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Sunday, September 27, 2009

John Clute: Fantastika

John Clute was born in Toronto, and grew up there and in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Montreal. He attend New York University, where he earned a BA, wrote columns and reviews for several years, then moved to London in 1968, where he has lived ever since.

His first important SF criticism appeared in New Worlds in the late '60s, and in the '70s and '80s his work began to appear regularly in publications including F&SF, Omni, the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, The New York Review of Science Fiction, the Los Angeles Times, the Observer, and others. He is now one of the field's most respected critics. His reviews and criticism have been collected in Strokes: Essays and Reviews 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews (1995), Scores (2003), and Canary Fever: Reviews (2009). He explored apocalyptic impulses in The Book of the End Times (1999), and The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006.

Clute was associate editor of the first edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979) and co-editor (with Peter Nicholls) of the Hugo-winning second edition (1993). A third edition, to appear online, is in progress. He wrote Hugo winner Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), and co-edited The Encyclopedia of Fantasy with John Grant (1997), winner of a Hugo, Mythopoeic, Locus, Eaton, and World Fantasy Award.

Though best known as a critic, Clute is also a poet and fiction writer. His first professional publication was long "SF-tinged" poem "Carcajou Lament" (1959) in Triquarterly, and his first SF story was "A Man Must Die" in New Worlds (1966). First novel The Disinheriting Party (1977) was not SF, but 2001 novel Appleseed was an ambitious literary space opera.

In 1960 he was associate editor of the short-lived magazine Collage, where he published work by Harlan Ellison and R.A. Lafferty. He helped found Interzone in 1982, and co-edited five Interzone anthologies (1985-91). He served as reviews editor of Foundation from 1980-90, co-edited Tesseracts 8 (1999) with Candas Jane Dorsey, and edited a collection of Robert E. Howard tales, Heroes in the Wind (2009).

Clute's numerous honors include a Pilgrim Award from SFRA (1994), an Eaton Grand Master award with Peter Nicholls (1995), and an IAFA distinguished scholarship award (1999). He married Judith Clute in 1964, and the two were the subject of Polder: A Festshcrift for John Clute and Judith Clute (2006), edited by Farah Mendlesohn. They both live in London, though both spend much time abroad. Clute's partner, Elizabeth Hand, lives in Maine.

Excerpts from the interview:

“For two or three years now, I've been using the term Fantastika, because I don't like 'the Fantastic,' partly because, for Anglophones, the term tends to exclude science fiction. In some European languages, fantastika designates science fiction and all the other literatures that SF shares significant characteristics with, so I'm just pulling that usage over to English. It does strike me that it is much more useful and enjoyable to think of how one models science fiction and defines it, in the same intellectual space as one's modeling of fantasy and horror. To make that tripartite modeling -- which is obviously Procrustean, with regard to all the texts that have been created since maybe 1750 or 1760, when (in my view) Fantastika begins -- does allow a lot of clarity. Some might call excessive clarity a poison chalice, but as far as the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is concerned, this work makes it possible to begin to really speculate about the next century.

“Fantastika begins around the mid-18th century because time begins there, because history begins then, because the contemplation of Ruins and Futurity as a single topos begins then, because the world turns into a planet, because the French Revolution terrifies everybody by thinking that anything that used to be called substance can be turned into currency.”


“As far as I'm concerned, all the literatures of the fantastic are related -- perhaps in a parodic, perhaps in a dancing-dervish fashion -- to the planet itself. They are planetary fictions. When I think of horror over the last 60 years since the end of World War II, it strikes me that the central function is not the traditional recovery that fantasy is involved in exemplifying and that so much literature necessarily gives us to believe is possible, but that the central function of horror is coping with amnesia. That the world we have been moving into is a world that has progressively evacuated most of the meanings that allow people to make sense of their lives. That the dissolution of the boundaries between privacy and the rest of the world is part of the same reduction of the capacity of memory to make sense, the capacity of our cultures not to create what I've called in a couple of pieces 'cenotaphic fiction.' Much of the world that has been created since World War II is a set of cenotaphs, monuments to that which is not there: vacancies, absences.”


“We're now about halfway through the writing of the third edition of the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia. That's what I like to say, but the book is such a complex entity and it grows in so many different ways as you do it that to say 'halfway' just means we hit a million new words, we hit ten thousand entries, we hit this, we hit that, and we're halfway through the alphabet in terms of how many words are left in all the other comparable reference books I was looking at. So when I say 'halfway through,' it's very rough. And with a bit of blitzing, maybe two years of 24-hour-a-day work, we'll finish it off in jig time!”


