I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but it’s been a challenging few months, to say the least (and maybe more on that later). I’m here now to do a little bit of plugging and give a few writing updates:
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, available now!
First things first, my short story “The Malevolent Liberation of Pret” is part of the wonderful new anthology from Zombies Need Brains titled WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. That story is my take on a member of a post-singularity collectivist society realizing their interest/attraction to more individualized existence. I’m halfway through reading the anthology now and I’ve really enjoyed the stories – I’m in very good company and I heartily recommend checking out the whole thing. You can buy it here.
I’ve also sold four (yes, four) other stories to pro markets recently, which is great given my lull in sales for the past year. They are to the following venues:
- “Planned Obsolescence” to Galaxy’s Edge
- “Proof of Concept” to Analog Science Fiction and Fact
- “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols” to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
- “Epic Troll” to Humans Are the Problem, an anthology of monster tales from Weird Little Worlds
Now, I’m not sure when these various stories are coming out, per se – I’ll let you know when I know – but it’s exciting, to say the least.
I’ve got a number of irons in the fire right now. I’ve got a time travel caper novel on submission (think Loki, but with 70s Boston gangsters), another novel getting ready to go on submission (a space opera featuring a shape-shifting assassin), a bunch of stories still out there working their way through slush piles, and another invitation to write a story for a Zombies Need Brains anthology next year (I’ll let you all know when the kickstarter goes live!). I’m also writing another novel right now, still in its early drafting stages (it’s a humorous contemporary fantasy novel).
In other words, I hope to give all of you a lot more things to read, and soon. For now, keep an eye out for me in your favorite scifi mags and buy WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE now!
This is going to be an education rant in the guise of a science fiction rant, or maybe a science fiction rant in the guise of an education rant – your choice, really. My day job is as an educator and one of my former education-related jobs was working for a test prep company, teaching students how to take the SAT. I have a lot of opinions about tests, not all of them bad, but I will say this: standardized tests, in order to function as designed, need completely unrealistic infrastructure and, for that reason, they should be universally abolished or completely changed.
By way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, let’s talk about that iconic science fiction test, the Kobyashi Maru of Starfleet Academy.
For those of you not in the know, the Kobyashi Maru is a bridge crew simulation that Starfleet runs for its cadets, placing them in an impossible, unwinnable situation for the purpose of seeing how the cadets will react under such pressures. On the surface, this is a wholly reasonable and even intelligently designed test, very much in the vein of what a standardized test aspires to be: a test that can be applied equally to everyone that will generate completely unbiased results that allow you to evaluate all students who take the test equally. It’s also the purest of test-design fiction – it literally cannot exist as displayed and actually work.
The reason for this is very simple: as soon as students learn how the test works (and they inevitably will, since students always talk to other students about tests), the test will cease to be an accurate measure of the cadet’s capabilities because they will know it’s a no-win scenario going in. This necessarily will change their behavior towards said test and will, therefore, throw off the results. So, sure, for the first few years (if we’re being generous) the Kobyashi Maru will be a perfectly reasonable test because no one will actually know it is no-win, but before long somebody will find out. Once they find out, it is in their interest that the test (1) not change and (2) they guide their friends in how to take the test. Furthermore, instructors – whose capabilities will likewise be judged by how their students perform on the test – will inevitably skew their instruction (even surreptitiously) to reflect the qualities the test aims for.
Before long, certainly long before the events of The Wrath of Khan, the test would be bracketed by
all manner of pedagogical apparatuses that serve to help students perform well on the test, and that wouldn’t even count the cheaters, such as Kirk (who would doubtlessly be more numerous).
The solution, of course, is for Starfleet to change the test somehow, but even if they change that test, if it is designed to test the same thing (a no-win scenario), it will inevitably be vulnerable to the same kind of gaming as it was before. Test gamesters will just have to modulate their strategies somewhat, and the Academy will be right back where it started.
This is exactly the problem real world standardized testing faces. There is nothing inherently wrong with a standardized test. A standardized test is attempting to create an assessment tool that will tell you (with some degree of accuracy) the aptitude of any student in some specific set of skills, regardless of who they are or when they take the test. All SAT results, in other words, are supposed to be comparable with all other SAT results. This is a useful tool! Given that everyone comes from different school systems and are taught by different teachers and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, GPA is not and just cannot be a completely even or universally measurable kind of assessment (some people’s schools are easier/harder than others! Some schools “don’t believe” in GPA! Etc, etc.). Having some kind of universal yardstick by which to assess everybody is great!
But it can’t work! And here’s why:
1: It only works if nobody knows HOW it works
Here’s the thing: multiple choice standardized tests are a game. They are a game because they are (and sort of have to be) graded by machines and they have to assess all the exact same skills in the exact same proportions. Once you “solve” how the game works, the test becomes monumentally easier. Like the Kobyashi Maru, it is inevitable that people will figure out how the game works and, once they do that, they throw off all the results, since the results are designed to compare your performance against everyone else’s performance. So, unless you can keep the content of your test some kind of state secret (and good luck with that!), any given standardized test is only good for as long as it takes for the test takers to figure out the rules.
2: The people who know how it works will inevitably be the best connected/wealthiest people
Okay, fine – so suppose your test has been cracked by somebody. The damage, at least, would be somewhat mitigated if everyone had access to the tools needed to crack the test themselves. That’s never the case, though! The people who will be taught to crack the test will inevitable be the ones who can afford the tutors or who happen to have the connections or live in the kinds of privileged communities that get these kinds of advantages. This is NOT everyone, and this inequality automatically invalidates the test results, since some people are actually taking the test (the regular folks) and others are simply cracking the game behind the test (the test preppers). You can’t have an accurate standardized test that is testing two different cohorts of people in two different ways for two different things. Want to know something funny? The students that routinely did the worst on SAT math were almost always the best at math in all other environments. Why? They didn’t see the game. The best way to do well on SAT math is to do as little math as possible. Don’t believe me? Well, this lazy math student scored in the 95% percentile on SAT math by doing just that. And I did it several times over.
3: The test cannot be fundamentally changed without invalidating its own existence.
“Just change the test” sounds like a great plan, but if you fundamentally change how the test works, you automatically invalidate all the preceding test scores. In other words, if part of the purpose of a test like the SAT (or MCAS or TOEFL or LSAT or MCAT or whatever) is to produce scores that can be compared (and this is their purpose), then changing how the test works means your test has lost the very thing that makes it useful.
4: Testing warps instruction!
Because these tests are so important and because they are also so crackable, this means that teachers have a vested interest in teaching students to crack the test, knowing (as I point out in #2) that not all of their students will have the resources to crack it on their own. So, instead of actually learning things, they learn how to take a test. Pretty much everybody knows about this problem at this point – it’s cliche to even point it out – but it is also 100% true. Students that are taught to take tests have less knowledge, fewer skills, and impaired critical thinking when placed against previous generations who were not saddled with these things. I know this because I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for 15 years and have watched both the amount of testing rise and the quality of incoming students drop simultaneously. Granted, that’s anecdotal – maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am!) – but I somewhat doubt it.
5: A perfect test doesn’t exist in the first place!
And all of this is just assuming the test is actually able to test the thing it claims it does! Sure, a well-designed standardized test might give us accurate picture of the average, neurotypical student, but this hardly covers everyone! Furthermore, I sort of doubt there’s any reliable way you could get a standardized test to apply equally to everybody – people, and how they think or approach test taking, are just too different.
So, if Starfleet Academy is still giving the Kobyashi Maru after however many years it takes for Kirk to go from being a cadet to being on the verge of retirement, it’s safe to assume that it is no longer performing the function it once did. It should be abolished and replaced with something new. Furthermore, we should reassess the need to compare students to other students in these kind of universal, simplistic ways. When looking to the future, we should try to imagine something more nuanced, more accurate, and fairer. You know, the sort of thing the Federation might cook up.
Good news! If finally figured out how to get back to the classic editor on WordPress, which means I’ll probably get back to posting more regularly than once a month or so (I really really hate this site’s “block editor”).
More (relevant) good news! I’ve got a story in an anthology releasing this summer! It’s called When Worlds Collide, published by Zombies Need Brains. Here’s the description:
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:
What could possibly happen when two cultures meet for the first time?
In WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, anything.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE presents fourteen original stories where two different societies intersect and deal with the aftermath of that meeting. Will the conflicting cultures merge and adapt and find peace? Or will they clash, unable to either accept their differences or acknowledge their commonalities? Who will survive when the last of the Fae battle a world-killing AI? What happens when a being who is part of a vast collective-consciousness is forced to face their own individuality? Can a werewolf ever break free of the unholy pact its fae creator has made with humanity? Will Earth really manage to commit the biggest and most egregious faux pas in history when it’s on the cusp of joining the Galactic Union? And why is it that two very different kinds of elves are angrily facing off at a simple dinner party?
Whether your taste runs to humor, horror, science fiction, or fantasy, the stories collected in this latest anthology from Zombies Need Brains and written by some of today’s hottest SF&F authors will delight, thrill, and terrify you. Join Christopher Leapock, Howard Andrew Jones, Gary Kloster, Louis Evans, Peter S. Drang, Esther Friesner, S.C. Butler, Nancy Holzner, Auston Habershaw, Violette Malan, Stephen Leigh, Alan Smale, Steven Harper, and Jordan Chase-Young as they delve into what may happen…WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
“The Erratics” by Christopher Leapock
“Brother of Swords” by Howard Andrew Jones
“Walls of Teeth and Iron” by Gary Kloster
“Faux Pas” by Louis Evans
“Darithian Life Cycle” by Peter S. Drang
“Seelie With a Kiss” by Esther Friesner
“What and Why” by S.C. Butler
“Melusina” by Nancy Holzner
“Malevolent Liberation of Pret” by Auston Habershaw
“Mercenary Code” by Violette Malan
“Deep Heart Inside” by Stephen Leigh
“Dogs of Babylon” by Alan Smale
“Eight Mile City” by Steven Harper
“How the Fae of Savernake Forest Fought the AI that Ate the World” by Jordan Chase-Young
So, there I am, cheek-and-jowl with some fine authors in a really cool themed anthology. It’s releasing sometime this summer, but you can pre-order it by going to Zombies Need Brains’ site.
Go and check it out!
Writing has been difficult of late. Stuck at home, the world aflame, so very many distractions. And yet I have much to do. Novel edits, for one thing. Story edits, for another. New stories desperate for revision, for creation. Many in new worlds, as yet fully formed.
It takes effort to remain inside a story. What I mean by inside is this: to write a strange world, you must inhabit that world. You have to take up its sights and sounds and smells and flavors as your own. You must push away the real and dwell wholly in the imaginary. No doubt there are authors – better, more disciplined authors than myself – who can sink into their world more easily than I can, but for me, it takes time. It takes silence and solitude and a mind relatively at peace. If my concentration slips, the whole world I’m building pops, like a bubble, and then where am I? In my office at home, with children downstairs needing attention, a democracy that is crumbling to ruin, a day job that is now wholly contained within my laptop and bleating for attention, regardless of the hour or day of the week. I’ve got a video game console right downstairs, I’ve books to read at my fingertips.
I remember a time this was easier, staying inside this bubble and living there. I remember daydreaming more often, letting my mind drift. I spend hours each day alone, on the train or in my office at work or in the silence of a lunch break by myself. COVID has blown all of that away. I have to re-adapt.
There is little more frustrating than wanting to write and being unable to do so. I’ve got a dark planet full of spiders and cities of spun silk that needs attention, but I just don’t have the time to find my way back there just now. Too much clamors for my attention; every bubble I blow bursts before I’ve time to find my reflection there.
I miss the calm of my former life. I miss the bustle that let the calm exist. Now, instead, there is just a dull roar – the gusting of a steady wind, blowing away dreams half-formed. Picture me, then, running down the road after them, trying to remember what they look like as they sail up and up, out of view.
It’s been two months since I posted here last. A lot’s been going on in my life, in the world, etc.. But I’m still around and for the first time in a while I have something I want to talk about.
Like a lot of people, I have been watching The Mandalorian. Unlike most of you, I’ve been…underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the first season! But this season has taken what I felt was something new and different in Star Wars and reduced to pretty much the same thing as all the other Star Wars stuff, and it’s just not for me.
I’m not here to complain about The Mandalorian, though. Trying not to rain on other people’s parades, etc, etc.. What watching this last season has shown me, though, is just how important audience buy-in is for something like Star Wars to work. And when I say “something like Star Wars,” I mean “tent-pole franchises that rely on an established fan base.” Because, let’s face it, if Star Wars didn’t have an established fanbase or a sizeable footprint in the scifi/fantasy zeitgeist, a lot of it just doesn’t stand up to even minor scrutiny.
It’s a truism at this point that Star Wars defiantly refuses to make sense at any point. Honestly, it doesn’t have to! Nobody cares that the Death Star makes no goddamned sense. The fact that there are no railings anywhere is a running joke, not an actual criticism. Stormtroopers are inexplicably punched in the helmet and for some reason this renders them unconscious and all people talk about is how cool the puncher is.
Why don’t they care? Well, because Star Wars as a franchise has already, somewhere along the line, done the work of earning the audience’s enthusiasm. For an awful lot of us, that enthusiasm was earned long, long ago when we were kids and our critical reasoning was less robust. For others of us, we stumbled across those scattered gemstones in the Star Wars canon that are honestly, legitimately good stories. And once we’re in, it can hold onto us for a goddamned LONG time.
The Mandalorian is an operative example of this phenomenon. As someone who had no interest in The Clone Wars series, the inclusion of Bo Katan was both perplexing and supremely uninteresting. Who is this person showing up Mando on his own show? Why should I give a crap about her problems? Well, if you were a pre-existing fan, then it’s great! If you weren’t? Well, tough luck, because the show is presenting you with no actual reasons to like or care about this character besides her cool outfit. If you don’t accept her coolness right off the bat, the rest of it won’t work, either.
Proving this is the inclusion of Luke Skywalker in the season 2 finale. Despite his appearance being completely random, his use as deus ex machina largely unearned, and the dialogue given to him wooden and stilted, I was still really excited to see Luke again. But that’s a cheap trick, though – it’s driven by nostalgia for how cool Luke was/might have been/is, not by anything actually present. If I didn’t know who Luke Skywalker is (somehow) and watched that episode, my reaction would probably be confusion and possibly even incredulity as he saws his way down that corridor and the Dark Troopers just sort of let it happen to them. “Why didn’t Mando just do that with the Dark Saber, then?” is one basic question one might ask. It is the purpose of a show like this to keep you from asking that question, because you are just too breathless from all the fun.
In cases like that, the “coolness” of the show exceeds the burden of realism. Star Wars is not alone here. Doctor Who does this (should have been shot by a Dalek long, long ago), every James Bond movie does this (remember in Golden Eye when Bond falls faster than the plane), Harry Potter does this (does Harry ever learn geometry?), Marvel does this (Cap’s shield makes no sense) – it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s just rare for me to experience both sides of that equation inside the same exact show or even the same episode.
Now, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, a thing to aspire to or a thing to avoid – this I leave to you. But let me tell you, once The Mandalorian lost me, I couldn’t stop seeing all the holes in, well, everything. Even knowing what I know about Star Wars, I’d hoped for something more tangible.
I read a really interesting article from the New York Review of Books today by Namwali Serpell titled “The Banality of Empathy.” In it, Serpell discusses the fundamental fiction of narrative empathy as imagined in literature. She writes:
This viewing experience [of Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch] finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?
The problem, as Serpell asserts, is that narrative empathy – the whole “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” – is a self-indulgent and inherently privileged act. We, the reader, wish to experience something outside of our milieu – fine – but doing so amounts to a kind of emotional tourism. Feeling that empathy for whoever it may be – a criminal, an orphan, a slave, a concubine, an assassin, a warrior – is just fun. It doesn’t translate into actual, real-world action or advocacy for criminals, orphans, slaves, concubines, assassins, or warriors. Furthermore, while doing this for fanciful characters is one thing, we start to run into real problems when we start to apply this empathy to real-world people who are suffering, down-trodden, oppressed, or marginalized. Emotional tourism as a space wizard is one thing, but emotional tourism in the shoes of a transgender person gets…reductive, even insulting.
Serpell demonstrates this with an extended analysis of Violet Allen’s “The Venus Effect,” published in Lightspeed in December, 2016 (a phenomenal and inventive story you should all read, btw). Allen deliberately breaks the narrative, over and over again, as a means of conveying a point, but also of exhaustively demonstrating the inherent falsehood of narrative itself. Stories are supposed to possess a distinct structure – a flow of rising action, climax, resolution. We want catharsis and cohesion. It’s all supposed to make sense. Of course, life does not operate by those rules. Fiction superimposes an artificial structure on reality that we inherently accept because of the parlor trick that is narrative empathy.
For some years now, I’ve struggled with reading second person narration. I’ve tried (several times now) to read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and, being honest, the second person chapters never fail to knock all enthusiasm I have for the narrative right out of me. I find second person jarring – it draws my attention to the artificiality of the text, and it prevents me from identifying or engaging with the story. I am being addressed, but then being told I am doing things that I am not, and the effect is that I know I’m not doing these things and so, by definition, these things are not happening. It’s fingernails on a chalkboard.
I’ve been struggling to understand the why of second person. If you want to draw people in to a close relationship with the character, why not just use first person? In reading Serpell’s piece, now I’m forced to wonder if the problem isn’t just my tastes, but perhaps something larger than that – a certain kind of closeness I don’t want to have. Is it because am unwilling to alienate my own identity to the point where I can immerse myself in the text? Maybe. But then I also wonder whether that pronounced artificiality of second person is intentional. The writer wants to kick me out of my comfortable chair on my emotional vacation. Wants to wake me up and make me look at the story as a story and not a window into another world. Sure, I find this upsetting. But don’t I deserve to be upset? Shouldn’t somebody rattle our cage once in a while and make us look at what we’re doing?
Fiction is, by its nature, unreal. That’s okay! What maybe isn’t okay, though, is the ways in which we forget that and let our fiction do the work our real world selves should undertake.
In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” the titular character plays alien music upon his viol to keep some kind of otherworldly horror at bay. Each night he plays more and more frantically until, at last, the Stygian horrors of Chaos claim him, compelling him to play even while dead. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft tales.
Increasingly, I’ve been feeling a little bit like Erich Zann. I think maybe a lot of us have.
It feels as though the wheels are coming off civilization. I’ll spare you the details, but you probably know what I’m talking about. We are facing chaos and uncertainty, dealing with various kinds of trauma and suffering, and our opportunities for combating this or changing it in any substantive way are few. All we really have to keep us going is art.
I say this because, for all we can talk about fighting and working and resisting and so on, the fact remains that you can’t actually live for doing that. Not if you want to retain your sanity, anyway. We fight on the battlefields so that we may live at home, and as the battlefield and the home become increasingly the same place and exist in the same sphere, how do we or can we escape from…you know, all of this shit?
For many of us who are artists/creators of some kind, we keep creating (or try to, anyway); for those of us who are not, we consume the art with equal greed. We artists throw ourselves into our work; our audiences throw themselves into the worlds we create. For me, I don’t want to write about the real world for obvious reasons, but nevertheless I find myself writing about it anyway, in oblique ways. Like Erich Zann, I can’t keep the chaos completely at bay – I am only mortal – so it creeps in, bit by bit. Like the narrator of the story, the audience is intrigued by the glowing edge of that realness. The fictional and the factual exist in tandem, never really separated. Fiction is a way of looking at something without really looking.
I’ve been playing The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and as Geralt walks through Velen beneath the trees straining with the weight of hanged men, there is a certain dark parallel there to our own world. I find it soothing, though, in a way – as Geralt, I can slay the monsters and defeat the unrighteous (or try to, as best I can). If I can’t save people, maybe I can at least avenge them. In this case I am Zann’s audience, listening through the door.
But the artist – the author of The Witcher books/games, myself in my own work – we have to look out that window into the chaos. We have to face it to make the art, and we play and we play and we play and it doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t actually enough, is it? Zann dies trying. Perhaps nothing so grandiose happens to the author who looks at the world’s ugliness and fashions it into some shadowy reflection with a lot more drama and a lot less despair, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: very few books change the world. Very few stories rewrite history. We as a society spent 50 years screaming about Orwell’s 1984 and we went and did it anyway.
You have to look, though. You’ve no choice. The idea that we can produce works that are separate from our current times is the height of arrogance – we are, by necessity, products of the world around us. Like Erich Zann, we cannot choose what is outside our window. We can only take a hard look at it, take up our viol, and try to make it better.
Or die trying.
Before I get going, don’t get me wrong – the Pattinson Batman looks fine. He’s a good actor, he’ll be able in the role, the production looks pretty good, the aesthetics are fine, etc, etc.
But, like, was anybody else just so…tired watching that? Every beat seems utterly predictable, the conflict seems deeply deeply familiar, and I just couldn’t summon up any excitement. Which is weird, because I’ve always loved Batman. For a long time he was my favorite superhero – clever where others are powerful, resourceful where others are simply aggressive. He was the thinking superhero, not another flying guy with laser-beam powers.
And Pattinson’s Batman seems to be that! If anything, he looks like he’ll be more of a thinker than a number of other iterations. Still, I’m just struggling to generate interest. I think I know why, too.
You know Die Hard? Sure you do. Who doesn’t love Die Hard? John McLane, the regular cop in the strained marriage, trapped in the office tower surrounded by machine-gun toting terrorists. Man, what a story. The next couple sequels were pretty good, too (though less so the fourth and fifth installments). John McLane is great!
But say, just for argument’s sake, they were to re-make Die Hard. Not a sequel – just the first one. Nakatomi Tower, Christmas party, Hans Gruber, etc. Put a different cast in there – Vince Vaughn as McLane, or Liev Schreiber. But, you know, same basic set up. Sure, you’d go.
But then say they did it again, ten years later. Different cast, same set-up. And again five years after that. And again. And again.
At what point do you stop going to see Die Hard?
See where I’m going with this? Ultimately, what all the Batman remakes have degenerated to is aesthetics. What does the Batsuit look like? What about the Batmobile? Who is playing who? What’s the tone?
The story? The story is exactly the same. The themes are essentially the same, too (though they have slightly different focuses, slightly different messages they’re trying to get across). People call this Batman “a gritty take” but Batman has been a gritty, dark character for decades. What we’re talking about is not the presence of grit, but the quality and texture of said grit. This Batman wears eye-liner, you see. But not the same eye-liner as Keaton did. Messier eye-liner.
“But you like pizza and it’s just a difference of texture, right?” says you. The difference between pizza and movies is that a movie is forever. I can watch The Dark Knight any time I please and it’s just as present as The Batman will be. Food is, by its nature, more ephemeral. And anyway, don’t you get tired of eating pizza sometimes and eat other a stuff for a while. Don’t you shake up the toppings?
A friend of mine tweeted that Batman has become our modern-day Hamlet – a universal character that young actors cut their teeth on, but the story never really changes. It’s the same thing.
In that respect, Pattinson both has his work cut out for him and he doesn’t. The movie will be a success, just like Hamlet always is, but it will also be boring. Only the performances will let it stand apart. No pressure, I guess.
For me, I’m tired of Batman. I’ve been done with the character since Lego Batman so thoroughly exposed how empty and repetitive those plot beats are. That doesn’t mean I’m done with Gotham. I loved Birds of Prey and will pay money to see Margot Robbie reprise the role anytime she likes. I think we deserve a Batgirl movie. I think we should do a Batman Beyond and more with the Robins – Nightwing is particularly interesting. There’s just so many other stories to tell in that space that we just never see because we have to hear those gunshots ring out in the alley and see those pearls hit the pavement, again and again. We have to go through Commissioner Gordon learning to trust Batman, over and over. Another young actor in a cowl, punching clowns.
I don’t know if I can do it again. I mean, we’ve already seen this movie. All of us have. Is it worth the price of admission anymore? I doubt it.
I mentioned a little while back that I had been invited to anchor an anthology of cross-cultural exchange stories called When Worlds Collide. Well, it’s happening – or, at least, it’s in the process of happening. To fund the anthologies (and thus pay the authors and pay for the printing and so on), the publisher, Zombies Need Brains, is running a Kickstarter for three separate anthologies right now! If you pledge at the right level, you’ll get copies of these anthologies, too!
And for you writers out there? If the Kickstarter funds, there will be an open call for submissions to all three anthologies! This is a great venue for getting your first publication or adding to your publication list for newer authors.
Here are the anthologies currently being funded:
THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING
In this follow-up to THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY, we switch our attention to how the deities of old have managed to fit themselves into today’s modern world! Is Narcissus an Instagram influencer? Is Coyote playing the stock market? Does Ra own a solar panel company? Was Dr. Ruth really Venus? How have the gods and goddesses managed to survive alongside cell phones and computers and social media influencers? We invite authors to explore how the immortals have changed with the times.
Edited by Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier, THE MODERN DEITY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors (and the gods they may use) include:
- Alma Alexander (Freyja: Nordic),
- David Farland (Woden/Odin: German),
- Tanya Huff (Hera: Greek),
- Juliet E. McKenna (Nemesis/Themis: Greek),
- Phyllis Irene Radford (Anshar/Tiamet: Babylonian),
- Laura Resnick (assorted),
- Kari Sperring (Cigfa, Goewin, Gwydion: Welsh),
- Jean Marie Ward (Dionysus: Greek), and
- Edward Willett (Ninkasi: Sumerian)
No one can resist the mystery of the abandoned ship–whether it’s the ghost ship found afloat at sea in the Bermuda Triangle or the spaceship drifting in the depths of space a la the movie Alien. What happened to the crew? What horror forced them to abandon their vessel and flee…or are they still on board, trapped or even all dead? In this anthology, we want authors to explore all of the possibilities when one runs across…a DERELICT.
Edited by David B. Coe & Joshua Palmatier, DERELICT will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:
- Jacey Bedford,
- Alex Bledsoe,
- Gerald Brandt,
- Julie E. Czerneda,
- Kate Elliott,
- John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell,
- D.B. Jackson,
- Gini Koch,
- Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, and
- Kristine Smith
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:
Throughout history, different cultures have collided in different ways, whether it be the peaceful contact between Rome and Han China in the second century that established the Silk Road, or the more violent interactions between Europe and the Americas thirteen hundred years later. Such first contact stories have long been a staple of speculative fiction. The stories featured in WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will continue this long tradition as the authors explore the myriad ways in which two cultures—alien or fae, machine or human—can clash. Will the colliding societies manage to peacefully coexist after they finally meet? Or will they embark instead on a path of mutual self-destruction? Find out—WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:
- S.C. Butler,
- Esther Friesner,
- Auston Habershaw,
- Steven Harper,
- Nancy Holzner,
- Howard Andrew Jones,
- Stephen Leigh,
- Violette Malan, and
- Alan Smale
So what are you all waiting for? This is you pre-ordering three great collections AND giving yourself the opportunity to submit to them! (To say nothing of any pledge rewards or stretch goals involved!) Get going!
Since the fairly cringe-worthy Hugo Awards ceremony a few days back, there’s been a big argument in the SFF world going on about the Science Fiction Canon, such as it is. What is it? How much is it worth? Do you have to read it? So on, so forth.
