Category Archives: science fiction

My Reading at Capclave in October

It’s almost October, and in addition to the baseball post-season, it means that Capclave is just around the corner. Capclave is my local science fiction convention, and the convention I attended most frequently since 2007. I usually have a heavy schedule of programming at Capclave, but this year they’ve given me a break. I have one panel and one reading.

The panel is a shorter, updated version of what Bud Sparhawk and I presented last year on Online Writing Tools. We are tentatively scheduled to present at 4 pm on Saturday, October 11.

They also gave me a reading this year. This will be my third public reading ever, and I plan to read something brand spanking new. For those who have been following along for a while, you know that I finished up the first draft of a new baseball alternate history novella, called “Strays” a month or so ago. The first part of that novella is now in second draft form and good enough for a reading, so I will be reading the first part of that novella during my slotted time, which is tentatively set for 6 pm on Saturday, October 11.

If you’ve never been to Capclave before, it is a great convention to attend. It’s focus is primarily on written science fiction, and short fiction at that. This years guests of honor include Paolo Bacigalupi, Holly Black, and Genevieve Valentine.

Hope to see you there!

I’m on the SF Signal Podcast This Morning: “Authors We Can’t Get Enough of (and Why)”

Last week, I was part of the Hugo Award-winning SF Signal Podcast hosted by Patrick Hester. Among the other guests wereJosh VogtJeff Patterson, Andrea Johnson, Paul Weimer, and Larry Ketchersid, with John DeNardo lurking in the background as always. The topic this week was “Author We Can’t Get Enough of, and Why.” There are some great authors mentioned. I had to make a list while participating.

If you want to find out which author I can’t get enough of (and why I’ve accidentally stood that author up twice), have a listen.

It was a fun podcast, with lots of stuff going on in the background. For instance, while Patrick tried to bait John into jumping into the fray, Larry and I discussed the Churchill biography I’m about to finish up. None of that is in the podcast itself, however. That was all happening in the background as we all tried not to laugh. As always, it was a lot of fun.

The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 257): Authors We Can’t Get Enough Of and Why

To All the Hugo Award Winners: Thank You! You Saved Science Fiction for Me

Congratulations to all of the Hugo Award winners. You all saved science fiction for me. I had been slowly drifting away from the genre, in part because of new writing opportunities in other directions, but in part because I was frustrated by the lack of inclusion I saw, and the voices arguing for status quo. Those voices are not new in the genre, but the accumulated weight of their historical grinding was finally getting to me.

I served as Nebula Awards Commissioner this last year, and while I was pleased with the results of the awards, some of the campaigning I saw turned me off to the notion of awards in general. It wasn’t rampant, but it was there. I know that campaigning happens, but for me, it makes the awards seem more like baseball’s All-Star game. I guess I was in the unenviable position of seeing how the sausage was made, and didn’t like what I saw.

The Hugo Awards, with their associated controversies this year, had the potential to do a lot of harm to the genre. But these awards are voted on by fans, and the fans voices were loud and clear this year. The result was an incredible slate of winners that not only represent the best the genre has to offer, but that restored my faith in the fans, writers, and the genre itself.

Sometimes when I watch a movie or TV show, I’ll sit there and think, “Wow! I wish I was a [doctor | lawyer | baseball player | Superman].” The drama draws me in and I want to be just like the person I see on the big screen. Yesterday, as award after award was announced, I kept thinking to myself, “Gosh, I want to be a science fiction writer just like them!” That was when I knew that this year’s Hugo Awards saved science fiction for me.

A few notes on some of the specific awards and winners:

Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice

In Chicago in 2012, I sat at the hotel bar one evening with a bunch of people coming and going, including a quite a few SFWA board members. Ann was one of them, and she and I were among the last people at the table that evening. I’ve grown pretty disciplined about talking about the stories that I’m working on, while I’m working on them, but I lose that discipline around other writers, sometimes, and Ann is particularly easy to talk to. I think I remember her telling me that she was working on her first novel–the novel that turned out to be Ancillary Justice.

