Mind Meld Archives

MIND MELD: SF/F Stories For English Lit Class

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Last week I attended my son’s high school’s open house. In the English Literature class we were informed that the kids had started reading the Arthur Miller play The Crucible which the kids would enjoy because, in the teacher’s words, “It’s got witches and adultery.” Many SF/F stories have those elements (if not in the same form) but, of course, there is nary a SF/F book on the agenda for the year. And in any case, stories can be interesting to teenagers without either or both.

Q: If you were creating the syllabus for a high school (junior or senior) English Literature course, what SF/F stories do you think should be included?

Here’s what they said…

Kristine Smith
Kristine Smith was born in Buffalo, NY. She grew up in Florida, and graduated from the University of South Florida with a BS in Chemistry. She has spent almost her entire working career in manufacturing/R&D of one kind or another, and has worked for the same northern Illinois pharmaceutical company for 25 years. She is the winner of the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and is the author of the Jani Kilian SF series as well as a number of short stories. She is currently working on several projects, and wishes she possessed a time-turner.

My list is by no means extensive or complete, but I thought of stories that contained elements of North American–Mexican, Appalachian–folklore, or that discussed current events and issues–struggles with religion in everyday life, culture clashes and war, discrimination–in ways that weren’t preachy.

Elizabeth Moon: “Knight of Other Days” — one of my favorite stories by Moon. When I first read it, I got the sense of a subtle Twilight Zone/Outer Limits-type tale, grounded in the setting of a Texas border town. The blend of history, mystery, influence of Mexican culture, and legend of the Knights Templar combine to form a multi-layered tale.

Terry Pratchett: Small Gods, Jingo, Feet of Clay — religion, culture clash/war, discrimination, set in a world different enough from ours to qualify as fantasy yet similar enough to equate to everyday life, news headlines. One of Pratchett’s many writing gifts.

Manly Wade Wellman: John the Balladeer tales, esp “Vandy, Vandy” — the Southern/Appalachian folklore, and the sense of how events in history can take on a fantasy spin when some details are scrambled and others are associated with magical intervention. And in “Vandy, Vandy,” there’s a witch! Well, a warlock. And a King, of sorts.
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[Today's Mind Meld was suggested by an SF Signal reader, Gary Farber, who is here among our guests. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In the past couple of years, we have seen the appearance of at the least two important biographies of Science Fiction writers, the first volume of Robert Patterson’s work on Robert A. Heinlein (Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve) and Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, a sort of complement to Weller’s biography, published in 2006. But there are so many writers out there, living and dead, whose lives we would have loved to know a bit more so we maybe could feel the same feeling of closeness we use to feel when we are reading their stories.

So, we asked this week’s panelists…

Q: Which figure in the history of the creation of science fiction, living or dead, would you most like to see the next thorough biography of?

Here’s what they said…

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Other Worlds Than These, Armored, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, The Living Dead, The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Way of the Wizard. John is a four-time finalist for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and he has been called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble. John is also the editor of Lightspeed Magazine and the new horror magazine, Nightmare, which launches October 1. In addition to his editorial projects, John is the co-host of Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. His next anthology, Epic: Legends of Fantasy, comes out in November. Forthcoming in December is a revised and expanded second edition of his critically-acclaimed anthology, Brave New Worlds, and then, in February, Tor will publish his anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. For more information, visit his website at johnjosephadams.com, and you can find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.

I’d love to see a biography of Alfred Bester. I don’t know if his life was interesting enough to warrant one, but I do know that he left his literary estate to his bartender when he died, and anyone who does something like that had to have had SOME good real-life stories. (Apparently the bartender didn’t know what to do with the estate, and as a result Bester’s work was out of print for several years, until Byron Preiss rescued it and brought it back to light in the 90s.) Bester also wrote Green Lantern for a while, and created the oft-quoted Green Lantern oath, when he was writing the comic, though I don’t know if there would be any interesting stories surrounding that or his time writing comics. A few years ago, I went on a big Bester kick — I’d gone back to read though his ouvre more completely, and re-read The Stars My Destination (my favorite novel). Then, sometime later, I read the brilliant Tiptree biography by Julie Phillips, and that’s when I first conceived of this desire to read a Bester biography. Given there wasn’t one, I went on a bit of a scavenger hunt, tracking down all the information about Bester I could find, not just online, but in old magazines and the like–looking for interviews or anything that talked about the man himself, as opposed to just his fiction. I never did find much indication that there’d be enough good material to make a biography, but still I wish there was one (or perhaps that Bester had been as interesting in life as his fiction was).

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MIND MELD: Where is Urban Fantasy Headed?

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Urban Fantasy remains as a strong and vibrant subgenre of Fantasy. Like any subgenres, over the last few years, new authors, new ideas and new motifs have often radically reshaped a genre once known for “supernaturals in the night” into a much broader category. We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: Where do you see Urban Fantasy going from here?

