INTERVIEW: Lou Anders
Lou Anders wears more hats than most. He is an accomplished author (The Making of Star Trek: First Contact) and journalist, with over 500 published articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max and on websites such as SF Site, Revolution SF and Infinity Plus as well as a recent string of essays for BenBella’s Smart Pop series. He is a successful anthologist with books such as Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006) and the upcoming Fast Forward (Pyr, February 2007). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He also served as the senior editor for Argosy magazine in 2003 and 2004. Lou’s current role is as editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr.
SF Signal had the opportunity to ask Lou about the publishing, the appeal of the fantasy genre, the purpose of book cover art and the science fiction genre in general…
SF SIGNAL: Hi, Lou. In your anthology Live without a Net, you challenged big-name authors to imagine an unwired future. Where do you really see us headed in the future, particularly with regards to publishing?
LOU ANDERS: If you are asking a future of publishing question, then I’d say we are poised right now to see where new convergence technologies take us. Certainly both eBook and audio book content delivered to hand held devices, especially mobile phones, will play a much larger role in entertainment habits than ever conceived. The generation that is growing up with the phone as their primary means of net interaction – listening to music and podcasts, text messaging and picture taking all with their “communicator” – is only going to be reached by media as antiquated as “books” if we can find a way to deliver the content to where they are. The aggregator that figures out how best to get the book or at least the knowledge of the book into the palm device will have done something.
As to the future in general – I don’t think enough people stop and take stock of what a singularity we are living through. I still remember when, if I needed to know the answer to a question, I had to get in a car and travel physically to a library and then invest time in a search that might or might not answer my question. The paradigm shift from that, to being about to Google anything in the world and receive a plethora of answers within seconds, is unbelievable. My son, now 14 months, will never know what it means to say “What is the name of that? It’s on the tip of my tongue.” There has never been a shift in all of history so profound. The future then – the ubiquity of knowledge.
SFS: Are you saying, then, that electronic book formats are viable and if not, when do you think they might become so? Do current DRM efforts hurt or help this?
LA: Although I’ve been intrigued and persuaded by a lot of what Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow have to say, lately I’ve been very interested in Robert Sawyer’s opinion that it is a mistake to train consumers that the value of an ebook is zero dollars. I think that ebooks will eventual be a much bigger percentage of the book market than they are now, where their commercial profits are negligible. But one day, the age of the ebook will materialize, even if by “ebook” we mean some sort of smart paper – paper woven with chips that looks, feels and displays like ink on dead trees but refreshes its content. To that end, we need to think in terms of paying for the content not the package, but $15 for a format that may not be here next year is ridiculous, and DRM is nothing but an annoyance to your consumer – no deterrent to a thief. I think the real test of the ebook will be in delivering content to mobile phones. audiobooks will pave the way. Can ebooks follow?
SFS: At a little more than a year old, Pyr has become known for quality genre fiction. How does a startup maintain such high standards?
LA: I am immensely flattered by this question, but I don’t know how I can answer it. I’m gratified you think our standards are high. The goal from the get-go has been to try to publish authentic science fiction and fantasy (what one reviewer called “pitched down the middle” science fiction), not slipstream or New Wave experiment (though I’m a big admirer of what Moorcock did for our genre with New Worlds), but SF&F that nonetheless maintained a higher degree of literacy with the prose without sacrificing plot or excitement. I’m hard on flat prose, which is one reason for the number of UK authors in our list.
SFS: Pyr was (I think) the first genre publishers to get a blog. Do you see this as this as an important step to your success?
LA: Ha. You know, I have noticed one or two others springing up after we launched Pyr-o-mania. We did so just to make it easier to round up our news without having to update the coding every time, i.e. something simpe our not-terribly-computer-literate editorial director could handle easily. I don’t know how big our readership is – certainly I get a lot more feedback and comments on my personal blog – but I do think the web is an invaluable tool for connecting with readers. We want to do more with the website and will be doing so in the coming months.
However, to give credit where credit is due, the Night Shade guys have been posting their thoughts and opinions, whether it was an actual blog or not, to their site for a long time now, and they were very smart in the way they established their discussion forum as well.
SFS: It seems genre fiction is dominated by fantasy today. Do you see this as a cyclical trend or does fantasy have broader general appeal?
LA: Fantasy may have broader appeal, but the disparity we see today – fantasy outstripping SF by such a wide margin – isn’t always the way it’s been or the way it will be. As I have said elsewhere, I see a rise in science fiction as a long-term trend, aided by the pace of technological developments in the real world. At this past Winter Olympics, U.S. and Canadian skiers are wearing “smart armor” inside their normal clothing. Known as d3o, a futuristic flexible material that hardens into armor on impact, the skin-tight outfits look as much like a superhero’s pajamas as anything Toby McGuire or Christian Bale ever donned.
