Mind Meld Archives

This week’s question is a simple one, but yielded lots of responses. We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: What are some of your favorite short stories in sf/f/h and what makes them so memorable?

Read on to see some great reading suggestions, then check out Part 2. And be sure to tell us your own favorites!

Michael Boatman
Michael Boatman is best known as an actor. He co-starred in the ABC comedy, Spin City, as well as the HBO original series ARLI$$. He’s appeared in movies like Hamburger Hill, The Glass Shield, and The Peacemaker, and in television shows like The Game, Criminal Minds, Law and Order and China Beach. He is also an author. His horror-comedy, The Revenant Road, was published by Drollerie Press in 2009 (available at Amazon.com) and his short story collection, God Laughs When You Die, was published by Dybbuk Press in 2007. His fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Red Scream, Horror Garage, and in anthologies like Dark Dreams 2 and 3 and the upcoming Dark Delicacies 3: Haunted.

One of my favorite horror stories would have to be David J. Schow’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”. It’s the quintessential zombie tale that originally appeared in Skipp and Spector’s classic Book of the Dead anthology. In a collection of great stories by Stephen King, Joe Lansdale and others, this one stands out for humor that is as black as pitch, gore that is both horrifying and hilarious and an unbelievably weird protagonist in the five-hundred pound zombie apocalypse survivor Wormboy. I guarantee anyone who loves stories set in a Romero-esque zombified universe, J.K.M.W cannot be beat. Not with a baseball bat, an axe-handle or out of control spinning helicopter blades.

My favorite recent science fiction story is Understand, a great thriller by Ted Chiang. It’s about a coma victim who is injected with an experimental drug after suffering extreme brain damage in a near drowning. The drug not only repairs him; it also makes him smarter. The rest of the story involves the supercritical protagonist trying to find more of the drug to increase his intellect while preparing to meet the one person on Earth who may actually be smarter than he is. It’s a great story. The supercritical Leon’s struggle to live in a world in which he is rapidly becoming smarter and smarter, is fascinating. I actually felt smarter after I’d finished reading it.

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We love doing Mind Meld posts, but it gets downright difficult to consistently think of topics that are topical and of interest to a variety of readers.

This is where you come in:

  1. Tell us what you’d like to see in future Mind Melds! Just leave us your proposed question as a comment.
  2. Just about anything related to speculative fiction will do…books, films, tv, the genre itself, sub-genres, awards, the sf community…even science and technology questions will be considered…you name it.
  3. Tell us if you have specific people who you have in mind to answer the question.

Sound off! We can’t guarantee that we’ll use every suggestion, but if enough people show interest in a particular topic, well, that’s a no-brainer. And no brains is something we can deal with. We often do.

MIND MELD: Guide to International SF/F Part IV

There’s a great big world out there! And we’ve been happy to bring you their views for the past month. (See Part I, Part II and Part III.) This week brings our International Mind Melds to a close (for now!) with contributors from the Netherlands, India, Japan, Finland and France. We’re giving the closing word to those who did so much to start the conversation, Jim and Kathy Morrow.

Thanks again to all our contributors, translators, editors, wranglers and recommenders! This has been a really amazing experience and an honor to put together.

Q: What is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers might be missing out on?
Anil Menon
Anil Menon worked for about nine years in software R&D worrying about things like secure distributed databases and evolutionary computation. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. His stories can be found in magazines such as Albedo One, Chiaroscuro, InterZone, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Shockwave & Other Cyber Stories, and From The Trenches. His YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Young Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in Fall 2009.

