Jonathan Strahan is an editor and anthologist. He co-edited The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology series in 1997 and 1998. He is also the reviews editor of Locus. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife and their two daughters.
One of Strahan’s most recent projects is the Infinity Project, a series of hard science fiction anthologies from Solaris Books. The anthology series started in 2010 with Engineering Infinity, and continued with Edge of Infinity in 2012 and Reach For Infinity in 2014. The books in this series trace an arc from where we are, to who we are, to where we’re going, to how we’ll get there. The fourth book in the Infinity Project series, Meeting Infinity, was released in early December 2015, and features hard science fiction from award winners and acclaimed writers like Madeline Ashby, Gregory Benford, Nancy Kress, Aliette de Bodard, Yoon Ha Lee, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Kameron Hurley, Gwyneth Jones, An Owomoyela, Bruce Sterling among others.
Jonathan Strahan was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the Infinity anthology series, how the publishing industry has changed during his career, recent short fiction he’s been most impressed with, The Coode Street Podcast, and more. Let’s get to the interview!
Andrea Johnson: MEETING INFINITY is the 4th volume in your INFINITY PROJECT anthology series. How has the series changed since Volume 1? You’ve recently announced the early steps in a fifth INFINITY PROJECT book, where do you see this series going?
Jonathan Strahan: How hasn’t it changed! The Infinity Project started as a conversation in a hotel bar at a convention in Calgary back in 2008 with the guys from Solaris about editing a “hard SF anthology” for them. My recollection of the conversation is that they asked me if I’d like to edit an anthology, I suggested a hard SF book, and they said yes. It was pretty simple. Things did evolve a bit, though. I wanted to assemble a book that gave a bit of an overview of where hard SF was at in 2009/2010, and that book became Engineering Infinity.
We had some terrific writers and a beautiful Stephan Martiniere cover, but I think we were all surprised and gratified at how well Engineering Infinity was received, and it seemed pretty obvious that we should do another Infinity book. Looking around at what was happening in science fiction, I suggested a book that collected stories set in an industrialized solar system that was still pre-starflight. It seemed very much where science fiction was going at the time, and looks even timelier when you look around us now at things like The Expanse TV series. That book, Edge of Infinity, was even more warmly received, won a few awards, and even featured a Hugo winner in Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”.
That was when the idea of the “Project” really emerged. We clearly had something more than just a single anthology on our hands. Science fiction readers were eager to read core SF short fiction with a 21st century edge, and the Infinity books seemed to be providing that. After Edge of Infinity was published, I proposed a new book, Reach for Infinity, which looked at stories set during the time when humanity is looking to get off Earth into space. I also started talking about the books as something more than just stand-alone projects. Instead, having connected the first three books loosely into an arc that saw us getting of Earth (Reach), settling the Solar System (Edge) and then looking out to the stars (Engineering), I suggested we could build it into an ambitious library of original hard SF anthologies that explored core/key themes in science fiction from a 21st Century perspective. Imagine something like the Dann/Dozois Magic Tales library, but done as modern 21st Century set of original hard SF books.
That’s how we got to Meeting Infinity, which looks at how we as human beings will look to change ourselves to best fit into the futures we’re likely to find. It’s a classic Infinity Project book, in the sense that it takes a classic SF theme, updates it, but very much stays in the territory of ‘core SF’. The response to the book has been phenomenal, with stories being hailed as amongst the best of the year and Gardner Dozois hailing it as “the best science fiction anthology of the year”.
There is a fifth anthology in the works right now, as you say. I’m currently working on Bridging Infinity, which collects stories set in, on or around giant engineering projects, all with an “Infinity Project” sort of spin. I’ve got the first few stories in, and I’m very excited about it. Where do I see the series going from there? Well, I’m keen to expand its scope, investigate new themes, bring in new writers (the very best part of doing this), and present great new stories. I’d also like to begin expanding on some things we’ve already looked at. I think there’s more to be done in the Edge of Infinity space, certainly, and then so much more. If things go as I hope they will, it’s all going to be something pretty special.
Can I just add that the real stroke of genius for this series belongs to my own editor, Jonathan Oliver. He suggested getting cover art from the inspired Adam Tredowski. His covers make the series. They’re stunning, and really do inspire the writers and me. It might actually be a lot of fun to work on expanding that link in a future book, add more art, and do something really different.
AJ: How do you decide which stories should be included in the INFINITY PROJECT anthologies?
JS: That’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Solaris are incredibly supportive of me and of the Infinity Project, and they give me enormous freedom to do whatever I want within the framework of the book we’re working on. I’m not restricted to using or not using particular writers. I’m only required to deliver the best book I can.
When it comes time to start work on an Infinity book I have an agreed theme (which is purposely loose) and a feel for what Infinity stories are like (smart, well-written, and definitely hard SF). From there I begin to work up a list of writers I’d like to work with, which in turn is heavily influenced by my year’s best reading. I’m constantly reading new SF and I want that in these books, so when someone like Aliette de Bodard, An Owomoyela, Kai Ashante Wilson, Usman Malik, Sam Miller, or Kelly Robson really starts delivering incredible stories then I know they belong in an Infinity book.