And the net itself is nothing if not science fiction realized. It is with much irony that I note that now, decades after JG Ballard proclaimed that the Space Age was over, it is the children of the “inner space” his own New Wave writings ushered in, the dot com billionaires that first crafted William Gibson’s cyberspace in reality, who are now leading the charge to privatization of the race to the heavens. Space Adventures, who previously sent three space tourists with extremely deep pockets to the international space station, has announced plans to build a $265 million dollar spaceport in the United Arab Emirates, with help from Texas venture capital and a Russian aerospace firm. And Richard Branson is building a (slightly cheaper!) $225 million dollar spaceport in New Mexico for his Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic? The very name sounds like something out of Barbarella. Long-term, the real Space Age is only beginning, and the literature that charts our future there can only benefit.
I’ve noticed more interest in real world space science in recent years – as typified by CNN’s coverage of the Titan probe – than I’ve seen in decades. And back on the ground, our increasingly technological society, where everyone walks around with blue-tooth enabled Borg implants on their head-is making it increasingly hard for the mainstream to deny that we do in fact live in the future. I think the tide is turning and we are seeing the pendulum beginning to swing back towards SF, as referenced in the recent USA Today article “Science Fiction Gets Real” – in which we see several prominent Hollywood filmmakers expressing the opinion that the climate is right for smart SF films as distinct from Star distinc
Wars-type films, to address the issues of our current times.
SFS: Regarding tie-ins: In Star Wars on Trial, Laura Resnick makes the case that media tie-ins are the cash cow that is keeping science fiction publishing alive and, therefore, able to produce the sf books the regular sf readers want to read. Since you didn’t get to rebut this assertion in the book, what are your thoughts on Ms. Resnick’s assertion?
LA: If you don’t mind my revisiting what I say on my blog on this subject:
I’m sure she’s correct, at least in the case of Star Wars. Other media-tie in books have been performing less well lately, though this may be a cyclical phenomena. Personally, I am not wild about media tie-ins in general. I don’t believe they draw a significant number of readers into the rest of the field, nor appreciably affect the number of readers a writer gets for his non-media tie-in work. My own sense from working in media as a journalist is that readers of media tie-in works are there for the media, not the writer. There are superstars of the tie-in (R.A. Salvatore for Forgotten Realms of course), but these are different readerships and I don’t think if all the Star Wars books disappeared tomorrow that those readers would rush out and pour their dollars into purchases of Accelerando or Starship: Mutiny. And maybe this doesn’t matter.
I’ve bought the occasional Doctor Who book in the past, don’t fault my friend Sean Williams for his successful Star Wars trilogy, and am happy for Chris Roberson’s upcoming X-Men novel (the cover of which, by John Picacio, is amazing). I don’t fault anyone for writing or reading a media tie-in. Sure, I wish we lived in a world where the cinema of science fiction more closely resembled its literature and where popularity followed quality more closely than it does. Yes, I am aware that there are books of quality written as media tie-ins, and, ironically, I suspect that a lot of Star Wars novels are better than Star Wars itself. And I think that railing against Star Wars is raging into a wind.
But a few months ago, I gave a young man who only reads Forgotten Realms novels a copy of Sean Williams’ fantasy, The Crooked Letter. The next time I saw him, he said he finished the book in a rush, that he couldn’t put it down, and that it was “the smartest fantasy he ever read.” He said that he “didn’t know that fantasy could be this good,” and that he was telling all his friends about it and was anxious for the next book in the series.
As I try to say in my essay, I don’t object that the media tie-in exists, but that it is so often conflated in the minds of the general public with the rest of the science fiction and fantasy genre. I do not fault you if you read them or write them, and perhaps you write them well, but for my part, it is the rest of the genre that I will strive to proselytize and uphold. Star Wars, after all, doesn’t need my help, but there is a lot of smart pop out there which does.
SFS: In your Meme Therapy interview with Chris Roberson and SF Signal’s own Tim and ” JP “, you mention that you’d like to see more science fiction for teens. Do you have any ideas as to how to draw the teenage reader into sf? Should sf start by aiming at kids even earlier? Is it possible to have a sf version of Harry Potter, and I mean truly sf not a mash-up of sf and fantasy like Artemis Fowl?
LA: Well, you ask the million dollar question. Quite literally. But as to starting readers off young, it’s been said that if you can hook a kid between 10 to 12 on books, you have a reader for life. After that age, it’s pretty hard to convert someone who isn’t already book-receptive. Books are like cigarettes that way.
