PERSPECTIVES : Interviews
2 March 2009
Born in Alabama and resident there again after stints in Virginia, England, Illinois, and California, Lou Anders (www.louanders.com; blog at louanders.blogspot.com) has an extensive background in writing and the arts, including studying drama, directing plays, working as a journalist and screenwriter, and penning numerous articles about hit TV shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5. A pioneer of internet publishing he was for a time Executive Editor at the now defunct Bookface.com Anders has in recent years combined the role of anthologist with his job as editorial director of the forward-looking and award-winning SF and fantasy imprint Pyr (www.pyrsf.com). His major SF anthologies include Live Without a Net, FutureShocks, Sideways in Crime, Fast Forward 1, and, appearing late in 2008, a particularly memorable volume, Fast Forward 2.
Interviewing Lou Anders by e-mail in February 2009, I discussed with him his new book and its significance for speculative fiction as a whole.
Gevers: Your SF anthology series, Fast Forward, doesn't exactly run along a theme its subject matter is compellingly broad but the term "Fast Forward" certainly implies an agenda: the need for SF to look forward as boldly as possible, connecting us with plausible futures. Why is this emphasis so important? In your view, can SF help make the future?
Anders: Can and does. Absolutely. And has been for as long as there has been SF. In my Introduction I quote Isaac Asimov as saying that science fiction is "crucial to our salvation" and I do believe that. And later, "It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be." I'd say the lack of general science education here (in America) that allows our Congress to stick their collective heads in the sand regarding things like global warming and stem cell research has had quite devastating effects in just the last few years alone. (And I'm thrilled that the new administration has actual scientists in the cabinet). It may not be fashionable these days within the science fiction community to say that science fiction inspires science, but I am astounded by the number of actual scientists that I see interviewed who credit science fiction with inspiring them. And this in everything from aerospace to robotics to biotech. But more generally, SF, the "literature of the open mind", a mode of entertainment that (generally) preaches tolerance, rationality, and inquisitiveness, isn't a bad thing for the world to embrace. Speaking from my own experience, growing up in an environment with a lot of racial prejudice and religious intolerance, SF was the single most important liberating factor in my personal evolution.
Gevers: Is it probable that so much SF today avoids the near future going backwards or sideways in time, or leaping into far futures that might as well be fantasy realms with gadgets because the immediate global outlook seems so bleak? Climate change, economic depression, all the other huge crises the world faces: if SF is primarily entertainment, how can it deal with these honestly, let alone optimistically? In Fast Forward 2, Karl Schroeder and Tobias Buckell make some effort in that direction, in their story "Mitigation"...
Anders: Well, first and foremost, science fiction has to be entertaining if it is to work at all. I recently read an anthology (won't say which) that I thought was just one sanctimonious lecture after another on how bad our contemporary lifestyle is and how we've all got it coming. And frankly, I had to slog through the book, and it's made me quite angry, because I don't think this sort of thing is doing anyone any favors. "Action," "Adventure," and "Fun" aren't dirty words and never should be. Years ago, 60s drug guru Timothy Leary pointed out that people would never make any change just because it was good for them, that change had to be hedonic, i.e. pleasurable, if it was to be adapted widescale. So if we are going to get green, getting green has to be both profitable and pleasurable. In the same way, if we're going to promote positive change (or warn about the implications of refusing to change), we need to do so in a way that's entertaining or nobody's going to listen. Karl and Tobias are both masters at taking current concerns and making them exciting, and "Mitigation" is just one example of them in action.
That said, I wonder if some of the expansiveness and exuberance that has characterized British SF for the last few years won't work its way over here, now that a candidate who ran on "hope" and "change" has won in a landslide election. Also, while we are in a global recession, genre fiction, and other forms of genre entertainment, are one of the few things doing well in this economy, and that, too, is cause for optimism in our community.
Gevers: One of the most interesting stories in Fast Forward 2 is "The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi, one of the few SF writers to tackle climate change with wholesale candor. His Laotian protagonist, struggling to broadcast meaningful news reports in a media landscape dominated by celebrity trivia, could easily stand for the lonely SF writer battling to sell stories about global warming. Or is that an overly pessimistic interpretation?
