PERSPECTIVES : Interviews
16 February 2009
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but long settled in Perth in Western Australia, Jonathan Strahan has become familiar to SF and fantasy readers in recent years as the editor or co-editor of a succession of excellent anthologies. In addition to his annual Best of the Year compilation for Night Shade Books, Strahan has produced seminal original volumes such as The Starry Rift, The New Space Opera (with Gardner Dozois), and the Eclipse series (again for Night Shade Books). A past reviewer for Locus and now reviews editor for the magazine, he has his finger on the pulse of the fantastic genres as few others do, and the selections in his anthologies reflect that expertise unfailingly. Strahan maintains a very informative blog at www.jonathanstrahan.com.au/wp/.
Interviewing Strahan by e-mail in January 2009, I was curious to know more about his editing philosophy and specific reading tastes and insights, as reflected in his latest masterful anthology, Eclipse Two.
Gevers: The Eclipse anthologies are of exceptional breadth and exceptional quality. How did this anthology series come about, and what criteria govern your selection of stories for it?
Strahan: Eclipse grew out of a series of conversations I had with Night Shade Books' publisher Jason Williams in the early Australian summer of 2007. We were discussing books that had been important to us as readers books we loved and respected and found we shared a passion for the classic anthology series of the '60s and '70s: Orbit, New Dimensions, and Universe. I mentioned I always had wanted to edit something similar, and that I felt the work existed to fill an annual anthology series. Jason was convinced, and rather crazily agreed to commit to the first three volumes in the series. I've been incredibly lucky that he was willing to take the chance, and that writers have responded so generously.
Perhaps surprisingly, I don't have any real criteria governing story selection for Eclipse. Generally speaking, I invite writers whose work I like to contribute, and buy stories that I love. That doesn't tell you much, for which I apologise, but I am eager to avoid overcomplicating the process.
Gevers: Eclipse Two is mainly science fiction. Is that emphasis deliberate?
Strahan: Immediately after the publication of Eclipse One Jason Williams and I discussed where we wanted to go with the next book in the series. I had complete freedom to do editorially what I wanted, but Jason asked me to consider doing a more heavily science fiction-oriented volume as a counterpart to the somewhat slipstreamy first volume, and I was glad to. As it happened, some writers dropped out as they always do, and the book ended up even more heavily weighted to science fiction than I'd intended, but I'm very happy with the final book. Eclipse Three will be different again, which is nice.
Gevers: Genre weighting aside, the Eclipse series is unthemed, unlike some other volumes you've edited, like The New Space Opera. What are the particular challenges and compensations of compiling an anthology without a theme, as opposed to the other, more structured, sort of book?
Strahan: The challenges that arise while editing an unthemed anthology are, essentially, the same as those that arise while editing a themed book. However, there are one or two differences. It can be harder to give writers a clear idea of the kind of book you're hoping to create because there isn't a simple idea or theme to point them towards. Writers will ask what sort of story you're looking for, and it's important to be able to give them a useful answer, but framing that answer can be a challenge. I'm aiming for variety, for flexibility of form with Eclipse, but I'm also focusing on stories with more traditional narrative structures, with character, plot and some kind of clear link to a sense of 'genre'. Probably the most unexpected challenge, though, is to assemble a series of books that have a similar character, that are unmistakably related to one another and will reward readers who follow the series equally. I'm still working hard on that.
The compensation that comes with editing a book like Eclipse is that you have flexibility, that you don't have to have unicorns or rayguns or illustrate some theory or agenda. As an editor, there's a real freedom to experiment, to indulge yourself a little, and not feel you're compromising the book. For example, I very much wanted to see Jeffrey Ford write a space opera tale. Eclipse Two gave me the chance to make that happen. I currently have my fingers crossed that he will write me a swords and sorcery story for Eclipse Three. That we've discussed. That would be a delight.
Gevers: When you decide the story order of an anthology like Eclipse Two, what principles do you use? How important is this process in helping readers get the most out of the book?
Strahan: I believe that it's critically important to organise a book so as to optimise the reader's reading experience. By that I mean you need to take into account things like story length, story theme, character point of view, emotional timbre and so on. You also need to be aware of the book you're editing and strive to be honest to its theme or character.
When I sit down to work out the table of contents I map out how long the book is, how much space each story takes, and what the theme of each story is. I then make a subjective judgement: which stories do I think are the 'best' or do I like the most? Those will generally form the spine of the book. I try to choose three or four such stories. I then look for one that best illustrates the book in the case of Eclipse Two, I was aware that it's a science fiction book and wanted to open with a very SFnal story. It also has to be very accessible, very inviting you're trying to draw a reader into the book. So, the most inviting story that fits the book's character opens in this case Karl Schroeder's "The Hero". The longest of your 'best' stories typically closes. The third goes into the center of the book. I then alternate the remaining stories, looking to avoid any sameness, any repetition. I also pay a lot of attention to length, making sure that there's as much variety as possible. I think that makes for a very readable book that is as honest as possible to the reader's expectations.
Gevers: Does Eclipse Two illustrate any particular trends in current SF any themes, styles, outlooks that you view as showing where the genre stands, and its potential ways forward?