This is what they had to say…

Tad Williams
Tad Williams is best known as the author of the Otherland series. His most recent work, Urban Fantasy, is The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

The problem with knowing where a genre is going starts with defining the genre itself. What exactly is “Urban Fantasy”? There’s always been a category of work in what was then just called “Science Fiction” that fits this bill, from Bradbury’s October Country stuff to Sturgeon and Leiber and many others, including myself and many contemporaries. (I’d love to know what my book War of the Flowers was if it wasn’t urban fantasy.) But these days it’s also a consumer category — that is, it’s meant to narrowcast to people who apparently like fantasy stories that don’t take place in the traditional epic-fantasy environments of imaginary pasts. At the moment that means lots of fairies, vampires, werewolves, and zombies, most of which used to be thought of as components of “Horror”. So it’s hard to say. The trendy stuff — hello, bloodsuckers! — will peak and dwindle, just like serial killer novels did, but there will always be stories that can rightly be called Urban Fantasy. So I suspect it’s not a question of whether the waves will still come in — they will — but what kind of surfers will be on them. Memes will rise and decay (mostly through incestuous overuse) but as long as people stay interested in what lies behind ordinary life, I suspect the genre, at least the part that is about storytelling, will stay strong.

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MIND MELD: Directions Speculative Fiction Hasn’t Taken

[Today's Mind Meld was suggested by an SF Signal reader. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

Speculative fiction is always experimenting with new writing styles and creating new sub-genres. Some of the newish ones deal with shiny vampires, the inevitbale response to that, and steampunk. But there may be other areas speculative fiction hasn’t explored yet.

Q: In your opinion, is there a direction, or directions, you are surprised speculative fiction hasn’t taken yet?
Kelly McCullough
Kelly McCullough writes fantasy and science fiction. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series and his short fiction has appeared in numerous venues. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star —part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp—funded by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are certainly things I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of, though given the impossibility of keeping up with everything that comes out in the field, I don’t know that I can fairly say that there’s anywhere speculative fiction hasn’t yet gone. That said, and given the success of mixing fantasy and romance, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more in the way of interstitial subgenres.

In particular, given the success of paranormal romance and the rise of steampunk, I’m rather shocked we haven’t seen much in the way of fantasy/western crossovers. Seriously, who wouldn’t be interested in the intersection where Deadwood meets Game of Thrones. The history and mythology of America’s western expansion provides plenty of scope for dark, morally ambiguous stories with tons of drama and very high stakes.

For that matter, I’m continually amazed not to see more in the way of cybermagic books. Including mine, I can only think of about a dozen, and that seems like a shockingly small number when you think about how much the web and the internet have impacted how we communicate and publish in the modern era. It’s nearly impossible to enter the field anymore without a good understanding of computers. Why people aren’t doing more with that I don’t know.

I know that some of that comes down to the difficulties of marketing hybrid works, having had some experience in that area myself, but given the vast untapped storytelling space that lies between the established genres I really am surprised that we don’t see more people pushing into those areas.
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This year’s Hugo award ceremony was a very interesting one, regarding gender and ethnicity. Most of the winners were women (congratulations to E. Lily Yu for the Campbell, and Maurine Starkey, Ursula Vernon, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Elizabeth Bear, Catherynne M. Valente, Liza Groen Trombi, Kirsten Gong-Wong, Betsy Wollheim, Sheila Williams, Charlie Jane Anders, Kij Johnson and Jo Walton) and the Short Story winner, Ken Liu, is of Asian extraction, so maybe we can safely say the fandom has finally reached a point where writers are finally being voted for the sheer quality of their work instead of their sex or their color? Even if it’s too early to tell, things are seemingly going in the right direction regarding this matter – but there are still many things to assess. One of them is the virtually invisible presence of non-Anglo writers in the Hugo Awards (also in other Awards, but hey, this is Hugo week, so let’s talk Hugo as a symbol of all the other awards in Anglosphere).

We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: Do you think the Hugo Awards nominations are underrepresented by non-Anglo writers? Do you think it’s something to care about? If you care, what do you think could be done to change the current state of affairs?

Here’s what they said…

Berit Ellingsen
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have or will appear in Unstuck, Coffinmouth, Rocket Science, elimae,SmokeLong Quarterly, Metazen and other literary journals and anthologies. Two of her stories received an honorable mention by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year Volume 4. Berit’s novel, The Empty City (http://emptycitynovel.com), is a story about silence. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, will be published by firthFORTH Books at the end of 2012.

I looked through the list of Hugo nominations for the last 10 years and the only nominations of work from outside of the Anglophone countries (the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) were the movies Spirited Away (nominated in 2003) and Pan’s Labyrinth (nominated in 2007).

Is that because translated work is not commercially viable, lacks popular appeal or literary quality? Some of the biggest commercial successes in recent years outside of SF/F have been translated work, such as Stieg Larsson’s or Jo Nesbø’s crime fiction, and Per Petterson’s literary fiction. Not to mention the imaginative work of Haruki Murakami, who is currently favorite for the Nobel Prize in literature. Hence, that conclusion does not seem to be correct.

Perhaps the lack of nominated translated work reflects the lack of translated work published in English SF/F in general. I find this problematic because that leaves literally a whole world of fiction with long traditions in the imaginary and fantastic, such as the Scandinavian, Japanese, Mongolian, Eastern European, African, to mention a few, largely inaccessible to English-speaking readers. I say this as a writer whose biggest influences have been translated work, from Scandinavia, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Korea and Japan, as well as the Anglophone world. Without translations, there would have been little access to those works. (I write in English myself, my stories are not translations from Norwegian.)

Also, in what ways will reading or knowing works only from your own culture and language skew your perception of the rest of the world?

As has been discussed in other Mind Melds, translations and the flow of culture follows the general lines of political and financial dominance, from the English-speaking nations to the non-English, and from the industrialized countries to the developing countries, and much less frequently in the opposite direction.