Anders: That's a very accurate interpretation of what I think is almost an autobiographical story for Paolo. But it's only pessimistic if you have a pessimistic take on what happens following the story's final line. Paolo often gets painted as a pretty bleak writer himself, but I find his work really engaging, compelling stuff, and very funny too. And as he's just sold one adult novel and two young adult novels, his own brand of global warming-inspired fiction certainly isn't struggling, even if his Laotian protagonist's is.
Gevers: A major attraction of Fast Forward 2 is the novelette "An Eligible Boy", by Ian McDonald. This is set in the bustling 2040s India of his novel River of Gods, and forms part of a story cycle your SF imprint, Pyr, is shortly collecting as Cyberabad Days. It's extraordinary how McDonald is able to portray India as deeply transformed by technology and social change, yet essentially the same ancient culture for all that. What do you see as the great strengths of these "Cyberabad" tales?
Anders: I think you just articulated it. It's been a long time since J.G. Ballard proclaimed that Earth was an alien planet, but I don't think anyone has ever taken that to heart better or with better results than Ian. We've all had a sense that the world is getting smaller and stranger than ever before. McDonald's India stories take us places where a great many of us here in the West have never been, yet do so in a way that feels absolutely completely relevant to today's world. He's not slumming it. His India tales are immersive, convincing enough that The Times of India was impressed! He's really taking you somewhere, showing you things you need to know, which is what every good story does.
Gevers: It's very interesting to see you start a Fast Forward anthology with an alternate-history tale "Catherine Drewe" by Paul Cornell. You obviously like alternate history witness your anthology last year, Sideways in Crime but it's still a remarkable gambit, to move sideways in order to go forward. How does Cornell manage this?
Anders: By packing more mad crazy idea goodness in every sentence than most people put in a book? The reaction I had to "Catherine Drewe" reminded me of nothing so much as the way I felt when I first read Charles Stross's "Lobsters" back at the start of this decade. It was one of those moments where I could barely stay in my chair because the audacity of the tale had me bouncing with energy. Post-steampunk British Empire in Space with James Bond? What's not to love? I think Cornell is going to loom large on people's radars in a short while (he's already big in television and comics). In the meantime, somebody make a videogame out of this so I can play.
Gevers: Another nifty move in Fast Forward 2 is your placing together of "Cyto Couture" by Kay Kenyon and "The Sun Also Explodes" by Chris Nakashima-Brown. Future modes of design, viewed from below and from above... But are these writers discussing more than just fashion and biological art?
Anders: Well, without giving the game away, in both tales, people are subservient to product, aren't they? Both protagonists are compromised individuals looking for respect. Interestingly, given that both are tales of bioengineering, both leads also have physical deformities. Incidentally, Nakashima-Brown's "Ultimate Football League" has already been logged at Technovelgy.com the website that tracks when a science-fictional idea is made real – awaiting the time when someone starts an actual UFL. I expect it any day now.
Gevers: As SF's readership allegedly grows older, Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "SeniorSource", about senior citizens doing telepresence detective work from orbit, could prove prophetic for Fast Forward 2's immediate audience. Is SF ever directly and simply predictive?
Anders: Yes. Absolutely. That's the aspect of SF that the mainstream press always seizes on, and consequently, it's the aspect of SF that people inside the community try to play down. But, really, SF has a pretty good track record, whether it's Wells and Verne getting so many things right, or Heinlein's Destination Moon, or Star Trek calling the day of the week of the moon shot, or Rob Sawyer making the correct call on the Neanderthals' inability to interbreed with us (as he recently pointed out on his blog); a community of very smart people thinking about the future and asking questions is bound to have a track record. But as long as we're talking about Rob, again in the Introduction, I quote him saying, "If accurate prediction were the criterion of good SF, we'd have to say that George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was an abysmal failure because the real year 1984 turned out nothing like his prediction. But in fact Orwell's novel was a resounding success because its warning call helped us to keep the future it portrayed from becoming reality." I make a case in my Introduction that SF can predict, inspire, or prevent the future, or it can increase understanding of our contemporary times by taking an alternate approach to reality from that of mainstream literature. Each of these aspects is important, none more than any other.