Ancillary Justice has gone on to do something no other science fiction novel has, to my knowledge, done before: it has won the Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, BSFA, and Locus Award for best novel all in the same year. Originally, I likened this to a baseball player hitting for the cycle, but I realize more and more, that an achievement like this is much more like a pitcher throwing a perfect game. I think there is a spot in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame waiting for Ann to fill it.

Charles Stross for “Equoid”

I met Charles Stross at Boskone in 2008. We spoke only briefly, but I learned we had a few things in common: he was pharmacist for a time, and I worked in a pharmacy. He also did some system administration, and so had I. We also had similar thoughts on DRM, or the lack thereof.

Stross has been one of those writers that challenges me. He writes far above my head on topics that I barely have a grasp upon, but I think that is a good thing. He sets the bar very high for other writers. I also admire his work ethic, which, at least from what he exposes on his blog, demonstrates that even for the best writers out there, writing is hard work. None of us phone it in. Few of us could get away with that. Stross’s writing reflects his work ethic, and it is no surprise that so many people like it.

Mary Robinette Kowal for “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”

I first worked with Mary when she was SFWA’s secretary, helping out with various technical work as a volunteer. The most time I spent with her was when I gave her a ride from Boston’s Logan airport to Readercon’s hotel several years back. Mary is one of the nicest people in science fiction. Up-and-coming writers would be hard pressed to find a better model to emulated on panels. And, of course, she is a brilliant writer, and her win for “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” is greatly deserved.

John Chu for “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere”

I don’t think I’ve ever met John Chu in person, but his story, which completed TOR.com’s sweep of the short fiction awards, is fantastic, and his “little story that could” speech last night was a highlight of the acceptance speeches.

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How UCR’s Eaton Collection Helped to Make Me a Science Fiction Writer

Trouble appears to be brewing at University of California, Riverside, home of the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy. According to UCR professor and science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, “[the] new library administration doesn’t seem to appreciate the value of the Eaton Collection or the expertise that goes into it.”

I attended UCR from 1990-1994, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a minor in Journalism. They have an excellent creative writing program there, and I was fortunate enough to take some of my fiction classes from amazing writers like Susan Straight and Stephen Minot. Professor Minot used to try to steer me away from genre-writing, but Professor Straight was always encouraging. Both helped make me the writer I am today.

But with respect to science fiction, I owe my biggest debt to UCR’s Eaton Collection. I don’t know about other fans, but when I started reading science fiction, I was a one-author reader. Someone turned me on to Piers Anthony, and for nearly six years, from junior high through high school, Piers Anthony is virtually all I read.

While at UCR, I wanted to branch out. I knew that science fiction had a rich and rocky history, and I wanted to learn more about it. In 1992, about halfway through my tenure at UCR, a new “slick” science fiction magazine hit the shelves, Science Fiction Age, edited by Scott Edelman. What I read in those pages began to give me an idea of how varied science fiction could be. I not only read new and wonderful stories, but learned about many writers I’d never heard of before.

The thing is: I was a college student. I barely had money for rent, let alone buying science fiction books. And that is where the Eaton Collection comes in. I can’t remember exactly how I learned about the Eaton Collection. It’s possible that a professor mentioned it to me, or its possible that I wandered past it in the Tomás Rivera library one day. However I discovered it, it was a life-changer.

The Eaton Collection had everything, and I was able to looking through it and read stuff that I would not have been able to find in a bookstore, even if I could have managed to scrounge up the money for it. Thanks to the Eaton collection, I began to read much more widely in science fiction. I discovered Harlan Ellison through the Eaton Collection. I discovered Connie Willis, and perhaps most important to me, I discovered Barry N. Malzberg, whose fiction taught me that science fiction could be literary while also being science fiction. Decades later, Barry would become a mentor of mine. I’m almost certain that would not have happened had I not had access to the Eaton collection. And without broader exposure to science fiction, I don’t think I would have had what it take to be a published science fiction writer.