As to an SF Harry Potter – you know David Brin has written at length about the way in which the classic Joseph Campbellian Hero’s Journey is rooted in feudalism and the hero worshipping of an elite; Star Wars is a battle between ruling factions of an aristocracy, etc…and there may be some truth to the fact that egalitarian science fiction, with its focus on progress, doesn’t produce heroes and villains as well as fantasy does. Five decades of Star Trek and Khan is still the best villain they’ve ever come up with, etc… The closest science fiction has come to Harry Potter is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game – also about an extraordinary kid in a very difficult school, having to think his way through a succession of challenges. (If there were a formula, that might be it). And, before we are too convinced that SF hasn’t produced a Harry Potter, do you have any idea how many copies of Ender’s Game sell a year? And this for a book first published in 1985! I think Ender’s Game is SF’s Harry Potter. The question is why haven’t we produced a more recent one?
I will say that I don’t think repackaging the Heinlein juveniles is the way to go. Kids today exist in a full-immersed digital environment in a way that is so all pervasive as to represent a total paradigm shift from the way you or I grew up. I think fiction that is going to speak to them has to be written taking this SFnal present into account, let alone the future. Also, I haven’t read any of Scott Westerfeld’s YA fiction, but I suspect that whatever he is doing is the way to do it! I’d be curious to see if Charles Stross could write a YA, since he has his finger so firmly on the pulse of the present.
Of course, equally or more important than what you write about is how you reach, how you penetrate into this digital bubble to get the text in front of them. Something George Zebrowski said at the recent Campbell conference has been worrying at me lately – which is that every avid reader began because a trusted adult handed them a book and said “here.” In my case, it was my father and A Princess of Mars. I fought tooth and nail, but ended up reading the entire Burroughs canon over the next year. Perhaps the most important thing we could do for SF’s future right now is if every single reader went out and bought an SF book and handed it to a preteen they knew. My self-serving suggestion would be Chris Roberson’s Here, There and Everywhere, which stars a young girl given a time-travel device, at a special school no less!
SFS: I like the Stross/YA comment. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could order up our stories like that on a whim? “I wanna read a time travel story written by Alastair Reynolds!” or “I’m in the mood for a space opera by Theodore Sturgeon!” Yeah, even better, the ability to channel authors long gone.
LA: That will all happen one day. And while we may not be here to be the one’s requesting it, perhaps our ancestors will request that a channeled version of us materialize so that it can itself request a channeled author to read. Be good to your children and their children – give them a reason to resurrect you!
SFS: At Pyr-o-mania, you often post book cover art? How important to a book is the cover?
LA: ALL IMPORTANT. Cover art is the very first thing people see when they encounter your book in the store – cover design, in fact, because for 99% of the books, the spine is what the casual shopper encounters first. This is the front line of attracting the attention of a potential reader. And people do judge books by their covers whether they say so or not. Personally, I judge books by their covers all the time. I’ll be picking up Liz Williams’ The Demon and the City, which I have absolutely no time to read anytime soon (not that I wouldn’t love to – I just have a slush pile that takes priority) specifically for the extraordinary Jon Foster artwork. Whereas there is a collection out from a golden age writer that I’ve always wanted to read that I simply will not buy because I cannot get passed the God-awful packaging. I just can’t do it.
The factors that most influence book buying are word of mouth, reviews/recommendations, and artwork. And, in the highly competitive era we find ourselves in, where more SF&F books are published each year than every before, getting the bookstore browser to hang that extra three to five seconds on your title is vital.
Note that the job of cover art is not to accurately represent the contents of the book to the reader. The job is to catch the attention of the potential reader. Better for someone to read the book and discover the cover art isn’t a 100% match to the contents than that they never read it. You have your imagination to paint the pictures for you once you’re inside the covers. The cover’s job is to get you there.
Readers who have followed my blog hopefully know that I take cover illustration & book design very seriously, and that a particularly concern of mine is generating more discussion and acknowledgement of the artists who work in our field. Cover illustration is of more importance to SF&F than any other genre, and our field has an illustrious (pun intended) history of great work from great artists, who DO NOT GET THE ACKNOWLEDGMENT THEY DESERVE. Anything which generates more discussion of the art and brings more attention to the wonderful artists in our field is a VERY GOOD THING because they deserve it.
There is a movement in publishing away from illustration towards design afoot right now – publishers requesting covers for SF books that “don’t look like science fiction”, though I tend to side with the thoughts expressed in John Scalzi’s post which cited the need for cover illustrations which don’t “hide the science fiction or fantasy elements of the work, but they do present them in a way that includes (and entices) non-readers of SF/F rather than excludes them.” This is what we’ve tried for with most of our Pyr covers, and which I think works beautifully with a cover like River of Gods (by the brilliant Stephan Martiniere, currently a Hugo nominee) or John Picacio’s enigmatic cover for Justina Robson’s Silver Screen.