Gevers: Some stories in Fast Forward 2 focus on quite mundane everyday realities, whatever the innovations in their backgrounds there's the downbeat feeling of increasing age in "Adventure" by Paul McAuley, the bleak one-night-stand atmosphere of Jack Skillingstead's "Alone With An Inconvenient Companion". Is it an important part of SF's function, this intimation that however much we and our world alter, the disappointing constants of unfulfilment and loneliness will persist?
Anders: When the Sony Metreon first opened in downtown San Francisco, they had an arcade called the "Airtight Garage" decked out with designs by Moebius. In the back, they had a "VR" game where you got in these little pods and shot at each other on screens. I couldn't wait to try it, but after twenty minutes inside, I had the worst case of motion sickness I've ever had. I was horrified. I'm a big fan of roller coasters and other thrill rides, and I would never have predicted this reaction. But I was so, so dizzy I thought I was dying. Far worse than the nausea, was the fear that having lived for the "promised land" all my life, I might not be allowed to enter it. Not that crude VR arcade games are "the future" – the exhibit was shut down years ago in fact – but I wondered what other devices and technologies I wouldn't be able to take part in. I fully expect my children to laugh at my inability to work the direct soul interfaces on their 10th generation X-boxes, or at my objection when I don't want them marrying a hologram or someone they grew to specs in a Petri dish. The past is another country, and I'll be an immigrant from there one day.
Gevers: The longest story in Fast Forward 2, "True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum and Cory Doctorow, is a novella that plunges the reader into an awesome, posthuman far-future. This is pushing the fast-forward button to its limit... How (as here) does such a far-reaching brand of SF retain a sympathetic, understandable human dimension while promulgating its vertiginous novelty?
Anders: By grounding its characters in character, as anything good does. The new Doctor Who series has this idea that the companion has always got to come from contemporary England and that almost every single episode has to tie back to Earth in some way. I don't understand this. I think as long as the characterizations are strong enough, compelling enough, realistically-portrayed enough, viewers (and readers) don't care whether the protagonists originate from ancient Rome or Rigel VII. That said, Ben and Cory's story is definitely the outer edge of posthuman narrative, and I don't know if you'd want to pursue this for a whole novel. (Or maybe you would!) But isn't a science fiction anthology the place for exactly this kind of extrapolation?
Gevers: Finally: Fast Forward 2 seems to be doing well critically and commercially, and quite a few other strong SF anthologies have appeared recently. Earlier, you expressed general satisfaction about the present state of genre entertainment. But publishing is in recession; the market for anthologies may well shrink as that continues; the major SF magazines are cutting back. How do you view the immediate and longer-term futures of short SF and fantasy? Will the field shrink, or can it find new markets, new media?
Anders: Well, there's a difference between "new markets" and "new media." I'd say there's a wealth of short fiction online, and that the amount of short form SF available to readers is only going to increase. Now, as to paying venues...yes, the field is definitely in a period of transition. It saddens me that the vast majority of readers I speak with prefer novel length fiction to short form SF by a wide margin, and in a recession, I imagine the major publishers will cut back on the number of anthologies on offer (though I have two in the works right now myself). As an adolescent, I read almost exclusively short form SF. My personal introduction to SF was the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, and a lot of Isaac Asimov-edited collections as well. I only read SF at longer lengths when I got older. To me, the ability to craft such explosively entertaining idea-grenades was why I read, and I'd rather have my mind blown fifteen to twenty times in the span of a book than just once or twice. Which is not to say I prefer short fiction to novels – I don't – only that I enjoy short and long form SF equally, and I wish that more fans of long form SF felt the same. But I'm not really worried about the long term future of the short form. There's simply too much that excites me out there right now to be pessimistic. Of course, as Asimov said, change is inevitable. But that can be exciting too.
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