It’s therefore very refreshing to see that some editors, such as Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Mamatas, are presenting translated fiction from outside of the English-speaking nations. Maybe that’s what’s needed for translated work to catch on in SF/F; more translated work published, a higher degree of exposure, more visibility, more magazines being open for submissions of translated work, so that translations become something familiar instead of something strange.

I find this important, because reading or watching a story from outside of one’s own country and becoming acquainted with the fears and hopes of other cultures and other people, might be one of the easiest and most direct ways in today’s conflicted world that we can truly get to know one another beyond the grating of economic and political differences and sensationalist news.

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MIND MELD: Reading, Writing and Revisions

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This week we asked about Revisions. I’ve come across a couple of examples lately of authors reissuing books with significant changes from the initial publication, or changing it relatively late in the initial publication process. With the rise of ebooks, the potential for rolling revisions to books is a very real possibility.

We asked this week’s panelists the following:

Q: As a reader and as a writer, how do you feel about the practice of revising books after they have been published (or at least have reached the ARC stage)? How much revision goes into your writing process? (How clean are your drafts)?

This is what they had to say…

Lucy Snyder
Lucy Snyder is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Spellbent, Shotgun Sorceress, Switchblade Goddess, and the collections Sparks and Shadows, Chimeric Machines, and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger. Her writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Hellbound Hearts, Dark Faith, Chiaroscuro, GUD, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You can learn more about her at www.lucysnyder.com.

I’m a measure-twice, cut-once kind of writer; I do a lot of note-taking and thinking before I start a project. I try to have a plot destination in mind, although sometimes that will change — if the story wants to go someplace other than what I planned I’m happy to take that detour. But the upshot is I seldom start a story with no clue where I’m going, and consequently I only rarely have to make major changes to a story or novel. I do my very best to turn in clean, ready-to-publish drafts to my editors. But typos and continuity errors happen, so fixing them is part of the editorial process.
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MIND MELD: The Best Endings In SF/F Series

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Sometimes it seems that every new SF/F book is part of a series and the reader will have to wait, sometimes years, for the conclusion. Happily there are many, many very good (and finished!) SF/F series, however, not all of the endings measure up to the story that preceeds it. This week we asked our panelists this question:

In your opinion, what SF/F series do you think have the best endings?

Here’s what they said… [Note: If you haven't read any of these particular series, there may be spoilers included in the responses.]

Nancy Jane Moore
Nancy Jane Moore’s most recent book is a collection of short-short stories, Flashes of Illumination, available as a Book View Café ebook. She has stories forthcoming in PS Publishing’s Postscripts and Defending the Future’s next military SF anthology, Best Laid Plans. She blogs regularly on the Book View Café blog.

The final book in my favorite SF/F series – Laurie J. Marks’s Elemental Logic – has not yet been published, so I cannot address it in this Mind Meld, except to observe that the third book (Water Logic) put the entire series in perspective, so I have great hopes that the forthcoming Air Logic will be equally transformational.

I did not expect the Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones to end as it did in Rainbow Bridge, though thinking about it in light of some of her essays, it’s not really a surprising ending. After all, Jones scorns the typical hero tale in which victory is improbably snatched from the jaws of defeat. The world is crumbling at the beginning of the series, but our rockstar heroes – Ax, Sage, and Fiorinda – are taking charge, and their powers are such that we believe they can save us. They do not, and by the end the Chinese have taken over the world, though whether or not they can save us, even with some technological miracles, is still an open question. The closing scene of Ax’s joy in the birth of his daughter lets the reader know the characters will continue to muddle on. Knowing that they’re still out there somewhere pleases me.

Mary Gentle’s Ash, A Secret History, was published in the U.S. as a four-book series. I read the first three books as excellent adventure stories and tended to ignore the modern researcher frame set around the book. But in the fourth book, Lost Burgundy, the frame and story came together, and I realized I was reading science fiction (with fantasy and alternate history overtones). I love it when that happens.

L. Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle starts with a dystopia not all that far removed from current reality. Classes are stratified in the U.S., and a firmly entrenched 1 percent – the Executive class – is running the show. Then the Marq’ssan arrive. It’s easy to assume that the Marq’ssan will throw out the bastards and improve the lot of the rest of humanity. But while the Marq’ssan do provide some assistance, the story takes us in unexpected directions, including an overthrow of the mostly male executive rulers by female ones, with no real change in society, and the development of an ever-growing Free Zone run on anarchistic and socialistic principles. Change is in progress in the final book, Stretto, but nothing is final. In the final pages, one human character begins to explore something much more complex than political change – a change in her mind. It’s a positive note, and leaves the story open-ended. Utopia does not yet exist, but the possibility is there.
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MIND MELD: Ticklish Subjects in SF

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Is there any subject science fiction hasn’t turned its eyes (or feelers, or antennae) to? Maybe not, but with the passage of time, habits change, mores change, worldviews change, new writers come to the fore bringing new questions, or new ways of asking old questions. There is always a flavor of the month, a subgenre favored by media or by writer’s movements now and then (cyberpunks and steampunks promptly come to mind, but we can also think of the New Weird and New Space Opera, to name just very, very few). On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are always delicate subjects, things that don’t give themselves easily to scrutiny, for a variety of reasons.

Bearing this in mind, we asked this week’s panelists…

Q: What are, in your opinion, the themes and subjects which science fiction never have delved into properly but should have? (sex, politics, religion, sports may be part of this list – or not) Is there an author or story in particular which you feel has treated said subject in the right way and could be an example to be followed among new writers?