“I don't mean to imply I think completion is possible. We can finish a version, but we can't complete the enterprise. Pragmatic decisions are being made constantly, and the progress through the alphabet is slow but constant towards the end. Given the online structure of the Encyclopedia, which allows us to put down a default version when we get it done, we are able to globally update the entire Encyclopedia -- not in Wikipedia fashion, harum-scarum, but in a regularized monthly fashion. I'd like to have a beta version up in about a year, one which would have maybe two-thirds of the book and most of the major authors, going through and picking up some of the harder tasks so I don't have nightmares about them.

“One of the next projects on my list is Robert Silverberg, a lot of work so I want to get him out of the way. And Marty Greenberg, for instance, who has well over a thousand titles. When I was staying with my mother in Toronto about a year ago, he was not the part of the alphabet I was working on but I thought, 'OK, I've got all these notes; why not just spend a few hours every day doing Marty Greenberg?' Hours which would otherwise have been wasted on wine, and other kinds of intoxicating forms of life, were spent listing Marty Greenberg, and I felt so good at the end of that! Page after page after page, but it's done.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

john clute homepage

Read the complete interview in the September 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

september cover

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Larry Niven: Tell Me a Story

Lawrence Van Cott Niven was born in Los Angeles and attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena from 1956-58, but didn't graduate. He got his BA in mathematics from Washburn University in Topeka KS in 1962, then returned to California to do post-graduate work at UCLA from 1962-63.

Niven began freelance writing in 1964, the year of his first short fiction publication, "The Coldest Place", in If. He won his first Hugo in 1967 for "Neutron Star". His other Hugo winners are "Inconstant Moon" (1971), "The Hole Man" (1975), and "The Borderland of Sol" (1975).

First novel World of Ptavvs (1966) began his vast Known Space future history. Ringworld (1970) won both the Hugo and Nebula and began a series that includes The Ringworld Engineers (1979), The Ringworld Throne (1996), and Ringworld's Children (2004). His other solo novels are A Gift from Earth (1968), Protector (1973), A World Out of Time (1976), The Magic Goes Away (1978), The Patchwork Girl (1980), The Smoke Ring (1987), The Integral Trees (1994), Destiny's Road (1997), and Rainbow Mars (1999).

Niven is known for his collaborations, especially with Jerry Pournelle, beginning with The Mote in God's Eye (1974) and continuing with Inferno (1975), Lucifer's Hammer (1977), Oath of Fealty (1981), Footfall (1985), The Gripping Hand (1993), The Burning City (2000), Burning Tower (2005), and Escape from Hell (2009). With Steven Barnes he wrote a series of virtual reality novels: Dream Park (1981), The Barsoom Project (1989), and The California Voodoo Game (1992), plus standalones The Descent of Anansi (1982), Achilles' Choice (1991), and Saturn's Race (2000). With both Barnes and Pournelle he wrote The Legacy of Heorot (1987), The Dragons of Heorot (1995; as Beowulf's Children in the US). With Pournelle and Michael F. Flynn he wrote Prometheus Award winner Fallen Angels (1991). He expanded the Known Universe world with novels co-written with Edward M. Lerner: Fleet of Worlds (2007), Juggler of Worlds (2008), and Destroyer of Worlds (2009). With David Gerrold he wrote The Flying Sorcerers (1971), and with Brenda Cooper Building Harlequin's Moon (2005). Berserker Base (1984) was written with Poul Anderson, Edward Bryant, Stephen R. Donaldson, Fred Saberhagen, Connie Willis, and Roger Zelazny.

Some of his stories and essays are collected in Neutron Star (1968), The Shape of Space (1969), All the Myriads Ways (1971), The Flight of the Horse (1973), Inconstant Moon (1973), A Hole in Space (1974), Tales of Known Space (1975), The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (1976), Convergent Series (1979), The Time of the Warlock (1984), Niven's Laws (1984), Limits (1985), N-Space (1990), Playgrounds of the Mind (1991), Bridging the Galaxies (1993), Crashlander (1994), Flatlander (1995), Scatterbrain (2003), and The Draco Tavern (2006). Retrospective The Best of Larry Niven is forthcoming.

He edited The Magic May Return (1981) and More Magic (1984), with stories set in the world of The Magic Goes Away, and edited several volumes of the Man-Kzin Wars anthologies. He has also written for comic books and television.

Niven won a Heinlein Award (2005) and a Hubbard Award for Lifetime Achievement (2006). He lives in Southern California with wife Marilyn Wisowaty (married 1969).

