Mind Meld Archives

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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MIND MELD: If We Ran Battlestar Galactica

After 5 years, BSG has come to its end (in this incarnation). As you’ll see below, it appears that over its life it spawned a host of debates and rather strong opinions. Spoilers ahead!

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?
Chris Roberson
Chris Roberson’s books include the novels Here, There & Everywhere, The Voyage of Night Shining White, Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, X-Men: The Return, Set the Seas on Fire, The Dragon’s Nine Sons, End of the Century, Iron Jaw and Hummingbird, Three Unbroken, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II, and the comic book mini-series Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as Asimov’s, Interzone, Postscripts, and Subterranean, and in anthologies such as Live Without a Net, FutureShocks, and Forbidden Planets. Along with his business partner and spouse Allison Baker, he is the publisher of MonkeyBrain Books, an independent publishing house specializing in genre fiction and nonfiction genre studies, and he is the editor of anthology Adventure Vol. 1. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award four times–once each for writing and editing, and twice for publishing–twice a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and three times for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form (winning in 2004 with his story “O One”). Chris and Allison live in Austin, Texas with their daughter Georgia.

Um, written a decent finale? Perhaps one that wasn’t a steaming pile of dogshit? Honestly, that was like a trainwreck wrapped inside a clusterfuck topped with a healthy splash of “Fuck the audience.”

Okay, perhaps I should step back and contextualize a bit.

At one point, I was convinced that Ron Moore had been sent to save us all. After penning some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, he was a writer I would follow anywhere. But then with the launch of the “reimagined” Battlestar Galactica, he was suddenly taking us places I as a viewer never even knew existed. For those first few seasons, Battlestar Galactica was not just the best science fiction series in the history of television, but was arguably one of the best television series of any genre.

That held true up until the first few episodes of the third season, with the liberation of New Caprica. Everything up to that point was taut, clever, and engaging in a white-knuckled-sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat way. The story was an express-train barreling down the track, only no one in the audience knew where it was heading. And then, almost immediately after the surviving colonists were rescued from New Caprica, things seem to have gone off the rails.

I sit on a lot of fannish panels at conventions, talking about books and comics and movies not with any kind of authority but just as one fan speaking to others. At the WorldCon in Glasgow back in 2005 I was part of a panel on BSG with a bunch of other writers and fans, speaking to a packed auditorium. For more than an hour we ranted and raved about how great the series was, discussing the implications of this or that plot point, spinning out fascinating theories and hypothesis about just what the Cylons’ “Plan” might be.

And in that single hour in Glasgow, I think we put more thought and attention into how the plotlines of BSG might develop than Moore and the rest of the writers ultimately put on display.

By somewhere in the middle of the third season, as characters began to act in increasingly arbitrary ways in order to serve the needs of the plot, I began to suspect that this was not going to end well. With the airing of the two-part “Resurrection Ship” only a year before, I’d opined on my blog that one of the things I loved most about the series was that “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.” But when the unexpected happened on the show at that point, it was still in retrospect inevitable. The characters each had established personalities and prejudiced, and acted accordingly.

As the third season wore on, and then the fourth season was inflicted on the audience, the unexpected still happened, but it was seldom if ever the inevitable outcome of previous events. Instead, characters seemed to make sudden and arbitrary decisions because that was what the plot required of them. We need someone to play some Inherit the Wind scenes in Baltar’s trial? Why, look at that–Apollo has just rediscovered his grandfather’s law books and professed a (previously unsuspected) lifelong desire to practice law. Conflict between characters was often generated by having one or both of them behaving in uncharacteristic ways, and the large-scale movements of the fleet itself was often due more to arbitrary factors than any compelling story reasons.

This tendency only intensified as the fourth season ground to a halt. Having picked five of the cast at random and designating them the “Final Five” missing Cylons, and teaming the colonial fleet up with a group of renegade Cylons, for most of this last season it seemed as if the writers were simply marking time. What revelations there were had little to do with what had gone before, and were inevitably cast aside almost immediately. (“Earth was destroyed millennia ago? And they were all Cylons?” Within an episode or two, all but forgotten, and I find it hard to remember any character stopping even for a moment to say, “Hey, what was up with that?!”) We need Starbuck to receive some cryptic clue, perhaps in the form of a familiar tune? No problem, we’ll just reveal that she learned how to play piano from her father, and just forgot to mention it until now.

With the penultimate episode and the series finale, the worst tendencies of the past season and a half were put on full display, but without even a hint of the elements that had made the show so terrific in its first few years. The plot itself is littered with absolutely baffling decisions, and while they are really the least of the offenses on display here, I can’t resist listing just a few:

  • Boomer suddenly has a change of heart and rescues Hera, but only after it’s no help to anyone to do so
  • Tigh offers the resurrection technology in exchange for Hera, but only after forcing us to listen to Baltar rambling on about “God’s purpose” for a full five minutes
  • The Cylons, who defeated the Colonial fleet back in the destruction of the 12 colonies by exploiting wireless networks, somehow find it necessary to borrow the Galactica’s corded phones in order to call messages back to the Cylon colony

But these kinds of inanities are really the least of it. This is a show that has made terrific use of flashbacks since the original miniseries, and we’ve spent a lot of time in four seasons and change with each of these main characters. Why, then, did Moore feel it necessary to invent new backstory for each of the principles in these new flashbacks? Remember that time that Adama almost quit the military to go work in the private sector, but changed his mind? No? Perhaps because it has very little bearing on his character, and if it’s been mentioned before it slipped right past me. But at least it gave Edward James Olmos a chance to one up the requisite “Admiral Adama Cries” scenes that have appeared in so many recent episodes with “Admiral Adama Cries While Vomiting On Himself.” We get the bewildering story of the time that Roslin’s entire family was killed and so she went on a blind date with one of her former students–and who knew that in the Twelve Colonies “blind date” meant “come to my house where we’ll get drunk and screw”?–and then decided to go into politics after all. And why? I don’t know, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it took Roslin exactly as long as the series ran to finally succumb to the cancer she was revealed to have back in the first episode… but then, wouldn’t it have made more sense to link her flashbacks into that, instead? Strangest of all, perhaps, is the brief glimpse of those happy alcoholics, Saul and Ellen Tigh, getting plastered together at the strip club.