Here’s what they said…

Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Sensation, and Bullettime. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Tor.com, New Haven Review, and many other venues. As an editor and anthologist, he has been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and the Bram Stoker awards. His most recent anthology, The Future is Japanese, co-edited with Masumi Washington, is available now.

In a field as wide as SF, surely any mention of a taboo topic will only lead to someone appearing with a copy of a ragged pulp magazine from 1937 to declare, “Aha! You forgot this story! It’s been covered! We need never discuss this again!” But a few things come to mind.

SF in the US has long been a propaganda wing for, inexplicably, both the libertarian movement and US space program. A contradiction, to say the least, but it’s a contradiction that can be papered over by contending that both small-government classical liberalism and enormous government expenditure with military and propaganda purposes are part of the broader narrative of “Americanism.” It is quintessentially American to be a rugged individual, and to have a giant technocratic apparatus to project and extend this individualism. And there is plenty of SF in which America fragments, or collapses, or it superseded, but this is only rarely if ever depicted as a positive good for the world—despite very many people outside of the US who would be pleased if the country, or at least its political power on the world scene, went poof tomorrow. So the happy circumstance of an American implosion is one taboo that comes to mind, though the lack of SF with this theme might just be a case of writers and publishers knowing where their bread is buttered.

In Japanese SF, where the bread is buttered on the other side, the US occasionally shuffles off the scene to allow for a realistic near-future in which Japan predominates, but a lot of Japanese SF also features Japanese characters collaborating with friendly American rivals/partners. One book that approaches the happy end-of-America theme is Genocidal Organ by Project Itoh, which we just released over at Haikasoru.

Another issue not much talked about is the philosophy of science. In SF, it seems to stop with Kuhn. There’s not much discussion of Feyerabend or others of his ilk. Perhaps everything after Kuhn was nonsense, but at least we could expect to see some brickbats leveled at them then. Instead, SF seems happy to shoot spitballs at scientific non-entities like “young Earth” creationists. Kiddie stuff. SF writers and fans often prize their own rationality, but many of them are just mere rationalists.

Finally, the biggest taboo has nothing to do with content, but rather than form. The very notion that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing, rather than just stuff some people like and others don’t, is looked at with a lot of skepticism in SF circles. It’s a taboo to valorize quality writing, or to claim that there is such a thing as a good reader, and a poor reader.

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In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:

Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?

What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?

Note: Due to the large number of responses received, this is Part II of the Mind Meld Part I can be found here.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a British science fiction and fantasy author. He was born in Valletta, Malta, grew up in Britain, Southeast Asia and Norway in the 1960s and 1970s. He studied at Kingston College, then worked in publishing and as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent. He now lives in London and Winchester and is married to the journalist and novelist Sam Baker. He won a British Science Fiction Association award for Felaheen in 2003, was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Pashazade the year before, and won the 2006 BSFA award for Best Novel with End of the World Blues. He was short-listed for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2002 for Pashazade. The Exiled Blade, third and final novel in his Assassini series, after The Fallen Blade and The Outcast Blade, comes out next spring from Orbit books. He recently signed a contract for a literary novel, The Final Banquet, which will be published by Canongate next Summer under the pen name Jonathan Grimwood.

About a decade ago I had a breakfast meeting in New York with a US editor who’d just bought three of my novels and wanted them slightly re-edited them for the American market. There were a couple of politically tricky points (climate change for global warming, etc) but the main request was that I edit a handful of scenes to make them more obviously from the hero’s point of view. Over coffee she told me she just didn’t get why European writers couldn’t do pov; all that going back and forth between the heads of different characters, often in the same chapter and sometimes the same scene was like watching tennis. She seemed slightly disbelieving when I said we liked it like that. It wasn’t incompetence on the part of European writers, as readers we were used to povs that switched… Recently – within genre – the introduction of a combined US/UK edit – which aims for something that works within both markets – has ironed out loose third and almost abolished omnipotent (at least that’s how it looks to me). For the moment first person and tight third rule.

First person grabs the reader from the off and drags her/him through the action at the same pace as the main character. However, the advantage of first is also its disadvantage; the reader can only know what the main character knows. Single character tight third allows us to wander a little from the character’s shoulder, but action happening elsewhere has to be kept to a minimum.
If you’re a great writer like James Lee Burke (changing to a different genre for a second), then you can combine first, with tight third and occasionally slip into omnipotent, as he does with the Dave Robicheaux novels, but you have to be very good indeed. Multiple tight third, which is what had my US editor ordering extra coffee, allows you some of the freedom of an omnipotent pov without actually using omnipotent.

Having just written a historical novel that alternates between first person present and first person past, sometimes on the same page and often within the same section, depending on how deeply the main character is immersed in the story he’s telling, I think tense is down to what works for that particular novel. Sure, there are rules but they get broken. I remember an editor, a very good UK one, saying he couldn’t imagine epic fantasy written in the first person present. I’m pretty sure a number of people are doing that now.

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In writing, point of View matters. So we asked a large handful of authors these questions:

Q: As you see it. What are the strengths and weaknesses, for character, worldbuilding and setting in using 1st or 3rd person (or even 2nd?) Omniscient or limited? And how about the time frame of the tense, past or present or even future?

What kinds of Point of view do you prefer to write in? What types of POV do you like to read?