Excerpts from the interview:

“I try to be versatile. I'm in awe of other people's versatility. Silverberg, for instance, has done everything. I've reached as far as I could in every direction I could see. (Isaac Asimov once called me his 'spiritual son,' and I refrained from telling him I'm everybody's spiritual son.) Also, there are benchmarks that probably wouldn't be visible to a younger writer but were topics that everybody touched on when I was a kid. I've done my solipsism story. I've done time travel: the traveler from the Institute for Temporal Research who keeps finding fantasy creatures. First man on the moon. There are a few I haven't tried -- it's hard to believe in an invisible man, for instance. But interstellar war? Sure.

“In Poul Anderson's universe, most stories cover only a small part of the galaxy. Flandry’s domain isn't the entire galaxy; there are a lot of worlds, but it's a tight little corner and Anderson's not trying to be E.E. Smith. I decided he was right, and I made Known Space 30 light years across. There's plenty of room for expansion, and that's the way I played it. Known Space is all of the space that the aliens you know have explored. Human Space is the space you think you control. Of course, you have to dance lightly over that term, because what you think you control is interspersed with what the Outsiders think they control, for instance, and that's everything from Jupiter on out.

“Hard SF is not basically funny until you look deep into it -- or maybe I should say, you have to be either very shallow or very deep to find the funny spots in hard science fiction. Once you understand enough about Known Space, you reach the point at which Earth is so crowded that picking pockets has become a sport, and your wallet always has a stamp on it.”


“John Campbell turned down every one of my stories, except maybe the last one. (Given the timing, it's hard to know -- he may have accepted 'Cloak of Anarchy'.) But I got a letter from him for the first version of a story called 'Arm', 12 pages of detailed work on what's wrong with it and how to rethink it. And I used it very extensively and rewrote it. Campbell was everybody's editor! But Analog never published me until after his death.

“As for Horace Gold, he was gone when I started writing. My first sales were to Frederik Pohl, who was editing Galaxy and Worlds of If and Worlds of Tomorrow at the time. Fred Pohl discovered me. Of course, I was ready to be discovered. I got in just as the New Wave was gearing up, and the New Wave concentrated on characterization and avoided standard storytelling framework, with lots of room for innovative typing.”


“Jerry Pournelle and I have been persuaded that we ought to menace the Earth with something big again. This time, we're going to try to stop it. It's likely to be a very political novel, so I'm flinching a little, but Jerry's going to have to cover that.

“I've been involved in politics before. Sigma is an organization of science fiction writers who are willing to do things for the government, run by a guy named Arlan Andrews. I got involved with that, partly because Jerry wants me to know about bureaucracies for the next novel. I am not the most important person involved. I've had little to contribute. I thought I might do some good, but my mind doesn't seem to be the right structure. I'm not coming up with ideas for how to attack the United States -- or others come up with those (how to do that and how to stop it) a lot faster. I've got friends who have been in the military and others who haven't, and all are better at this than I am at finding near-term threats.”


“I don't often think about what my career has meant, but every so often I get reminded. E-mail comes in from total strangers who say I've shaped their lives. And of course I made my landmark when the Soviet Union came down. The Soviet Union was driven bankrupt by a plan evolved at my house in Tarzana, with Jerry Pournelle in charge. We called ourselves the Citizens' Advisory Council for a National Space Policy. When it seemed apparent that Ronald Reagan was going to be president, it also seemed apparent that his science advisor was going to be Jerry Pournelle's top student. On that basis, we'd have access to the president. Jerry borrowed our house and threw a weekend that eventually became six weekends over about 10 years, during the first few of which we evolved what came to be called Star Wars, although the preferred title was the Strategic Defense Initiative. For a while, I believed they hadn't built anything to back up the SDI; they just talked about it and evolved it as a plan of action. On that basis, the Soviet Union was taken down by a science fiction story written at Larry Niven's house! Which was wonderful.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

Known Space: The Future Worlds of Larry Niven

Read the complete interview in the September 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

september cover

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)


Friday, September 4, 2009

Cory Doctorow: Special Pleading

As I write these words, the news of Locus editor-in-chief and co-founder Charles N. Brown's death is only a week old, and I'm still in shock. Charles has been generous and supportive of me throughout my career, and producing this column for the past three years (three years!) has been a curious kind of pleasure. These columns, written directly (more or less) to the science fiction publishing industry are very different from the other kind of writing I do, and in some way, they are all continuations of a long-ago interview I conducted with Charles at the WorldCon in San Jose, five years ago, which was typical of Charles's interviews, as John Scalzi describes them: "it largely consisted of the two of us having a conversation, me on a couch and him at his desk, and him seemingly being a bit grumpy about it." That challenging, intelligent, and wide-ranging discussion has never really ended for me.

