Category Archives: science fiction

My Semi-Annual Reminder That I am Not a Fan of Science Fiction Movies

Because I’ve been asked nearly a dozen times what I’ve thought about Interstellar, let me remind folks that while I am a science fiction writer, and I love reading science fiction, I am not a fan of science fiction movies. Sure, when I was a kid, I loved Star Wars. But as I got older, the science fiction movie gene within me atrophied. Indeed, the movie gene seems to have withered within me, and so it should come as no surprise that I have not seen Interstellar.

Nor do I have any interest in seeing it. I never saw Gravity either, and I feel no worse or better because of it. I’m not saying that science fiction movies are a poor substitute for books. I am no position to be a judge of that. For me, however, I’d much rather spend my time reading or writing science fiction than seeing it on the big screen.

For those who are curious, the last science fiction movie that I saw in theaters and truly enjoyed was Contact. But that was a long time ago, and my movie gene has withered tremendously since that time.

Once again, no judgement for those who enjoy such movies. I enjoy watching my friends talk about science fiction movies they loved or hated. I just have no desire to see them myself. Personal preference. And now I have another post to which I can point people when asked what I thought of Interstellar.

An Open Letter to My 20-Year-Old Self Regarding the 2014 World Fantasy Convention

Dear Jamie,

Well, this is a little awkward, but I can assure you that is just as awkward for me as it is for you. Us. You We know what we mean. I spent the past weekend attending the 40th annual World Fantasy Convention, which took place in Arlington, Virginia, practically down the street from where I work. Laws of causality prevent me from going into too much detail about the event, but there are a few things worth noting, and I wanted to make sure you knew about them.

First, the event was a lot of fun. I know it might seem odd to you, to hear that in 22 years, you’ll be attending the World Fantasy Convention, what with your great desire to write science fiction, but there is a good reason for attending. Many of your friends are attending, too.

I can’t go into a lot of detail, and so name-dropping is, for the most part out of the question. In some instances, you wouldn’t recognize the names yet. In others, well, the surprise will be more pleasant without the spoilers. But there are a few names I wanted to mention, which I think, given your age and yearning to become a writer, I thought you would find them motivating.

You probably remember recently reading Jumper by Steven Gould. Well, I got to spend some time this weekend hanging out with Steve,  and chatting with him, and telling him how much I remember enjoying that novel.

You may have noticed a slick new science fiction magazine on the newsstands, called Science Fiction Age. One of the best magazines ever produced. Keep your eye on it. The editor is Scott Edelman, and he’s a regular at the conventions that I attend. I sat with Scott at the award banquet dinner on Sunday. It’s always a joy talking with Scott about the history of the genre, or exotic food.

I had dinner with the editor of Analog one evening. It’s not the first meal we’ve had together, and it’s always fun hanging out with him, and chatting about writing, magazines, and other stuff. I had breakfast with the editor of the first magazine to which I ever sold a story. I won’t say which magazine that is. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. I think saying that “I sold a story” is enough.

I spent a lot of time in the bar with people, talking shop, which is a big part of the World Fantasy Convention. A lot of business happens in the bar. I had dinner one evening with friends I made at the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop a few summers back. And I can’t even begin to count how many people I had drinks with while at the convention.

On Sunday morning, I gave reading. That’s right, I read stories in front of an audience. It was a small audience, only 6 people, but having even one person willing to listen to your stories is humbling. I read two very short stories, neither of which I have sold. When I finished my reading, one of the audience members–a science fiction magazine editor–rushed up to the podium and grabbed the manuscript of the second story. I found out this morning that he is buying the story. That’s a first for me: submitting a story via a reading.

The World Fantasy Convention served as an excellent reminder of one of the things I love about the science fiction/fantasy genre: the people. As you well know, I wanted to be a writer because I like to write, and to tell stories. It’s nice to be recognized for those stories. But the real reward are the friendships I’ve made since starting out.

So for the sake of those future friendships: keep writing.