I work up a list of writers who I think could really do the theme justice – a combination of new writers and people I’ve worked with before – and then I ask them all to play with it, do what they want and they think would be terrific. I then sit back for a year, sweat a bit on what I’ll get, and then start reading. A great Infinity story takes the theme as a jumping off point and expands on it in a way that is both definitely SF and is engaging and entertaining. These books are thought provoking, ambitious and challenging, but they’re intended to be fun first. So, I look for stories I get lost in. I note the writing and that the theme is actually covered, but mostly I want to be sucked into a great story like any other reader. When that happens I know I have a great story and a great book.
AJ: What’s been the most challenging part of putting these anthologies together? What’s been the most fun?
JS: The most challenging part is the last three months or so of the project, when you’re herding cats, trying to get stories delivered, and the book finished in time to meet the deadline. Even when you are dealing with brilliant writers, which I do all the time, you can’t help but be on edge that stories will actually come in, that they’ll be as good as you hoped, that you’ll get the variety you intended, and that they will end up with the book you wanted to do. I’ve had several anthologies strongly affected by a large number of writers suddenly being unable to deliver. You work around it, but having had it happen, it makes it challenging and stressful. The most fun is getting an email show up with a story attached and having that moment when you are about to read a story that no-one else has read and that might be the best thing you’ve ever read. That’s the most special and exciting part of it; that and getting to see the cover art. That’s fun too. I’ve been so lucky so far and so well treated by Solaris when it comes to covers (and pretty much everything else).
AJ: Whether included in one of your anthologies or not, what have been some of your favorite pieces of short fiction from 2015? Which short fiction authors should readers be paying more attention to?
JS: I don’t think I should or could pick favorites from Meeting Infinity. I love the book, and could rave about the sixteen stories and writers for far too long. Elsewhere? Sam Miller has really impressed me this year. His stories “Calved” [Asimov’s] and “Ghosts of Home” [Lightspeed] are just terrific. Kelly Robson has had a great year too. Her novella “Waters of Versailles” [Tor.com] is delightful and her story “Two Year Man” [Asimov’s] is very powerful. Great work. Greg Egan delivered one of the best SF novellas in years with “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred”, [Asimov’s] though Carter Scholz’s “Gypsy” [F & SF] was great too. Alastair Reynolds’s Slow Bullets is simply great, as is Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. I also loved stories from Alyssa Wong, Tamsyn Muir, Veronica Schanoes and a whole host of people. All of Ian McDonald’s 2015 stuff was brilliant and Caitlin Kiernan is a genius. All of those writers deserve your attention and certainly are people I follow closely.
AJ: You’ve done over 250 episodes of The Coode Street podcast. Do you have any favorite episodes, and/or episodes that have stayed in your mind over the years for one reason or another?
JS: I don’t listen to the podcast so it’s hard for me to answer this one. I love the live episodes we did, especially the one in London with Bob Silverberg, Stan Robinson and Jo Walton. It was such fun to natter and chat with them, and they were so generous in conversation. I also love the Le Guin episode, which felt mischievous and fun to record. I’d never spoken to Ursula before that, but she was fantastic and delightful to talk to. The episode with Chip Delany stands out too, mostly because I completely blew the timing on it and Gary had to go it alone, which he did brilliantly. All of the ones with just Gary and me are, for me, basically a single conversation and a single episode really. It’s my Saturday morning chat with one of my best friends, and it just goes on and on. If I sat down and looked at list I might mention others, but they’re all yesterday. I’m looking forward to the next one.
AJ: You’ve been in editing and publishing for your entire adult life. How has the industry changed since the days of Eidolon?
JS: It’s much faster. The turn around time for everything, the pressure to produce in a short time, is all much more intense. There have been such changes to the mechanics of publishing that you have to work completely differently. When I edited my first best of the year with Karen Haber, back in 2003, we delivered that book in August and felt we’d covered everything. Now stories appear everywhere and right up to the last minute. I deliver my best of the year in late January because I couldn’t deliver it earlier. It does make you scramble more, but that’s probably good. It fights complacency.
AJ: As the Reviews Editor at Locus magazine, I imagine you know everything there is to know about writing reviews. Although I could pick your brain all day about this, I’ll just ask some short easy questions about review writing: What elements should all reviews include? What common pitfalls should reviewers avoid?
JS: Context. Tell me about the book and what it is. Where does it sit in the context of the writer’s career, the field, and so on. A review should also let me know what the reviewer thinks of the book. Being enigmatic is great, but any reader wants to know whether you think the book or story is good or not. Let them know that. As to pitfalls: don’t write blurbs readily, but don’t be afraid of them, and don’t argue with the book. Review the book that was written and not the one you wish the author had written. I see far too much of that. Oh, and don’t use your review or the book at hand to work out some theory you have. Talk about the book as a reader clearly and openly. I think that’s most of it.
AJ: Thanks Jonathan!