The scene with Saul and Ellen typifies just why these new continuity inserts were necessary, I think, since it established an idyllic past of sorts, a beginning to the journey whose final end we’re about to see. But the problem is that, despite the fact that there are scads of Saul and Ellen scenes over the course of the first few seasons of BSG, there simply aren’t any idyllic scenes that set them up as the happy couple that’s going to walk off together into the sunset of the primordial Earth. Colonel Tigh is an angry bitter drunk, and Ellen is his shrewish and manipulative ex-wife. We’re supposed to be happy for them that they’ve reached this destination together, and the only way for that to work is to give them some brief moment in their past where they seemed like happiness was attainable, so that now they can attain it.

(The less said about the weirdly cued flashback between Apollo and Starbuck the better, I think, except to say that it featured Starbuck revealing her deepest, darkest fear to Apollo… a deep dark fear that she would then never mention again, apparently.)

There was a lot of budget on display in this finale, with the huge ship-to-ship battles and the armies of deadly Cylons (though, that said, there seemed little left over to pay for some of the other scenes–the climactic moment when the Final Five joined hands to blend their memories had all the panache of a high school production of Frankenstein, and the dispersal of the surviving colonists on the primordial Earth was staged as “Twelve guys with rucksacks walk across a field”). What wasn’t clear, though, was where the writing budget had gone. Time and again characters would stop the action to declaim at each other, as when Roslin sums up her previous four years for the doctor, or Baltar preaches to Cavil, or Starbuck gives her cringingly out-of-character farewell to Apollo (“I’ve reached the end of my journey”? Really?).

I don’t mind all of the supernatural hoodoo, honestly. Moore and company have insisted on piling all that nonsense in since very early on, and there was no reason to expect that they wouldn’t bring it back into the finale. But “supernatural” doesn’t mean “nothing needs to make sense.” And while I admire the valiant attempt to tie in the Opera House dream sequences from earlier in the series, it falls a little flat when all of those portentous visions appear to add up to “You will walk through bright spotlights in the Galactica, and open a door.” And really, what was the big significance of Baltar and Caprica Six ushering Hera through the door, only for her to immediately be taken at gunpoint by Cavil?

Ultimately, though, this whole series appears to have been about two things, if I’m reading the finale correctly. The textual meaning of the series, what the story has been about on the surface, is getting Hera to Earth so she can grow up and be a mommy. (And really, I can’t help but pity poor Hera, who has been a central McGuffin for years but apparently never developed as a character in her own right, a mute and possibly severely mentally disabled child who wandered aimlessly through the plotlines without uttering a word.) And if we missed this fact, the narrative helpfully points this out to us with blaring lights and sounds, with Ron Moore himself holding a National Geographic featuring “mitochondrial Eve” while a newscaster explains the importance of Eve… and then a minute later the narrative explains this to us again when the “angel” Baltar points out that mitochondrial Eve had a Cylon mother and human father. Oh, wait? You mean…? That was that little girl?!

(Parenthetically, I loved the fact that when Hera appears in the CIC, Adama points at her and says “That little girl!” As though everyone wouldn’t already be on a first-name basis with the little girl they were all sacrificing their lives to save.)

Sheesh. And then, having bludgeoned us over the head with the forty-five-minute-long reveal that “OMG they are our ancestors!” the narrative allows the two “angels” to pause for a moment and reflect whether this can all happen again. After all, it happened before on Caprica, and on the “original Earth” before that (wait, did it? The original Earth was inhabited entirely by Cylons, until destroyed by parties unknown in a nuclear holocaust. Is that the same thing that happened “before”?), so it could happen again. And then… Asimo! And Roomba! And Robosapien! OMG NOES! ROBOTS WILL ETE US!

Seriously, are you kidding me? What about the final union between creator and created, between man and machine, human and Cylon? Wasn’t that somehow “God’s” plan? But then…

Okay, went off track a bit there. What was the question again? “What would you have done differently?” Honestly? Anything other than what they actually did. Something good, maybe?

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For this week’s Mind Meld, we wanted to go towards the light side. Fortunately, Mike Resnick had offered up this question:

Q: Who are the funniest writers in the history of sf/f?

It’s not all Adams and Pratchett! Read on to see some the wittiest writers.

Mike Resnick

Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

Robert Sheckley at his best, say from 1958 to 1969, was in a class by himself.

Others would include George Alec Effinger, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, Ron Goulart, Terry Pratchett, Doug Adams, Phil Klass (William Tenn), Esther Friesner, John Sladek, and in all

immodesty, me.

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MIND MELD: Taboo Topics in SF/F Literature

Times change, and taboos change with them. What sort of taboos exist nowadays in the world of publishing?

