Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 29, 2005


The past several decades there has been a lot of talk in fandom about American prozines dying, and that talk has accelerated in recent years as their circulations have dropped to precarious, almost semi-prozine, levels. That would upset me, since my sf reading career really started with prozines in the 1960s, and I have long, pleasant memories of reading them.

The first prozines I read regularly were Galaxy and Worlds of IF in the mid-to-late 1960s when Frederik Pohl was their editor. IF was mostly light fun, adventures that were more fun to read than lasting value. Of course there were exceptions to that, such as Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and occasional short fiction as Roger Zelazny's "This Mortal Mountain" and Samuel R. Delany's "Driftglass." Galaxy printed the more serious fiction such as Clifford D. Simak's Way Station, Jack Vance's "The Last Castle," and Cordwainer Smith's "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." These stories combined all the ingredients I preferred in my science fiction reading: sense of wonder, exotic settings, thoughtfulness, and fascinating characters, all wrapped around a serious plot that I could sink my teeth into.

When Frederik Pohl quit as editor in 1969, both Galaxy and IF degenerated rapidly into clones of 1960s Analog: more technological stories, less exotic settings, more adventure plots. The exceptions were mostly their serials, largely because Robert Silverberg tended to publish many of his novels there, such as A Time of Changes, Tower of Glass, and Dying Inside.

By and large, my favorite prozine of the 1970s was Analog, where Ben Bova had broadened the scope considerably, to some extent resembling the Galaxy of the 1960s more than the John W. Campbell Jr. Analog of that period. He published a lot of George R.R. Martin, particularly Dying of the Light and "A Song For Lya," as well as Roger Zelazny's "Home Is the Hangman" and Robert Silverberg's Shadrach in the Furnace.

Another good prozine in this decade was Edward R. Ferman's Fantasy & Science Fiction. At that time it was the only major prozine which printed both fantasy and horror as well as science fiction, so perhaps one-half of each issue really appealed to my reading taste. But their science fiction was good: a lot of Michael Bishop, particularly "The White Otters of Childhood" and "The Samurai and the Willows", Robert Silverberg's The Stochastic Man (it seemed as if Silverberg was providing the highlights of all the prozines in that decade), and Richard Cowper's "Piper At the Gates of Dawn" and "The Custodians."

Then we came into the 1980s. I was not a fan of Stanley Schmidt's Analog since it had returned to the technological / adventure bent of the latter Campbell years, and Edward Ferman's F&SF was become stale and generally less interesting. The real action was taking place at Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine where Shawna McCarthy and later Gardner Dozois raised it above the simplistic adventures of the George Scithers years and were printing some very serious, high quality science fiction: Connie Willis' "Fire Watch," Greg Bear's "Hardfought," John Varley's "Press Enter," Octavia Butler's "Bloodchild," Roger Zelazny's "Twenty-four Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai," Lucius Shepard's "R&R."

The problem, as I saw it, was that Gardner Dozois gradually broadened the scope of Asimov's too much. Not content with printing the best science fiction of any prozine, he also printed pure fantasy (mostly contemporary fantasy), horror, and even an occasional mainstream experimental story. So while Asimov's represented the cutting edge of science fiction in that decade, half of each issue was generally non-SF.

And that's still where the three prozines basically still are today: Asimov's prints the most important science fiction intermingled with contemporary fantasy and mainstream experimentalism; Analog specializes in technological, and adventure fiction; F&SF intermingles SF, fantasy, and horror.

Several other American prozines and semi-prozines have tried to fill in the gaps in the past two decades, but publishing being the risky business it is, none of them have maintained a high profile for very long. Algis Budrys' Tomorrow Speculative Fiction printed pure science fiction, mostly from new young writers, and tended to run the gamut of the genre. Science Fiction Age was a slick, multi-media affair, whose fiction started out weak and got stronger and stronger. Now there are a lot of irregularly-published semi-prozines, but nothing reliable (unless you go overseas to Great Britain where Interzone and The Third Alternative thrive artistically, if not financially). If prozines do die, I wonder how that will affect the state of science fiction? Semi-prozines are thriving, as are small press original anthologies and online publishing, but can they take up the slack to a larger, rather than lesser, extent? Stay tuned to these pages in another few decades for an updated commentary.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Conjunctions 39