A.M. Dellamonica
A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up on Tor.com: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” and one from the cycle she mentioned above, called “Among the Silvering Herd”.  In October, watch Tor for a novelette, Wild Things, that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

As a reader, I’m up for anything. Just put me into someone else’s head, or at the very least transport me to their world, and I’m happy. And if something off-beat like second person is done well, as it is in John Scalzi’s Redshirts, briefly, I’ll even cheer. I also love epistolary POV tales–my favorite is Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, with its hard edges and amazing degeneration of its protagonist’s voice.

I write in past and present tense, mostly in first and a close third omniscient point of view. I’m daunted by omniscient; I don’t mind admitting it. I have the idea that I ‘should’ learn to master this one day and perhaps I will, but I haven’t had a project that’s right for it yet and I haven’t had the space or inclination to say “What kind of project would rock in full-bore, hard-core, omniscient POV?”

My current project is a cascade of third person POV tales, set on a world called Stormwrack. I get to head-hop a lot: I hope, soon, to write something through the eyes of one of this universe’s most challenging, slippery characters. I’m daunted by that, too, but looking forward to the challenge.

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MIND MELD: Ecological Science Fiction

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The recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio 2012 or Rio+20, where the heads of state of 192 governments discussed sustainable development and declared their commitment to the promotion of a sustainable future, has – even if for a short while – galvanized the media attention. Science fiction, however, has never turned its back on ecology, being a constant theme, growing strong particularly in the past few years, with authors ranging from the master ecothinker Kim Stanley Robinson to younger and prolific Paolo Bacigalupi, all focusing in strategies to survival of humankind under a grim scenario of climate change.

So, we asked this week’s panelists:

Q: With all the debates on global warming, the constant fear that we may be running scarce of basic resources such as potable water in the near future, what is science fiction’s role in this panorama? What are your favorite SFnal scenarios for problem-solving regarding the maintenance and sustainability of ecosystems, if any? Is there any scenario science fiction could be exploring better with relation to ecology?

Here’s what they said…

Tobias Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell was born in the Caribbean and lived on a yacht until he moved to the US. He writes science fiction. His latest novel, Arctic Rising, is out from Tor Books. He lives online at www.TobiasBuckell.com.

Is potable water really that huge of a threat, I wonder? I think my background actually plays into my answer here. I spent my high school years in exactly the sort of dystopia that people posit when talking about ‘peak water’ or ‘water wars.’ In St. Thomas, USVI, the sole spring doesn’t produce much in the way of potable water for the 150,000 or so people on the island at any given time (residents plus tourists). As a result, water is made using reverse osmosis from the ocean. There’s a lot of ocean in the world, well over some 1 billion cubic kilometers. What happens is price. The reverse osmosis system requires energy (in St. Thomas it’s diesel power, so the whole edifice of being able to drink there requires fossil fuels) to be created, and the cost of water I grew up using was $65 per 1,000 gallons, versus $1.50 in Ohio for the very same amount. I grew up with water costing 50 times what it does in the US. What does it do? Well, it changes your conservation behavior, for one. I remember reading in the papers that Californians were in a drought, and being told to limit their showers to ‘fifteen minutes’ and laughing. Who the hell took fifteen minute showers? That shit was expensive.

But even at over 50 times the cost, we didn’t don our Mad Max American Football-inspired leather uniforms and head out to do battle. There were water trucks, more conservation, more awareness of water use, and lots of clever human hacks around the situation (roofs that collected rain, cisterns, etc). People are clever.

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[An addendum to the Mind Meld: Monarchies in Fantasy from Gail Z Martin]

Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.

Q: Why are kingdoms with monarchs the default political setup in many secondary fantasy world novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such political structures? What are some exceptions to this?
Gail Z Martin
Gail Z Martin is the author of the Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Sworn Kings series. Ice Forged, in 2013, will begin her new series, the Ascended Kingdoms Saga

I think that fantasy inhabits monarchies for three reasons. First, democracy as a form of governance is very new. Monarchy, oligarchy, or a tribal elder format have been around for a very long time. Since a strong element in most epic fantasy is a setting “other than our own” and often in another time, a quasi-historical setting is likely going to default to one of the older forms of governance, especially if the author is basing the world, even loosely, on a previous Earth culture.
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MIND MELD: Monarchies in Fantasy

UPDATED to include a response from Delia Sherman

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Very often, in secondary world fantasy novels, the default political setup is to have a Monarch of some sort, often one that acts in a seemingly autocratic manner. Many times, this Monarch rules by some sort of divine right or providence.

Q: Why are kingdoms with monarchs the default political setup in many secondary fantasy world novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of such political structures? What are some exceptions to this?
Mark Charan Newton
Mark Charon Newton is the author of the Legends of the Red Sun series. He is also a Whisky addict. Find out more about him at Markcnewton.com

When people create worlds, we only really have our own world for reference, or from which to glean conscious and subconscious influences. Kingdoms, empires, monarchs – that’s all human history has pretty much known. Even today, we’re under the illusion we have democracy, but it’s much more wishy-washy than true ancient Athenian democracy, where power was genuinely more equally distributed, and more citizens played a role in the functioning of society. Today our monarchs and empires now are largely trade-based hegemonies, imperial campaigns given the spin of delivering peace through drone bombings. We are now subject to political and financial kings and queens (well, strictly speaking, in the UK we’re still subjects to the queen, but hey).