Q: Once upon a time, sf/f was full of taboos: no swearing, no sex, etc. We’re thankfully past those days, but are there any taboos still remaining or new ones that have sprung up? Have you ever had trouble with publishing something, or caught yourself self-censoring?
Peter Watts
Peter Watts (Starfish, Maelstrom, Behemoth and Blindsight) is a disgruntled sf writer who has failed to win every major award for which he has ever been nominated. You might be surprised by how pleasant he can be in person, though.

I don’t actually believe that we’ve come quite so far as the question would suppose. In fact, I would argue that taboos are more restrictive today that they have been times past. Back in 1967 Theodore Sturgeon’s “If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” argued that incest was a Good Thing. Around the same time, Moorcock’s time-travel tale “Behold the Man” showed us the blessed virgin as a slut and Jesus Christ as a drooling, congenital imbecile.

What mainstream sf outlets would have the balls to publish those stories today? Down in the US, a half-second flicker of Janet Jackson faux-nipple on national television sends the whole fucking country into an uproar. Over in the UK, it has recently become illegal to own pictures of legal sexual acts; the ownership of sufficiently “extreme” pornographic images is enough to get you registered as a sex offender. And in my country, Canada’s so-called “premiere science fiction magazine”, On Spec– a publication that once had the guts to publish a story of mine that dared to portray a racist as a sympathetic individual– refused to run a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit, renegeing on a written commitment explicitly designed to ensure that such censorship wouldn’t occur. (It only adds to the irony that the image was intended to illustrate an editorial celebrating science fiction’s potential to explore “dangerous ideas”.)

So, you guys think we’re “thankfully past those days” of censorship?

Tell me, what colour is the sky on your world?

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I’m an avid used book buyer. It’s the only way to support my biblioholism. Some say that buying secondhand books is bad for authors because they see none of that money. Others say it gets their work in front of more readers. We posed the following question to this week’s panelists:

Q: There are arguments for and against the used book market. What’s your take? Does the used book market help or hurt the publishing industry?

Here’s what they said:

Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is the author of two award-nominated novels, Move Under Ground and Under My Roof, and over fifty short stories. Much of his recent short fiction, and a new novella, can be found in You Might Sleep… A native New Yorker, Nick now lives in California.

The used book market is great. It lowers the bar to trying authors and books one may not have otherwise, keeps books “alive” that might otherwise entirely vanish, and lowers the price of new hardcovers–that is, one might buy a hardcover knowing that it can be sold. And, of course, with the used book market comes the secondary market for limited editions and other small press-type books, which is often what helps those titles sell out in the first place.

The used book market is also handy for revealing the “real” price of ebooks: they should be between a quarter and a dollar. What’s the market price of a book with no book attached? Well, the little paperbacks with the wrecked spines and sliced covers suggest that such a book should be much cheaper than ebooks generally are. Maybe someday someone will take the hint.

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MIND MELD: Non-Genre Books for Genre Readers

We talk to folks a lot about genre books and movies, but what do they have to say about books from outside the field?

Q: SF conventions often have panels on “What sf books would you recommend to someone who hadn’t encountered the field before?” Let’s turn that around: “What non-sf/fantasy books would you recommend to someone whose reading was predominantly in sf/fantasy?”
Gary K. Wolfe
Gary K. Wolfe, Professor of Humanities and English at Roosevelt University and contributing editor and lead reviewer for Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field, is the author of critical studies The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction, David Lindsay, Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen R. Weil). His most recent book, Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (Beccon, 2005), received the British Science Fiction Association Award for best nonfiction, and was nominated for a Hugo Award by the World Science Fiction Convention. Wolfe has received the Eaton Award, the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and, in 2007, a World Fantasy Award for criticism. A collection of essays, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

Top of my head, I can think of three ways to answer this, while assiduously avoiding the Amazon-like “if you like Haldeman, try Hemingway” sort of analogues.

  1. Despite what a lot of fans might assume, most of the writers I know don’t spend their time assiduously reading the competition, and some of them hardly read any genre material at all. As a result, their work may reflect a variety of influences and allusions that could slide past a reader without at least a foundation in general literature. So recommendation #1 is, at least try to sample the classics. That can considerably enrich the experience of reading genre works that specifically echo non-genre works, as when Haldeman does do Hemingway (as in The Hemingway Hoax) or Benford does Faulkner (Against Infinity, “To the Storming Gulf”), or Silverberg does Conrad (“The Secret Sharer,” Downward to the Earth), or Brunner does Dos Passos (Stand on Zanzibar). One of Haldeman’s most beautiful stories, “For White Hill,” is even organized around a Shakespeare sonnet.

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Just as readers are sometimes influenced by the fiction they read, so, too, are writers. This week, we asked a bunch of writerly types:

Q: The ever-changing landscape of science fiction literature is said to be formed by the ongoing conversation between books; one book influences another, which influences another, and so on. Which books and writers have influenced your stories? What statements or challenges are asserted in your own work that you pass on to future writers?

Here’s what they said:

Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. His novels include Crystal Rain, Sly Mongoose, Ragamuffin, and Halo: The Cole Protocol. Coming up isa short story collection titled Tides from the New Worlds.

I was quite influenced by the Cyberpunk writers. The view of the street, more blue collar heroes, that got my interest. It’s funny because even though they influenced me, I’m only just now getting around to writing a near-futur-ish novel of that sort. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, they both used developing world countries as settings and characters and important players in the world in their books. That was revolutionary for me.

Bruce Sterling’s Islands in The Net is initially set on Grenada. For me it was a light bulb moment. I’d tasted a bit of this with Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, where he has Pacific-Ocean characters, Indian computer scientists, and so forth. Clarke and Sterling and Gibson felt like writers who used the world and the world’s people as a stage in a fundamental manner that I didn’t feel as much in other works.