Conjunctions 39: the New Wave Fabulists is a special issue of a literary magazine published by Bard College. It was edited by Peter Straub, bestselling horror writer who is actually a close friend of the science fiction genre. This book’s stories intentionally straddle the twilight zone between literature and genre fiction. If there was any trend in the stories in Conjunctions it was that many of them are not complete stories at all, but story fragments or expositions, with very little plotting and no attempt at resolution. That’s a literature trick, of course, although even genre science fiction writers are not exempt from it. And a story can certainly be successful without completeness if it achieves success in other areas such as characterization, sense of wonder, philosophical depth, and exciting writing. And several of the incomplete stories in the book achieve such success.

Perhaps the best fragment is editor Straub’s “Little Red’s Tango”, an examination of the life of a Christlike figure whose talent is serving as a muse for struggling jazz artists. This story was fascinating reading and was most successful in creating sympathy for both the artists and Little Red himself.

Andy Duncan’s “The Hard Rock Candy Mountain” was a skewed but fascinating expansion of the traditional folk song into a story. As a “story” it did not make total sense, but as a reading experience it was delightful.

In a book filled with fragments, two novel fragments were included: Joe Haldeman’s excerpt from “Guardian” and Gene Wolfe’s excerpt from “Knight.” Wolfe’s was the more successful, about a knight who finds himself stranded in a fantasy world, while Haldeman’s story strove to be a sense-of-wonder tour of a truly fantastic universe. It failed because Haldeman is too much a linear plotter with little of the free-flowing nature of writers such as China Miéville or Roger Zelazny. Thus his fragment never achieves the level of wondrousness it would have in the hands of a more intuitive or emotional writer (few of whom, on the other hand, have mastered linear plotting nearly as well as Haldeman). The excerpt reminds me of when Kim Stanley Robinson wrote “A Short, Sharp Shock,” which was another attempt by a linear writer which also failed to rise to the intended level.

Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man” was a non-speculative coming-of-age story, not much more than characterization, albeit enjoyable reading.

But it was the complete stories which really shone in the book. I don’t think there was a better story in recent years than John Crowley’s novella “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines”. What might seem heresy to some readers is that this story is totally non-sfnal at all, although it is a story about fans living their lives centered around love of literature and growing up immersed in that love and becoming a part of the public world of literature for the first time. Except, as the story’s title indicates, the youths in the story do not love science fiction in any form, but Shakespeare’s plays. Still it is easy for a hard-core sf fan to relate to the story and its characters since so much of what they went through growing up is relevant to us as well, including the discussions about (in this case) the identity of Shakespeare and how the author becomes as important to them as his plays themselves. And Crowley has such a wonderful use of the language, worth reading for its own pleasure independent of the story, that I wanted this story to go on and on and on. It was easily worth the price of the entire book.

Another fine story is Jonathan Carroll’s “Simon’s House of Lipstick” about a middle-aged tour guide whose life has been an abysmal failure, and who encounters his third grade teacher whom he considers partially responsible for his failures. When he sees her one day on the street he summons up the nerve to confront her and finally exorcize some of the demons which have haunted him for so long. But exorcism does not necessarily proceed exactly as planned.

John Kessel’s “The Invisible Empire” is a tale of women’s lib turning into vigilanteeism a century before society was ready for equality of the sexes. Thus men reacted angrily and forcibly against comeuppity women which raised the women’s response in turn. It makes one thankful that women’s lib–like it or not–took place in an era where society was ready and/or willing to accept it.

Another outstanding fantasy was Elizabeth Hand’s “The Least Trumps”, a fascinating look at the world of tarot, tattoos, classic fantasy, and bittersweet relationships. Hand is a master of ambiance, drawing you into worlds which often resembles rich fantasy paintings. You come away from her stories impressed with their richness and visual splendor while simultaneously unsettled by her characters and their strangeness. This story was nearly as good as Crowley’s, and together they helped make for a strong anthology overall.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Secret Windows

I am reading Stephen King’s Secret Windows, a collection of fiction and nonfiction, much of which is geared toward writers, similar to his memoir On Writing. I enjoyed that earlier book a lot and this book seems nearly as interesting. Stephen King’s nonfiction is always worthwhile reading, in spite of his somewhat strong opinions about storytelling apparently being the only worthy aspect of fiction.

