Pratchett’s incomparably original work”.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., in the ’90s, tofu could be hard to find. It would be a long time before ramen joints spread across the city, before national chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods had their own store-brand tofu.
But like soba noodles, nori, rice and fish, tofu is a staple of Japanese home cooking. So my parents regularly made a 15-minute drive west, across the Willamette River, to stock up at Ota Tofu.
The old-school company still makes its tofu by hand in small batches, navigating a growing demand for plant-based foods. But what I didn’t realize then is that it’s also a cultural institution — the oldest tofu producer still operating in the country, Ota Tofu has fed Portland’s Japanese American community for more than 100 years.
Eileen Ota, a former owner of Ota Tofu, notes that other tofu producers existed earlier in the United States, but many ceased operations because of one event: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
(14) MYTH FULFILLMENT OR METAL FATIGUE? As The Week put
it: “A brawny visitor to
Disneyland managed to pull a model of Excalibur out of a model stone, thus
arguably revealing himself as the future king of England. A friend fo the
future king, whom he identified only as ‘Sam,’ says he’s ‘a pretty buff dude.”
Also at CinemaBlend: “A
Disneyland Guest Literally Pulled The Sword Excalibur From The Stone”.
A few days ago the sword, which sits in front of the carousel, went missing, and while it was believed to have something to do with an upcoming refurbishment of the attraction, it seems that’s not the case. WDWNT reports that the site has been told by somebody in the know, that the hilt of the sword was actually pulled, or more accurately, broken, by a guest who pulled on it so hard that it came out.
(15) VIDEO OF THE DAY. In “Obst” on Vimeo, Jan Eisner asks the question, “If fruit could move, what would they do?”
[Thanks to JJ, John King Tarpinian, Chip Hitchcock, Cat Eldridge, Andrew
Porter, Martin Morse Wooster, John Hertz, and Mike Kennedy for some of these
stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Kip W.]
Walter Day, the trading card creator who also celebrates video games and historical figures, has announced that Balticon will host his 2020 Science Fiction Trading Card Award Ceremony on Saturday, May 23 at 2 p.m. Day will unveil the newest cards in the Science Fiction Series and present ornate awards to worthy honorees who have contributed greatly to the global science fiction culture.
In recent years this ceremony has been conducted at WorldCon 74
(Kansas City), WorldCon 75 (Helsinki, Finland), WorldCon 76 (San Jose) as well
as smaller ceremonies at the last five years of the Nebula Awards Weekend.
This year’s awards ceremony will be held at Balticon 54, which is the annual Maryland Regional Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention put on by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. Here are some of the trading cards that will be unveiled during these ceremonies and given away as free gifts to the attendees at the event. I thank Walter for including my card in this release!
(Note: Day says he has already corrected the spelling of Leibowitz, but he hasn’t posted the new art.)
Day has held his ceremony in conjunction with major cons and
events over the past several years. Card #65 (author C. J Cherryh) was presented on the stage during the 2016
Nebula Awards weekend festivities, in Chicago, IL. Card #34 (author Robert
Silverberg) was among many presented on the stage during the Grand Masters Talk
at the 2016 WorldCon, in Kansas City, MO. On Saturday, May 18, 2019, at the
2019 SFWA Nebula Awards Conference in Los Angeles, Science Fiction Historical
Trading Card #211 was presented to William Gibson — the author of Neuromancer — as part of the ceremonies that enshrined him
as the 2019 SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master of Science Fiction.
Day first gained fame as a video arcade owner and for his work certifying video game achievements for the Guinness Book of Records. He is widely recognized as the inspiration for Mr. Litwak, the beloved arcade owner in Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph animated film released in November 2012.
Ready Player One author Ernest Cline says Walter Day (along with Twin Galaxies arcade and Billy Mitchell) were the inspiration for writing his story in 2011, later adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg.