Before becoming the simple classic that it is, The Forever War was marketed as a satire. “What A Hitch!” reads the back cover call-out on the Ballantine edition I read years ago. On the front, a confident claim that the novel is science fiction’s own Catch-22. If that wasn’t enough, here’s something about protagonist William Mandella we’d almost never see on the cover copy of a novel today, in the Era of Spoiler Warnings: “Battling the Taurans was the least of his problems as he worked his way up through the ranks to major.” Interstellar battles? Fuggedaboutit! The real story is somewhere else.
Mandella’s story is about something wildly different; his disaffection from a rapidly changing world. The satire in The Forever War is occasionally brutal—rape is essentially institutionalized through the practice of confraternity/bunksharing, and there’s no side character or plot device to wag a finger and say, “That’s bad!” as would be typical in a twenty-first century milquetoast satire. (We must recall that satire’s goal is to critique vice, not just power. Journalists are supposed to “kick up and kiss down”; satirists piss on everything.) And then, as Mandella’s travels keep him young while humanity’s cultures continue to evolve, he finds himself entirely at the mercy of the crazed and hidden logic of war. “Strike Force Command plans in terms of centuries,” after all. “Not in terms of people.”
There is a broad stroke similarity between military science fiction and zombie apocalypse fiction. The former tends to focus on regular troops and the drama of the battlefield; the latter on civilians or “irregulars” trying to survive the drama of complete invasion and collapse. The enemies are frequently either the hive (in military SF) or the horde (in zombie fiction). Of course there are tons of exceptions as well, but we’re talking genres here, so we can make broad and reasonably accurate claims. The Forever War stands out, even after decades, even after the narrative of the Vietnam War has been eclipsed by those of Iraq and Afghanistan, because it violates the strictures of generic hardcore military SF. The particulars of the war against the Taurans are essentially irrelevant. It’s a critique of the form, and as Thomas Disch points out in his essay “Republicans on Mars—SF as Military Strategy”, “[u]nlike the various survivalist series and the Soldier of Fortune adventures of Pournelle, Drake, and Co., The Forever War said what it had to say once…. It is but a single book among entire ranks of paperbacks” that feature the exact opposite message.
That’s what I tried to do with The Last Weekend. It’s a satire, and a complaint about zombie fiction, while also being zombie fiction. Like Mandella, my protagonist Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolos is brought into the battle and isn’t very good at it, but muddles through sufficiently well to eventually be the longest-serving “driller” of reanimated corpses. Though he’s an alcoholic, was barely functional prior to the apocalypse, and whines about the slow death of his literary ambitions constantly, Billy ends up being pretty proud of his work as a driller too. And there is no moral center, no handy side character to tsk-tsk and say, “But Billy, you’re a terrible person with bad ideas. Can’t you be a good Bernie Bro instead?” so that even the least discerning readers will know that I’m only funnin’ with them. (I’m not!)
Further, like the war against the Taurans in The Forever War, the fight against the zombies is essentially secondary in The Last Weekend. As one mostly positive review put it, “for readers looking for down-and-dirty zombie action, with a strong plot and lots of tension, you’ll most likely be disappointed with this book.” True, so far as it goes. See also the relative handful of one-star reviews of The Forever War on Amazon.com. Elementary confusion between portrayal and advocacy with regards to the sexism in future military society, and the idea that war may not be swell. A few of them even complained about “swear words.”
But with all that said, except for readers of this essay (hello!), almost nobody reading The Last Weekend would think to themselves, “Aha, this is like The Forever War.” But occulted influences are not uncommon. Years ago I was on a panel with author Terry Brooks of Shannara fame, who minimized the influence of Tolkien on his work. Who really influenced him? “Faulkner,” he said in a word. Shannara is an intergenerational saga taking place in a region that’s seen better days, I suppose. An even more hard-to-spot influence might be Raymond Carver on Haruki Murakami. The world’s leading novelist of phantasmagorical weirdness, featuring people who turn into sheep and such, informed by the paragon of “dirty realism” in American short fiction? It’s somewhat more obvious if you read Japanese, but it’s there. Murakami’s Japanese is closer to English than is apparent from English translations. The content is very different, but the form hauntingly similar. When you read a book, keep in mind that you’re not only reading a snatch of conversation within a subgenre, but perhaps also the palimpsest of novel in a different genre entirely.
About the Author
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including the recent The Last Weekend and the forthcoming Lovecraftian murder mystery I Am Providence. His short fiction has appeared on Tor.com, and in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Best American Mystery Stories 2013, among dozens of other venues. His latest anthology is the hybrid crime/SF Hanzai Japan, co-edited with Masumi Washington.
“For I must tell thee, it will please his grace, by the world, sometime to lean upon my poor shoulder, and with his royal finger, thus, dally with my excrement…”
Thank goodness for the glossary, which defined “excrement” as meaning “that which grows out (such as hair, nails, feathers).”
I bring this up to illustrate how hard it is to write from the point of view of someone in a historical period. Should you have a character in Elizabethan times use the word “excrement” to mean “hair, nails, feathers”? That one’s straightforward: the answer’s no. But what about something more ambiguous, like having your characters say “thee” and “thou”? I think archaic speech tends to distance the reader from the people in the story, to make them seem old-fashioned and quaint, but I’ve also seen it done well, for example in In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker.
Then there are the social attitudes of the time. Sticking with the Elizabethans, should you have your character make an anti-Semitic remark? Such remarks were distressingly common for the time period, but you can’t suddenly stop and explain this; you have to stay within the point of view of your characters, and they would have no idea that anyone would find those comments objectionable.
I’ve been writing about other eras for years, and wrestling with these questions, but that barely prepared me for my latest book. Weighing Shadows is a time-travel novel set partly in ancient Crete, a place which even the stuffiest gentleman scholar admits was a matriarchy. And if Elizabethan England differs in a good many ways from the present, those differences are nothing compared to Crete. The concept of a matriarchy was so foreign to me that I had to stretch my mind in all kinds of ways, just to encompass the mindset of the people who lived there. And it didn’t help that very little is known about the place. (Well, it did help, actually, because I got to make things up. But in terms of their culture and traditions, even their language, I was thrown out in the deep end.)
I wasn’t the only one who had trouble with this. A number of books on Crete called a beautiful chair in the palace at Knossos “the throne of King Minos”–but a matriarchy would have a queen, not a king. One book, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete by Rodney Castleden, says, “‘Women’ and their children are mentioned on the tablets too, without any reference to menfolk, implying slavery and absent males.” But wouldn’t the women and children be listed because they were more important? (Parenthetically, I don’t know why “women” is in quotes here.)
I have to admit, though, that sometimes I was just as clueless as these authors. At one point I wrote about a male artist up on a scaffolding painting a mural–then reread what I had written, beat myself up, and changed the artist into a woman.
There were so many things I needed to think about, to reassess. Who went out to work and who took care of the children? What kind of work did they do, and was it divided along gender lines? Did they have marriages, and if so what kind? They seemed to worship goddesses, but what about gods? What were their religious ceremonies like?
In addition to all of that I wanted to include other, more intangible parts of their culture, things like proverbs or table manners or smells. (I have to recommend Mary Renault here, an author who is absolutely terrific at this.) I wanted readers to feel as if they were visiting a culture far removed in time, a place where even a simple gesture might have a different meaning.
One of the things that helped me was the fact that my main character, Ann, came from our own time period, so I could use her as a stand-in for a present-day reader. I could have her feel puzzled when she was faced with something she didn’t understand, or comment on some difference between the two cultures. I’ve written a number of novels set solely in the past, and putting in Ann’s reactions made my job much easier, and gave me a freedom I never had before.
Just doing research isn’t enough, though. After all the books are read, after all the notes are taken, you have to somehow close your eyes and jump into your chosen milieu, to make an almost physical effort to locate yourself within it. I can state unequivocally that I didn’t do as good a job as Mary Renault. Still, I hope I gave readers a sense of what it would be like to visit ancient Crete, if only for a moment. To smell the cypress trees, feel the hot sun on their shoulders, take their seats in the arena and watch as men and women danced with bulls.
About the Author
Lisa Goldstein has written fourteen novels, among them The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award, and The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is www.brazenhussies.net/goldstein.]]>
And it was horrible.
Not the story, mind you. The ideas in the book still intrigue and captivate me. The nature of immortality. Memory as a form of time travel. The relativistic aspects of intolerance. The power of friendship to transcend even death. Good stuff, all of it, and I’m proud to say it—and more—all survived into the book coming out next week. But that’s after more than two decades of studying and learning and growing and writing, writing, writing. Back when I originally wrote the book, it was bad. Oh Lord, it was bad.
But more than that, it was bad in multiple ways.
One of the problems of being a beginner is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t understand pacing. I thought plot was something optional. I hadn’t yet realized there’s a difference between things occurring because they follow from a character’s motivation and happening because they suit the author’s need. I was blissfully ignorant of over-used tropes while at the same time finding myself drawn to far too many of them. And I seemed determined to embrace literary devices that worked well the first time they were done but really wouldn’t fly any more.
You probably don’t believe me when I tell you how bad the original version of this book was, so I’m going to give you an example of that last sin on the above list. Do you remember reading Dune, Frank Herbert’s brilliant novel from 1965? Arguably one of the classics of the field, do you recall how chapters began with a brief paragraph from the Manual of Muad’Dib written by Princess Irulan? It was a great device, one which allowed for gentle info-dumping, foreshadowing, and mood setting. Back when I started writing Barsk I must have thought this was the best thing since sliced bread—not that anthropomorphic elephants inhabiting arboreal cities in a rainforest necessary have bread, but I digress—because I swiped this idea and made it my own. And if a little was good, more would be better, right? My protagonist, Jorl, is an historian, and I decided he would be a prolific one. The result was that each of the novel’s fifty chapters began with an excerpt from some book, monograph, lecture, or journal article by Jorl. The info-dumping in these bits was far from gentle. Why show when you can tell, tell, and tell some more? Oh, and did I mention that for several of these chapters, the excerpt ran longer than the chapter itself?
It was bad. Okay, really bad. Worse still, I didn’t know it was bad and I spent years tossing that finished manuscript over transoms, hopeful that some editor somewhere would see its brilliance.
Thankfully, no one did, or I might have gone down in history as the author of an anthropomorphic SF novel on a par with Atlanta Nights minus the irony to justify its existence.
Instead, the manuscript went in a drawer and slept for many years. Meanwhile I didn’t sleep. I wrote and I read and I got better (and less stupid) and ever so slowly began to acquire the skills and assemble the tools so that one day I might open up that drawer again and reclaim the promise behind that badly written book.
It’s been said that a writer’s first million words are just practice, and if perchance that author gets paid for some of them, well, that’s just practice getting paid. I’ve put in much more than a million words of practice since the first draft of that novel. I’ve written and sold five other books. I’ve been a Hugo nominee and a Nebula nominee. I’ve run my own modest small press and learned even more about writing by editing other people’s fiction. And I’ve come to an appreciation that a writer’s life is not about arriving at a destination but rather being on an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery.
A couple years ago I felt I had finally reached a point on my own journey where I could do justice to the book I’d first attempted to write. The result comes out next week. It’s by far the best thing I’ve written thus far. It may turn out to be the best I ever achieve, but I hope not. I’d like to aspire to do even better. But for this moment in time, I’m really happy with what I’ve done. I hope you find you are too.
About the Author
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics. He’s also one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Klingon language, and the publisher of a speculative fiction small press, Paper Golem. He’s been a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award, the Hugo Award, and the Nebula Award. Lawrence lives near Philadelphia. You can find him online at LawrenceMSchoen.com and @KlingonGuy.]]>
That’s where StoryBundle comes in. It includes fiction from the U.S. and Australia, but also from Norway, Germany, and Finland—not to mention my new anthology, The Bestiary (here’s a link to a fun excerpt over at Tor.com: http://www.tor.com/2015/12/14/animal-author-bios-from-ann-vandermeers-the-bestiary-anthology/ ), which in addition to work from Cat Valente and China Miéville features work from Serbia, the Philippines, Iran, Sweden, and elsewhere. In The Best of Spanish Steampunk you’ll also find work from Venezuela, Spain, and Chile, among others. But the reason we’re running the StoryBundle is to set our sights even farther afield, with the monies we receive going into research into fantasy from India and Pakistan, as well as continuing to explore the untranslated work of Latin America, among other regions. Translations are expensive and setting aside the time for the research is also expensive. It’s sometimes a bit like detective work and luckily we’ve maintained relationships with people all over the world over many years.
So here’s some information on a few of the titles—and here’s hoping even more readers will pick up StoryBundle. It’s a great deal. Several of the titles are not available anywhere else.
Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction. The critically acclaimed 850-page omnibus—starred review in Kirkus, on the best-of-year lists of the New Yorker and the Onion’s AV Club. From cities of giant insects to a mysterious woman claiming to be the female Don Quixote, Leena Krohn’s fiction has fascinated and intrigued readers for over forty years. Within these covers you will discover novels that feature a pelican that can talk and a city of gold. You will find yourself exploring a future of intelligence both artificial and biotech, along with a mysterious plant that induces strange visions. Including two novels not previously published in English. One of Finland’s most iconic writers, translated into many languages, and winner of the prestigious Finlandia Prize, Krohn has had an incredibly distinguished career. For readers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson, and Italo Calvino. Featuring a foreword by Jeff VanderMeer. (Here’s a link to the New Yorker’s favorite books of 2015 which includes this one: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/books-loved-2015 )
The Bestiary, all original fiction anthology edited by Ann VanderMeer. A modern bestiary of made-up fantastical creatures organized from A to Z, along with an ampersand and an invisible letter, featuring some of the best and most respected fantasists from around the world, including Karen Lord, Dexter Palmer, Brian Evenson, China Miéville, Felix Gilman, Catherynne M. Valente, Rikki Ducornet, and Karin Lowachee. With an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. Currently available only via this StoryBundle for now.
Crandolin by Anna Tambour. The World Fantasy Award nominated novel, for the first time in e-book form. In a medieval cookbook in a special-collections library, near-future London, jaded food and drink authority Nick Kippax finds an alluring stain next to a recipe for the mythical crandolin. He tastes it, ravishing the page. Then he disappears. The only novel ever committed that was inspired by postmodern physics AND Ottoman confectionery.
Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen. Brandon leaves his boyfriend in the city for a quiet life in the mountains after an affair with a professor ends with Brandon being forced to kill a research animal. It is a violent, unfortunate episode that conjures memories from his military background. In the mountains, his new neighbors are using the increased temperatures to stage an ambitious agricultural project in an effort to combat globally heightened food prices and shortages. Brandon gets swept along with their optimism, while simultaneously applying to a new astronaut training program. However, he learns that these changes—internal, external—are irreversible. A sublime love story coupled with the universal struggle for personal understanding, Not Dark Yet is an informed novel of consequences with an ever-tightening emotional grip on the reader.
The Best of Spanish Steampunk, edited by Marian & James Womack. Featuring stories from Spain, Mexico, Venezuela and Chile, as well as from writers in Spanish living in Germany, Dubai and the UK. They are authors who write from the margins, using Steampunk to investigate themes such as the ethical questions posed by scientific and technical developments in our globalized culture of rapid change, and how that leaves countries not from the dominant culture behind. Through Steampunk these authors are offering alternative retellings of their countries’ histories, “critically” reimagining key moments such as the North-American-Spanish Cuban war, the Mexican war, or the Anarchist revolts of the 1930s in Andalusia. They are also attracted to a genre that foreshadows our actual economic problems, high unemployment levels, and frustration with increasing social inequality.
About the Author
Over a 30-year career, Ann VanderMeer has won numerous awards for her editing work, including the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award. Whether as editor-in-chief for Weird Tales for five years or in her current role as an acquiring editor for Tor.com, Ann has built her reputation on acquiring fiction from diverse and interesting new talents. As co-founder of Cheeky Frawg Books, she has helped develop a wide-ranging line of mostly translated fiction. Featuring a who’s who of world literature, Ann’s anthologies include the critically acclaimed Best American Fantasy series, The Weird, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, Sisters of the Revolution, and the forthcoming Big Book of SF (Vintage).]]>
I know this because I created them, and their world.
Weatherby and Jain are the protagonists of the Daedalus trilogy, my debut series with Night Shade Books. I’ve watched Weatherby go from a green second lieutenant aboard a frigate that crashed into Mars to a full admiral in command of Mercury’s defenses against Napoleon’s rapacious revenant armies. I’ve shepherded Jain through PTSD and dead-end assignments to piloting the first 22nd–century mission to Saturn and beyond. They’ve both found love, lost much and lived to tell about it.
And I’ve bidden them farewell.
Part of me could continue writing Napoleonic space opera and interdimensional shenanigans for years to come, but there’s something deep inside me that knows it’s time to let go. There is a risk in continuing when the story is done and well told. The universes are saved, Napoleon defeated. How does one go from there?
Many authors do just that, and do so with grace and style and pitch-perfect stories that seem to get better with each installment. For the Daedalus trilogy, however, the story simply…ended. I told the tale I wished to tell, and the telling was worthwhile.
And now, as I embark on a new project–the Cold War paranormal spy thriller series titled MAJESTIC-12–I’m faced with complete strangers, living in a strange new world. The four-color interplanetary adventure, the sailing ships in space, the Big Damn Heroes–they’ve been replaced by threats from the shadows, questionable motives and the sound of a gunshot from a silenced pistol.
It’s daunting. Who are these new players? Ordinary Americans, affected by an unknown force, have become Variants–empowered by something beyond science’s ability to explain. And yet the government seeks to use them anyway, to make them “assets” in a Cold War that could grow hot at any moment. What would that do to people? How would they see themselves, and how would they be seen in turn by the people who hope to control them?
It’s thrilling. As a writer, I’ve spent more than three years in a world of my own devising, and I’ve grown comfortable with it. I knew the world, I knew the people in it. I could tell their stories with greater confidence and greater success each time I returned to them. The crutches are gone, now. It’s all fresh and new, and all on me to start from scratch and see if lightning can strike twice.
I’m back to square one. Characters are newly sketched and allowed to grow as the story unfolds. The tone shifts from proper English of the early 19th century to the weary, clipped words of the late 1940s. The jungles of Venus are gone, and the cobbled streets of newly Communist Prague beckon.
It’s a new beginning, but it’s not really starting over. As much as I created Weatherby and Jain, they taught me so much in the telling of their stories. They may sail forth into the stars on their own, but their lessons apply. I’m no longer the rookie writer, the wannabe hoping the literary agent e-mails back. (She did that four years ago.) I’m published and I’ve been extremely fortunate in that regard.
And now I get to play in a new world–different and darker, more nuanced and with more challenges for me as a writer. I get to forge mysteries and plumb the gray areas. I get to figure out who these new characters are–Frank and Maggie, Cal and Ellis and Danny. Soldiers in a Cold War.
Goodbye, Daedalus. It’s perhaps odd to want to thank your own creation, but…thanks.
Hello, MAJESTIC-12. Let’s do this.
About the author
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the Daedalus trilogy, a multi-genre epic that marries Napoleonic Era naval adventure with science fiction and fantasy. His debut, The Daedalus Incident, was named one of the top five SF/F novels of the year by Library Journal. Publishers Weekly gave The Venusian Gambit, the final book of the series, a starred review and said Martinez “seamlessly blends popular elements from science fiction and fantasy, producing a work that raises the bar for both.”
His short fiction has been published online by Paizo and in the Cthulhu Fhtagn! anthology released this summer by Word Horde. His newest short story will be published this fall in Unidentified Funny Objects 4, alongside stories by Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Piers Anthony and Esther Freisner. He lives in the New York City area with his wonderful and patient wife, an amazing daughter and The Best Cat in the World. He blogs at michaeljmartinez.net and is on Twitter at @mikemartinez72.]]>
You could say it began before the Empire State Building, in college. I was taking a class in basic Astronomy, and the professor was using metaphors to describe the size of the quasars. While I don’t recall the exact metaphors used, what I do remember is the realization that struck me. Or rather, it was a question. I remember looking down at my knees, demurely covered with a long black skirt. I remember thinking: How can a God who created a universe that big—a God who created the quasars—care about the length of my skirt?
I had grown up with a strict code of modesty for women. Like most women raised in that context, I had bought into the apologetics: that modesty was intertwined with female preciousness, our sanctity. In practice, these transcendent concepts broke down into quotidian specifications: the permitted length for one’s sleeves and skirts, the height of a neckline.
Skirts, necklines, sleeves, against the vastness of the universe. It began to break down.
I started writing my novel before the advent of social media—even before Facebook was where people announced the details of their breakfasts in the third person. I’ve come to realize years later that a lot was happening on LiveJournal, but I wasn’t plugged into it. Today the discussion about what female protagonists should be, how they should be written, is a major topic of the literary Internet. But in 2004 I had only my own thoughts and ideas and some pent-up anger. Pent up, it must be admitted, beneath long sleeves and long black skirts. Sometimes the most outward appearances are the last things to go.
I was also researching the medieval troubadours and courtly love for my book about poets, and the themes that emerged from my readings resonated in surprising ways. The discourse about women, and the symbolism surrounding them, was centered on sex yet oddly detached from the reality of sensuality. And again, the woman was something precious, protected—and stationary.
There are two female protagonists in the novel. They suffer. I did that to them. But I didn’t do it out of sadism. Through these women, each different—though both very intelligent—I explored a particular experience. One of the protagonists is a poet in a society where poets have power, and women are not permitted in their ranks. She calls herself a poet, but actually doesn’t count as one in the ways that matter. The other protagonist is a young woman whose wealth, beauty, and loving home have kept her in a state of extended innocence.
For each of these states of being there is a cost—both for the active state of rebellion, and the passive state of innocence. And modesty, or rather the code of thought which culminates in female modesty, is at the heart of both of these states for women. A woman who deviates from her traditional place, who draws attention to herself, is immodest by definition. She loses the protection and sanction of her society and becomes an exile.
Conversely, my innocent protagonist represents an ideal of femininity for proponents of modesty. She has no weapons with which to defend herself, because to learn about defense we must first know what might be about to attack us from the shadows. The world is ready to eat her alive.
After I wrote the story of these women—along with their male counterparts—I began to come across discussions online about how writers should depict female protagonists. I followed, and have continued to follow these discussions, and have written some of my own thoughts on the subject as well. But when I think of my own characters, I think of the inward battles that made them what they are. They are shaped of conflicting values and agonized questions and some fury. Not perfect, not anyone’s ideal—but for the place and time in which they were written, necessary and real.
About the Author
Ilana C. Myer has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Her first novel, Last Song Before Night, is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan in September 2015.]]>
Between 1985 and 1994 I wrote, more or less, a novel a year. All of them, except Cat’s Whirld and Jormungand, have been lost. Although not completely; somewhere there are typed copies of a few of them, or parts of them; and many of the themes, situations, and incidents of the majority of those novels have been used in later works; an example would be Where the Shadows Lie, which twenty years later became the embryo of my novel Fiercely Human (Fieramente humano).
But in terms of published books, which is what might interest readers, those novels do not exist, apart from the two mentioned.
You might be wondering why I let them get lost, why I didn’t send them to publishers, or enter them in literary competitions. Believe me, I did! The discouraging result was a pile of rejections—or simply silence.
The first time a publisher replied with something other than the usual rejection letter was with Cat’s Whirld. So what did it have that the others didn’t? Had I perhaps somehow made a great qualitative leap, and changed from being a bad writer to an acceptable one?
I don’t think so. If I analyze my work from that period, the difference in quality between this novel and the one before it is small. As is the difference between that earlier novel and the one before that. As is the difference… Yes, I believe there was a certain progression from one novel to the next, but such progression was slow, unhurried, quiet, and constant: with each novel I wrote, I was learning to do it a little bit better. And one day, without realizing it, I crossed the frontier, I passed from being a collector of rejection notes (or deafening silences) to being someone about to publish a novel. It was a gradual process, during which, it’s true, I almost threw in the towel more than once.
I didn’t do it. I suspect it’s because by then I couldn’t. I’d been writing since I was twelve, and I simply couldn’t stop now. I was always thinking up stories, characters, situations: they’d be forever going round and round in my head, and in one way or another I had to free myself of them, let them out, put them on paper. And the moment that was done, my head would begin to fill up again with new stories, characters, situations….
I was a writing junkie. I think I’d been one almost from the very beginning, from the moment when, at the age of twelve, and armed with one of those BIC cristal biros and an A5-size ringed graph notebook (yes, PC’s were far in the future, to say nothing about the internet), I sat down to write my first story. From then on, from the moment when what was in my head took shape on paper and I realized how incredibly entertaining the process was, I was doomed. I was condemned to continue writing for the rest of my life, whether I managed to publish anything or not.
In the end, obviously, I managed it, but things might easily have gone the other way. The road to publication isn’t a straight one, nor a cursus honorum whereby if you do A, you will get B, and that will lead to C. It depends partly on how good you are, of course, but also to a large extent on chance, on being in the right place at the right time, and being able to offer the publisher what interests him at that particular moment, not a year before or two years afterwards. So yes, I’m aware I might well have spent my whole life as an unpublished author. Or maybe resigned myself to publishing short stories in fanzines without ever making the leap into novels and the world of professional publishing.
But the fact is, at the start of 1995 Miraguano Ediciones decided that Cat’s Whirld was right for their Futurópolis collection, they offered me a contract, I signed it, and a few months later the book was on sale.
So, did my life change?