I can speak to the situation in south-Asian SF in English (Desi SF). While Desi SF has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the themes and movements of 20th century SF failed to excite the imaginations of desi writers. But I sense a change in the air. For the first time, there’s a critical mass of desi writers with an interest in, and talent for, speculative fiction. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of these writers are female. The feminist publishing house, Zubaan, has published a number of female authors in science fiction and fantasy, including Priya Sarukkai Chhabria, Payal Dhar, Manjula Padmanabhan and Vandana Singh. The tradition-creating novels have yet to be written, but in my estimate, the next ten years will see the emergence of a series of works that will redefine the genre. The unclassifiable stories of Kuzhali Manickavel, the feverish mythic fantasies of Samit Basu, pathbreaking desi SF movies like Sudhir Jha’s Matrubhoomi or S. P. Jananthan’s E, the inauguration of a desi SF workshop series at IIT-Kanpur (India’s premier technological institute), the strong support of editors like V. K. Karthika (Harper), Vatsala Kaul (Hachette), Kaveri Lalchand (Blaft), Anita Roy (Zubaan) and Jaya Bhattacharji (Routledge), and the unexpected creation of an indigenous graphic novel industry all point to a new-found confidence that the future has as much a chance of happening here as anywhere else.

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There’s a great big world out there! So big that it will take four weeks to get all their responses in. (See Part I and Part II.) So while we’ve got entries from the Philippines, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, the Ukraine, Poland and Portugal this week, there’s one more week of worldly insight to come!

Q: What is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers might be missing out on?
Charles Tan
Charles A. Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and his fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Game Cryer. He used to contribute reviews at Comics Village. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts book reviews, interviews, and essays.

I think a lot’s going on in the global speculative scene right now–but it’s natural that we haven’t heard of them either because of the language barrier or the cultural barrier.

The field that I’m most familiar with is my own–the Philippines. When it comes to speculative fiction written in English, we have several talented writers. A book I’d like to highlight is Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (disclosure: I’m one of the contributors) because it features a lot of stunning fiction.

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There’s a great big world out there! So we decided to ask folks from all over about the sf/f scene in their own countries/languages. This week we’ve got responses from the Netherlands, China, Poland, France, Italy, Finland, Russia and India. And the answers kept pouring in, so we’ll be finishing up next week, for a total of three weeks!

Q: What is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers might be missing out on?
Jetse de Vries
Jetse de Vries is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and an SF editor, writer and reader at night. He was part of the Interzone editorial team from March 2004 until September 2008. His non-fiction articles, reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in Interzone, The Fix, New York Review of Science Fiction, Focus, and others. He writes SF since 1999, and had his first story published in November 2003. His stories have appeared in about two dozen publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and include Amityville House of Pancakes, vol. 1, JPPN 2, Nemonymous 4, Northwest Passages: A Cascadian Anthology, DeathGrip: Exit Laughing, HUB Magazine #2, Clarkesworld Magazine, SF Waxes Philosophical, Postscripts 14 and Flurb, amongst others. Recent reprints include stories in the A Mosque Among the Stars anthology (which portrays Islam and/or Muslims in a positive light), The Fleas They Carried (a relief anthology for animail aid) and The Apex Book of World SF (which celebrates SF from around the globe: upcoming September 2009). Right now, Jetse is in the middle of editing an anthology of near future, optimistic SF called Shine for Solaris Books, slated for an early 2010 release.

There is a huge lot going on in the international SF/F scene, more than any one person can keep up with (which is also true for English-language SF/F), with the added complication of language barriers.

I have traveled extensively for the day job (although now I have settled down a bit), and have always been fascinated by other places, other people and other cultures. There is a wealth of stories in every corner of this (admittedly round) globe. Obviously, since it is written predominantly by anglophone writers, English-language SF is mostly set in western countries with predominantly western characters (many exceptions notwithstanding).

Personally, I like seeing more settings and viewpoints from non-western countries. To encourage this, I have started a series of “Optimism in literature around the World, and SF in Particular” on the Shine blog. So far the following countries have been featured:

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MIND MELD: Guide to International SF/F (Part I )

There’s a great big world out there! So we decided to ask folks from all over about the sf/f scene in their own countries/languages. This week we’ve got answers from Israel, Greece, Cuba, Peru, Poland, Turkey, Spain and France… And we’ll have more in the weeks to come! Many thanks to Paweł Dembowski for helping get us started on this.