There were many others that I discovered through the collection: Robert Silverberg, C. L. Moore, Octavia Butler, and William Gibson to name just a few.  Collections like the Eaton Collection have value beyond the rare items they contain. The provide a window into the genre for people who might not have the means or opportunity to otherwise peek inside and what’s there. These collections need to be protected like the national treasures that they are. They should be grown and preserved for the next generation of science fiction and fantasy writers, because, truth be told, without collections like these that are available to people, it’s hard to grow those future generations of writers, fans, and scholars of the genre.

The Retro Hugo Winners for 1939

The London Worldcon announced the winners of the 1939 Retro Hugo Awards, an award I was particularly eager to see, what with my interest in the Golden Age of science fiction. I was particularly interested in the winners for Best Novella and Best Novelette.

In the Best Novella category, “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart won the retro-Hugo. Stuart, of course, is the pseudonym for none other than John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. It was the last, and in my opinion, the best of Campbell’s fiction. In later years, three movies would be based on the premise of the story, perhaps most famously in John Carpenter’s The Thing.

For more than a year after the story was published, the letter columns in Astounding were frequently populated with letters asking for more Stuart stories. Campbell would reply that he had it on good authority that Stuart was permanently retired from fiction-writing, and that apparently, was no lie.

In the Best Novelette category, “Rule 18″ by Clifford D. Simak won the retro-Hugo. I don’t think “Rule 18″ is nearly as good a story as “Who Goes There?” but it has an important place in science fiction nevertheless, as it helped to establish Isaac Asimov’s friendship with Simak. Asimov used to write critiques of all of the stories that appeared in Astounding,  and he gave “Rule 18″ a particularly bad rating. Simak wrote Asimov to ask what he felt was wrong with the story so that he might improve in the future–and thus, a lifelong friendship was established.

I like the idea of the Retro Hugos, if for no other reason than it provides a mechanism for keeping some of these old stories from disappearing from our collective memory. I also wonder, from time-to-time, what Campbell or Simak or Clark or Virgil Finlay might have thought if someone told them that their work would still be remembered (and honored with an award) three quarters of a century later.

Yesterday’s Inaugural LAX Bradley Terminal Mini-Con

As the fates would have it, my flight yesterday arrived at Los Angeles International Airport around the same time that my friend, and fellow science fiction writer, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, was arriving for his flight to London for the World Science Fiction Convention. I’m not going to make it out to London for Worldcon this year, alas, but there is an unspoken rule in the science fiction world that if two writers find themselves together in the same airport at the same time, a mini-con must be arranged at once. And so, one was thus arranged.

We met up in the Bradley Terminal and proceeded downstairs for food. Alvaro and I then proceeded to talk shop for the next 90 minutes, and it was a blast. Of course, no mini-con would be complete without memorabilia, so I pulled out my copy of the November 1942 issue of Astounding1, which I carry around with me for just such emergencies2, and Alvaro and I posed for a Golden Age selfie.

LA MiniCon
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Swart Fowler

Despite what you may have heard, Alvaro and I did not plan to dress similarly for our mini-con. That part, at least, was a coincidence.

We made a sacred pledge that should any disaster befall Alvaro, I will inherit his copy of Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost, the only Asimov annotation that I don’t own. Should any disaster befall me, Alvar will inherit my signed paperback of The Caves of Steel. Should anything untoward happen to either of us, immediately look with suspicion upon the other. After all, we are writers, and science fiction fans moreover, and books, especially rare book, are the currency in which we deal.

When it was over, I grabbed a cab for my hotel, and Alvaro and his crew boarded their flight to London. I’d say that the inaugural LAX Bradley Terminal Mini-Con was a complete success. We are already trying to figure out in which city the 2nd annual LAX Bradley Terminal Mini-Con will take place.

Notes

  1. Which Alvaro can attest, really is signed by A.E. van Vogt and Jack Williamson.
  2. The way one might carry around a towel for similar emergencies.

Isaac Asimov, Data Journalist?

I am really enjoying what they are doing over at FiveThirtyEight, what Nate Silver is calling “data journalism.” Everything from elections, to batting order, to an analysis of how much material is left for the Game of Thrones TV show, it is all based on looking at data in new and interesting ways to seek out insights that might otherwise be missed. Reading many of these posts, I can’t help but think that this is often what Isaac Asimov did in many of the 399 science essays he wrote for F&SF from 1958 – 1992.