So in one sense, that’s life. That’s all we’ve ever known.

Emphasizing this point, many fantasy writers tend to look towards history, consciously or otherwise, for inspiration. Given that, aside from moments in the ancient world, there are very few examples where there are not kingdoms and empires, it’s inevitable.

There’s a wonderful season of Shakespeare on the BBC at the moment, which is hammering the point that I think still lingers today, and that’s a fascination with those who hold ultimate power. The pressures. The mental state. The sheer audacity to rule. Holding a position of god on earth. It is the biggest stage in a nation. So what does that do to an individual? What does that do to their mind? Can they ever be truly human? Such questions continue to inspire fantasy writers today. We’re very much interested in that big stage and what it means when ordinary people connect with it in some way.

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We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: Which non-fiction books about science fiction should be in every fan’s library?
Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick is, according to Locus, the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. He’s the author of 71 novels, over 250 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 41 anthologies — and he’s the Guest of Honor at this year’s Worldcon.

For a history of our most important magazine, you can do a lot worse than A Requiem for Astounding, by Alva Rogers. Explorers of the Infinite and Seekers of Tomorrow, both by Sam Moskowitz, aren’t all that well-written, but he knew just about every one of these giants personally. Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree is a nice, serious history of the genre. Much more fun is Damon Knight’s The Futurians, the history of the late 30s/early 40s New York fan group, and except for Pohl, Wollheim, Asimov, Knight, Blish, Merril, Kornbluth, Lowndes, and Kidd, why, they hardly produced any major figures at all.

Speaking of Knight, his In Search of Wonder remains one of the best critical collections, along with Blish’s The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (both written as “William Atheling, Jr.”). Also worth a look are Benchmarks by Algis Budrys, and Science Fiction at Large, edited by Peter Nichols.

If you’d like to read every word of every speech and panel given at the 1962 and 1963 Worldcons, try The Proceedings: Chicon III, edited by Earl Kemp (it’s being reprinted for Chicon 7), and The Proceedings; Discon, edited by Dick Eney. Noreascon I also did a Proceedings, though I think we were multi-track by then and it just covered the main track. A nice catch-all book was Sprague de Camp’s Science-Fiction Handbook, which he later revised and updated.

The best biographies are Fred Pohl’s The Way the Future Was, Jack Williamson’s Wonder’s Child, and the wonderful 6-bio catchall, Hell’s Cartographers. And then there’s E. Hoffman Price’s wonderful Book of the Dead, which covers his experiences with Lovecraft, Howard, Kuttner, Clark Ashton Smith. et al. And don’t overlook Bob Silverberg’s Other Spaces, Other Times, or Eric Leif Davin’s Pioneers of Wonder: Conversations with the Founders of Science Fiction. John Campbell deserves a shelf of his own, and you can begin filling with the first two massive volumes of The John W. Campbell Letters, and his Collected Editorials from Analog. There are endless indices to the magazines, but only one truly thoroughgoing history of them: Mike Ashley’s wonderful 3-volume The History of the Science Fiction Magazine.

Books on and about science fiction that belong on most writers’ shelves include Barry Malzberg’s Breakfast in the Ruins and Norman Spinrad’s Staying Alive and Science Fiction in the Real World. Half a century ago Advent gathered Heinlein, Bester, Kornbluth and Bloch for The Science Fiction Novel, then assembled Heinlein, Campbell, Doc Smith, and four others for Of Worlds Beyond. The Panshins wrote Science Fiction in Dimension, a very nice follow-up to the more limited Heinlein in Dimension, then won a Hugo for The World Beyond the Hill. Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell remains a classic. And there are a couple of fine compendiums edited by Reginald Bretnor: The Craft of Science Fiction and Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow. Two charming books containing some serious and a lot of hilarious fanzine articles by Robert Bloch are The Eighth Stage of Fandom and Out of My Head. And on the subject of fandom, the best is Fancyclopedia II, with many more entries than the original. And of course there are the histories of fandom: The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz; Up to Now by Jack Speer; and All Our Yesterdays and A Wealth of Fable by Harry Warner, Jr. Finally, I’ll mention some of my own: a trio of Hugo nominees, Putting it Together, I Have This Nifty Idea…, and (with Barry Malzberg) The Business of Science Fiction.

I realize that I haven’t mentioned some of the very popular recent “must-have” books like the Nichols/Clute Encyclopedia and similar, but that’s because I assume anyone reading this Mind Meld already has them or at least knows about them.
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We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: With American Independence Day near, the topic of Independence and Revolutions in Genre is what SF Signal is interested in. From The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to The Quiet War, political revolutions are a common theme and staple in genre fiction. What are your favorite stories and novels exploring the themes of revolution and Independence? How do those works explore that theme?

Here’s what they said…

Joshua Bilmes
Joshua Bilmesis the President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, and has been an agent for prominent sf/fantasy writers for almost 30 years, including Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Peter V. Brett, “Jack Campbell,” Elizabeth Moon, Simon R. Green, Tanya Huff, and many more.