Strahan: I have to be completely honest and say that if Eclipse Two does illustrate any trends in current SF maybe in Daryl Gregory's superhero tale, "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" it's coincidental. As an editor, the Eclipse series is my training laboratory. I'm working out, with each volume, how to 'do' this editing thing. In the first two volumes I focused on structure, on story editing, on other aspects of the task. It's probably only now that I'm giving much thought to whether or not I want to put forward some kind of creative agenda, and what that agenda might be. I don't think you'll see the outcome of that process in Eclipse Three, but certainly in books beyond that.
Gevers: Knowing your love for the New Space Opera, it's not surprising that quite a few stories in Eclipse Two represent that subgenre Karl Schroeder, Alastair Reynolds, Jeffrey Ford, Ken Scholes, and Tony Daniel all rove the starlanes there. After twenty years or so of existence, is the New Space Opera as strong, as healthy, as ever?
Strahan: At the risk of sounding contrary, I understand that it must look like I have an especial connection with the new space opera, but the truth is, while I do love it, my taste in fiction is much more varied than that.
That said, I think space opera is in great health, given that a reader could be forgiven for having lost the dream when it comes to space travel. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, and Karl Schroeder are out there pushing the form, finding ways to tell compelling stories while keeping the form relevant. At the same time, old school space opera is still there, doing its thing. It's a good time for lovers of rocket ships and ray guns.
Gevers: A notable new name in Eclipse Two is Ken Scholes, with the galactic-empire story "Invisible Empire of Ascending Light". He's quite suddenly making quite a big impact. What do you see as his major creative strengths, in this story and elsewhere?
Strahan: I love Ken's work. He's a fine writer whose great strengths are his broad understanding of the nature of story and, perhaps most importantly, his control of rhythm and pacing, which I think comes from his experience as a preacher. He knows how to sell a story and that's a rare gift.
Gevers: Ted Chiang only writes occasionally. His story in Eclipse Two, "Exhalation", is easily one of the best stories of the year, living up to his usual very high standard. What, for you, makes Chiang's work so special, as illustrated by this particular piece?
Strahan: Ted Chiang is an incredibly special writer. He has a clarity and simplicity of style that manages to be both lyrical and evocative without ever being overblown or overdone. In that respect he very much reminds me of Ursula Le Guin. He also has the ability to see the story inside an idea, and to ruthlessly extrapolate his idea into that story. You can certainly see that in "Exhalation". He is, I think, a once-in-a-generation science fiction writer, and we're lucky to have him.
Gevers: Two Australian masters of short fiction, Terry Dowling and Margo Lanagan, have excellent stories in Eclipse Two. As an Australian and as a general SF reader, what do you especially like about their writing? Is there any defining characteristic to the present wave of speculative fiction from Australia?
Strahan: I love Margo's savagery and Terry's lyricism. Margo has a marvellous ability to tell these brutal stories that are irresistible, tender and wonderful. Terry, whose work is steeped in the poetry of Vance and Cordwainer Smith, brings his own poetry to urban horror and rural science fiction unlike any other writer today.
I'm going to be as honest as I can when answering your question about Australian speculative fiction. I've spent twenty years struggling against providing some kind of simple, reductive description of Australian SF. I'd certainly say that the colonial experience has coloured some Australian SF, and it's likely that coming from a Western culture that is essentially perched on the periphery of an ancient landscape with its own native people who have their own rich culture must have an effect, but science fiction is a quintessentially American form and these differences are subtle and tend to be individual to writers. For example, anyone can see the Outback in Dowling's work, but I can't see any miracle ingredient in the work of Greg Egan and others.
Gevers: Postmodernism in SF is alive and well, as evidenced by Daryl Gregory's "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" and David Moles's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom"; both anatomise pop-culture forms, comics or role-playing games, while telling exciting stories in their own right. How postmodern is SF as a whole these days, how self-reflexive, metafictional, etc?
Strahan: I think comics, role-playing games and so on are pervasive in popular culture today. Any post-modernism is true of the 21st century as a whole, rather than anything to do with SF specifically.
Gevers: "The Rabbi's Hobby" by Peter S. Beagle is a brilliant portrait of a rabbi struggling to teach a youth the essentials of Hebrew, with a dash of the supernatural distracting both from the task. Is this story part of a new phase of Beagle's career, an exploration of his Jewish roots?
Strahan: I love Peter's story. It's one of the finest I've had the privilege to publish, and stands (I think) amongst his very best work. Peter's Jewishness has always been an integral part of his work. You can see it back in the early days of his career and it is still at the fore today. That said, Peter has been blossoming as a short fiction writer over the past five years and this story is one of a small handful of particularly Jewish stories he's written during that period (see also "Uncle Chaim, Aunt Rifke and the Angel", for example). I'm hoping it's something he'll continue to work on, and that we might even see a book of his Jewish stories one day.
I'd add that publishing "The Last and Only" and "The Rabbi's Hobby" have been two of the great highlights of editing Eclipse. He's working on a story for the third and most likely final Eclipse at the moment, and I can't wait to see what he'll do.
Gevers: So Eclipse Three is in preparation how is that going? And what other anthologies do you have coming up, original and reprint?
Strahan: Yes, I'm hard at work on Eclipse Three at the moment. I've just bought the first two stories for it, and it should, all other things being equal, be out in October of 2009. I've got a whole slate of other books coming over the next two years. The second New Space Opera volume is done, I'm part way through a swords and sorcery anthology with Lou Anders, an epic fantasy book with Jack Dann, a hard SF anthology, a young adult book of Mars stories. There are others, but those are the main ones right now.
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