As an author I have no idea what statement or challenge I’ve really thrown down to other writers coming after me. If pressed further, I think part of a message I have is that fiction written with non-white characters or by non-white authors doesn’t have to be magical realist or “literary” in nature. I get these “disappointed” letters every once in a while from people that I write straight up action/adventure. But then I get letters from people who expected “ethnic SF/F” (their words, not mine) to be boring, and were totally pumped by the action/adventure featuring Caribbean heroes. My statement/challenge is that there is no one true route to adding diversity to our field, but that that route should be diverse in and of itself. Adventure shouldn’t be a specialized field, and diversity isn’t a dirty word, it can be a great deal of explosive fun. So in addition to opening things up a little, I’m also hoping that writers who follow will realize that they can forge their own brand, and that they should, thus widening the field.

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I’m not a writer, nor do I play one on TV, but I have read enough writers’ blogs to know that it’s a tough field to succeed in. And being published does not necessarily mean you’re living on Easy Street. So we asked this week’s writer panelists:

Q: What’s the most difficult part of being a writer?

Here’s what they said:

Charlie Huston
Charlie Huston is the author of several noir crime fiction series including the Hank Thompson Trilogy (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things, and A Dangerous Man) and the gritty vampire noir Joe Pitt series (Already Dead, No Dominion, Half the Blood of Brooklyn, and Every Last Drop) as well as standalone novels. Stephen King calls Charlie Huston a “brilliant storyteller” in his review of Huston’s latest novel, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, published by Ballantine Books.

For me, the hardest thing about being a writer is that it’s solitary. There’s a great deal of fallout from all that alone time. For starters, pure boredom. Hours spent every day staring at some words you are already intimately familiar with because the came out of your head. And lonely. The little interactions that take place over the course of a working day in a shared environment are easy to take for granted and be annoyed by, until there’s no one to talk to except yourself. Hours pass, suddenly you say something aloud, to test a line, or because you stubbed your toe, and you realize it’s the first voice you’ve heard all day. And it’s yours. And there is the constant irritation of yourself. There are huge gains to be had if you believe in the value of the examined life, but you’re also likely to dig up some stuff on yourself you just didn’t want to know. Like spending too much time with one person in intimate contact, too much time with yourself can lead you to be driven insane by all your little annoying habits. If I squeak the casters on my chair one more time I might kill myself.

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Some of SF Signal’s readers are aspiring writers, so we thought we take this week to ask some published writers in the genre to dispense with some useful writerly advice. Here’s what we asked them:

Q: What’s the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?

And here are their collective words of wisdom…

Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg started writing fiction in the 1950s and has since built a remarkable catalog of novels and short stories. He’s won several Hugo and Nebula Awards throughout his career, for both his writing and his editing of numerous anthologies. His entire bibliography is too long to mention, but some well-known titles include the Majipoor series, A Time of Changes, Nightwings, The Book of Skulls, Son of Man, Downward to the Earth, and Dying Inside. Some of his most famous pieces of short fiction include “Hawksbill Station”, “Born with the Dead”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and “Passengers”. Robert Silverberg was also the recipient of the 2004 SFWA Grandmaster Award.

The best piece of advice I ever got came from Lester del Rey, the veteran writer and editor who, when I was in my twenties, had become a sort of Dutch uncle, or perhaps even a second father, to me. At the beginning of my career in the mid-1950s I had trouble selling my most ambitious stories, the ones that I thought were the best in me, whereas the minor, more conventional pieces sold quite easily to the magazines. There were several reasons for this. The main one was that I was competing for slots in those magazines with the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, James Blish, Alfred Bester, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth, and other greats of that golden era for the science-fiction short story. What I was writing, at the age of 21 or 22, might have been ambitious but it still wasn’t in a class with what those more mature writers were doing. On the other hand, all the magazines, even the top ones, were constantly in need of conventional 5000-worders for the back of the book. It seemed to make more sense to me to churn out competent potboilers for those magazine editors instead of trying to knock Sturgeon or Leiber or Knight out of the top place in the issue, and very shortly I was earning a nice living indeed writing formula fiction at a fast pace. (I was, in fact, earning more per year than any of my literary heroes by the third year of my career.) By playing it safe this way I was indeed able to pay the monthly rent, and then some. But I wasn’t contributing anything worthwhile to science fiction, and, though I didn’t realize it just yet, I wasn’t even acting in my own best interests.

It was Lester who pointed out to me that I was working from a false premise. “Even if all you’re concerned with is making money,” he said, “you’re going about it the wrong way. You’re knocking out penny-a-word stories as fast as you can, and, sure, you’re pulling in the quick bucks very nicely. But you’re shortchanging yourself, because all that you’ll ever make from what you’re writing now is the check you get for it today. Those stories will die the day they’re published. They won’t get into anthologies and won’t be bought for translation and nobody will want you to put together a collection of them. Whereas if you were writing at the level that I know you’re capable of, you’d be creating a body of work that will go on bringing in money for the rest of your life. So by going for the easy money you’re actually cutting your future income.”

I pointed out that when I wrote at the level I was capable of, I had trouble selling the stories. He laughed at that. It was a temporary phenomenon, he said. Now that my name was established — I had won a Hugo my second year as a writer, and my name was in all the magazines — the editors would pay more attention.