Not in the sense that the cinema or the sensationalist press would have us believe. I didn’t strike it rich, I didn’t produce the bestseller of the decade, and suddenly become a person not merely able to make a living from his writing, but able to live well, surrounded by groupies, and with Hollywood licking his feet and begging to be allowed to adapt his novels to the screen.
No, I went on working as a computer programmer, and in general my life was just the same as it always had been. A few small things changed, but nothing substantial.
But in my mind, in that real world which was what really mattered, everything had changed. I had published my first novel! I had arrived; I wasn’t at the finishing line, because it’s a journey without an end, but I was well on the first stage of the journey. Here I am and here I stand, as Duke Leto Atreides is reported to have said on reaching Arrakis.
Cat’s Whirld was the beginning of a journey I’m still making and which, I suspect, I’ll be making the whole of my life. It wasn’t the first step, of course, but perhaps it was, to use a metaphor I particularly like, my official entry submission, the exam which allowed me to move on from being an apprentice to becoming a qualified practitioner, a journeyman, we could say.
Indeed, I have always viewed literature more as a craft than as an art. Maybe that thinking comes from my rejection of the idea of the artist as someone above the rest of the mortals, a kind of superior being with a special sensitivity that cannot be judged as a common person. To hell with that! We are just people, subject to the same misery and greatness everyone else is. I am not an artist, I cannot see myself as one: I am just a craftsman—of course, I like to think I am a skillful one, but I am not qualified to judge that. It is you, the reader, who has to decide if my work is good enough or not.
Cat’s Whirld was very well received by Spanish SF fans, a small but enthusiast group in those days, and they proved it the following year when the novel won the Ignotus Award for Best Novel. The Ignotus are, so to speak, the Spanish version of the Hugo Awards: back then, they were voted on by the members of Spanish Science Fiction & Fantasy Association and were announced during the Spanish SF & Fantasy Convention, the HispaCon. Today the voting has been opened to everyone, but they still are announced in the HispaCon.
Even today, twenty years later, I find people who tell me that it’s their favorite of my novels. Well, I like to think that I didn’t stop improving and that I have written better novels: several prizes and numerous books might be indicative of this. But I understand those readers: yes. I think I’ve written better novels, but Cat’s Whirld has a special place in my heart.
I hope that, twenty years later, people enjoy the novel as much as those who read it in 1995. I hope they like the hybridization of spy thriller, cyberpunk and space opera and the combination of adventure, drama, humor and character interplay. And, of course, I hope they find the Whirld (that space station with the shape of a spinning top where everything happens) spellbinding.
I confess that I have: while I was revising the novel for the 20th anniversary Spanish edition, and despite being aware that there were many things I would now have written quite differently, the style, the story, the action, the ambience, and the characters still work, at least for me. I am not the same person that wrote it, yes, but I still like that guy and the way he made things.
I cannot finish without talking about the great work Steve Redwood has done in translating the novel into English. Steve is a terrific writer and a good friend. During the translation he worked very closely with me and was very careful in his efforts to get same effects in English I was trying to achieve in Spanish, specially, but not only, with the slang I invented for the novel. I think he succeeded: when I read myself in English I recognize my voice. Yes, it’s me, I wrote that novel–or at lest it is the novel I would have written if my English were good enough.
It’s always a pleasure for me to read my work in English, a language I’ve loved since I was a boy, when I received my first English lessons; and without Steve that wouldn’t have been possible. I only hope that my Spanish version of some of his work lives up to the same standard.
About the Author
Rodolfo Martínez (Candás, Asturias, Spain, 1965) published his first short story in 1987, and soon became a key figure in Spanish fantastic literature; although if one characteristic defines his work, it is the fusion of genres, as with he unashamedly mixes numerous registers, from science fiction and fantasy to the crime novel and thriller, making his books difficult to classify.
Winner of the Minotauro Prize (awarded by Planeta, Spain’s biggest publishing house) for Los sicarios del cielo (Hitmen from Heaven), he has won many other awards during his literary career, such as the Asturias Novel Prize, the University of País Vasco Short Story Award, and—several times—the Ignotus Prize (awarded by the Spanish Association of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Terror) in the categories of novel, novella, and short story. His novels based loosely on the Sherlock Holmes canon have been translated into Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, and French.
In 2009, with El adepto de la Reina (The Queen’s Adept) he began a new narrative cycle which combines elements of the spy novel with some of the themes and settings more characteristic of fantasy.
More recently, he has collected his Drímar cycle (the universe in which Cat’s Whirld is set) into four volumes, and has also published the fourth novel in his City cycle, Las astillas de Yavé (The Splinters of Yahweh), under the Fantascy imprint of Penguin Random House.]]>
Most science fiction readers are probably like me, while most readers of realist fiction are like my friend. There is no point arguing about which of us is “right.” We simply have different needs, and thank goodness there is fiction enough in the world for both of us.
But why do I find it so alluring to inhabit the skin of someone unlike myself? It’s partly that, growing up, I didn’t find myself or my world terribly interesting, and I seized every opportunity to escape it. Besides reading—and eventually writing—science fiction, I became a historian, then a historian of cultures other than my own. As I began working with people unlike myself, and eventually had the disorienting and profoundly uncomfortable experience of being alone in another culture, I began to realize how far short I had fallen in trying to imagine myself out of my own shoes. Today, I work in a museum where my bosses and most of my colleagues are American Indian (no, they don’t say Native American; that’s another long story). Misunderstandings and cultural collisions are a daily occurrence. I am lucky they tolerate my boneheadedness. But I learn a great deal.
