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A collaborative blog by Locus editors, contributors, and other invited guests. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine or Locus Online.

 




 


Editor

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Contributors

Alan Beatts
Terry Bisson
Marie Brennan
Karen Burnham
Siobhan Carroll
John Clute
F. Brett Cox
Ellen Datlow
Paul Di Filippo
Michael Dirda
Gardner Dozois
Andy Duncan
Stefan Dziemianowicz
Brian Evenson
Jeffrey Ford
Karen Joy Fowler
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Theodora Goss
Elizabeth Hand
Cecelia Holland
Rich Horton
Guy Gavriel Kay
James Patrick Kelly
Mark R. Kelly
Ellen Klages
Russell Letson
Karen Lord
Brit Mandelo
Adrienne Martini
Tim Pratt
Cat Rambo
Paul Graham Raven
Graham Sleight
Maureen Kincaid Speller
Peter Straub
Rachel Swirsky
Paul Witcover
Gary K. Wolfe
E. Lily Yu

Jonathan R. Eller Guest Post–”Ray Bradbury Unbound”

In writing about a life as rich and varied as Ray Bradbury’s, a biographer quickly learns that not everything in the notepads or the interview tapes will make it into the final book. It was a difficult challenge for both Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011) and Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), where I had to make decisions to condense and even eliminate some of the detail of an incredibly fascinating life. Many years of close interaction intensified the challenge; looking through hundreds of pages of our interview transcripts, always informal and wide-ranging, as well as thousands of pages of correspondence files and drafts of Bradbury stories and novels, I sometimes wondered if my three-volume approach could accommodate all that deserved chronicling.

Becoming Ray Bradbury covered the first thirty-three years of the author’s life, right up to the moment he handed his final revisions for Fahrenheit 451 to his frantic but steady-handed Ballantine Books editor, Stanley Kauffmann. In my own telling of those early years, I had to cut 70,000 words from Becoming Ray Bradbury, and in the end it became a far better book. There were lamented casualties, of course, and among them were a half dozen chapters dealing with Bradbury’s Illinois childhood. A surviving opening chapter concisely covered the essential influences of these early years and allowed me to enter deeply into his high school years in Los Angeles, where Bradbury was fully absorbed by radio shows and motion picture wonders as he took the first steps toward a professional writing career.

Other cuts involved the more anecdotal details of his brushes with the stars of the silver screen and the famous voices of the airwaves during radio’s golden age. Other books and articles had documented these adventures, however, and condensing the narration of certain lesser episodes allowed me to focus on how the more important aspects of these Hollywood experiences stayed with him and influenced his own creativity (and public persona) as he slowly became Ray Bradbury. A few other episodes had to be cut outright, including a brief and anonymous 1945 meeting with John Steinbeck in Mexico City (one Cambridge, Massachusetts blogger has never forgiven me for that one). Little else was lost from the essential story, thankfully, and there will be a time when these lost pages will find life again.

Ray Bradbury Unbound, which covers the middle years of Bradbury’s career, offered new challenges. I was once again able to work with the subject himself, who never asked to be made into an icon; he only wanted fairness and objectivity, and I’m grateful for his blessing and his support during the final years of his life. But there was also another Ray Bradbury advising me—the one who wrote letters on a vast array of topics during the 1950s and 1960s, often revealing his innermost thoughts on creativity and giving voice to the private disappointments that Hollywood sometimes threw in his way. There were also moments of achievement and great good fortune in Hollywood, as there were in his relations with a widening circle of book and magazine publishers, and Bradbury’s letters convey the excitement and advantages that came with his ever-widening readership and name recognition throughout postwar American culture.

Once again there were cuts to be made, but only about 25,000 words came out this time around. The story of Ray Bradbury Unbound became an emerging contrast between the many multi-media successes that Bradbury was achieving in television and film, and his slowly diminishing output of new stories as Hollywood began to demand more and more time. This transformation is widely known in a general way, but the more dramatic aspects, such as Bradbury’s day-by-day interactions with actors, studio directors and producers, and his often less cordial encounters with studio executives, allowed me to show how many of his promising creative projects were deferred, distorted, or even discarded for reasons that had nothing to do with creativity at all. Bradbury had an abiding hatred of the financial bottom line, a counterpoint to his abiding love of under-budgeted libraries and underpaid writers. For every success in Hollywood, there were many disappointments, and re-living this process through Bradbury’s memory and his archives has been a most rewarding experience.

Writing Ray Bradbury Unbound also let me witness, through his correspondence, his many television and magazine interviews, and his surviving lectures, his growing status as a major spokesman (and inspiration) for the Space Age. And behind the various accounts of his hopes and fears, his achievements and occasional disappointments, was something that I had not seen before—a subtle but growing sense of urgency, a sense of time and opportunity slipping away more quickly with every passing year. Perhaps it resulted from the childhood terrors that were never far beneath the surface of his mature mind; even at fifty, where Ray Bradbury Unbound concludes, he was still just as susceptible to the power of suggestion as he had been at the age of twelve. Or maybe this sense of accelerating time was prompted by his ever-widening range of success across so many fields of writing and media adaptation, and by the fact that he had already created a lifetime’s worth of work. Or maybe, as he became unbound from the normal strictures of a genre writer and became one of America’s best-known authors, he simply began to feel what Robert Penn Warren once described as the awful responsibilities of time.

 

About the Author:

Jonathan R. Eller is a Chancellor’s Professor of English and director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). He co-authored (with William F. Touponce) Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction (2004) and prepared and prefaced 100 pages of historical material for Simon & Schuster’s sixtieth anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (2013). He is the author of Becoming Ray Bradbury (2011) and Ray Bradbury Unbound (2014), biographical studies of Bradbury’s early and middle career. He also edits The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, a multi-volume series that recovers the original versions of Bradbury’s earliest tales. Eller’s books have twice been Locus award nominees for best nonfiction title in the science fiction and fantasy field.

Roundtable on Ten Exciting Writers

At the 2014 Cannes film festival press conference, film-maker Quentin Tarantino talked about how he periodically puts “the state of film under a microscope.” Riffing off an e-mail exchange he describes, I’d like to pose the following forward-looking question to this group: Who are the ten currently working writers that most excite you today? To be more specific: these should be writers about whose every new work you feel genuinely excited, believing it could represent their *best* work and outshine whatever they’ve done before. Maybe writers whose books you pre-order, or for which you get ARCs because you just can’t wait to read them. Also, please don’t feel confined to pick genre authors, or even fiction for that matter.

Cat Rambo

Ten off the top of my head (and no doubt overlooking a number I shouldn’t) in the category of people whose books I actively look forward to and seek out: Carol Berg, Gemma Files, Karen Joy Fowler, Nicola Griffith, Ann Leckie, Bennett Madison, Elizabeth Moon, Terry Pratchett, Lilith Saintcrow, Sofia Samatar.

Fabio Fernandes

My list (with the caveat that it’s an ever-changing one, but also according to said criteria):

Aliette de Bodard
Richard Kadrey
Claude Lalumière
Ann Leckie
Yoon Ha Lee
China Miéville
Hannu Rajaniemi
Kim Stanley Robinson
Sofia Samatar
Tom Standage

Russell Letson

There are writers I’ve followed for decades–some for so long that I have outlived them. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that one of my standard column-opening paragraphs is “I’ve been reviewing X for Y years,” where Y > 20. I keep a quick-reference directory where I store reviews of writers I know I’ll be returning to, and there’s way more than ten of them: Eleanor Arnason, Neal Asher, John Barnes, C. J. Cherryh, Greg Egan, William Gibson, Kathy Goonan, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, Jack McDevitt, Linda Nagata (welcome back!), Larry Niven, Alistair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Allen Steele, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, John Varley, Walter Jon Williams. And those are just the living members of the club.

Then there are the writers I haven’t covered often enough yet to store in the archive but who I know I would be happy to add to it: “James S.A. Corey,” Ann Leckie, Stephen Gould, Susan R. Matthews, Alexander Jablakov, Karen Traviss, Elizabeth Bear. Two of these are relatively new names; others go for longish periods between new books or seem to have gone inactive; others sometimes operate in modes that don’t resonate with me. But I watch for them all the same. Then there are two writers whose books I no longer get assigned (and who I won’t be able to catch up with until I’m confined to a nursing home): Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson.

The only pattern I see in this list (beyond a bias in favor of age and experience and my inability to follow rules) is a taste for strongly coherent SF and really good writing chops. I’m not especially good at picking up on the newest writers, partly because I don’t follow the short-fiction side of the field and partly because that list of established gotta-reads that push to the head of the queue.

Since we’re invited to stray outside SF, here’s a writer whose new titles I await eagerly: Jason Goodwin, whose 19th-century Istanbul is as exotic a setting as anything in SF or fantasy.

Gardner Dozois

There are too many authors that would fit into this category to readily list; my list probably skews toward short fiction, because I don’t have time to read many novels these days. Restricting myself to living authors, I’d mention Ian McDonald, Paul McAuley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alastair Reynolds, Eleanor Arnason, Ian R. Macleod, Michael Swanwick, Elizabeth Bear, Greg Egan, Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Kress, Lavie Tidhar, Pat Cadigan, and Robert Reed, although I have no objections to anyone else on Russell’s list, and could name a dozen more besides. Like Russell, I have a taste for strongly coherent SF (although it’s becoming dismayingly hard to find these days) with good writing chops. Stuff that’s scientifically plausible would be nice, although I also have a liking for flamboyant stuff with lots of local color and Sense of Wonder chops, which is why I like Space Opera, stories set on alien worlds, far-future stuff, and Alternate History stuff.

For fantasy, I’d have to add Terry Pratchett, Le Guin again, George R.R. Martin, K.J. Parker, and Joe Abercrombie, for mystery, James Lee Burke, Martin Cruz Smith, and Steven Saylor, and for non-fiction, John McPhee, Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Paul Theroux, and David Attenborough.

Rachel Swirsky

I wish Octavia Butler were still alive to follow. I don’t have to pre-order Ann because I always get to see drafts, muahahaha. Ditto Barry Deutsch.

Six offhand, probably forgetting like everyone since I just got up (late, I know): Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison, Karen Joy Fowler, N. K. Jemisin.

Lots more people I get super excited about but who can occasionally miss for me, but I still pick up everything with excitement. I must have checked the “when does this come out????” date for Pratchett’s Raising Steam a dozen times. But I can’t really stand up (personally!) for all the early work like Color of Magic.

I feel like reading so much is a bit of a disadvantage in making this list because there are so many authors I follow, and am really excited about, but nearly everyone has their misses (even Ted Chiang who I wrote above, though his misses are always still really smart… Ditto most of the list, probably, except maybe Toni Morrison). Geoff Ryman, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Ken Liu, Chris Barzak, Cat Rambo… or writers who are still new or who I don’t have enough sample size for like Charles Yu, Sofia Samatar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Benjanun Sriduangkaew… There’s a bunch of early Cat Valente that’s not quite my thing, but recently everything she does takes my breath away…

YA authors with above qualifications: A. S. King, Nova Ren Suma (17 and Gone, so amazing), probably a bunch more not coming to mind right now

And I’m just no longer reading enough plays or enough litfic, I’ve been super-concentrated on YA and SF/F. I still stand by Nick Flynn for poetry, but my poetry reading was never sufficiently broad, and I read very little now.

And still, I must be forgetting half of everyone. Oy.

Paul Graham Raven

Somewhat off-topic, I know, but I’m curious: Russell and Gardner, can you unpack “strongly coherent” for us? Is it a specifically sf-nal quality, and what are its signifiers?

Ken Liu

I have too many writers to easily cut down to 10, so I’m going to cheat by sticking to writers who haven’t been mentioned so far. (I
will echo the sentiment that I wish Octavia Butler were still with us.) I don’t believe in genre labels, so it’s good that we’re invited
to stray from them.

In the order that their names surfaced in my brain: Rachel Swirsky, Helena Bell, Liu Cixin (I understand he’s working on a new novel), Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan), Xia Jia, David Mitchell (I am using all my powers to conjure up an ARC for his latest), Gillian Flynn, Candace Bushnell (Trading Up was devastating), Margaret Atwood, Mary Roach.

A bunch more names came up but I’m going to follow the rules and stop here.

Ellen Datlow

I read very few novels at all and SF barely. The only writers whose novels I always try to read are Jonathan Carroll, William Gibson, and James Lee Burke.

Mark R. Kelly

There are writers whose books I will always buy… and always intend to read, though I’m often not successful in doing so. (In fact, I don’t think there’s any SF/fantasy author, no matter how much I love their work, by whom I’ve read all their books, not counting trivial cases of authors who’ve only written one or two.)

My top ten would be something like Gregory Benford, Ted Chiang (for short fiction), Greg Egan, William Gibson, Joe Haldeman, Ian McDonald, Christopher Priest, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe. (Not counting several who just aren’t very active anymore: Aldiss, Delany, Le Guin, Sterling, Silverberg, or who are dead, e.g. Ballard, Pohl.)

Then there are a bunch more who, while usually buying all their books, I’m comfortable with only reading every third or fourth one, just because there’s only so much time: Brin, Kress, Ken MacLeod, Varley, Wilson, Baxter, Doctorow, McAuley, McDevitt, Reynolds, Steele, Stross, Swanwick, VanderMeer… Actually several of these are closer to the criteria of the top 10.

I’m woefully behind on many of the writers who’ve emerged in the past decade.

Aside from SF I follow certain science writers, again whose books I always buy though I don’t always get around to reading them all. These would include Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jesse Bering. The only literary fiction writer I follow regularly is Ian McEwan.

Rachel Swirsky

I would like to also mention Dorothy Allison.

Karen Burnham

There are some years that I keep up with short fiction really well and feel like I’ve got a handle on the up-and-comers, and other years not so much. 2013 and 2014 weren’t great years for short fiction for me. But between what I have read and seen in novels, here’s who I’m really paying attention to:

Chris Barzak–I fell in love with The Love We Share Without Knowing, and recently adored his Aqueduct volume Birds and Birthdays, which includes both fiction and non-fiction.

Yoon Ha Lee–I can’t say enough good things about her collection Conservation of Shadows; it shows a really remarkable short story writer in development with a unique voice. I especially love the new perspectives and uses to which she and Ann Leckie are putting Space Opera.

Daryl Gregory–In a short space of time I’ve read his novel Afterparty and his novella We Are All Completely Fine, and I remember why I always make sure to read his stuff as soon as it comes out. He’s a master at neurological and psychological SF.

Karen Lord–My podcast partner-in-crime. I’ve read Redemption in Indigo and The Best of All Possible Worlds and seen an early draft of the next SF novel, and I think she’s bringing an anthropological perspective to SF that we haven’t seen a lot of in the past couple decades.

Ted Chiang–Of course. As someone else said, even his “lesser” work is still interesting and worth reading, and I think “Exhalation” will go down as one of the all-time classic SF stories for the ages.

Greg Egan–Of course. The core hard-SF writer of the genre, although it seems that the genre is moving away from that particular gravitational pull.

Kij Johnson–Another unique perspective, blending genres and formal experiments to very interesting effect.

For non-fiction, Mary Roach. I love all her books with unashamed squee, and none more so than Packing for Mars, her inside look at NASA and space travel. I think she’s one of the best science popularizers working today, in the same league as Adam Savage and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Ellen Datlow

With regard to short fiction, I’ll read every Kelly Link story that comes out, every Laird Barron, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Nathan Ballingrud, Kaaron Warren, Karen Joy Fowler, Karen Russell, Kij Johnson, and Priya Sharma. (That’s ten–so many more, but it’s a start.)

Brian Evenson

I think my lists would have a lot in common with those mentioned by a lot of people. I especially like Ellen’s list of short fiction: I feel particularly strongly about Kelly Link, Laird Barron, and Jeffrey Ford, and look forward to each new book. Still feel very passionate about many now-dead writers who I’m still reading or rereading, people like Lafferty and Ballard and a variety of other folk. Looking back at what other writers I’ve tended to read each new book as it came out over the last decade, the list includes people like Caitlín Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, and China Miéville: each writer has managed to surprise me after I thought I’d figured them out. The longest term writers in that category are Gene Wolfe and Peter Straub: most writers I first read when I was young either haven’t held up that well for me or I’m just not compelled to go back to them, but I am with both of those. Straub’s work I feel has changed as I’ve changed and continues to surprise and amaze me. Wolfe’s most recent books (The Land Across for instance) are sly and complex and quite wonderful, even if they haven’t gotten the acclaim of The Book of the New Sun, and it’s a wonderful thing to still be excited, at 47, about the newest book by someone I first read when I was 14. On the so-called literary side of things, the living writers I’m most fascinated by are probably Cormac McCarthy, Jesse Ball and Antoine Volodine/Manuela Draeger/Lutz Bassmann (all pseudonyms for the same writer), having recently lost a number of great writers that I admired a lot (Jose Saramago, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño–though Bolaño’s being ruined a little for me by the less-than-scintillating posthumous publications).

Even if I like some books better than others by these writers, something keeps drawing me back to all of them, again and again. Something fascinates me. It’s probably significant that most of them aren’t interesting in staying firmly within any one genre, and that probably says something about my relationship to genre myself as a reader and writer. There are others that I’d mention if I looked at my shelves or if I didn’t do this off the top of my head.

And there are a lot of writers I’ve read several books by that I really admire–maybe even admire more than some of the work by the other writers I’ve mentioned–but I don’t have the same compelling need to keep reading them nor the fascination with what the next book will be. I don’t know why that’s the case but have come to feel that there’s something in addition to enjoyment or the overall quality of the work that compels me–something maybe about the seriousness of the investigation, or the deftness of the style, or simply the uniqueness of the voice. I’m not a huge fan of the well-made novel or the well-made story, of the very deft story written by the writer who knows in advance exactly what genre and story he’s writing (and I use the pronoun “he” because I personally see this more often in male writers than female), mainly because I’ve read it too many times already. I’d rather have something that surprises me, and all these writers do just that.

John Clute

In the midst of stuff, but just glanced at Brian Evenson’s list, and find he’s given most of the writers I’d list myself. Haven’t gone over everyone else’s suggestions, so may be repeating them: but would add to Brian’s list Brian (for it is he) Evenson, Rhys Hughes and Marcel Theroux.

Jeffrey Ford

This one is so impossible, I have so many authors I like and whose fiction I’ve been following for a relatively long time.  Just focusing on short stories, I have those folks I’ve been reading since I’ve fallen into the genre–Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Liz Hand, Andy Duncan, Jeff VanderMeer, Rick Bowes, etc., etc., etc.  So what I’ll do is just jot down a list of some things I’ve noticed lately in short stories in this particular field.

1. Kaaron Warren really rips it up. The dark aspects of her stories are never forced. There’s a real grace to her writing and the stories are downright creepy as hell.

2. After going through quite a few, I’m still waiting to read a lousy story by Caitlín Kiernan. I challenge you to find one that is less than great.

3. Can’t wait for Veronica Schanoes’ first collection. She’s been writing some of the best short fiction I’ve see in recent years. She’s got a few up on TOR.com you can check for free and there’s a beauty in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells.

4. Two relatively new writers to check out are Lisa Bolekaja and Sam J. Miller.

5. The Horror/Dark Fantasy/short story is going through a golden age now with writers like Laird Barron, John Langan, Caitlín Kiernan, Kaaron Warren, Nathan Ballingrud, Brian Evenson, Michael Cisco. These relatively younger writers are being matched, though, by more established writers in “that” genre like Peter Straub, Steve Tem, Joe Lansdale, Stephen King, etc, etc. Add to this brew the fact that there is a whole legion of new writers inspired by the ones I’ve mentioned and it all adds up to good times for the dark arts.

6. Check out two new terrific stories at TOR.com. The first, by M. Rickert, “The Mothers of Voorhisville”. The second, by Anna Tambour, “The Walking-Stick Forest”.

7. Something that I’ve been waiting for as far as short fiction goes but that will never materialize (although I can day dream)–a volume of 4 new Maqroll novellas by Álvaro Mutis.

8. Wild Nights by Joyce Carol Oates is still the best book of weird stories I’ve read in some time. So fucking strange.

9. Anything I can find by the tried and always true Delia Sherman, Kit Reed, Terry Bisson, Michael Swanwick, Howard Waldrop, John Crowley, etc, etc.

10. “Wakulla Springs” by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan is an awesome treat just waiting for you to dig into it.

Brian Evenson

I love those Mutis Maqroll novellas, Jeffrey, and am right there with you wishing that more would turn up… And a great list with good suggestions–glad to be pointed to various things.

 

Anna Tambour Guest Post–”Service Providers”

I recently asked writer X to point me to X’s fiction. X replied:

“Based on the tone/handling of your story Y, the only one of my recent stories that I think may speak to you is, possibly, ….”

As one of Wodehouse’s characters once said, “?”

The tone/handling of every story I write has much more to do with the story, I’d like to think, than the teller (me), for I always try to be invisible as a writer. Whether I succeed or not, I don’t know, but I do think that every story demands and deserves its own tone and handling, and that the job of the writer is to serve those needs.

I am hardly unique. Hans Christian Andersen purportedly was quite dedicated to making the telling of a story subservient to the story, though I would love to know both if he really did, and would also like to read an unhomogenised translation of his stories.

There have been writers such as Henry Kuttner who wrote in so many different tones/treatments and for so many markets (and in his case, in so many names) that he smothered any chance for the fame he deserves. And compare Lafferty’s “Hog-Belly Honey” with “Nine Hundred Grandmothers”. Perhaps it’s a good time now to celebrate contemporaries such as Aliette de Bodard, Jeffrey Ford, Margo Lanagan, Jeff VanderMeer, and Catherynne M. Valente for their penchants for serving their story with the invisible faithfulness and efficiency of all good service providers. They hide so well behind their stories that we forget, while in the thrall of the story, that they, the authors, exist.

Another feature of this level of service writer is the lust they have for inhabiting the bodies, psyches, and worlds of the people who tell stories in their own words. One professor who teaches creative writing told me of how the default voice of students is the first-person. Certainly, this prevalence of first-person narrative is a comment made about many anthologies. This is a pity when the voice is, as it so often is, indistinguishable from that of the person whose byline the story hangs from. Which is not at all the case with, say, Margo Lanagan’s “Singing My Sister Down” or her very different “Night of the Firstlings”.

For some easily accessible examples, read, compare and contrast these stories by two writers who have both outstanding range, and a perfect pitch for tone/handling:

I’m sure you can instantly think of other stories you love by authors who are quite forgettable, their stories stick with you so well.

 

About the Author:

Anna Tambour’s novel Crandolin was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. Her latest published short story is “The Walking-Stick Forest” on Tor.com, edited by Ellen Datlow. Upcoming publications include “The Old Testacles” in the September quarterly of The Cascadia Subduction Zone published by Aqueduct Press; “The Gun Between the Veryush and the Cloud Mothers” in Asimov’s; and a collection to be published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2015: The Finest Ass in the Universe. Of no fixed nationality, she lives in the Australian bush.

Daryl Gregory and James Morrow in Conversation

Daryl Gregory: We’re having this conversation by email, but I’m going to pretend we’re sitting in a bar. Even though we live in the same town, and not even a very big one — that’s State College, Pennsylvania, for you readers — I think we see each other more often in other cities, at cons. Is that sad, or just typically science fictional?

James Morrow: I think it’s both sad and science fictional. Writers live in their heads, don’t they?

D: My head has terrible table service. We did finally get together at our local brewpub a couple months ago to talk about free will and consciousness. That was a lot of fun, and was exactly the kind of conversation I used to imagine that science fiction writers had all the time, before I met some and realized we mostly talk about agents and publishers.

So when Alvaro said he’d give us space to talk on the Roundtable, I first thought that we could continue that conversation. But then I finished your new stand-alone novella, The Madonna and the Starship, that’s out now from Tachyon. My own novella, We Are All Completely Fine, is coming out in August. They’re really different books, but I thought we could talk about how both of them use pop culture as a main ingredient.

J: Good idea. But maybe we can sneak in some stuff about free will and its alleged sovereignty.

D: Oh, if only we had free will, then we could talk about whatever we want. But I guess we’re stuck with this topic for now. We’ve both based stories on pop culture—you most recently in your novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima—but I wanted to ask about Madonna first. What possessed you to write a philosophical comedy set in the early days of live TV and sci-fi serials? Read more »

Karen Haber Guest Post–”My First”

You always remember your first time.

My first short story — “Madre de Dios” — came about through what might be called an act of spousal self-defense, although he wasn’t quite my spouse at the time.

It was 1986. I had just moved to the SF Bay Area. After a decade of working as a journalist–a newspaper reporter and, later, senior editor at an art magazine–I had kissed my old life goodbye, quit my job, sold my house, got a divorce and was trying to find my balance in a new place, in a new relationship, and a new career. Challenging, to say the least.

I was surprised when Bob suggested that I write a short story. “You’ve read enough of mine,” he said, as though that were sufficient apprenticeship.

Intrigued, dubious, and sort of desperate, I reread some of my favorite short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Avram Davidson, Fritz Leiber, and Bob, watching the masters at work. Who was I kidding?

But, determined to give it a try, I sat down and scratched out a very loose outline, drawing upon time spent in Paraguay and Brazil in the early 1980s. Slowly I began to craft a tale that reflected the powerful grip of religion on South America, the dependence of the peasants on tourism, and the resulting culture clashes, with an sf-nal sting in its tail. Emboldened by ignorance and naivete, buoyed by Bob’s confidence, I blundered on, word by hard-won word. This fiction thing was grueling work.

My journalistic training served me well in the descriptive and expository areas but hindered me when it came to being expansive and, God help us, colorful. I’d been trained to write a concise, neutral sentence. Just the facts, please. Fiction, I realized, was a different animal. You made up the facts. The writer couldn’t lean on reality to provide the information. Fiction was therefore more demanding, and yet potentially much freer. The only limits were one’s own imagination and technical skill.

I wrote draft after draft, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Bob read each one, probably wondering something similar. He told me what I was doing wrong–ouch–but also what was right. You could say that I trained in a very tough school where I was the only student. Slowly the tale took shape. I was determined to at least finish the thing as best I could even if I never wrote another word of fiction again

Neither of us really expected that I would sell the very first story I wrote to The Magazine of F & SF, much less that I would go on over the next 27 years to write and sell 50+ stories to markets as diverse as Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Science Fiction Age, and anthologies edited by Neil Gaiman and Martin H. Greenberg. Nor that I would also write and publish 9 novels, 2 books of nonfiction, and edit a Hugo-nominated essay collection.

As I hold my first short story collection in my hands, I think: What I need is a  time machine–preferably the elaborate gilded model from the 1960 movie with Rod Taylor. I’d ride it back to 1986 where I could present this volume to that younger, more insecure me. Time-travel paradoxes aside, I can tell you how she would react: she simply wouldn’t believe it.

 

About the Author:

Karen Haber is the author of nine novels, including Star Trek Voyager: Bless the Beasts, and co-author of Science of the X-Men. She is a Hugo Award nominee, nominated for Meditations on Middle Earth, an essay collection celebrating J.R.R. Tolkien. Her newest book, The Sweet Taste of Regret, a collection of short fiction, was just published by ReAnimus Press.

Her recent publications include The Mutant Season series, the Woman Without A Shadow series, Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art, and Transitions: Todd Lockwood, a book-length retrospective of the artist’s work.

Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and many anthologies. New stories will be appearing in the upcoming Unidentified Funny Objects 3 edited by Alex Shvartsman and in The Madness of Cthulhu edited by S.T. Joshi. With Robert Silverberg, she co-edited Best Science Fiction of 2001, 2002, and the Best Fantasy of 2001 and 2002. Later she co-edited the series with Jonathan Strahan through 2004. She reviews art books for Locus Magazine. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, Robert Silverberg and three cats.

Visit her website at http://karenhaber.com/. 

Marissa Lingen Guest Post–”More Please: the Short Story Mosaic”

Last weekend at Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, a would-be short story writer cornered me with a question. His critique group keeps telling him that his short stories read more like chapters from a novel, he said; does this mean he is just not cut out to write short stories? I gave him a quick set of diagnostics for things that might actually be wrong (too much exposition, not a complete enough slice of story), but I also reassured him that short story writers hear this a lot even with their most successful stories. A lot. No, really, a lot.

One of the most effective ways our culture has to say, “I liked that,” is, “More, please.” For short stories, this comes out as, “Novel, please.” Novelists get this reaction, too, of course—even though I know that Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is beautifully self-contained, when I finished it I immediately wanted more like that. There is a long history of short stories expanded into novels in our genres—Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain was the formative one for me, but the list is a long one. And yet expanding short stories into novels always requires a delicate touch. Their balance and pacing are so different that it’s hard to take a well-crafted short story and turn it into a well-crafted novel.

So what’s a short story writer to do when readers want more? The direct sequel story is always an option, of course, but that presents its own set of difficulties. Part of the appeal of a well-crafted short story is that it is its own self-contained nugget of story, something a reader can enjoy in a sitting without preparation or continuation. A sequel story takes away a bit of that.  There is the problem, too, that if the editor you’re working with likes number one and number two but not number three… what do you do about the idea you had for number four? Try to incorporate the material from number three? Scrap it? Sell number three to another magazine with somewhat different readership, if possible? Sell it as a stand-alone e-book or publish it for free on your own blog, and hope that numbers four and five will strike the editor better? Most of the famous “series” of short stories in the genre have been linked by characters, not by linear plot, so that these questions don’t have to be answered. And yet each story has to spend enough time and not too much time on who these people are and what they do, and they can acquire an episodic sameness, a sitcom reset button, that satisfies less with each iteration.

The remaining option I’ve seen for giving short story readers “more” while retaining their essential short story nature—the one I’m doing myself right now—is the mosaic of stories. Each story is written to work on its own, to be a little nugget of story goodness. However, a reader who steps back can find that the different stories illuminate different parts of the same world and related themes. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, Crispin the mosaicist is faced with an old and crumbling masterwork mosaic. It stuns him with its beauty so that he can hardly speak at first, but even as he’s looking, a piece falls off. Mosaics don’t have to be intact to be appreciated. In fact, in that very scene, Crispin notes dryly to the proprietor of that mosaic that he feels sure that the god portrayed in it once had a left arm and a robe. With a mosaic series of short stories, no one editor has to commit to buying all of them for them to be worthwhile to read—or worth the risk of writing. No reader has to find them all to benefit from finding more than one.

I usually tell people that I’m the least visual writer in the world. The mosaic of stories I’ve been working on is a distinct exception to this: each story is inspired by a still image from a Miyazaki movie. “The Salt Path,” published by Apex in their June issue, was the cliffs above the sea, from PonyoApex also has purchased “The New Girl” for its November issue, and the image for that was the seaplanes on the cove, from Porco Rosso. Astute readers have already spotted thematic commonality and little pieces of worldbuilding that connect up between stories in this mosaic, but the thread of visual inspiration is as far as I know all internal. But it gives a consistency to the feel of what I’m working with, so that nobody has had any trouble spotting that these stories go together and not with my other stories, even without unifying characters.

One of the great things about using such a prolific master as Miyazaki for visual inspiration is that I have a huge list of images that strike me in his work, things that make me want to play more with these themes and this world. I’m already looking forward to doing the abandoned mine from Castle in the Sky and the poison forest from Nausicaa as touchstone images. They inform each other and refer back to the other things I’ve done in this world, without tying me down to linear plot with the same characters. The whole thing is a lot of fun for me, and so far I’ve been hearing that it’s fun for readers to spot the commonalities, too. The mosaic format gives me room to dart over and see what’s going on way over there, or to work intensely in a small area if that’s what’s interesting. It’s a very freeing way to answer the call for “more, please.”

 

About the Author:

Marissa Lingen is the author of more than one hundred short science fiction and fantasy stories. You can find her online at marissalingen.com or on twitter at @MarissaLingen. She lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with two large men and one small dog.

Greg van Eekhout Guest Post–”The Middle-Grade Question”

My career is just weird. I write books for adults, and I write books for middle-grade readers (generally defined as aged 9-13). From time to time I get asked by other writers what the difference is. Some are just curious about a field outside their own. Some want to try their hand at middle-grade because they have fond memories of the books they read when they were kids. Or they’ve heard the field can be lucrative (it’s not). Or they want to write short books in hopes of creating more product in a shorter amount of time. Some of them (the ones I like best) want to write for kids because they love kids books, or there’s some part of their brain they hope to express through kids books, or they have some other difficult-to-define but nonetheless burning desire to write kids books.

So, I thought it might be helpful to touch on how my approach differs between writing adult books and kids books. I can tell you right now that I’m probably not going to be terribly helpful.

For one thing, my adult books are full of violence and cusses, and if books were movies, those books would get R-ratings. My middle-grade books have much less nasty violence and no cusses, and they’d get PG or maybe PG-13 ratings. Is the difference in the violence and cusses, then? Well, only to an extent. No f-bombs in middle-grade, certainly. Usually no s-bombs, either. Seldom will you find harsh, graphically depicted violence. And little or no sex. But there are enough adult books that don’t feature such nasty stuff that we can’t reliably point to content restrictions to describe how adult and middle-grade books differ.

What about the ages of the characters? Certainly that’s got to be the absolute key difference between adult books and kids books. Er. Only sort of. Stephen King’s written a lot of books and stories with kids as point-of-view characters, but they are not kids books because they are told from an adult’s perspective. Even when there’s no Richard Dreyfus providing a framing device, there’s a quality of reminiscence, of expressing what childhood was like from an adult’s perspective. King does it brilliantly, often triumphantly, and his books featuring kids are among my favorites of his work. But middle grade doesn’t look upon childhood from a distant remove. It must concern itself with the immediate interests not of childhood, but of a character who is a child. It must express love, friendship, anger, hatred, hope, ambition, fear, courage, and all that other human-y stuff through the perspective of a fully realized, textured, complicated individual who happens to be somewhere from around 9 to 13 years old.

All fiction draws from the same periodic table: characters undergoing ordeals and experiencing change, interesting ideas, environments ranging from rooms to universes, and theme and metaphor and language. There is no trick, no checklist, no understanding of editorial restriction that will lead to a full understanding of the difference between adult and middle-grade fiction.

If you don’t believe me, try imagining the following scenario: You are a writer of science fiction. You write science fiction because you love science fiction, you’ve spent many years reading science fiction and practicing the writing of science fiction, and when you sit down to write, science fiction is what comes out of you. You’ve got a friend who is very much like you, except everywhere I said “science fiction,” sub in “fantasy.” They haven’t read much science fiction and have written even less of it. And now they’ve come to you and they want to write science fiction. Because… I don’t know. Because the books are shorter. Because reasons. What would you tell them? Could you tell them anything truly helpful? Could you tell them something that didn’t really come down to think different, write different, be different?

So, all that said, you still want to write middle grade? Do it. It’s an amazingly rewarding field, filled with beautiful work by inspiring writers, and the readers are simply amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not for you. Certainly don’t let me tell you it’s not for you. Have fun. Respect your audience. Approach it with the same passion you would any other kind of writing. And write good books.

 

About the Author:

Greg van Eekhout’s novels include Norse Code (for adults), Kid vs. Squid (middle grade), The Boy at the End of the World (middle grade), and California Bones, the first volume in a new contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. It’s the kind that comes with cusses. For more information, visit his website at www.writingandsnacks.com or follow him on Twitter @gregvaneekhout.

Lydia Millet Guest Post–”The Statesman and the Mouse”

Once, waiting to go up to the office where I worked in Manhattan, I was reading a paperback when my boss stepped into the elevator. He was an elder statesman type in the environmental movement and I was junior fundraising staff, so he rarely spoke to me and didn’t need to know my name. Still, after a few seconds he broke the groggy morning silence by asking, aghast, “Isn’t that a children’s book?”

As a reader of legal briefs and current events, mostly, he may have been unaware that the world of supposedly adult readers had been taken over by the Hogwarts franchise years before.

I recall being so surprised by the question that I actually turned my book over to look at its cover—maybe to see what he was seeing, maybe to answer his question about the book’s category (as though only the cover would remind me). It happened to be one of the Narnia tales, which I was pleased to be rereading after an absence of twenty years.

“Yes,” I said. “I read them all the time.”

“But they’re for children,” he repeated, and then stared at me agape, apparently awestruck by my infantilism. He didn’t mean to be rude, I think; he was just genuinely puzzled by the spectacle of a thirtyish, childless woman publicly reading a book with a sword-wielding mouse on the cover.

The doors opened before I could answer, and the elder statesman got off ahead of me and into his overscheduled day, braced to make friendly calls to politicians and shake hands with celebrity spokespersons.

Even at the time I smiled, rather than frowned, at the elder statesman’s bemusement. Of course it was I, not he, who was with the Zeitgeist in that moment; the pop cultural world, which dwarfs the rest of the cultural world much as Godzilla might dwarf a Kafka bug, features a superabundance of games, movies, books and other media made of alternate worlds, magic and multiverses, opulent period epics with mystical overtones and mythic orchestration. In all of this high-earning pageantry the line between juvenile and mature fare is blurred to the point of smearing; only a person sealed off from popular culture would assume otherwise.

In fact, it’s often the case that so-called “YA” novels—I don’t love the name but don’t have a better one either—are far more politically and morally oriented, and certainly more existential, than their counterparts in the marketplace of “adult” reading and especially general, rather than genre, adult reading. While it’s true that a majority of YA novels are concerned with relationships, much like adult novels, many of the most striking and memorable of them are also allegorical, high-concept, science fiction, fantasy or several of the above combined.

And if the time for simple magic like C.S. Lewis’s or Edward Eager’s has passed, or at least been passed down to the realm of younger children and out of the adolescent sphere, it’s not because magic itself has fallen out of favor: it clearly hasn’t, since vampires, demigods, fairy tales, and wizards continue to dominate. No, it’s likely because the social dynamics in many such older classics are too simple and agreeable for today’s YA readers, who have been raised on rapid scene changes and so demand nonstop action and conflict.

I wrote my first YA novel Pills and Starships—a story about a 16-year-old girl spending a very strange week in a Hawaiian resort in a world transformed by global warming—because I couldn’t help but imagine the nightmarish future it depicts. And I wanted to put myself in the shoes of a cheerful, resilient, and innocent person forced to live in that world. Won’t some version of this world, after all, be the one my granddaughter grows up in, should I ever have one?

It’s a world whose coastlines have been submerged by rising sea levels, cities have been ravaged by destructive storms and disease is rampant because insect-borne sicknesses have colonized new areas. The small part of the population that’s not indigent and looking for safe places to live is managed through mood pills by big, diversified corporations, whose “pharma” products are part of a much larger and ominous portfolio. Government is a flimsy puppet of these powerful corporations; voting online for figureheads whose looks you admire has replaced democracy.

I don’t think any of this is particularly fantastic — speculative yes, but so’s Wall Street, and a lot of people seem to believe that’s real. The only “shocking” conceit in the book has to do with death contracts: the family’s in Hawaii to celebrate their last week together before the parents commit managed suicide, led by the pharma company that also owns the high-end resort they’re staying at. Pills and Starships is the seven-day journal Nat, the daughter, keeps while she, her brother Sam, and their parents are having their moods, and the parents’ deaths, smoothly finessed by Management.

Dystopias are popular in the YA realm because they’re both lavishly exotic and highly structured: there are reasons for the ruination of their landscapes, and those ruined landscapes have an exciting and often beautiful geometry. Characters and conflicts and loves are spot-lit by the drama and beauty of these charismatically designed alternate societies-prisons-mazes, and of course they give us a touchstone of normalcy and a plot of personal intrigue. The real dystopias of the physical world we live in—needless to say our societies are largely made up of dystopias, not utopias—pale by comparison to fictional ones, whose architecture is charmingly deliberate, whose colors are rich and deep, whose ugliness can be perceived safely with the mind instead of being suffered by both the mind and the body.

I’d argue, as others have before, that the domestic fiction many American middle-class adults favors is far more “escapist” in the pejorative sense than spec fiction, science fiction or often even fantasy—YA or otherwise. Much of current so-called literary fiction is plodding middlebrow fiction marketed loftily by an industry that’s flailing to class up the joint. And it’s middlebrow partly because it has a profound dysfunction when it comes to depicting or even acknowledging the sociopolitical landscape its characters inhabit. Many of these books actively deny that such a landscape even exists, adhering to a false “realism” that’s really little more than craven personalism. Of interest is only the emotional self and its arcs of sex and friendship, behind which questions of the urgent crises of human history, to say nothing of the vastness of the galaxy and the towering immensity of time, fade into apparent insignificance.

So when an older demographic that prides itself on its “adultness”—its “seriousness,” say—dismisses as juvenile any fiction that contains mythic elements like talking mice or holy lions or ghosts or Martians, such dismissal has to be taken with a shaker of salt. Teenagers seem to be better equipped to read about a diversity of possible worlds, and about extreme and disastrous global scenarios, than their parents. Maybe this is because their minds are more open, their imaginations more active. Or maybe it’s because they don’t kid themselves that stories about infidelity and suburban ennui are more important than stories about courage and injustice and the abuse of power.

 

About the Author:

Lydia Millet is the author of 11 books of fiction, including the apocalyptic YA novel Pills and Starships, set in Hawaii and out this week from Akashic Books. Previous novels include Magnificence (2012), the last in a trilogy about extinction, which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics’ Circle and Los Angeles Times book awards, and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), about the physicists who invented the atomic bomb, shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Prize. Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and a new satire, Mermaids in Paradise, will be published by W.W. Norton in fall.

Christopher L. Bennett Guest Post–”The Problem with Sherlock in a Post-Elementary World”

The recent return of the BBC’s Sherlock from its long hiatus gave television audiences our first chance to see new episodes of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s modernization of Sherlock Holmes airing alongside new episodes of its American counterpart, Robert Doherty’s Elementary. The two-year gap between Sherlock‘s second and third seasons may have acted in Elementary‘s favor, because it allowed the CBS series a season and a half to establish its own voice and identity without being in direct competition with Sherlock. But that also means that the landscape of Holmesian screen adaptations has changed during Sherlock‘s long absence, and it’s illuminating to examine it in that new context.

When Elementary was first announced, many fans of Sherlock were skeptical, expecting a cheap copy. For myself, however, I was glad to see more than one modernized Holmes; if anything, I find it puzzling that it hasn’t been done more often. Holmes was originally a very modernistic character, a scientific investigator on the cutting edge of forensic techniques that real-life police hadn’t even adopted yet—and in some cases, techniques that would not even be invented for decades, making the Holmes stories essentially science fiction in their own time (despite being set years before their publication dates). The Sherlock Holmes of the screen was originally a modern figure as well; nearly every film adaptation produced in the first half of the 20th century employed a present-day setting, with the exception of the first two Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films in 1939. Yet for some reason, as though a switch had been flipped, the cinematic Holmes became almost exclusively a period figure from the 1950s onward. True, two unrelated (but easily confused) TV movies, 1987′s The Return of Sherlock Holmes and 1993′s Sherlock Holmes Returns, had him cryogenically preserved, awoken in the present, and partnered with a female Watson-surrogate; and two unrelated (but easily confused) animated versions, the 1988 BraveStarr episode “Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century” and the 2000 series Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, transported Holmes into the future (via time warp in the former case and through the reanimation of his honey-preserved corpse in the latter). But those were all the Victorian Holmes taken out of his own time. The premise of Holmes and Watson as contemporaries of their audience, which was the norm for five decades, somehow went unexplored for the following six decades. Which is why I was so interested in Sherlock when it came along—and so pleased to see Elementary offering yet another take on the premise. Having two modern Holmes series at once struck me as compensation for the long stretch in which we had none.

My initial reaction to Sherlock, back when it was the only game in town, was that it was very much like Moffat’s Doctor Who and Jekyll: stylistically bold and brash, larger-than-life, and wildly creative, while also intensely fanboyish and metatextual. It was fun to watch, and I was intrigued by the stylistic innovations like the way phone texts were displayed on the screen; but in some ways it was overly broad and too clever for its own good. In the debut episode, “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock’s antagonist seemed too genre-savvy, talking not like a person who’d studied his detective opponent, but like a Holmes buff from our reality, speaking about Holmes as if he were writing an essay on a fictional character. The leads themselves tend to be caricatured, their personalities and relationships exaggerated to a very melodramatic level, and a rather slashy one where Holmes and Watson are concerned. And the stories rely heavily on references to, and reworkings of, elements and story beats from the Doyle canon. In essence, it feels like one big, superbly produced and acted work of fan fiction. (With some exceptions in the acting department. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is absolutely ghastly, with a  high-pitched voice and childish, sing-song delivery that are just obnoxious.)

By the end of the second season, I’d come to realize that what bothers me most about Sherlock is that the stories aren’t really proper mysteries—just big, convoluted, over-the-top Moffaty melodramas. For instance, the central “mystery” in “A Scandal in Belgravia” was what Irene Adler’s phone password was, and the answer was just a bit of shrewd Moffatian wordplay; any other mystery elements were incidental to the character drama. Sherlock isn’t a mystery series so much as a comedy-drama about the lives and relationships of people who happen to solve mysteries. True, Doyle’s stories often stressed the characters over the mysteries as well, but not to this extent. Thus, while Sherlock was often fascinating to watch, I found it unfulfilling on some levels.

By the time Elementary came along, though, it had been a few months since Sherlock‘s second season had ended, so I was able to make a clean break and consider the new series on its own merits. At first I was lukewarm, finding Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes a little too tame and ordinary and Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson a little bland. But the show grew on me over time, developing into a solid detective procedural with richly drawn characters and often clever mysteries. While it conforms to the familiar format of American murder-mystery procedurals, it’s an excellent and intelligent example of the genre, laced with often subtle but quite clever allusions to the Holmes canon. (I was quite thrilled when I realized that a crucial clue in one episode was the fact that a guard dog did nothing in the night-time. There was no self-conscious dialogue nod to “the curious incident,” as there probably would have been in a Sherlock episode, but the inspiration was undeniable.) Simply by virtue of having more episodes, Elementary has enough room to be about both the characters and the mysteries, and to develop both with more depth and subtlety.

Thus, when Sherlock‘s third season finally did air in the US in January 2014, I discovered that its non-mystery approach stood out even more sharply by contrast, and was even more unsatisfying. When I read or watch a Holmes story, I want to see Holmes actually reasoning to a conclusion and explaining his process, not just glancing at someone and seeing a bunch of words floating in air. That was a clever technique on Sherlock‘s part several years ago, an innovative presentation of the standard routine—though always a bit redundant, just reinforcing what Holmes went on to explain in dialogue. But by now it’s become just an offhand trope with no accompanying explanation, because Moffat and Gatiss apparently aren’t interested in Holmes’s deductive process as much as they are in his so-called sociopathy, his flamboyant eccentricities, his gay subtext with Watson, and so on. They write Holmes the same way Moffat writes the Doctor, and his “methods” are just the sonic screwdriver, a plot device that can offhandedly do whatever the script requires without the need for explanation or justification. Sherlock is bold and flashy and energetic and wildly creative, but often has more style than substance. It’s on much the same level as the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, all big frenetic action and broad character beats and talented actors showing off with big bravura performances.

And yet in some ways, Sherlock’s updating of Holmes is more conventional than Elementary’s—particularly where Irene Adler and Moriarty are concerned. I’ve never been a fan of treating Irene as a love interest for Holmes; Watson’s narration in “A Scandal in Bohemia” scuttles that notion definitively. So it bothered me when Elementary established Irene as Holmes’s great lost love. But the way it’s played out has been quite clever and even touching, and it fits this show’s version of Sherlock as well as the era he inhabits. Doyle’s Holmes was a confirmed chauvinist who could not comprehend how a woman could be as logical and intelligent as himself, so Irene was a paradox he couldn’t solve. But such attitudes don’t fly for a modern Holmes, and thus Miller’s Sherlock was able to recognize Irene as his true intellectual equal and thus could love her like no other. Sherlock‘s version of the relationship plays out similarly in that respect, but I don’t think it serves Irene as well, since that version is more defined by her sexuality and her not-quite-requited love for the male lead, placing her in a more subordinate role. Elementary‘s innovation (spoiler alert) of having Irene actually be Moriarty—making both of Holmes’s intellectual equals and unbeatable rivals the same person, which is really somewhat natural in a way—allows her to be a far more empowered and equal figure, and makes the Holmes-Moriarty conflict more personal and poignant, certainly far more compelling than the cartoon villainy of Sherlock’s Jim Carrey-esque Moriarty. Sherlock modernizes Holmes mainly through technology, storytelling methods, and edgy attitude, but Elementary‘s approach to making Holmes part of our world is grounded more in the modernization of values and cultural mores, as represented by the greater gender and ethnic diversity of its cast.

But the key difference between the shows is in their portrayal of Holmes himself. Sherlock has tended to play up the “sociopath” angle more than I care for, making Holmes a caricature to whom human feeling and relationships were incomprehensible distractions. Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes is more human and relatable—still as intellectual, imperious, and eccentric as one expects Holmes to be, but not pathologically devoid of empathy, and capable of self-reflection and growth and possessing nuance that his counterpart lacks. At first, in the third-season premiere “The Empty Hearse”, there were encouraging signs that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock had evolved in a similar way, becoming more engaged with human emotion and more able to express it and understand it in others. And in “The Sign of Three”, there was some solid work with the core of the Holmes-Watson friendship, some terrific and poignant writing in Sherlock’s best-man speech. But the first half of that episode also indulged in the caricature of Holmes as completely stupid about anything pertaining to human beings or relationships, undermining the credibility of the character. He’s a keen observer, so he should be able to reason out such things at least to an extent. And the finale “His Last Vow” took the caricature to even greater extremes, portraying Holmes as such a totally unfeeling and ruthless individual that the extreme act he committed at the climax was, while not something I predicted in advance, nonetheless completely unsurprising when it happened, merely another eye-rolling indulgence in excess. What was surprising was how cavalierly the finale negated the consequences of Sherlock’s extreme act by immediately bringing Moriarty back from the dead (and no, Jim, I did not miss you) in order to give Sherlock a handy reset button. If Moffat and Gatiss didn’t want Sherlock’s climactic act to have repercussions that lasted more than three minutes, why have him do it in the first place? It felt like a case of shock value trumping substance.

What’s interesting to me is that both “His Last Vow” and the Elementary episode that aired in the same week in the US, “Corpse de Ballet”, drew on a plot point from Doyle’s “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” in which Holmes cultivated a romance and engagement with the antagonist’s housemaid merely in order to gain access to his home. The former stays fairly close to the story, having Cumberbatch’s Sherlock cultivate a weeks-long romance and use a false proposal to convince his mark to let him into a highly secure building. In the original prose tale, Holmes felt he had no choice given the high stakes of defeating Milverton, and took comfort in the fact that the housemaid had a rival suitor who could take his place; but Sherlock in “His Last Vow” shows no such trace of remorse, and the deception feels like merely another one of his routine transgressive acts. By contrast, “Corpse de Ballet” simply has Miller’s Sherlock spend the night with a suspect as a ploy to gather information—a less elaborate but much less hurtful gambit, since he made no pretense of seeking a relationship and didn’t string the woman along for weeks. This pretty much sums up the difference between the two shows: Sherlock takes everything to exaggerated extremes and makes Holmes’s behavior as outrageous as possible, whereas Elementary has shown Holmes gradually developing more humanity and empathy while still retaining his familiar eccentricities and arrogance.