I began to upgrade the product. Everything sold; and, encouraged by the steady acceptance of what I thought of as my “real” science fiction, I moved quickly away from my hack markets, most of which had died off anyway. And, sure enough, I started to get my stories into anthologies, I sold them to British and French and German magazines, I got offers from publishers to do collections of my work. Lester had been right: the quick buck wasn’t the best buck. Simply in terms of a basic goal of making money from my writing, I had taken the wrong track, because junk was never reprinted, and good stories lived on and on. And, of course, even then I knew that I wanted more out of a career in science-fiction than just making money, because I had been a reader before I became a writer, and I had dreamed of writing the sort of work that had the same impact on readers that the work of my great predecessors had had on me. If I simply had wanted to be a hack, I would have done a lot better writing for True Confessions. So I shifted away from the kind of churn-’em-out stuff I had done in my earlier years, and people began to notice the change. The Hugos and Nebulas and guest-of-honor invitations followed, and, many years later, the Grand Master award — and simply on the financial level I did a lot better than I would if I had, Gernsback forbid, spent my whole life writing potboilers. Probably I would have figured all that out on my own. But Lester del Rey’s blunt words, back there in 1957 or 1958, brought me to my senses a lot faster than would otherwise have been the case.

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After a brief respite from our Mind Meld interview feature, we’re back!

This week we accosted the good folks over at Book View Cafe, a group blog made up of more than 20 professionally published authors seeking to reach a wider audience by distributing their work directly to readers. We asked them a deceptively simple question:

Q: What is your favorite genre novel? Why?

Read on to see how they responded…

Sue Lange
Sue Lange‘s We, Robots published in March 2007 by Aqueduct Press, deals with the SF prediction du jour: the Singularity. Her first book, Tritcheon Hash, was published in 2003. She has a few short stories published in various venues and is currently co-blogging at Book View Cafe, where she is also serializing her interactive novel, The Textile Planet.

My favorite genre novel and why.

I have to say this is a hard one. Of all time or what? Back in high school it would have been a toss up between Childhood’s End (for it’s optimism) and Cat’s Cradle (for it’s pessimism). I gave up reading science fiction once I got to college but several years after I graduated a friend of mine demanded that I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That pretty much did it for me. I remembered how great sf could be, even with Monty Python in the mix. I got sucked right back in. I can’t remember half of what I’ve read since then, but two writers stand out: Joanna Russ and Neal Stephenson. And the winner is: Snow Crash by Stephenson.

There’s so much in this book that I like, the sardonic humor, the themes, the settings. What really kills me though is the very first section where he describes pizza delivery in California. It’s so funny and exhilarating at the same time. Stephenson’s ability to make the story fantastic and at the same time very real, logical, possible, maybe even likely makes him a great writer in my opinion. And Snow Crash a great book.

Gotta go insert the head set now. See you in Second Life.

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[See also Part 1 and Part 2.]

We’re late in wrapping up out ‘Best Of’ list for this year, but better late than never. Today, just in time for Christmas, we bring you bloggers’ perspectives on the ‘Best of 2008′.

Q: What were the best genre-related books, movies and/or shows you consumed in 2008?
Paul Weimer (Jvstin of Blog, Jvstin Style)
Paul can be found over on Blog, Jvstin Style, where he blogs about a great deal of things, including Science Fiction.

2008 was a fruitful year for genre media. Even as the economy fell into recession, the amount and variety of genre media spiked upward.

Movies:

Iron Man: I rate this movie slightly higher than the obvious choice, below, for the reason of what I call the “sprained ankle test”. Given a sprained ankle and being pent up in my apartment, what genre movie would I prefer to re-watch to take my mind off my predicament?

Iron Man won hands down. Even as it has an important message about the cost and consequences of the Military-Industrial Complex running hog wild and the instable third world that provides a endless canvas for the unfolding of human tragedy, the movie itself has more than sufficient dollops of humor, humanity and sheer entertainment to make it a movie well worth your time even without a sprained ankle. Good performances from Downey, Paltrow, Howard and Bridges only reinforce Iron Man as my favorite, and easily the most entertaining genre movie I watched in 2008.

The Dark Knight: Much ink has already been spilled about the fabulous performances of Christian Bale, and even more, that of the late Heath Ledger. The direction is fabulous, the cinematography is fantastic, and the movie stunningly well crafted. The only thing that keeps this from being for me the genre movie of the year is the relentless downward tone and denouement of the film. It’s not a happy movie, and upon leaving the theater, it left me on a downward note in mood. It’s definitely not a movie to watch when in depressed spirits. Regardless, it still is a movie that no fan of genre movies should miss.

Hellboy II The Golden Army: Del Toro brings us another live action installment in the story of the B.P.R.D. and its titular leader, the irrepressible Hellboy. The original movie was a bit of a diamond in the rough; this second installment is more confident, and with the origins and nature of Hellboy safely explained in the first movie, this second movie proves the idea that second-in-a-series movies (in genre, anyway) are often superior to the first.

Like my choice for favorite genre movie, Hellboy knows how to deft play moods and themes, easily switching from humor, to pathos, to rollicking action, and to tragedy. Del Toro’s creations and the inventiveness that went into them, from the Golden Army itself to the variety of creations wandering in the Troll Market (evocative of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars), have to be seen to be believed.

Books:

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[See also: Part 1]

“Best of the Year” lists start appearing as early as November, so we are perhaps a little late in asking folks around the community:

Q: What were the best genre-related books, movies and/or shows you consumed in 2008?

[We also added this note: They don't have to have been released in 2008. Feel free to choose just some of the genres (sf/f/h) or a subset of the media (books/movies/shows) as you wish.]