Q: What is going on right now in the international sf/f scene that anglophone readers might be missing out on?
Lavie Tidhar
Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas “An Occupation of Angels” (2005), and forthcoming “Cloud Permutations” (2009) and “Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God” (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, short novel The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). He also edited anthologies A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults (2008) and the forthcoming The Apex Book of World SF (2009). He’s lived on three continents and one island-nation, and currently lives in South East Asia.

I think what’s great is not what people are missing but how much is actually available. There’s been an increase in recent years of both non-English writers making a conscious choice to write in English (in order to reach a wider/different audience) and also an increase in translators into English, or even people translating their own fiction. In short fiction, writers like (Dutch) Jetse de Vries and (French) Aliette de Bodard are writing and publishing in English (de Bodard is even nominated for a John W. Campbell award this year), Vandana Singh and Anil Menon from India, Dean Alfar from the Philippines, Sergey Gerasimov from Ukraine – it’s a small but select list. And then there are more translations, too – (Serbian) Zoran Živković’s work is widely available in translation, as is (French) Mélanie Fazi’s, and I’ve been translating some of Nir Yaniv’s stories from the Hebrew, which led to his being the first Israeli to be published in Weird Tales magazine. Maybe there isn’t much, but there is more than before – and online magazines are leading the trend, publications like Clarkesworld and Fantasy Magazine publishing a higher percentage of non-Anglophone writers. And that’s just the short stories – more novels are making their way into the English market, either by translation (we’re finally getting to read Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski in English) or again, by writers choosing to write in English, like Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi. On my own part, there’s both the forthcoming Apex Book of World SF, the first such anthology in a long, long time, and the related World SF News Blog which showcases some of what is available from around the world.

But to answer the question properly – what are we missing out on – my own regret is that I don’t get to read French steampunk!

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Once again, in conjunction with the Shared Worlds creative writing program, we turn the spotlight of this week’s Mind Meld on world building, and asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Many world-building science fiction and fantasy writers get their inspiration from real-life places. What real-life city seems the most fantastical or science fictional to you?

Here’s what they said:

Alan Dean Foster
Science fiction and fantasy author Alan Dean Foster began his prolific writing career when August Derleth bought a long Lovecraftian letter of Foster’s in 1968 and published it as a short story in Derleth’s bi-annual magazine The Arkham Collector. His first novel, 1972′s The Tar-Aiym Krang, began his long-running series of novels of the Humanx Commonwealth, many books of which feature the much-loved characters of Flinx and his mini-dragon Pip. He is also known for the Spellsinger fantasy series and a host of novelizations. His latest book is Quofum, which sets the stage for the final book featuring Pip and Flinx.

I’d have to pick Istanbul. The juxtaposition of multiple worlds (eras, technologies, religions, trade, history) is unparalleled in my experience. You can get on an ultramodern light rail and get off at Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, modern shopping centers, and the oldest subway in the world…among other things. Women wearing short skirts and tight jeans walking in tandem with girlfriends in full niqabs. Internet cafes housed in ancient buildings built atop Roman sites. Story ideas all but attack you. Amazing place.

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Mind Meld Make-Up Test with Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee wasn’t able to join us for the Mind Meld on Wednesday, but has still dropped in to help us answer the question:

Q: What recommendations would you give this Golden Age SF reader to introduce them to what more modern sf/f literature has to offer?

Here’s Yoon Ha Lee’s response…

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So you get introduced to a new acquaintance as a sf/f reader/fan/writer, etc. The new person says “Oh yes, I love sf/f too! I love Clarke! (or Heinlein/Asimov/Le Guin, etc.)” Basically, this person hasn’t read any new sf since Rendezvous with Rama (1974) or any fantasy since Tolkien.

Q: What recommendations would you give this Golden Age SF reader to introduce them to what more modern sf/f literature has to offer?