Naturally, I write a lot about first contact.
Recently, I have been working in a setting I call the Twenty Planets, a universe inhabited by hundreds of diverse human cultures and by a class of people called Wasters who travel among them. Because of the time delays caused by lightspeed transport, Wasters are constantly out of sync with everyone else. Even when they arrive on familiar planets they have missed years in transit, and they are constantly scrambling to catch up. When they travel to unfamiliar planets, they are forced to negotiate culture shock. My novellas Arkfall and The Ice Owl are both set in the Twenty Planets, and so is my most recent novel, Dark Orbit.
I like this setting because it allows me to write about other cultures without having to navigate around the shoals that surround the real ones. For example, I would not feel comfortable writing from an Indian point of view, because I have not experienced what they have. But I can write from the point of view of an invented culture. In fact, it can be tremendous fun—though a lot of work—to invent a culture by making a few assumptions about the environment and history of a people, then seeing where it takes them. In The Ice Owl, I was writing about a harsh and unforgiving planet, and its people ended up with a culture so unbending it was ready to shatter. In Dark Orbit, the planet is so challenging that the only people who can survive there are a culture of the blind. Imagining the type of architecture, arts, and social structures a blind civilization would construct was a thought experiment that occupied me for months. Since it has never (to my knowledge) happened in this world, no one can say I am wrong.
In writing about diverse peoples, the drama—the true meat of the story—generally lies at the edges, the borderlands where dissimilar societies collide and challenge one another’s values. That is the uncertain territory where I live most days, and where more and more of us find ourselves living in this world of migration and mixing. My most grandiose hope for our beloved genre is that, by reading stories that require us to practice seeing the world differently, we may be building skills that will serve the human race well. The ability to imagine ourselves into another person’s point of view is no longer just a nice thing; it is becoming as critical to our survival as opposable thumbs.
Who knows, maybe science fiction may yet save the world—not through the wonders of technology, but through changing our habits of mind.
About the Author
Carolyn Ives Gilman’s latest novel is a space exploration adventure, Dark Orbit. Her other books include Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles, a two-book fantasy about culture clash and revolution. Her first novel, Halfway Human, was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus. Some of her short fiction can be found in Aliens of the Heart and Candle in a Bottle, both from Aqueduct Press, and in Arkfall and The Ice Owl, from Arc Manor. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Phantom Drift, Bending the Landscape, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, Realms of Fantasy, and others. She has been nominated for the Nebula Award three times and for the Hugo once.
In her professional career, Gilman is a historian specializing in 18th- and early 19th-century North American history, particularly frontier and Native history. She lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the National Museum of the American Indian.]]>
P.S., there wasn’t, although there used to be a Famous Writers School claiming that for a down payment and your monthly contribution, they would. I did a story about their correspondence course for the New Haven Register back in the day, and was gifted with a dozen hefty volumes. I handed them off to my mother, one of those nice old ladies who said she “always wanted to write.” She never did. People who say they want to be writers don’t always mean what they say.
I started writing before I knew how to read; I couldn’t even print. I was four, and my mother did the printing, dutifully copying my question: “Is that all right?” in the middle of the story and dutifully reading it back to me. I made her erase it and covered the mess with an illustration: Harbor the Easter-basket bunnyrabbit running away from home.
The next one, also “Illustrated by the author,” I printed all by myself. And the next. And the next. I’ve run my own shop ever since. My third-grade effort, “Harbor and Shamrock Wilson,” made me really proud. Harbor’s plane crashed in Africa and she met an African princess named Shamrock. Shamrock turned out to be her long-lost sister, so she got on the plane with Harbor and they went home. There were others in the series, up to and including Harbor comics, and at some point I sent them all to Reilly & Lee, the Oz books’ publishers, thinking, Hey. My flapcrap was already written: “Kitten Craig is twelve years old and she has her own horse.” They sent me a really nice letter thanking me, but, no.
The great thing about being an only child, particularly an only child that other kids don’t like, is, a. you have your very own stuff and it always stays where you put it, and b. you spend most of your time alone inside your own head. Sober reflections. Imagined conversations. What you wish you’d said instead of what you actually said. What you wish would happen, instead of what usually did.
By the time I was reading too much and summer meant being put to bed long before it got dark, I had a Western extravaganza playing inside my head before I went to sleep — not a serial, exactly, but, yeah. Kids on a ranch; Dick and Daisy, Brad and Brenda and Rusty all had their own horses and they were all six, seven, eight, nine years old, and I think Rusty rode out with me; we all had our own horses and plenty of friends, wish fulfillment much? I was at least eleven before they rode off into the land of the uncreated for the very last time.
I missed them, but I was too old to bring them back. And old enough to know that wish fulfillment wasn’t anything I wanted to write. My mother was a vicarious hypochondriac; go heh kaff kaff and she’d put me to bed for the day. It beat going to school. Books, lined notebooks. Drawings. Aborted short stories, an aborted script called “The Banditti.” Best line evah: “‘Good heavens,’ Deanna ejaculated.'”