I waded into this debate and, admittedly, stepped in it a bit when I was having a discussion with a friend of mine regarding whether writers need to read the classics of the genre in order to write good work today. My response was this:
“Yup! My thing about the classics is that you should read them if you want to, but they aren’t strictly relevant to what is happening now. In fact, I would ascribe *zero* relevance to anything published before 1980/1982 or so. Then it incrementally increases as you go.”
Now, this was interpreted (and understandably so, if taken out of context) to mean that no work prior to 1980 has relevance for readers or worth as literature prior to 1980, which is not my point at all. My point is, rather, that the current milieu of science fiction and fantasy as it exists in the market today begins in the early 1980s and if your intention is to publish inside of that milieu, reading stuff published prior to that time is not essential. You, as a writer, need to know what is going on now in the field, not what was going on in the field in 1965.
I had a number of productive discussions about this online with a couple intelligent people. I had a lot of retweets accusing me of ignoring history or suggesting works like 1984 and Brave New World aren’t relevant for modern readers.
Now, I would insist that many (in fact the majority) of pre-contemporary works (defined broadly as the early 1980s, where we moved away from cold war paranoia and into a more cyberpunk/environmental catastrophe/corporate capitalist villain era) do not really resonate as well with a modern audience. The sexism of Bester and Asimov and Niven and Pournelle really shows their works’ age. The writers from the 30s and 40s still hope to find canals on Mars and wonder about the jungles of Venus. Everybody thinks atomic power is the cat’s pajamas. The amount of racism and Orientalism and colonialist underpinnings is overwhelming when examined with a modern sensibility. We can learn a lot about what people thought then about the world, but how it affects our world now is less clear.
Furthermore, much of what was done back in those days had begun a trend that has carried along to this very day! If somebody asked me whether they should read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigades, it’s a no-brainer that I’d suggest Hurley. Why? Well, because it’s still military scifi and it’s still got the first person perspective and thrilling fights and cool tech, but Hurley’s book is about now and Heinlein’s book is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century Cold War (and this is above and beyond the latent fascism contained in that specific book, but that’s a topic I’ve explored before and don’t care to repeat here). You don’t have to read 1984 to understand dystopia – the modern authors who have written about it, at length and with great skill, are numerous. Can you read it? Can a modern reader still glean important and interesting lessons from reading it? Yes, of course. Go ahead and read both!
That, though, not the question I’m seeking to answer. The question I’m trying to tackle is to what extent do modern authors owe fealty to the writers of the distant past to the point where those distant works are essential for their ability to tell compelling stories in the present day. I would argue that once you go past 40 years ago, there really isn’t any requirement because the publishing universe of that era bears no similarity to the one today. They were not writing to the same kind of audience, they were not dealing with the same kind of editors, and they were not facing the same kind of marketplace. Even the ideas they pioneered have been re-imagined and re-imagined again, so that you are entering a dialogue among authors that is a half-century old by now. You don’t need to read that original foray to join that conversation, but you must read the latest entry or you won’t make any sense.
The thing about lionizing the traditional canon (in any genre) is that you are centering the voices of people who lived in worlds alien to our own and then demanding that they be paid homage, when really what they have to say can be taken or left depending on our own interests. None of it is required. It can certainly have value for the right person at the right time, but we ought not ascribe these works more importance than the ones that have followed and, most especially, by those being produced today.
Now, as is the case with all list-building and hard lines in the sand, there are plenty of works from the 70s and earlier that still stand up just as well today as they did then – people like Le Guin and Philip K Dick and so on. But those folks are the exception, not the rule.
In short, if you intend to study the field of science fiction or are just a huge fan of classic books, by all means read the classic fiction of the mid to early 20th century – you will enjoy a lot of it, for sure. However, if you plan to write science fiction or fantasy novels, you don’t owe those old novels your time if you don’t want to give it. You can do it without them, just by reading on your own without any pre-set requirements. The canon is not a law, it’s simply a recommendation list. Feel free to ignore it. Read something else. There are a lot of good books out there, and you’ll never have time to read all of them, anyway.
But hey, that’s just one white dude’s opinion.