I am not a particularly avid fan of King’s fiction, although it does have several good aspects to it. What bothers me is his shameless manipulation of emotions and the frequent, often dominant, horror/thriller aspect of it. I think he could be a fabulous science fiction or fantasy writer if he would abandon his horror tendencies and broaden his interests a bit.

I generally find the biggest weakness of horror or thriller fiction to be the fact that the payout is often exclusively emotional rather than cerebral. While I realize that sense-of-wonder is also an emotional response to a story, I rarely enjoy fiction in which sense-of-wonder is the only reward. For my taste, a complete story should combine several diverse aspects such as sense-of-wonder, good plotting, strong characterization, beautiful writing, a well-developed world, and a thoughtful theme. The more of those aspects that a writer aspires to, the greater the potential success of a story. And while a story can certainly be enjoyable by succeeding on only one or two of those levels, when a story succeeds on three or four of them, or rarely all six, then it is truly a masterpiece worth recommending to everybody I know.

As good as Stephen King is as a writer, he rarely aims higher than one or two of the above levels, at least in his fiction that I have read, and that automatically limits his fictional pleasures for me. Of course, I have not read much of his recent fiction, so I would be interested in any recommendations of King fiction–or indeed any horror fiction–which succeeds on more than one or two levels. If the stories seem sufficiently interesting, I might try reading a few of them.

Saturday, May 14, 2005


I was a big fan of C.J. Cherryh starting with her debut novels Gate of Ivrel and Brother of Earth in 1976, followed by another twenty-two books over the next two decades. When I took a year’s sabbatical away from reading science fiction starting in mid-1995, she had the nerve to release the first volume of what eventually has grown to 7 volumes, with 2 more planned for future publication. That first novel was titled Foreigner and, like the subsequent novels, was well-regarded critically.

Since the novels in the series are not endless, but fall into groups of three, I decided recently to read the first trilogy (Foreigner is followed by Invader and Inheritor) and decide from there whether I wanted to read the subsequent trilogies as well.

Suffice it to say that Foreigner finds Cherryh at the top of her form. The basic premise is that a colonizing starship from Earth jumps into normal space and realizes that it is totally lost and in dire trouble. Eventually most of the would-be colonists decide to emigrate to the nearest habitable world, which happens to be inhabited by a race called the atevi.

The atevi do not welcome the humans, and the unexpected invasion eventually leads to war between the two races. The atevi win, but the humans have considerable negotiating chips in the form of advanced science which they dole out to the atevi slowly and carefully in exchange for the humans being allowed to live autonomously on a secluded island.

All of that is background and the plot of Foreigner takes place two hundred years later. Atevi culture has changed considerably due to interaction with humans, but there are considerable differences between the two races, especially in their overall attitudes. The main character of the novel is Bren, a human who serves as intermediary with the atevi. His role is that of a diplomat, interacting mostly with aiji (ruler) of one country which is a monarchy with a powerful legislature as well.

Some quotes from the novel might give you a flavor for the tenuous relationship between humans and atevi.

That was why humans preferred their enclave on Mospheira. Mospheira was an island, it was under human administration... and laws didn’t have bloodfeud as an alternative.

Sane, law-abiding atevi simply avoided argumentative people.

The atevi hadn’t quite mastered steam when the humans had arrived on their planet, uninvited and unwilling.

Not in a system where assassination was an ordinary and legal social adjustment.

As the main storyline begins, an assassination attempt is made against Bren, which causes a whole lot of political wheels to start spinning. While no cause for the attempt is known either by Bren, or seemingly by his atevi patrons, there are many potential enemies who either fear or hate humans, and wish to drive them off their planet. To make matters worse, no member of the guild of assassins registered an intent to kill Bren, so he was the target of an apparently-illegal assassination attempt.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Bren’s striving to avoid being assassinated, while also learning who his potential assassin is. While his atevi security also strives to achieve both goals, they are so typically close-mouthed and stoic that Bren receives absolutely no information from them either as to the progress of their investigation, or any subsequent attempts against him.