Read on to see the recommendations of our illustrious panel…

Ruth Nestvold
Ruth Nestvold is an American writer living in Stuttgart, Germany. Her work has appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She has been nominated for the Nebula, the Sturgeon, and the Tiptree awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” for best international work. Her novel Flamme und Harfe (Flame and Harp) appeared in translation from Penhaligon, a German imprint of Random House, in January 2009. She occasionally maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

So many newer sf/f writers are producing excellent fiction that this is a very tough question. Just a few of those who could be recommended to someone whose reading stopped at works from before the mid-seventies: Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, John Kessel, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, James Patrick Kelly, George R. R. Martin, Nicola Griffith, Greg Bear, Vonda McIntyre, and so many, many more. (I am deliberately not mentioning any of my close personal friends, although quite a number of them are writing highly original and critically acclaimed fiction and could easily be added to this list.)

There is one work in particular, however, that I would put into this person’s hands and say, “Read this. You have to read this.” That story is Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life.” Why? It is my considered opinion that it is almost as perfect as a story can be, in any genre. At the same time, it couldn’t be anything other than science fiction.

There are a number of elements that contribute to the story’s near-perfection. I tend to enjoy narrative experimentation, but not when it is only for experimentation’s sake. In “Story of Your Life,” the unusual chronological structure and the use of the second person work in support of the unfolding story as well as the theme. What at first might seem a random juxtaposition of various events in the narrator’s life is actually a reflection of the new way of thinking she has been forced to master in order to interpret the language of the aliens. The wealth of ideas, the brilliant fusion of physics and linguistic theory, is stunning, but it does not occur at the expense of the characters. It is a story of ideas, but it is also an incredibly moving story, in which the simultaneity on which both the plot and the theme hinge becomes clear to the reader emotionally in the final scene.

From where I sit, there are few works of fiction more effective and well-constructed than “Story of Your Life.” In any genre.

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Recently, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics Group was started to address imbalance towards pessimistic genre fiction. (Turns out this is not quite true — but my misunderstanding was not lost on the panelists.) So we asked the group’s members:

Q: Why do you think there is an imbalance towards a negative futuristic outlook? How did we get here and how has this affected the genre? Can you give some examples of positive/upbeat ideas in your genre?

Here’s what they said:

Tim Stretton
Tim Stretton‘s fantasy novel The Dog of the North is out in Tor paperback on the 5th of June. He has also self-published two novels and can verify that there is no money either in commercial or self-publication. Despite the three-year indoctrination programme of an English degree, he has held on to his core belief that Jack Vance is the greatest writer out there. He blogs about reading, writing and wasting time watching films at timstretton.blogspot.com.

I think SFFE arose to combat pessimism about SF, not pessimism in it. Pessimism has always been a feature of the genre. That goes all the way back to the beginning: Frankenstein and Brave New World, for instance. There have always been some pretty dark imaginations at work in the genre, sometimes fueled by various kinds of substance abuse – Phil Dick and Alfred Bester spring to mind.

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Some books are perfectly good but ultimately predictable. When you’ve been reading for a long time, more and more books fall into that category. We ask writers and critics of today what books still make you sit up and take notice.

Q: Sometimes it’s easy to become jaded when you’ve been reading genre books for a while. When was the last time a sf/f book really surprised you? Who/what/when/why/how?
Christopher Barzak

Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Award winning novel One for Sorrow, and most recently The Love We Share Without Knowing. His short stories have appeared in a variety of venues, including The Years Best Fantasy and Horror, LCRW, Strange Horizons, Interfictions, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. He teaches fiction writing at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio.

The last sf/f book that really surprised me was Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania. I read it in 2005, when it appeared. Some friends sent a copy of it to me in Japan as a gift. I’d heard good things already about it, but when I first started reading it, I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps only just hype, because for a good portion of the first few chapters it seems as if it was going to be any other YA teens get transported to another chintzy world novel. Then the story began to unfold in such a way that what kind of book you thought you were reading wasn’t actually that at all, but its inverse, a narrative that made the world you inhabit outside the reading of a book the fantasy, and the one inside the book reality. An alternate Roumania in which magic exists, and a political system that felt all too believable and beautifully contrived at the same time. In the foreground of this astonishing backdrop were these wonderful characters, too, some incredibly good, and others, like the Baroness, deliciously insane and evil. Reading this book took me back to my early days of reading fantasy novels, when I hadn’t read so many to grow bored yet by the vast amount of repetitive and derivative fantasy novels that flood bookstore shelves each year. In many ways, this novel is a very traditional fantasy with a few twists of the tale I hadn’t seen before, but it’s the uniqueness of the world and especially its characters that made me feel like I was finally reading an original fantasy novel again, for the first time in years.