And it occurred to me: From an in-story standpoint, one could chalk up the difference in the two Sherlocks at least partly to the difference between their Watsons. Watson has always been Holmes’s anchor and his filter, his interface with the rest of humanity, as it were. So change Watson and you change Holmes accordingly, or at least change how others perceive and relate to him. Elementary‘s Joan Watson came into her Sherlock’s life as a sober companion, a guide toward rehabilitation and functional behavior; thus, she’s become his conscience, a gadfly who cuts through his excuses for bad behavior and convinces him that it’s logical to show more regard for other people. But Sherlock‘s John Hamish Watson is an adrenaline junkie who thrives on danger and chaos and thus is essentially an enabler to Holmes—even as Holmes is an enabler to him. He makes a show of being outraged by Sherlock’s excesses, but does little to actually influence or change his behavior, because ultimately he doesn’t want to. So they’re Watsons of opposite polarity: John Hamish feeds his Sherlock’s excesses and addictions, while Joan tempers them in hers. Thus, Sherlock is an exercise in self-indulgence, while Elementary is a story about redemption and recovery.

Two years ago, people were expecting Elementary to be a hollow imitation of Sherlock. But Elementary has handled a modernized Holmes so well that it makes Sherlock seem rather superficial and self-conscious by comparison—loaded with style but not big on substance. To be fair, I do wish that Elementary could adopt some of Sherlock‘s flexibility and not be so locked into the American formula of making every case a murder mystery. But on the whole, at least to me, Sherlock now feels like a rough draft and Elementary the more sophisticated second try. To put it a bit more harshly, Sherlock is like a kid jumping up and down and saying “Hey, look what I can do!”, while Elementary is like an adult who’s figured oneself out and is comfortable in one’s own skin. The former can be more fun to watch in some ways, but it can also be irritating and a lot less reliable. Looking at Sherlock now, I find myself wishing it would grow up.

Really, though, the fact that the two modernized-Holmes shows are so completely different is a powerful argument against the preconception that revisiting a character or concept must be imitative or pointless. It proves that you can do a variety of distinct and worthwhile things with the same basic characters and premises, that good stories are worth retelling and reinventing. I prefer Elementary’s approach, but there are many who prefer Sherlock’s, and that’s the value of remaking and transforming a franchise to develop different facets of its potential. Holmes has been portrayed in many ways over the decades, and that adaptability is part of the reason he’s the most frequently portrayed character in screen history. We now have three distinct, coexisting screen versions of Holmes, counting the Downey movies; and while many may consider three simultaneous Sherlocks excessive, personally I’m not sure it’s nearly enough.

 

About the Author:

Christopher L. Bennett is a science fiction novelist from Cincinnati, Ohio and the author of multiple critically acclaimed Star Trek novels from Pocket Books, including the Star Trek: Enterprise—Rise of the Federation series, whose second installment, Tower of Babel, was released in March 2014. His original novel Only Superhuman, perhaps the first hard science fiction superhero novel, was voted Library Journal’s SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month for October 2012.

Two Mini-Roundtables: Award Jinxes and “The Future of the Mind”

1) Award Jinxes

The 2014 Academy Awards made me think of various “curses” that have become associated with the Oscars over the years—the “F. Murray Abraham syndrome,” for example, named after the actor, on failing to develop a high-profile career after winning the award, or the “Oscar love curse,” a superstition regarding the Best Actress categories that foretells an imminent divorce after receiving the statuette. Are there any such jinxes associated with sf/f/h accolades? Are writers’ or artists’ creativity impaired after winning a Hugo or Nebula? Any negative effects of awards in sf at all? 

John Clute

Except for a couple of lifetime awards, and the SFWA’s “Emeritus” award—the word “emeritus” does not mean “worthy”; it means “past it”—awards are so obviously double-edged it need not be said: but hey. 1) They instill mystificatory numen into something written or done, so that what is given an award to is hinged with some small (or large-ish) magic, which sounds fine, but 2) can maggot into writers’s heads when they’re at the raw keyboard, because the magic of the awarded work was not intrinsic to the task of writing but extrinsic, bestowed, delphic. So the writer is cursed by the god.
Gosh we suffer so much…

Elizabeth Hand

That’s a funny idea and worthy of a Connie Willis story. I can’t think of any particular awards jinxes, though for some years any magazine I wrote for seemed doomed to go under. Now of course ALL magazines are going under, so probably there was no causal relationship.

James Patrick Kelly

I wonder if the deafening silence on this question isn’t because we writers know that meditating on the whys and wherefores of awards is an invitation to madness. A couple of months ago, while casting around for a topic for my Asimov’s column, I decided to type 1700 words about the Nebulas. I can’t say that I am a better person—or writer—for it. There can be no question that Nebula Awards have gone to some fine and important work, but I think that it is all that can be reasonably said about them. Consider that Avram Davidson and Bruce Sterling are currently tied for the most nominations without a Nebula Award with ten, followed by Thomas M. Disch with nine and R. A. Lafferty and Maureen McHugh with seven. Or that Iain Banks, Elizabeth Bear, Jonathan Carroll, Kit Reed and Greg Egan have never been nominated. When the Nebula—or any award—purports to honor the best, might some not want to query the FCC with regards to a truth-in-advertising complaint?

I think the ever-insightful John Clute has it right about the real curse: awards awareness can easily become a maggot in a writer’s imagination. Making, or failing to make, a ballot is an arbitrary function of who published what excellent work, where and when in any given year. Nothing any of us can do about that. And winning can have its own pitfalls by creating an illusory standard for subsequent work. Fear the dreaded reviews: “Not the equal of his acclaimed.…” or “Best known for her 1994 award winning novella….” And of course there will be the self-proclaimed fan who sidles up to you at a con and asks, “When are you going to write another like… ?”

Of course, it is unseemly for those who have been showered by the pixie dust of a nomination—and especially a win—to whine about it. So I will stop.

Nancy Kress

What Jim said is exactly right, on every single count. You nailed it, Jim.

Russell Letson

Not about jinxes or the effects of awards on artists:

I’m a civilian in these matters, having never won so much as a raffle, but the whole awards game reminds me of the ten-best/must-read-list game: It’s an almost-inevitable human activity that nevertheless strikes me as somewhere between inadequate and irrelevant as a way of mapping or evaluating something as complex and various as the state of an art. This year’s acting Oscars were a pretty clear example of trying to choose a “best” from a field of excellent but not necessarily comparable performances. The stronger the field, the less sense it makes to single out just one—so in a way, a “recommended” list is a notch or two better as a way of recognizing quality. But the more interesting conversation is a conversation (my bias as a reviewer and critic is showing here) in which something more substantial than the toting-up of thumbs or stars or statuettes occurs.

 

2) “The Future of the Mind”

I’ve been reading Michio Kaku’s latest popular science book, The Future of the Mind, and in the first section, which focuses on the way the human brain works, he presents a working definition of human consciousness and relates it back to the way we use our prefrontal cortex.

What have famous SF works had to say about the nature of human consciousness, if anything? What visionary or mundane extrapolations about our minds and awareness has SF graced us with? Is the nature of the human mind a core SF preoccupation, a fringe one, or perhaps something in which SF isn’t interested at all? Are there specific subgenres that deal with it more than others?

Siobhan Carroll

To some extent an interest in human consciousness underlies much of SF. For example, if we follow Brian Aldiss’s lead and identify Frankenstein as the first sci-fi novel, we can see this issue explored in its descriptions of the Creature’s awakening (which were informed by the psychological theories of Shelley’s day).

In granting the Creature consciousness, Shelley is also interrogating the relationship between consciousness and identity. Is character the product of biological accident combined with experience, or does something invisible, like a soul, play an essential role? If you can prove a being has consciousness, should it be accorded the same rights and status as a human being? Fear of the “Singularity” arguably gets its first airing in Frankenstein‘s tale of the creation and possible propagation of an artificial being.

Lately I think we’ve seen texts interested in exploring more fluid versions of consciousness and identity. Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, in which an embodied AI used to being a hive-mind struggles to navigate cultures as a singular “human” is a perfect example of this kind of play. Read more »


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