As is typical of Cherryh, Foreigner is very slow-paced as she explores both the culture of the atevi and its relationship with humans, while studying Bren in-depth, both his character and his own activities as “paidhi” (which describes him as a combination diplomat and intermediary). Tabini, who is the aiji dealing with Bren, mysteriously sends him off to his country’s royal hunting lodge where Tabini’s grandmother is in residence. Except she is no harmless old lady, but another political figure who had been passed over as aiji twice by the ruling legislature in favor of her son–Tabini’s father–the first time, and Tabini himself the second time. In effect, she and Tabini are mortal enemies, yet Tabini sends Bren into her hands during a time when his life is seriously endangered.

The entire middle portion of the novel takes place at Malguri, the lodge, and involves Bren’s dealings with Tabini’s grandmother. It is the most fascinating part of the novel, and it gradually builds into a complex and fast-paced thriller the last hundred pages. Probably the most intriguing part of all is Bren trying to determine the atevi’s motives in the assassination plot. Who exactly was on his side? Who was serving the rebels trying to overthrow Tabini? And, most importantly for his own survival, who could he trust?

In some ways Foreigner has the structure of an entire trilogy: the first third is sets up the pace and background, the middle third is slow-paced development, and the final third brings all the previous strands together in a rousing conclusion. In some ways, it represents the best of both styles, being a slow-paced analysis of cultures and society wrapped around a thrilling plot. C.J. Cherryh has proven to me at least that she has lost none of her edge as a writer, so I await the story's continuation in Invader eagerly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Bulwer-Lytton results

All right, all you writers and writer wannabes out there, here are the winners of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton contest–AKA The Dark and Stormy Night Contest–for the worst first line of a bad novel. Thanks to Kate Tschischik for sending them to me.

10) "As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it."

9) "Just beyond the Narrows, the river widens."

8) "With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description."

7) "Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the East wall: 'Andre creep... Andre creep... Andre creep.'"

6) "Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved."

5) "Although Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it did not keep her from eeking out a living at a local pet store."

4) "Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do."

3) "Like an overripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor."

2) "Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word 'fear'; a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death–in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies."

1) "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, 'You lied!"

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Most Senior Science Fiction Writer

This column sprung from a comment Milt Stevens made in a recent mailing of FAPA. Milt said, “Jack Williamson has retained the position of most senior practicing science fiction writer for an incredibly-long time.” Considering Jack’s age, and the fact that he was first published in 1928, that is certainly a true statement. But it raised two questions in my mind:

> Who was the most senior living writer until his/her death passed the title to Williamson?
> Who is the 2nd most senior living sf writer currently (and the person most likely to take the “title” when Jack Williamson passes away?)

For reference, I used my book Who Shaped Science Fiction? which has a chronology for each person discussed which includes the date each writer was first published. Not all science fiction writers were discussed in the book, however, only the “most important” 100 writers/editors (in my opinion, of course). But that’s no problem either since only major science fiction writers should qualify as “most senior” practicing writer. Herb Nobody who published a story in a low-circulation prozine in 1930 and is still alive in a nursing home somewhere should not qualify as “most senior” writer. Only biggies may apply!

So who was the most senior living writer until his/her death passed the title to Williamson? To answer that question, I looked up all the major writers who were first published prior to Williamson’s publication in 1928 but lived into this century. The list was as follows:

Name / First Published / Death
Jules Verne / 1851 / 1905
Arthur Conan Doyle / 1879 / 1930
H.G. Wells / 1888 / 1946
Garrett P. Serviss / 1897 / 1929
George Allan England / 1905 / 1936
Edgar Rice Burroughs / 1912 / 1950
A. Merritt / 1917 / 1943
Murray Leinster / 1919 / 1975
H.P. Lovecraft / 1922 / 1937

Unless my math is wrong (and wouldn’t that be embarrassing for a high school math teacher?), the title of “most senior living sf writer” took the following progression:

Name / Senior Most Living SF Writer until...
Jules Verne / 1905
Arthur Conan Doyle / 1930
H.G. Wells / 1946
Edgar Rice Burroughs / 1950
Murray Leinster / 1975
Jack Williamson / present

Arthur Conan Doyle and Murray Leinster had the longest reigns in this century, 25 years, until Jack Williamson set the new standard of 30 years (which is still growing).