A classic example of this would be Asimov’s essay “The Height of Up[1. F&SF, October 1959. Also, View from a Height, Doubleday, 1963.]” in which Asimov ponders what the maximum achievable temperature in nature might be. Beginning with well known quantities, like the average surface temperature of the sun, Asimov works his way backward through colder and colder temperatures to find the coldest possible temperature in nature, which turns out to be a fraction above absolute zero. He then works up through hotter and hotter things (the center of the sun, the center of larger stars, supernova, etc.). In doing so, he discusses temperature scales, both hot and cold, and the units that measure temperature, as well as what temperature actually is–a measure of energy. Asimov was always colloquial in his essays, which is one thing that made them broadly approachable.

Reading an Asimov essay like “The Height of Up” I could almost see a similar (modern?) version written by a FiveThirtyEight staffer, wondering what the hottest temperature in the universe might be. There would be fancier visualizations, but the core data analysis and clear, colloquial exposition would be at its center.

Asimov wrote many essays on the population problem. In his essay, “The Power of Progression[2. F&SF, May 1969. Also The Stars in their Courses, Doubleday, 1971.]” Asimov explores the consequences of an exponential progression of population increase, and demonstrates that at such a rate it will only take 4200 years until the entire known universe is crammed with the mass of humanity.

Lists are popular in blog posts and articles these days, but this is nothing new. In “The Noblemen of Science[3. F&SF, April 1966. Also From Earth to Heaven, Doubleday 1966.]“, Asimov does an analysis of Noble Prize winners, breaking them down by both category and country and drawing some interesting conclusions from the results of those lists. This is something that has probably been done dozens of times since, but it is also the very kind of thing I could see being done by data journalists at blogs like FiveThirtyEight or the Upshot.

It reminds me that very little is really new. Techniques and technology improves, making it easier to calculate and display the data in useful and interesting ways. But data journalism, at least in an informal sense, has been going on for decades. I like the concept behind data journalism, something which will surprise no one who reads my posts, but and I find it both comforting and amusing that Asimov had been doing this kind of thing in his essays for decades.

RavenCon 2014

I spent Saturday at RavenCon in Richmond, Virginia. I was not on programming, nor had I planned to go, but the timing worked out well, and RavenCon has a special place in my heart because back in 2007, it was the first science fiction convention I ever attended–and I had an amazing time there.

So I hit the road at 7 am on Saturday and arrived at the hotel in Richmond at 9 am. Almost as soon as I arrived, I ran into Jeff Patterson, of SF Signal Podcast and The (Four) Hoarsemen podcast. Not long after that, Edmund Schubert, editor of InterGalactic Medicine Show, joined us. We chatted for a while and then headed over to see Edmund on a panel about quitting (or not quitting) your day job. The panel also included Jim Stratton, Tim Burke, and Joelle Presby.

After that panel, I chatted with folks some more, talking with Edmund and Jeff, as well as Lawrence Schoen, and Gray Rinehart. Edmund, Gray and I then hiked across various parking lots and sidewalks to find our way to a Texas Roadhouse restaurant for lunch. This was the kind of lunch I used to imagine when I was just starting out, a bunch of writers talking shop, and it was a lot of fun.

After lunch, I wandered around the con area. I stopped by the DC17 table, which is raising support to hold the  World Science Fiction convention in 2017 in Washington, D.C. Bill Lawhorn was at the table and we got to chat for a while. (And yes, I did support the bid and got a very cool looking t-shirt.) RavenCon guest of honor Elizabeth Bear stopped by the table while we were talking so I had a chance to say hello to her as well. I wandered through the huckster room, and after that, headed out to the car to grab my laptop.

I returned, sat at the lobby bar and did some writing. Then there was more conversation with Jeff and Edmund, and I attended one more panel, the Small Press Panel. This one was interesting and lively and had some good questions from the audience as well.

I had planned to stay until 7 pm, but by 6, I was ready to head home. I said my goodbyes, got into the car and drove north. I made it back home at 8 pm, just before some strong storms hit. I was beat, but it was a fun day.