When I think of a great novel about a revolution I think immediately of Harry Harrison’s To the Stars trilogy, which I first read in an SF Book Club omnibus decades ago and which I’ve unhesitatingly recommended over the years to authors who want to write great action SF. Revolutions are a serious business, and they often don’t turn out as planned. We can see that today in looking at what’s happened in Egypt over the past year, as one example where the initial joy and excitement of overthrow gives way to the counterrevolution and the difficulties of switching from a revolutionary mindset to one where compromise might need to be made in taking actual power in society. But there is that joy. There are the people who have to plot a revolution and stay one step ahead of the established tyranny. There are the people who have to be the foot soldiers, perhaps risking all including their lives to fight for what they believe in. That’s what a certain kind of fiction is about, people striving against impossible odds to do what everyone says could never be done. And yes, when you do it, there is a moment of real joy and real elation and real happiness, however short that moment may be. Harrison’s To The Stars trilogy may be heavy on the romance of it all, it is a quick action sf read, but should we object in our fiction to getting to experience the romance of it all without having to worry about the reality, for a few passing hours at least?

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MIND MELD: Has Space Opera Lost Its Luster?

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Late last year, after John Ottinger wrote a passionate review of John C. Wright’s Count to a Trillion, he was asked by Tor Books publicist Cassandra Ammerman on twitter about why, in his opinion, Space Opera, hadn’t gone more mainstream, like steampunk? (her words.) The question made sense: since Steampunk was The Next Big Thing a few years ago and apparently still hasn’t begun to lose its (steam) power, should science fiction writers and readers worry about its predominance as a subgenre in detriment of Space Opera, even with many new novels fresh in the market?

So, we asked this week’s panelists…

Q: With the growing success of Steampunk in recent years, is Space Opera losing its appeal as a subgenre?

Here’s what they said…

Mary Turzillo
Mary Turzillo‘s Nebula winner, “Mars Is No Place for Children,” and her novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl, (Analog) have been selected as recreational reading on the International Space Station. Her work has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Cat Tales, Space and Time, The Vampire Archives, Goblin Fruit, New Verse News, Strange Horizons, and F&SF. Her Nebula finalist, “Pride,” appears in Tails of Wonder and Mystery.

How could anybody think space opera was losing its appeal when we have such stellar practitioners as Iain Banks, Walter Jon Williams, and Lois McMaster Bujold? What I like is that space opera is a big pie-in-the-face to the mundane science fiction movement. Space opera just outright says, so what, it’s unrealistic, it violates the laws of physics, but it’s heart-racingly imaginative (Ooooh, that Culture), so get used to it. And every time I sit down to a really great space opera (a good place to start is that gorgeungous anthology, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David Hartwell, THE SPACE OPERA RENAISSANCE), I feel that I’m going back to my fannish roots — this is how SF started. Think big. Think romantic!

But steampunk is an alluring contender: Tobias Buckell does both genres with all kinds of sparkle. But think of Cheri Priest and even Cory Doctorow. The one appeal steampunk has is the visual: there are whole catalogs featuring steampunk clothing (The Pyramid Collection). Last time I went to my optometrist, I was just so dismayed that he didn’t have any goggles with funny gears on the side. Soon everybody will be wanting steampunk sunglasses. And then there are movies like HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and HUGO. This isn’t all that new, really; a very stylish 90′s TV show, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. is an early contender. Oh, heck, let’s even go back to WILD, WILD WEST. How many fans watched that and said to themselves, “Well, what is this all about? Western? SF?”

As for me, why do I have to choose? I’ll take both, thank you very much, by the bushel! Read the rest of this entry

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This week’s short and sweet question:

Q: What book(s) in your ‘to read’ pile are you most interested in reading? Why?

Here’s what our panelists said…

Patrick Hester
Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo-nominated Podcast producer/host who lives in Colorado, writes science fiction and fantasy, and can usually be found hanging out on his Twitter feed. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards, and the SF Signal podcast is nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award. He writes for atfmb.com, SF Signal, KirkusReviews and Functional Nerds.


This one is easy. Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams (novelized by Gareth Roberts). There is an old saying; you never forget your first Doctor. For me, that Doctor was Tom Baker, good ol’ Number Four. Once described by Number Two (or Three, I forget) as ‘curly hair and teeth’, the Fourth Doctor was the first for me. I watched episodes of Doctor Who on the local PBS station. Despite bad special effects that turned most of my friends off immediately, I quickly became hooked on this TimeLord from the planet Galifrey who traveled in a blue box with a robot dog who called him ‘Master’ and sported a multi-colored collar matching the Doctor’s own ridiculously long scarf. (I still want one of those scarves…)

It wasn’t until I moved deeper into fandom, attending conventions where people were selling Japanese Anime (I’d never seen the likes of before!), VHS copies of shows from over seas (like Doctor Who, UFO, The Avengers), and bootleg copies of STUFF (I SWEAR I DIDN’T INHALE!), that I became aware of certain things regarding the good Doctor. (this was before the Interwebz.) Things like: many episodes were lost to time when the BBC ‘cleaned house’ destroying video tapes and film libraries. And, there was a ‘lost episode’ from the Tom Baker years. Written by Douglas The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Adams himself, no less.

The story went that they began filming Shada, meant to be the final serial of the 1979-80 season, when a strike hit the BBC. That strike killed production and they never finished filming. There was an attempt to revisit the script and complete the filming, but it never came to fruition. Why? No idea. The producer, John Nathan-Turner, did manage to release a version of it on VHS a decade later, but never as part of the televised series.

Side Note: for the anniversary special The Five Doctors, Tom Baker declined to participate, so footage of the Fourth Doctor and Romana II from the Shada episode, were used (you might remember the Doctor and Romana boarding a gondola and becoming ‘stuck’ out of time).