Assuming Jack Williamson does die eventually, who is the 2nd most senior living sf writer likely to take the title at that time? Here is the list of living authors who have been active the longest:

Name / First Published / Date of Birth
Frederik Pohl / 1940* / 1919
Ray Bradbury / 1941 / 1920
Jack Vance / 1945 / 1916
Arthur C. Clarke / 1946 / 1917
James Gunn / 1949 / 1923

Frederik Pohl’s earliest publications were pseudonymous fiction published to fill the pages of semi-professional magazines such as Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories which he was editing himself. While this might be unfair for consideration as most senior living sf writer, I will leave that judgment up to you. His first published fiction under his own name was in 1953 in Galaxy Magazine in collaboration with Cyril M. Kornbluth.

Good luck to all writers on the list! Hopefully you will all survive long enough to be “most senior practicing” sf writer someday.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Some random thoughts

There has been some discussion in various blogs lately about reviewers who mainly discuss a book’s plot versus those who discuss the book’s other aspects. Include me in the group with Cheryl Morgan and Matt Cheney who prefer the latter. I consider plot-talk boring, and it actually tells me very little about whether I will enjoy reading a book or not. I prefer knowing about the characterization and theme. Is the book thought-provoking? How well does it illustrate its world-setting? Describe the actual writing style. What is the author’s intent in the book (assuming there is any intent besides pure entertainment)? There are so many more important aspects to a good novel than merely a plot which can be dismissed in a few terse lines. For me, endless paragraphs summarizing the plot serve no purpose in a review.


There are people on both sides of the genre/literature border who try to erect walls separating the two areas. Without going into a long discussion which I have published elsewhere, I will state briefly that in my mind there is considerable overlap between genre and literature, and that overlap is subject to Sturgeon’s Law as much as pure genre and pure literature are. No matter how many literati look down their noses at sf, or how many genre fanatics turn their heads away from literature, it is impossible and foolish to stick a quality label on any work of fiction merely because of which area it falls into.

That being said, I read an interview this morning with Kazuo Ishiguro, award-winning literary author, whose newest novel Never Let Me Go falls squarely into the genre/lit overlap area. The interviewer annoyed me for two reasons, but Ishiguro himself delighted me. The interviewer started with a spoiler about the novel’s ending, then spent most of the interview discussing that spoiler. I was not sure whether the interviewer–whose name was not even on the interview–disdains “surprises” in fiction, or else got his/her own pleasures from the book and saw no need to protect those same pleasures for other readers. I would not mind if this interview took place in a literary journal, or a blog where the reader expects spoilers, but not blasted across the "Books" section of a major newspaper where it is likely to be encountered by many potential readers of the book who do not want their pleasure in it spoiled.

And then, halfway through the interview, the interviewer popped the big question: “Some reviews have called this book science fiction. What do you think of that label?” I gritted my teeth and plowed into Ishiguro’s response:

I don’t really know what you’d call this book, but I have nothing against science fiction. There is a pulp version of science fiction, but there are also many distinguished versions. Some of the greatest movies have been science fiction, like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Ironically, right beside the interview was a review of the new collection of essays and reviews by Margaret Atwood, who has previously hinted that science fiction is beneath her. In the middle of that article the reviewer mentions that her reviews in the book “include appreciations of the more interesting thriller writers, both contemporary and in the past, such as H. Rider Haggard and Elmore Leonard; a biographical musing on Dashiell Hammett, the prince of the mystery story; and reviews of some science fiction, notably that of Ursula K Le Guin.”

Does this mean that Atwood’s attitude is mellowing as her works increasingly cross the great divide? Ishiguro probably would approve of that. So do I.