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We’ve talked before about Non-Genre Books for Genre Readers, now let’s take it in the opposite direction. We asked this week’s esteemed panelists:

Q: Which science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror books would you recommend to a friend who has never read them before?

Read on to see their answers, and be sure to let us know yours!

Brenda Cooper
Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a science fiction and fantasy writer, and a futurist. Her recent books include the Endeavor award winning Silver Ship and The Sea and a sequel, Reading the Wind. See www.brenda-cooper.com for more info, and for periodic reading recommendations.

Well, besides writing science fiction, I’m also a practicing futurist, which means I talk to business audiences about the future. Many people in those audiences have never heard of me as a writer and don’t read science fiction. But I recommend they start. I suggest Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, which is about climate change. KSR does excellent research and climate change is a topic those audiences are usually interested in. I also recommend Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End for near-future work, and his A Deepness in the Sky for more classic sf. Dune, by Frank Herbert, of course. For readers who like adventure, I often recommend Allen Steele’s Coyote and Coyote Rising. I like Nancy Kress’s work for accessibility and interest, and I think I’d also recommend Wake, a recent book by Robert Sawyer. Then there’s Connie Willis. My favorite is To Say Nothing of the Dog. I guess I’ll stop now…

For fantasy, I’d recommend anything by Charles deLint, but particularly Moonheart and The Mystery of Grace. Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a lovely fantasy writer. The Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson books. I can’t count how many copies of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Price series I’ve given to teenagers. And then there’s the dragonladys from Anne McCaffrey to Naomi Novik. Jay Lake’s Mainspring and and Ken Scholes’s Lamentation

I could list a lot more, but mostly they have to be books that speak in the common tongue instead of science fictionese, and which treat character as at least as important as the big idea and have an element of adventure in them.

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Thanks to an email snafu, S. Andrew Swann’s response to our last Mind Meld — regarding the most realistic (and the most ridiculous) uses of science in SciFi film and TV — got lost in the ether. A team of ethernauts was immediately dispatched to recover the lost response. After minimal loss of life, it was recovered. Here is the question:

Q: Which SciFi films and/or television shows do the best job in adhering to realistic science? Which ones do the worst?

Swann’s response is below…

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The impact of the BSG finale continues to reverberate around the web, and we continue to benefit. When we ran our original BSG Mind Meld, Jeff hadn’t been able to watch the finale yet. Now he has, and here’s what he has to say:

Q: BSG has ended, and no one appears to be thrilled with the finale. What would you have done differently, if you could run the show?

Here’s Jeffrey’s response…

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Suspension of disbelief can make or break a story. In science fiction, it usually centers on believable applications of science. We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Which SciFi films and/or television shows do the best job in adhering to realistic science? Which ones do the worst?

Is your favorite show listed among their answers?

Peggy Kolm
Peggy Kolm is a science fiction fan who can be found, blogging, at the Biology in Science Fiction website.

My own specialty is the biological sciences, so I’ll let other Mind Melders talk about physics. Biology is complicated, messy, and often slow, particularly when humans are involved. That means that for dramatic purposes the depiction of cloning, genetics and other biological sciences is usually pretty bad on screen.

So often it seems that SF productions hire science advisors who are physicists or astronomers, rather than biologists. I suspect that is one of the reasons why the depiction of biology. It also seems that many people mistakenly assume that biology is an “easy” science that they know and understand, so that they don’t need any advice. Add to that the fact that bad biology is often used as a sciency-sounding substitute for magic, and we end up with the current state of bad science in on-screen SF. Of course it could just be that the depiction of bioscience seems especially bad to me, because that’s my area of expertise.

Which SF misrepresentations of biology annoy me the most?