Other kids hated me in a whole batch of grammar schools up and down the East coast; I was “the new kid” so many times that I never figured that one out, the why. Another problem: I read so much that I had an outrageously big vocabulary, which meant I spent too much time being called up front to read my Thing out loud. Like they would learn from that. Or, because Sister Clarice thought listening to a smart sixth-grader would be a good example, in front of the whole seventh grade.
So some of the kids hated me because I was smart, but I think most of them hated me because, no matter where I went, I was Not Like Them.
Are you bored yet?
High school: trying to assimilate. Pretending I was dumb. Boys. Boarding school. Nope, I didn’t write anything much until college — one poetry class my roommate and I took to ghost verse for some idiot who idolized the teacher; one overenthusiastic woman who… I wish I could remember! One senior thesis approved so I could avoid a research paper — short stories, all in a folder somewhere, and then, and this is important:
The newsroom of The St. Petersburg Times; The New Haven Register, back when it was a real newspaper. Guys with cigars who expected you to get it written and get it right and get it done on deadline, no errors, no apologies and no excuses. That’s where I really learned to write.
And the most important thing I learned? No whining. Ever.
In my day, I’ve had three busted novels, all of which still break my heart; shit happens. After my first couple of sales I averaged 220 stories a year for three years. None of them ever saw print, but back when I was trying to write science fiction, I got great refusals from great editors: “you write too well to be writing this kind of crap,” –Fred Pohl, ed. If. And I sent a note with my story to famous agoraphobe H.L. Gold, editor of Galaxy: “Dear Mr. Gold, how does this grab you?” “Right down the throat and by the lunch.” –H.L. Gold.
That’s how I learned to write.
About the Author
Born into a Navy family, Kit Reed moved so often as a kid that she never settled down in one place, and she doesn’t know whether that’s A Good Thing or not. As a kid, she spent two years in the tidelands of South Carolina, in Beaufort and on Parris Island, both landmarks on the Inland Waterway. It’s a very good thing in its relationship to Where, in which the entire population of a small island vanishes. Her fiction covers territory variously labeled speculative fiction/science fiction/literary fiction, with stops at stations in between that include horror, dystopian SF, psychothrillers and black comedy, making her “transgenred.” (The pitch line for this new novel came to her overnight: Everybody on Kraven Island is gone. Even they don’t know Where.)
Recent novels are Son of Destruction and, from Tor, Enclave, The Baby Merchant and the ALA award-winning Thinner Than Thou. Her stories appear in venues ranging from Asimov’s SF and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to The Yale Review and The Norton Anthology. Her newest collection is The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories, from the Wesleyan University Press. She was twice nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Tiptree Award. A Guggenheim fellow, Reed is Resident Writer at Wesleyan University, and serves on the board of The Authors League Fund.]]>
To all this I say: good. Keep misunderstanding. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Like any mongrel dog, horror fiction thrives on the outskirts.
When horror hits the mainstream, it begins to conform to mainstream expectations: it either becomes domesticated or it goes feral. One the one hand we have safe horror, which takes on the role of morality tales by punishing transgressors against the social code; on the other we have shock horror, which quickly exhausts itself in the indulgence of transgression, usually manifesting in misogyny and buckets of gore. The first can come off as paternalistic or pandering, while the second is simply juvenile and boring.
Horror thrives beyond the light of popular attention. At its best, horror is the literature of antagonism. It sets itself in opposition to the reader. It’s about undermining systems of belief, and unraveling preconceptions. It can also, sometimes, be about finding beauty in the midst of fear and tragedy. It can be about learning to love the monstrous. Because those, too, are subversions of our understanding of what is true or possible. They are best practiced away from the influence of mainstream sensibilities.
Despite the dismal condition of the bookstore shelves, horror is thriving. The advent of the small and specialty press has been a boon to literature across the board, but perhaps no branch has benefited quite as profoundly as horror has done. Thanks to The Swan River Press, we still have J. Sheridan LeFanu, Lucy M. Boston, and Mervyn Wall in print. Tartarus Press is publishing the full catalogue of Robert Aickman stories, several major works by Arthur Machen, and brilliant modern writers like Reggie Oliver, N.A. Sulway, Angela Slatter, and Mark Valentine. Centipede Press brought Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Shea, and so many others back into print. Add to this list Subterranean Press, Sarob Press, Lethe Press, PS Publishing, CZP, Dark Regions… the list goes on. Never has there been a wider spectrum of horror fiction available to us, both ancestral and modern, than there is today, thanks to the proliferation and accessibility of the small and specialty press.
Those writers and publishers exist well outside the awareness of the primary book-buying public. And though I do wish greater fortunes for the living writers listed here—as well as the many I haven’t named—I am pleased for the genre that they are working in these smaller venues. The small press is fundamental to the survival and the continued health of horror fiction; it’s here that it proves itself a vital literature, both energetic and incandescent. Let the trawlers of the box-store shelves hold onto their ill-informed assumptions. Horror is still ravenous here in the dark, outside their lighted homes, alive and running hard.
About the Author
Nathan Ballingrud is the author of North American Lake Monsters: Stories, from Small Beer Press; and The Visible Filth, a novella from This Is Horror. His work has appeared in numerous Year’s Best anthologies, and he has twice won the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives with his daughter in Asheville, NC.]]>