I’ll Be at RavenCon for One Day – Saturday, April 26

I hadn’t planned to attend any science fiction conventions until later this fall, but I’ve decided to head down to RavenCon in Richmond, VA, for one day, Saturday, April 26. RavenCon was the first science fiction convention I ever attended, and it made an amazing impression on me in a very short time.

If you’ll be at RavenCon on Saturday and want to catch up or say hello, let me know, or just ping me on Twitter sometime that day.

(Later in the fall, I’ll be at Capclave and World Fantasy.)

My Favorite Fictional Battle Scenes

I‘m re-reading It by Stephen King and on Monday, read Chapter 13: The Apocalyptic Rock Fight. It’s not what one might think of as a traditional “battle scene” but I think it’s the best fictional battle scene I’ve ever read. It got me thinking about other battle scenes I’ve read and so I’ve compiled a short list of my favorite fictional battle scenes. They are:

1. “The Apocalyptic Rock Fight” in It by Stephen King. A dozen kids in the late 1958s having it out in a quarry. It’s not a dog fight or a space battle, but it is an epic battle none-the-less. The entire scene is supposed to unfold in about four minutes, and having participated in my share of rock fights as a kid1 it felt real to me. And it’s the scene where the Losers Club comes together. It’s a pivotal moment and it is execute flawlessly by Stephen King.

2. The battle of Eyebolt Canyon in Wizard and Glass by Stephen KingWizard and Glass was my favorite of all of the Dark Tower books, and the battle that takes place in Eyebolt Canyon, when Roland and his ka-tet trap their enemies there and watch them destroyed by fire and thinny was cathartic after all that they had been through. It was one of those few scenes that I could imagine as epic in scope on the big screen, and it was awesome.

3. The battle at King’s Landing in A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. That scene was just–wow! You sort of anticipate it through the whole novel and then when it comes, it is just epic. While pretty good for television, the scene on the silver screen just doesn’t do justice to that battle scene. And the addition of the Greek-fire-like substance makes it that much more epic.

4. The submarine battle in The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. Say what you will about Clancy’s writing style (which wasn’t great) that battle scene toward the end of the book is phenomenal. Much better in the book than what they did in the movie, although the movie wasn’t too bad either.

5. The battle at the Osaka Castle in Shogun by James Clavell. While the details have grown fuzzy–I read the book 9 years ago–that battle scene, which included attacking Ninja, stands out in my mind as a great one.

Honorable mention: The battle of Agincourt in Henry V by William Shakespeare. While I don’t remember the play going into a lot of detail about the battle itself (I seem to recall a before and after), I’d known about the battle before I ever read the play and I remember picturing it my mind as I read the play.

I find it interesting that, while some of the battle scenes I’ve listed are fantasy, none are science fiction. I think that’s because it is really tough to do a good science fiction battle scene and make it feel epic. But also, as we said at my Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop last summer, “Space is big, really big.” And is a place as big as space, even an epic battle can seem small.

Any favorite fictional (I’m talking written, not on the screen) battle scenes you have? Let me hear about them in the comments.

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Notes

  1. We called them “dirt bomb” fights.

Happy Birthday Amazing Stories – Here’s My Oldest Issue (Dec 1926)

I learned from Steve Davidson’s Amazing Stories blog that today is the 88th birthday of science fiction’s first magazine. In honor of that birthday, here is a picture of my oldest issue of Amazing, sent to me by a fan of my Vacation in the Golden Age posts. It’s the December 1926 issue. That makes this issue part of Amazing’s first year of publication, but the issue itself is not quite 88 years old (although from the wear and tear, it certain looks it).

Amazing Dec 1926

And here is the contents page for the issue:

Amazing Content 1926

Happy birthday, Amazing Stories!

Read a Short Story Today

Twenty years ago, it seemed that the number of outlets producing good short science fiction, fantasy, and horror were few and far between. Today it is thriving. With attention spans growing shorter, short stories are the perfect ingredient for readers who want to fill those shrinking slots of time. And so, as a reminder, here are a baker’s dozen of great outlets for outstanding stories.

Happy reading!