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Mind Meld Make-Up Test with Geoff Ryman

When we first asked, Geoff Ryman wasn’t able to write us a response about Battlestar Galactica in time for that week’s Mind Meld. But he didn’t forget about us! Without further ado, here is his response to the question:

Q: BSG has ended, and no one appears to be thrilled with the finale. What would you have done differently, if you could run the show?
Geoff Ryman
Geoff Ryman has been writing at the cutting edge of science fiction for years. He is the author of the online interactive novel 253, as well as The Child Garden, Was, Air: Or, Have Not Have, and most recently The King’s Last Song. He was won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the World Fantasy Award amongst others, and he’s been inducted into the Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame.

Have you ever been proved right in a nightmare?

The last episode of Battlestar Galactica proved me right in a way that dismayed me. I loved BSG for its characters. I could accept the bad science because the show did such a good job of showing me America as it now is. Out of genre habit, I accepted the preposterous setting in order to see such characters as an effective female President. Roslin is everything a politician needs to be including ruthless — she tries to rig and election and suggests assassination as a political tool. I loved the ambiguity of Balthar, the way the fate of the characters kept evolving. Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck took a character that was essentially a contraption, and made her live. (Until that is, they turned her into an Angel.)

But boy did I have doubts. I expressed these in a speech at ICFA (the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts) in 2007. I wondered about the cramped palette of roles offered to black characters, the same basic palette of preachers, comely communication officers, or isolated black heroes that SF TV always seems to offer. I criticised its use of the Honorary Man, a female character who is there to do men’s dirty work for them.

But above all I expressed my fear that the spaceship with its Greek Gods would end up on our Earth in the past, founding civilization as we know it out of the Western tradition. I felt that it was symptomatic of a wider malaise that so much SF turned out to be fantasy set in the past rather than the future.

The edited version of the speech (Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts , vol 18, no 2) skips over much of that argument because everybody told me so many things I’d said were clangers. I was an idiot for compromising. I won’t do it again.

The improvised and shoddy end of Battlestar Galactica did exactly what I most feared it would do. It shows me that civilisation on Earth was essentially founded by us, the West.

In this unintentionally racist mythology, the Greek Gods and our classical Greek inheritance arrived with Galactica before any other civilization. Forget the gods of Sumer, or of the Indus valley. The West came first.

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MIND MELD: Gods by the Bushel

Where would Fantasy be without gods to bicker, argue, and meddle with the fate of mortals? We asked the following of this week’s panelists, who responded with less bickering and meddling.

Q: In a created fantasy world, gods can proliferate by the hundreds. When building religious systems for fantasies, what are the advantages/disadvantages of inventing pantheons vs. single gods, or having no religious component at all?
Marie Brennan
Marie Brennan holds a joint B.A. in anthropology (archaeology) and folklore & mythology from Harvard University. Her short story “Shadows’ Bride” appeared in the 2006 Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. Her novels include Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, and the soon-to-be-released In Ashes Lie.

“No religious component at all” is an unlikely option, to my mind. Religion is, among other things, a way to explain the world around you, to render it comprehensible, and that’s a pretty fundamental human need. We see evidence of numinous explanations going back to the origins of writing and before; the purely mechanistic view of the universe is a fairly recent intellectual development. And — not to go off onto a tangent — but in certain senses, fantasy may be incompatible with a purely mechanistic cosmos. At that point everything’s science, not magic, no matter what costume you dress it up in, and magic is almost always a component of fantasy.

So let’s presume you’re going to have god(s). Which route is best? One of the advantages of polytheism is that it creates some flexibility. The Romans did this with conquered peoples; they assimilated local gods into their own pantheon, often by tagging them as aspects of whichever Roman deity they looked the most like. (Sure, that’s just . . . uh . . . Jupiter, by a different name!) Multiplicity allows for diversity, mutability, the representation of many different concepts and even contradictory perspectives. A single god is more totalizing, and also more abstract; he/she/it/whatever isn’t the god of anything, but rather the god of everything. Which has its own flexibility — there’s nothing in the cosmos your all-encompassing Creator doesn’t cover — but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that spawns some particular theological minefields, especially with regard to theodicy (aka “the problem of evil”).