Nor, apparently, did it ever end for Charles. In the July issue — which just arrived at my PO Box this week — Charles writes about a little print-on-demand project I'm planning called "With a Little Help" (a short story collection that tries every imaginable income-generating technique for open publishing in order to get some data about which avenues hold the most promise): "I don't know what it will prove. Remember, Stephen King was able to see an incredible number of downloads of a short story, but I've never heard of anyone duplicating that success. Cory, with his vast Internet connections, may succeed. But will it affect publishing? Probably not."

And now, I'd like to return Charles's volley, though he'll never get to see it, because, you know, it's his magazine, and he hired me to do this, and when your publisher hands you a straight line like that, you'd be nuts to pass it on.

In January 2003, my first novel came out. Called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, it was published by Tor as a hardcover original with a print-run of about 9,800, with an advance of about $7,500. Like practically every other first time novelist, I dreamed of selling a book and quitting my day job (though I had a really cool day job, working as a full-time activist for the San Francisco-based civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation); as with virtually every other first-time novelist, the advance for my first book totally failed to change my life and catapult me to financial independence. I was level-headed enough to know that this wasn't going to happen (even if I did occasionally daydream about it). I knew that if I was ever going to be a full-time writer, it would come as the result of a career of books that succeeded commercially and critically and that meant writing the best books I could and doing everything I could to help my publisher sell as many books as they could.

Down and Out was critically successful, garnering good mentions in the trade press and even the New York Times. I had already established a modest name for myself at the time, having sold about a dozen short stories and won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the 2000 WorldCon on their strength. Boing Boing, the blog I co-edit, had about 30,000 unique readers back then (now it's a couple million), which was a good-sized megaphone to be speaking through.

To make things more interesting, I became the first novelist to use the brand-new Creative Commons licenses on a book, releasing the electronic text on terms that allowed for its free, noncommercial sharing. Thirty thousand people downloaded the book in the first 24 hours (several million copies have been downloaded to date), and the hardcover did well, too — by the time the trade paperback came out a year later, we'd hit about 85 percent sell-through, a good number that pleased Tor, my agent, and me.

It's amazing to think, in retrospect, of the amount of foofaraw this garnered. At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that as soon as an electronic book leaked onto the Internet, its commercial life was over, first because readers would never pay for it; and second because publishers and booksellers wouldn't stock it. Even though Bruce Sterling had sold a ton of copies of his 1992 The Hacker Crackdown while simultaneously releasing the book as "literary freeware," even though Orson Scott Card had released several of his books on AOL; even though the nascent "bookwarez" scene had put thousands of current and classic titles online as text-files without obliterating their commercial fortunes.

The Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom experiment really pissed people off. It was denounced as a breaking of ranks with authors as a class, and as a stunt that I could only afford because I had so little to lose, being such a nobody in the field with my handful of short story sales and my tiny print run — at least when compared to the big guys. Free samples were good news if no one had heard of you, but for successful writers, free downloads were poison.

To "prove" this, critics often pointed to Stephen King's experiment in online publishing, "The Plant," which King gave up as a bad job after earning a mere hundreds of thousands of dollars in voluntary payments, and which he never returned to. A genuinely successful writer like King had nothing to gain from the publicity value of free downloads, they said (ironically, this appears to be the story that Charles referred to in the July Locus, citing it as proof of the success of free downloads).

Over the next six years, a funny thing happened. After publishing three more novels, two books of short stories, a collection of essays, a graphic novel, and a million or so words' worth of nonfiction, speeches, essays, and blog posts, I seem to have made it, more or less. I quit working for EFF on January 1, 2006, in order to write full time, though I've found that interesting diversions rise up to fill the vacuum left by the day job, from my 18-month-old daughter to a year's stay in Los Angeles on faculty at the University of Southern California under the auspices of the Fulbright program, to a little screen writing to some lectures.

And of course, there's Boing Boing, now grown into a modestly successful business that provides a nice supplemental income and provides some security, as well as a means of keeping my readers excited about my work between books.