Here are their replies…


Andy Remic
Andy Remic is a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, fluffy bunny rabbit of a man, who enjoys kick-boxing, sword-fighting and mountain climbing. He’s written some SF books, and some thriller books, too. His book War Machine is about an elite combat squad on a series of deadly high-octane missions through different colourful dangerous galaxies. It also has believable women characters. Honest. Remic’s latest book BIOHELL has just been published the U.S. by Solaris Books, and is about what happens when vanity nano-technology goes horribly wrong, and turns a full planet of vain footballer’s wives into quite horrific zombies. With machine guns. BIOHELL has believable zombie women characters. Truth. You can read more of the conundrum who is Andy Remic at www.andyremic.com and suffer his really boring pointless dribbling at andyremic.blogspot.com.

It’s been a good year for media. I’m just finishing Joseph D’Lacey’s The Garbage Man, which is excellent, unique and scary. Mark Newton’s The Reef gave me a lot of smiles (but not as many as when I throw him off a mountain next February) and offered superb characterisation, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Ian Graham’s Monument, in my opinion one of the finest fantasy books ever written, with a totally ghastly anti-hero called Ballas who gets drunk, throws up a lot, and fights everyone. Proper hero stuff!! I enjoyed Rochard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, which I think put a new spin on Moorcock-type fantasy, and I also really enjoyed Iain Bank’s Matter which saw a return to my favourite amoral good guys, The Culture. Gosh. And I just discovered Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which is such a brilliantly written book it’s almost a crime against the Family to watch the movie- capiche? I was hugely amused, as ever, by the toffee-haired eco-hating rubber-faced human scarecrow who is Jeremy Clarkson, and his rabid spittle-flecked ramblings in The Daily Scrotum or whichever godforsaken rag he scribbles for, and once again was thrilled to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new movie about bent politicians and the corrupt world of bent and dodgy politics. What? That was real? Never. Gok Wan produced another brilliant book about fat women looking less fat in bad clothes, and it was cool to see the man-idiot Russelly Brand the Unshaved and his plethora of tight trousers and cash-in tomes entitled things like My Spunky Booky and Other Dribble.

Movies! Movies were good. I really enjoyed (as did my little boy) Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. Yeah yeah, there were moments of cheese (lead-lined fridges, anybody?), but this is Hollywood baby and they have the full Gorgonzola. Christian Bale was just orgiastic as Batman, in the Dark Knight film, and Heath Ledger’s Joker was brill. Am I being predictable? What, no artsy shitsy French arthouse productions? Sorry. I don’t watch that. My six year old boy wants entertainment, baby. As does his 12 year old father. I also enjoyed the Grindhouse films. They were fun.

Shows? I’m going to watch a Christmas pantomine, in which there will no doubt be lots of fat women. But that’s cool, because I like fat women. Predictions? I think it will be cerebral.

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“Best of the Year” lists start appearing as early as November, so we are perhaps a little late in asking folks around the community:

Q: What were the best genre-related books, movies and/or shows you consumed in 2008?

[We also added this note: They don't have to have been released in 2008. Feel free to choose just some of the genres (sf/f/h) or a subset of the media (books/movies/shows) as you wish.]

Here are their replies…


Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal‘s short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is the art director of Shimmer and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary BootCamp. She is the 2008 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

When looking back at the year it is always so hard to quantify what was best. Is it the best craftsmanship or what suits my tastes best. So as I was considering my list, I found myself choosing those things that make me go, “Oh, you must read this.”

Thunderer by Felix Gilman, tops the list because I’ve just finished it and was taken completely by surprise. It’s a powerful novel that’s got a New Weird quality that reminds me of China Miéville except more approachable. I could not put the book down. It was full of rich detailed cultures that were completely believable but completely outside the real world.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson also took me completely by surprise by the scope of the vision. He managed to make the heat death of the Universe a compelling dramatic backdrop to a completely human story.

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi. I’ll admit. I’m a weeper and love stories that make me cry like a baby. Scalzi managed to do that at least three times in this novel. It’s a wonderfully moving story of a very real teenage girl.

The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia. Remember me being a sucker for weepers? Add to that a story of a clockwork girl and you’ve got me. What I loved about this was how she captured what it would be like to be a creature that could break and to know your creator intimately. What it would be like to rely on someone to repair you instead of being able to heal. Beautiful and chilling storytelling here.

“The Oracle Spoke” by Holly Phillips is a short story in Realms, the First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine. Truly, I thought the whole anthology was wonderful, but this story has stayed with me. It is a deeply personal story about an oracle and it broke my heart.

“The Prophet of Flores” by Ted Kosmatka is a short story that blew me out of the water. Consider what it would be like to live today if the age of the earth were scientifically provable and only 6000 years old. Now take that world and find a crack in the theology. This story will take the top of your head off and put it back on in a different alignment.

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It’s official, the U.S. economy is in a recession and may be heading for a depression. This means that the average consumer of SF will have to make some tough choices on how and where to spend their money. With people spending less the science fiction publishing industry could be hit hard.

Q: What can the SF industry do to weather a prolonged economic downturn? Will new authors have an even harder time breaking into the field?
Diana Gill
Executive Editor Diana Gill runs Eos, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. She is the editor of New York Times bestselling authors Kim Harrison and Vicki Pettersson. Other authors with whom she has worked include Mario Acevedo, Jonathan Barnes, Trudi Canavan, Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Mary Stewart, Karen Traviss, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

I think the hardcover market will shrink a bit, and people will be more judicious in what they buy in hardcover, and thus publishers will also watch what’s done in hardcover, but it’s worth remembering that a mass market is $7.99, and it can be read numerous times, unlike a $12 movie or $20 DVD.