From a writerly perspective, though, there’s one special appeal to having a pantheon, and that’s its narrative potential. Whether it’s weirdly symbolic tales of anthropomorphic forces, or the soap-opera dramatics of the Greek pantheon, you can make up lots of stories about the gods in conflict and cooperation. Monotheism isn’t story-less — the scriptures are full of stories — but those are all about humans interacting with God; polytheism gets to have those, plus a whole separate set about the gods interacting with each other. And you can stack the deck to suit your purposes, too, creating a situation or highlighting a theme that works with the story you’re going to tell.

Watch out how far you let your polytheism go, though — or you’ll end up like the Romans, with so many gods they start being assigned to things like door hinges.

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We occasionally get Mind Meld topic suggestions from folks. Here’s one that comes from Mike Resnick:

Q: Who are the best female writers in science fiction and/or fantasy?

Read on to see the picks from this week’s panelists. And be sure to tell us your favorites!

Gene Wolfe
Upon his return from Korea, Gene Wolfe earned a BSME at the University of Houston. He was a working engineer for 17 years and an editor on an engineering magazine for 11 more. Many of his early stories appeared in Damon Knight’s original anthology series Orbit. Wolfe has been writing full time since 1984. His titles include The Fifth Head Of Cerberus, Peace, The Shadow Of The Torturer, Soldier Of The Mist, Nightside The Long Sun, The Knight, The Wizard, Pirate Freedom, and An Evil Guest. His most recent book is The Best of Gene Wolfe. He and his wife Rosemary have been married for more than fifty years; they have four children and three grandchildren.

That’s a good one – interesting and not terribly tough. Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis, Kathe Koja, Kelly Link, Jane Yolen, Esther Friesner, Anne McCaffrey, Carol Emshwiller. These are in no particular order, just listed as they popped into my head; and I feel sure that there are some fine women writers out there whom I have never read.

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MIND MELD: The Tricky Trope of Time Travel

In which we get a lovely and diverse panel to discuss the best and brightest genre uses of time travel.

Q: Time travel is one of the trickiest SF/F tropes to use well. Why use it at all? What stories have used it to the best effect?
Paul Levinson
Paul Levinson’s The Silk Code won the 2000 Locus Award for Best First Novel. He has since published Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006). His science fiction and mystery short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. His eight nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), and Cellphone (2004), have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into nine languages. New New Media will be published in 2009. Paul Levinson appears on “The O’Reilly Factor” (Fox News), “The CBS Evening News,” the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (PBS), “Nightline” (ABC), and numerous national and international TV and radio programs. He reviews the best of television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog. Paul Levinson is Professor and Chair of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.

Why use time time travel in stories? That part is easy: it’s because time travel, written about properly, engenders the most exquisitely intellectually pleasurable paradoxes that a cognitive being can experience. All paradoxes do some of that. Consider “this statement is a lie”. If it’s true, that means it’s a lie. But if it’s a lie, that means it’s true.” You struggle, like a fish trapped in a net, to break free. But you cannot. And, for some people – like me – your eyes water with tears of pleasure as you continue to struggle.

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Some science fiction/fantasy/horror books seem to see reprint after reprint. Other worthwhile books have faded from the shelves. Who will remember these lost gems? We asked this week’s panel:

Q: What are the “Forgotten Books” of science fiction/fantasy/horror?
Ekaterina Sedia

Ekaterina Sedia‘s last novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published in November 2007. The Alchemy of Stone is out now. Her short stories sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams (Prime Books) and Magic in the Mirrorstone (Mirrorstone Books) anthologies.

Clifford Simak’s The Goblin Reservation. Saber-tooth tigers, hive-mind aliens, ghosts and Shakespeare. What more can one possibly want? I read this one back in high school, and it remains an incredibly memorable reading experience, along with Sheckley’s Mindswap (which is still in print, I think.)

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