SFS: Do you think America’s apathy towards science education has led to the current lack of interest in science fiction in the U.S.?
LA: Yes, absolutely. This is a no-brainer.
Recent surveys show that fewer and fewer American students enroll in science, technology, math and engineering classes every year. In the last three decades, the US has dropped from number three to number seventeen in global rankings of countries with college students earning science and engineering degrees. In the past, this dearth of home-grown science/tech PhDs was made up for by immigration, and many of the immigrants stayed to become US citizens or work for US companies. But since 9/11, it’s become increasingly hard for foreign students to come to the US, with the result that we are seeing the aforementioned sharp decline. As 25% of our current scientists and engineers are in their fifties and expect to retire by 2010, we are facing a very real crisis. No help from an Administration that restricts press access to climatologist and cast dispersions on the value of science either. (For that matter, how irresponsible is it for Bush to brag about the fact that he doesn’t read? Jesus, what I’d give for a President to be seen holding a copy of an SF book).
This anti-science trend in both education and policy will have real and vital repercussions in the immediate future. It is no coincidence that science fiction is on the rise in both China and India, societies that are both moving in upward technological and economic trajectories. (And more power to them. If they get to Mars before we do, maybe it will wake us up. And if not, I’m glad somebody went because somebody needs to.)
But this is a two-way street. Not only is the decline in SF tethered to a lack of understanding of/appreciate for science education, but the lack of same can be seen as being partially fostered by our media. Remember that the Milwaukee School of Engineering gave James Doohan an honorary degree; that’s for a spike in the number of applicants after Star Trek aired – applicants who cited Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott as their reason for enrolling. Contrast this with today’s teenagers, who think a worthwhile life goal is to become famous through reality television, and who – astonishingly, as poll’s show – think this is an attainable goal despite the lottery-like odds stacked against them. Our realities form directly from our imaginations, and how we envision the world today is how we build it tomorrow. Remember when Urban Outfitters was selling t-shirts that said “Voting is for Old People?” America is in a deliberate retreat from Enlightenment and I think there is a very real responsibility on the part of those who can to resist.
SFS: Maybe your upcoming anthology Fast Forward will stoke the fires of our imagination. Tell us about it.
LA: Well, Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction from the Cutting Edge was born last year when there were a number of debates working their way through the blogosphere and in articles in the digests about the relevance of the short form in today’s landscape. This coincided with a cropping up of the usual “is science fiction dying?” and “is fantasy killing SF?” debates. Rather than take umbrage at any particular position, I got curious, and decided that I would like to take some positive action, by producing what is intended to be an all-original, unthemed science fiction anthology series. The genre has had a number of landmark anthology series, beginning with Frederik Pohl’s Star SF, and including such seminal anthology series as Damon Knight’s Orbit, Terry Carr’s Universe and George Zebrowski’s Synergy SF. Fast Forward is offered in that spirit, out of respect for this tradition, and the hope is that it can be a place for readers to find cutting edge short form stories of quality. I am privileged that Frederik Pohl has allowed me to run his superb definition of a good science fiction story in my introduction and that Gene Wolfe, a frequent contributor to Orbit, has given me a story. So there’s that connection to the history. I’m also gratified by the number of women writers we have in this volume, including Elizabeth Bear, Kage Baker, A.M.Dellamonica, and Brenda Cooper (writing again with Larry Niven). Finally, to date only one person has read Fast Forward other than me, but – for what it’s worth – they thought it was the best of all five of my anthologies so far. I tend to agree.
SFS: Thanks for your time, Lou. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LA: Anything else? Open ended questions are so dangerous. I’d like to put in a plug for Joel Shepherd’s Crossover, just released this month. A smarter-than-your-average military space opera about a female artificial soldier trying to live the quiet life on a vacation planet of her former government’s former enemy, who just can’t avoid her past – it’s a good book for people who enjoy Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi or Richard Morgan, has action to satisfy a Baen books enthusiast and depth to appeal to a PKD head, shares a lot of sensibilities with the new Battlestar Galactica (and is frontloaded with sex just like that show’s pilot was, but just like BG gets down to action and intelligence quickly) is reminiscent of the manga Ghost in the Shell, but has scores of strong female characters and a savvy understanding of politics – from the interpersonal to the interplanetary. In short, I think it’s a fabulous book and I’d really like to see it take off.
Beyond that, only that “science fiction matters.” We may serve popcorn with our narrative, but as Tom Disch says, these are the dreams our stuff is made from. Read, support the independent publishers and independent bookstores, buy in your territory, give artists their due, spread the word, be kind to animals, always cross the street with the light, save the people on Gilligan’s Island… okay, I think I’m done here…
Filed under: Interviews
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