In terms of the overall market, people read sf/f at least partially for a sense of escapism, for something different than their everyday world, and that need for escapism is even stronger during a difficult market. Our sales stayed steady after 9/11, and I expect the reading public will still want tales of adventure and a way to not think about the recession, etc.

Urban fantasy, in particular, should remain extremely popular, since it presents a world very like our own, but one that’s heightened, filled with magic and possibilities, etc.

The harder challenge will be with stores cutting their buys, which is already happening. If that continues, it will be harder to buy smaller books, or ones with a more specialized audience. But in some ways new authors have an advantage, as they don’t have a sales track that can hinder them.

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Many say that the best speculative fiction stories are those with strong characters. But sometimes we run across characters that outshine the story. We asked this week’s panel:

Q: Who are the most memorable characters in science fiction, fantasy and horror? What makes them so memorable?

Here are their answers…

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is the author of 50 novels, 200 short stories, a pair of screenplays, and the editor of 50 anthologies, as well as the executive editor of Jim Baen’s Universe. According to Locus, he is the leading award winner, living or dead, of short fiction. His work has been translated into 22 languages.

Memorable characters, in no particular order

Ben Reich (The Demolished Man) – he’s bright, he’s tough, he’s willing to buck a system that has stacked all the odds against him (how do you get away with a murder when the police are telepaths?), and to this day I think he gets away with it if Alfie Bester doesn’t decide that he shouldn’t.

The Mule (Foundation and Empire) – one of the only two believable characters Isaac Asimov ever drew, he is at first totally awesome (until we realize who he is) and totally villainous (until we understand him), and although he is completely at odds with what Isaac clearly considers the salvation of Civilization, he nonetheless arouses the reader’s sympathy.

Charly Gordon (Flowers for Algernon) – possibly the most fully-realized character of those I’m mentioning, you admire his ascent from imbecile to genius and suffer through his descent back to imbecility. An incredibly moving story, quite possibly the best novella in our field’s history, and since it is comprised entirely of Charly’s diary he is the singular engine that drives the story and sways the reader’s emotions.

Jonathan Herovit (Herovit’s World) – to me, Herovit, who is slowly going mad writing an endless series of generic space operas, is the most memorable science fiction writer ever created. And, since it’s by Barry Malzberg at the peak of his powers, the most tragic as well.

Jenkins (City) – okay, so Jenkins is a robot and not a human being at all, but thank heaven Cliff Simak didn’t feel compelled to follow Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics as almost everyone else of his era did, and created a robot with hopes and dreams, a robot who was thrilled to be working for a Webster once again, and a robot who in the end is willing to lie when he feels the situation requires it.

Nameless child (“Born of Man and Woman”) – it’s a very short story, and the narrator doesn’t even have a name…but it is so brilliant, so horrific, and so memorable that it made Richard Matheson a star with his very first story. It’s hard to read this and not be chilled by it – and it’s even harder, decades later, to forget the narrator, who is as memorable as they come, even if that memory is accompanied by an involuntary shudder.

Marid Audran (When Gravity Fails, etc.) – Marid was the protagonist of George Alec Effinger’s masterworks, When Gravity Fails and A Fire In The Sun (as well as The Exile Kiss, which was not quite as successful). In an age of cynical atheism, Marid is Islamic; in an age of urban sprawls in the Orient, Marid wanders a Middle Eastern city drawn from the French Quarter in New Orleans; in an era where “punk” was at least as important as “cyber”, George (and Marid) ignored it in favor of art. There’s never been a protagonist quite like Marid, before or since.

Northwest Smith (13 stories) – I don’t know if any other respondents will name anyone else on my list, but I feel reasonably confident that only I will name Northwest Smith. He’s pulpish and two-dimensional at best, no question about it. His adventures are similar, usually erotic without being sexy (if that makes sense to you; it made sense to the distributors or the magazines wouldn’t have reached the stands), and he is saved from his particular vices far more by others than by himself. But he’s here because whenever my sensawonder needs a shot of adrenaline, I just pick up one of Catherine Moore’s Northwest Smith stories and I’m fine twenty minutes later. I don’t have much higher praise than that.

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Writer John Morley once said:

“Books worth reading once are worth reading twice; and what is most important of all, the masterpieces of literature are worth reading a thousand times.”

I’m not sure I have the time to read anything a thousand times, but twice I can handle. But which ones? We asked this week’s panel:

Q: Which speculative fiction books are worth reading twice? Why?

Read on to see the diverse responses we received…

Louise Marley
Louise Marley is a recovering opera singer who writes science fiction and fantasy. Her science fiction has twice won the Endeavour Award, and she’s been shortlisted for the Nebula, the Campbell, and the Tiptree Awards. Her most recent publications are the three books of The Horsemistress Saga, tales of girls who learn to fly winged horses.

There are three books I would love to re-read.

  1. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a book that startled me when I read it some years ago. Scenes from it still haunt me, and the scope of the plot foreshadow many developments that were to come in speculative fiction. It’s the first book I would choose to revisit.
  2. I’m glad you’ve specified speculative fiction, which is such a perfect inclusive term. Stephen King’s Carrie is another novel that’s worth a second look. Some may be surprised at this choice, but I find that the novel captured youthful angst as well as any book I’ve read, and its explosive denouement is all the more impressive in these post-Columbine days. I often recommend it to my young adult writers’ workshops as an outstanding example of storytelling and character development.
  3. And since one of my favorite areas is fiction for young people, and since I haven’t named a fantasy, I recommend the children’s novel Half Magic, by Edward Eager, to anyone. It’s old now, but still delightful. Last year it reappeared in a lovely anniversary edition which I had to have for my own shelves, and I always keep a few paperback copies around to give to kids I meet. It’s a charming story that works, as the best books do, on several levels. A group of children find a magic coin that grants their wishes–but only halfway! It’s a great illustration of the cost and difficulties of magic, and its characters have real world problems as well as magical ones.