Side Note 2: In the Key to Time DVD’s (I think), there’s a bonus feature – an episode of Blue Peter (BBC children’s show) shot on the sets of Doctor Who. They were forced to shoot the show there due to yet another strike affecting the BBC. Given the set they were using, they had a very Doctor Who-centric episode.

A few years back, another version of the story was done, this time an animated Flash serial with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor in the lead (yes, the guy from the Fox version/movie). I watched the 1st episode. Meh.

But now, Ace has released a novelization putting Shada squarely back into the Fourth’s Doctor’s Continuity. 400 pages of Classic Who goodness…
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MIND MELD: What Are Your Literary Crushes?

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This week, we asked our esteemed panelists…

Q: Literary crushes…What is the last genre character, in any medium, you crushed on? What was it about them that appealed to you? How did the author evoke such a reaction?

This is what they said…

Sarah Lanagan
Sarah Langan grew up on Long Island and went to college in Waterville, Maine, where she published her first story, “Sick People”. She got her MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her influences include Russell Banks, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Kelly Link, Somerset Maugham, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Eudora Welty, the films of Ingmar Bergman and Will Ferrell, all media relating to Rodney Dangerfield, the movie The Jerk, and the band The Eels. In addition to writing novels, she is also pursuing her Master’s in Environmental Health Science/Toxicology at New York University.

My favorite interview question ever!

It’s a three-way tie! (1) Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in “The Avengers” was very, very cute. I’ve always had a thing for the broody professor type, from “Gilligan’s Island” to Dr. Frankenstein, but Ruffalo sealed the deal, with those big, brown eyes and that clumsy sweetness. (2) Zachary Quinto as Spock in “Star Trek.” Because there’s a theme here: I love the geeks. (3) Paul Bentley from Walter Tevis’ novel Mockingbird. Bentley tries so hard to better himself, and like the others I’ve mentioned he’s an outcast. It’s not just his thirst for knowledge that saves him, and in the end, offers hope in a collapsed and bleak future world, but his love for a woman, Mary Lou, that makes him fully formed. Basically, what I think all these characters have in common, whether via the writing (as with Tevis, JJ Abrams), or the acting (Rufalo), is that they’re rounded and real.They have ambitions for themselves, and also for the world they inhabit. They tend to stand from a remove, observing the follies of mankind, and oping that through bettering society, they can also redeem themselves. It’s a trope I fall for every time. Also, both Spock and Bentley love strong women, which is pretty cool.

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In recent years, the ascension of several former Third World countries to a better economical and geopolitical standing (the best example of which are the like the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has been slowly but steadily bringing a change of paradigms in the way science fiction sees the world. Could it be that novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl and The Dervish House, to name just a few, are some of the harbingers of this change? Or, as their authors are Western in origin and haven’t lived in the countries they portrayed, would they still be focusing on the so-called exotic aspect of foreign countries and therefore failing to see the core of these cultures?

We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: How do you Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World? Do you think belonging to a Non-Western culture is essential to write a really good, convincing story about it? Is being an outsider to the culture you want to write about, an enriching or impoverishing experience (or doesn’t it matter in the end)?

Here’s what they said…

Joyce Chng
Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction (SFF) and YA fiction. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Everyday Fiction. Her urban fantasy novels Wolf At The Door and Obsidian Moon, Obsidian Eye (written as J. Damask) are published by Lyrical Press. Her short story “The Sound Of Breaking Glass” is side by side with luminaries in The Apex Book of World SFF vol II. Her blog is found at A Wolf’s Tale. She wrangles kids and promises she is still normal.

I have to disagree, though a writer from a non-Western culture might understand the nuances of being a post-colonial writer better.

A Western writer who wants to write a convincing story has so many opportunities at his or her fingertips. Thanks to globalization, we have access to the Internet, the chance to talk to people living in non-western countries via a plethora of tools and gosh, libraries. Accessing information now is so easy, so simple – many do not even have to step out of their rooms. At the same time, you can ask a friend who is from the said culture(s) you are writing about to vet it. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Research. Let it be an enriching experience. Worldbuilding does not emerge out of the ether nor do you pluck it out of thin air.

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MIND MELD: The Best Aliens in Science Fiction

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This week, we sent our distinguished panlists this question:

Q: With the upcoming movie Prometheus, Aliens are on our minds here. What makes for a good depiction of aliens in Science Fiction? What are some examples of that in practice?

Here is how they responded…

Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of the award-winning novel GOD’S WAR and the sequel, INFIDEL. Her third book, RAPTURE is due out in November. Find out more at godswarbook.com

My preference for great aliens is for the really unknowable ones. I like the ones with totally crazy physiology and motives so alien that we find them utterly unknowable. Just giving a human some head ridges and having them practice a form of Buddhism with a funny name doesn’t do it for me. That’s not alien. It’s deeply human. With head ridges.

Right now, I’m partial to the aliens in Octavia’s Butler’s Adulthood Rights, which is part of her Xenogenesis series. The book is about these tentacled, telepathic aliens who reproduce by merging themselves with other species. There are four or five parents involved, and the way they interact with the world – touch it and taste it and understand it – is very different from our own. Writing from a purely alien POV is hard, and not a lot of writers can pull it off. But Butler brings us into the POV of one of the alien hybrids – a mix of human and alien genes – to help make the aliens more accessible. The merging of the two ways of seeing the world, and how that character negotiates these different impulses, go a long way toward helping us understand his “other” half.

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