Sincerely,

Jamie Todd Rubin
Falls Church, Virginia, 2014

 

Thoughts on HBOs Attempt to Adapt Isaac Asimov’s Foundation for Television

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series has long been one of my favorite pieces of science fiction. I know that there is a lot to criticize about the series. It has an unadorned writing style. It has continuity problems. These are elements that I’ve learned not only to embrace, but to love, the way one comes to love a scar from childhood. The Foundation series were among the first science fiction novels to really capture my imagination. That I read them early on was a coincidence, but a happy one in my mind.

During the mid-1990s, when the Second Foundation Trilogy was authorized by the Asimov estate, I really hesitated to read the three books by Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin. But how could I not? Each one, I thought, was better than the last, and David Brin’s ending of the trilogy was a stroke of simple genius. So I’m glad that I read them.

On television or movies, however, I’ve long been torn. Being such a fan of the Foundation series, I’ve often rooted for its success in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m not really a movie or TV person, and I am not a fan of science fiction films on the whole. So when I heard yesterday that HBO was planning to adapt Asimov’s Foundation series for television, I had mixed reactions. But after some consideration, I’ve decided that I’m happy for fans that they are adapting it.

It took time, but over the years I’ve learned that adaptations are an art form themselves. They are an interpretation of a work, altered for the medium in which they are produced. Rarely are adaptations completely true to the original story, but that’s okay, because adaptations are not the original story. Regardless of how well or poorly an adaptation of the Foundation series is done, I can always pull the books from my shelves and read them in their original form.

Where adaptations have a bigger impact on me is the characters. I have an image in my mind of Hari Seldon. How would an adaption alter that image by substituting an actor’s face for the one I picture in my mind? Well, there’s a chance that it might alter it, but is that really any different than reading the original Foundation stories in the Astounding and then, decades later, seeing Hari Seldon rendered by Michael Whelan on the cover of one of the books?

I’d guess that an adaptation of the stories would do better as a television series than as a movie for the simple reason that the original trilogy was a “fix up” of a dozen or so stories that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1950. The stories themselves were episodic, often ending in cliff-hangers, and that seems a natural fit for television dramas today.

I’d have to imagine some alterations to the plot of the stories. More than likely there would be some mysterious secret running through the entire series, as this seems to be what television dramas like to do these days. It’s just one of the reasons I can no longer bear to watch dramas, but understandable give the short attention span of audiences and all they have to distract them.

I haven’t decided if I will watch an adaptation of the Foundation series, but gut says no. Not because I think it will be done poorly, but because I’ve lost interest in the medium of television (and to a large extent, movies as well). Also, I’ve read the Foundation books a dozen or more times and know them very well. I think there would be deviations in even the most true-to-form adaptation that would irk me, and why put myself through that?

So, while I am glad to see that these novels are finally getting attention from Hollywood that might help bring them to a larger audience, I am, nevertheless, unlikely to see the adaptations myself, not because I don’t like the idea or think they won’t be true to the story, but because television and movies just aren’t my thing. For the countless fans who love television and movies, I’m delighted that they will get a chance to see Foundation brought to life on the screen.

My Schedule for the World Fantasy Convention

I will be attending my first World Fantasy Convention, beginning later this week. It takes place, conveniently enough for me, in Crystal City, and I can walk to the hotel from my office, so I don’t have to travel for a change.

The convention begins on Thursday and runs through Sunday.

I will be there every day, however, on Thursday and Friday, I won’t be arriving until after work, sometime in the early evening, probably around 5 or 5:30 pm. I will be at the convention all day on Saturday and Sunday, and will be attending the banquet as well.

The good folks running programming for WFC have given me a reading slot on Sunday, November 9 at 10am in the Arlington room. I haven’t yet decided what I will read, but given that it is the World Fantasy Convention, I’m leaning toward a traditional fantasy short story that I wrote a while back, but have not yet sold. The story is too long to read in the 30 minute slot, but I’ll read a few scenes so that folks can get the flavor of it.

If you are going to be at World Fantasy, let me know, and if you see me, be sure to stop me and say hello.

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.

Continue reading

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.