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It’s not often that our real life science heroes utter disparaging remarks against science fiction. In fact, the opposite is usually true; science fiction is often cited as a source of inspiration and interest. Enter Buzz Aldrin, who caused a stir recently with some comments he made. To get a few more opinions, we asked the following of this week’s panel:

Q: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin said fantastic space science fiction shows and movies are partly responsible for the lack of interest in real-life space exploration among young people. Do you agree with this assessment? Why?
J. Michael Straczynski
J. Michael Straczynski is a writer and producer who is perhaps best known for his work on the science fiction television series Babylon 5. His other television credits include, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, the 1980′s Twilight Zone series, the Babylon 5 spinoff Crusade, Jeremiah, and many others. He is the author of several short stories and three horror novels (Demon Night, Othersyde, and Tribulations) and also the non-fiction book The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. J. Michael Straczynski also wrote the film screenplay for 2008′s Changeling. Upcoming film projects include The Silver Surfer and World War Z.

The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin’s statement is that it’s not true.

For proof, all you have to do is talk to any number of scientists and engineers and, yes, even some of the more recent crowd of astronauts to discover that many of them began to first show an interest in space technology as the result of watching science fiction movies and TV series that opened up the possibility of space flight. Once we see it being done, even fictionally, we can get behind it and start making it happen. In the long history of the human race, nobody had ever run a four-minute mile until Roger Bannister broke the record in 1954. One month later, John Landy did the same. Landy had been running just as long as Bannister. What changed? Landy suddenly knew it was possible. He’d seen it. This is the thresholding theory of evolution in practice. If we can see star travel, even in a fictional format, it plays into thresholding on a cultural level. And it inspires the next generation of dreamers.

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MIND MELD: The Future of Written Science Fiction

Over the past several years, books like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Road have brought science fictional ideas to mainstream readers. Additionally, science and technology are advancing at such great rates that ideas that once were thought to be science fiction now seem possible, if not probable.

Q: As non-genre readers become more comfortable with science fictional ideas, where do you see science fiction, in written form, going in the future?
Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer’s latest book is the critically acclaimed Shriek: An Afterword, with The Situation forthcoming from PS Publishing, a new Ambergris novel on the way, several anthologies, including The New Weird and Steampunk, and, last but not least, Predator: South China Sea from Dark Horse. For more information visit his blog at http://www.jeffvandermeer.com

The true innovators in SF will continue to be those writers who can assimilate the world entire without worrying about genre boundaries because they will continue to reach the most readers. Your choice of examples is telling–more people have read Handmaid’s Tale or The Road despite their not being easy books than any number of purely genre SF novels. And a more diverse audience.

Further though the real challenge is writing near future SF. Stross I believe said near future sf is impossible. I respectfully say that is bullshit. To be relevant that is exactly what SF needs and how SF is falling down on the job right now. SF can do escapism just fine right now. But dealing with things head on? Not so well. SF has to get down in the nitty gritty of the horrible position we are in right now or it runs the risk of being just as irrelevant as the next medieval based fantasy trilogy. Yes it is hard to do. Who ever said writing was supposed to be easy? Show some guts.

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Authors often inspire us. But who inspires authors? We asked several of them the following question:

Q: Which authors and books have most influenced your writing?
Joe Haldeman
Shortly after Joe Haldeman received a Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy from the University of Maryland, he was drafted into the army where he served (and received a Purple Heart medal) as a combat engineer in Vietnam. His most famous novel, The Forever War (1975), leverages those wartime experiences. He has written numerous novels and short stories since then, including All My Sins Remembered (1977), Worlds (1981), Buying Time (1989), The Hemingway Hoax (1990), Worlds Enough and Time (1992), Forever Peace (1997), Forever Free (1998), Camouflage (2004), The Accidental Time Machine (2007), and more. His most recent novel is Marsbound. It was recently announced that The Forever War is being adapted to film by Ridley Scott. He currently teaches writing at MIT.

Within science fiction, my influences are standard for my generation of writers — Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke. Others would be Sturgeon, Le Guin, Simak, Kuttner/Moore, Farmer, Dickson, Ellison. The two Bester biggies.

Outside of science fiction, it’s more of a headscratcher. Hemingway is the only writer I’ve studied in depth, and I think he would count as an influence, especially the short stories. Steinbeck as well, I suppose. Many of the writers whose work I admire and seek out don’t write at all like me — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jane Austen, Flann O’Brien, A few of the writers I studied with at the Iowa Writers Workshop were influences — mostly Ray Carver, but also William Price Fox, Stanley Elkin, and Vance Bourjaily. (Not John Cheever, who was a kindly fellow but seemed to live on some other planet.)

I wrote and read a lot of poetry before I started writing fiction, and my influences there are standard. Shakespeare, of course (the poetry more than plays), and Milton; the Lake poets and Romantics. I wore out several copies of Palgrave’s from about age nine through college. Some moderns, Cummings above all. I discovered Billy Collins when he’d just graduated from chapbooks, and forgive him his success.

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