The other thing that's changed is the criticism. Six years ago, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom couldn't be counted as a real success for open publishing because I was too obscure to feel the cost of the lost sales. Now, I'm too successful, someone whose name is so widely known that I am uniquely situated to benefit from open publishing, since the micro net-fame I enjoy provides the vital push necessary to wrest sales from freebies. Hilariously, some of the people who say this go back in time and revise history, claiming that I was only able to sell as many copies of Down and Out as I have over the years (nine printings and still selling great!) because I was such a big shot famous writer in 2003, on the strength of a dozen short story sales.

There's a name for this rhetorical tactic: "special pleading." Special pleading is when you claim that some example doesn't merit consideration because it lacks, or contains, some special characteristic that makes it unique, not part of the general discussion. I hear a lot of special pleading, taking one of two forms:

Your books only sell because you're such a popular blogger. No one else can do what you do unless they, too, are popular in some other field.

It's true that being widely read in one area is a good way to sell books in another area. Nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry does well with his novels; folk legend Janis Ian has a good reputation for her excellent short fiction and poetry. More broadly, any kind of fame is a plus when it comes to marketing a book, as director Guillermo del Toro and his publisher knew before his novel The Strain went to press.

But some well-known people sell a book and then move on after the critics have their way with them, and some keep on writing and selling. These latter are writers who happen to do something else — just as Geoff Landis works for NASA and writes; just as Kim Stanley Robinson and Rudy Rucker taught at university while writing; just as a thousand other writers find that having a day job is too much fun or too satisfying or too necessary to give up.

You have sources of income other than science fiction, so you can afford to give your books away. Not everyone can found a successful company or get paid for speaking while working on novels.

It's true that I co-founded and co-run Boing Boing and that the income from it and from a few talks a year help to supplement my income, and it's true that not every writer can do this (by the same token, not every writer can be a shrewd investor like Robert Silverberg, an MIT faculty member like Joe Haldeman, or the great-grandson of an oil tycoon like Larry Niven). Many's the writer who found that — free downloads or no — having another source of income made good sense.

But the fact is that writing is a substantial and crucial part of my family's income. I'm not going to publish my tax return here, but you can do the math for yourself for my last novel: about 100,000 hardcovers of Little Brother in print at about $2 royalty each; 17 foreign rights deals ranging from a few thousand to mid-five-figures; audio rights; film option; etc. Then there's 26 columns a year for the Guardian, six a year in Locus, half a dozen short stories, and royalties from my backlist. While I'm awfully glad of my Boin­g Boing and lectures and incidental income,  I've got plenty of skin in the game and sell plenty of books. I don't give away downloads because I'm just a swell guy — I do it because I'm a self-employed entrepreneur who needs to make as much as he can to support his family.

Marketing and business are not science. Despite the conceits of quantitative economists, there's precious few good double-blind experiments to be run on commercial propositions. At the end of the day, all we know about any business-model is whether it appears to be working for the people who've tried it (and even then, we don't know what the future holds, as any number of once-enthusiastic derivatives hedgers can tell you from bitter experience).

Writers are all different, and the success stories are all unique. Some SF writers enrich themselves with grants, or film deals, or by writing ten books for every book that their peers manage to write. Some edit, some have wealthy spouses. Gene Wolfe co-invented the machine that Pringles come out of (true fact!). An artist's income is very much an a la carte proposition, in which writers choose some items from one or more columns in order to find the fit that suits them best. "That won't work for every writer," is as weird and pointless as "those directions might get you to the corner store, but if you're trying to get to the greengrocer's, they're useless."

All we can know, in the end, is what worked for some writers, so that we can see if they worked for us. Here's what I think I know about online publishing and free downloads:

  • The conversion rate is low; when the price is $0, a lot of people will come and kick the tires, but only a few will buy (just as lots of people pick up a book in a store and riffle the pages without buying the book)
  • Free downloads work amazingly well to magnify existing publicity, enabling friends to tell each other about books they love by sending them the e-book; among these people the conversion rate is much higher
  • Free downloads don't generate much publicity in and of themselves — they need to be part of a larger campaign that gets people excited about the project.

Here are some things I'd really like to find out:

  • Will people donate to support a free book? How much? Will they donate more to support an audiobook or a print edition?
  • How much work does it take to replicate a professional publisher's contribution to publicizing and distributing your book?
  • How much demand is there for premium editions, and what characteristics make those premium editions more valuable?

This is the kind of thing I hope to explore in the With a Little Help project. I'll be reporting in on what I learn. I'm sure there'll be plenty of people who'll be ready to dismiss it by asserting that something that works for one writer doesn't automatically work for every other writer. This is true, obvious, and unimportant. The important thing is what writers might try, based on the experiences of their peers.

From the September 2009 issue of Locus Magazine


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