Tag Archives: david g hartwell

Keeping up with short (science) fiction

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One area in which I have a difficult time keeping up is short science fiction. I subscribe to all of the major magazines (and a few of the smaller ones as well) and yet during the course of the year, I don’t really read many of the stories in those magazines because I simply don’t have the time to sift through them all. I probably read 10 or 15 total, and those ones I do read are either by writers I admire or that I know personally. This doesn’t allow me to be introduced to newer writers, or writers with which I don’t have much reading experience.  But what can I do? It’s hard enough just to keep up with regular reading, my writing, family life, to say nothing of my day job.

Two years ago, around this time, we headed down to Florida for vacation. I brought with me David G. Hartwell‘s The Hard SF Renaissance and I had a blast reading that book while relaxing on the beach in Florida. It was almost idyllic in its delight. That, plus the fact that I am refocusing my goals on my own short fiction, gave me the idea to start a new tradition. Much as I reserve the month of April to reread Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies, I am going to reserve the month of December to read two of the most recent Year’s Best volumes.  The volumes I’ve chosen are The Year’s Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois, and The Year’s Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell.  Of course, it means that I am reading the stories from 2009 at the end of 2010 (and at the end of 2011, I’ll be catching up on the stories for 2010), but at least it will expose me to what two of the most influential editors in the field think is the “best” science fiction of years.

Why both volumes?

I’ve found by reading other anthologies that I have a strong preference for the type of stories that Hartwell picks for his Year’s Best series. They suit my tastes for the kind of stuff that I enjoy reading. Dozois and I don’t always agree on what makes an enjoyable story, but I respect his opinion in the field and I think I can learn a lot by reading his selections–which tend to be what I would call more “literary” science fiction.

Last night, I started reading Dozois’ The Years Best Science Fiction, 27th Annual Edition, which covers 2009. He writes a remarkable introduction that covers all aspects of the health of the field of science fiction. And while I’ve only gotten through the first story so far, I must say that I am impressed by that first selection, “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson. When I finish Dozois’ book, I’ll turn to Hartwell’s book. And since I’ll be in Florida again, I look forward to the delight that I experienced the last December I was there.

As I read these stories, I am not just reading for entertainment. I’m trying to understand why they were picked. I’m looking at the techniques the authors used and trying to determine if those techniques were successful. I’m trying to understand what worked and what didn’t work. In short, I’m using these hand-picked examples to try to make myself into a better short story writer.

We’ll see how things go.

Science fiction mysteries

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I had an epiphany the other day.

There is a certain kind of science fiction story (including novels) that I particularly like. It’s been hard for me to classify what these stories are. In the past I’ve thought of them as space opera, like Isaac Asimov‘s FOUNDATION series or Arthur C. Clarke‘s ODYSSEY series. But I’ve read other types of space opera and sometimes, I don’t come away with the same sense of excitement as I do with others. What’s the difference?

The difference, it occurred to me the other day, is that the stories I like best are science fiction mysteries. Back in the day, these were called “puzzle stories”. It was an epiphany for me in multiple senses because not only are these my favorite type of stories to read, they are also my favorite type of stories to write. (My story, “Take One for the Road”, coming out in Analog in 2011 will be my first published science fiction mystery.)

I enjoy the FOUNDATION stories so much because they are, at their core, puzzles.  I enjoy Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels so much because they, too, are puzzle stories. Even a novel like Joe Haldeman‘s THE FOREVER WAR is to some extent a puzzle story. And some of my favorite types of stories involve time travel and those are almost always puzzle stories. Not all science fiction stories are puzzles stories or even intended to be. And it would seem that the trend holds for me. If I got back through the list of science fiction books I’ve read, I tend to rate stories with a greater mystery or puzzle element higher than I do those that lack it. There are exceptions, but the general case is true. For instance, I did not particularly like Vernor Vinge’s RAINBOW’S END. And in looking back on it, I don’t see that as much of a mystery or puzzle story.  On the other hand, I loved Connie Willis’ DOOMSDAY BOOK and there was a definite element of mystery and puzzle-solving in that story.

Other examples:

I didn’t particularly enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s FALLING FREE, Samuel Delany’s BABEL-17, or Ray Bradbury’s FROM THE DUST RETURNED. As I can recall them, none had a particularly strong mystery element. However, I loved Joe Haldeman’s THE ACCIDENTAL TIME MACHINE, Barry Malzberg’s BEYOND APOLLO, and Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, all of which had stronger mystery and puzzle elements.

It is a great relief to discover this for a number of reasons. First, of course, it better describes what I enjoy reading and I can actively go seek this kind of stuff out more easily, now that I know what I’m looking for. Second, it helps me to understand why I don’t enjoy some of the more–shall we say, literary–efforts in science fiction that many of my friends and colleagues seem to love. I was not blown away by THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS or THE WINDUP GIRL the way others were, and I’ve always thought that to be a problem with me. In fact, those books simply don’t match my taste for the type of science fiction I really enjoy. It is a relief to discover that.  It also helps to explain why absolutely love David G. Hartwell’s mammoth anthology THE HARD S.F. RENAISSANCE.  Hard s.f. stories tend to me more puzzle-oriented.

This is not to say that I won’t or don’t read other science fiction or that I won’t or don’t attempt to write other types.  But for pure enjoyment, for slipping back into my vision of a Golden Age, the science fiction mystery is my drug of choice. There have been a lot of good writers in this subgenre over the years and it solves for me another mystery: why I like Jack McDevitt’s book so much:

He specializes in science fiction mysteries and in my opinion, there is no one better than Jack at this art.