Archive for Science Fiction

Homeys on Film — CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Copyright Marvel Studios

Welcome back to another thrilling episode of Homeys on Film: Homeland Security Lessons From Bad Movies! It’s superhero-on-superhero mayhem! Smash! POW! Ka-BOOM! And, if you look hard enough through the smoke, CGI, spandex, and prosthetic muscles, there are lessons galore for homeland security wonks.


Primo Cap villain and all-around badass Crossbones (copyright Marvel Studios)

In Lagos, Nigeria, a new team of Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), battles a team of Hydra mercenaries led by Brock Rumlow, also known as Crossbones (Frank Grillo). Crossbones and his team are after a sample of a lethal, highly contagious virus. Trying to evade capture, Crossbones triggers a massive explosion, which is diverted at the last second by the hex powers of the Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen). Unfortunately, she doesn’t divert it quite high enough, and its force obliterates the seventh story of a neighboring hotel, killing eleven and injuring dozens.

Watch where you’re aiming that hex!!! (copyright Marvel Studios)

Whoops. Not good for the ol’ Avengers PR, especially since their most recent mission, taking down genocidal robot Ultron, incidentally resulted in the devastation of a small Eastern European country (Sokovia — socked by the Avengers, get it?).

Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) curtly informs the Avengers that their days as freelance world-savers are Over with a capital O. The United Nations General Assembly (taking a break from officially condemning Israel) has ratified by overwhelming majority the Sokovia Accords, which places the Avengers’ operations under the supervision and control of a U.N. panel. Ross tells the Avengers that if they don’t sign on to the accord in Vienna three days hence, they will be forced into retirement (which would be really, really bad news for Disney).

Things are really BOOMING at the U.N. (copyright Marvel Studios)

The debate among the Avengers on how to respond to the U.N. reveals a deep fissure between members of the team, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr., everyone’s favorite arms salesman to the U.S. military) strongly favoring signing onto the Sokovia Accords and Captain America (champion of liberty, apple pie, and Betty Grable pinups) equally vehemently opposed. Matters don’t get any easier in Vienna. King T’Chaka (John Kani), whose African nation, Wakanda, lost several citizens in the Lagos tragedy, takes the podium for a speech in favor of the Accords, only to be killed when a bomb detonates outside the building. Huge bummer for Captain America — security video shows the man who detonated the bomb was Cap’s old WW2 buddy, Bucky Barnes, now known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who has been under the control of nefarious forces since the Cold War. Cap and his fellow Avenger, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) realize they must track down Bucky before a German military task force, who have orders to shoot to kill, find him.

Team Cap! My team is red-hot, your team ain’t doodley-squat! (copyright Marvel Studios)

Cap’s and the Widow’s efforts to protect Bucky (who has been framed) lead to conflict with the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), son of the slain King T’Chaka, and with various Avengers. The villainous Colonel Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is revealed as the mastermind who has used Bucky’s Soviet-implanted code word to revert him to remote control. Captain America assembles a covert team composed of the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to free Bucky from Zemo’s influence and to stop the evil colonel’s plot to activate a number of Soviet-era super-soldier sleeper agents and send them against his enemies.

Kid Spider-Man proves his worth (copyright Marvel Studios)

However, since Cap and company have apparently gone off the reservation, Iron Man assembles his own Avengers team to take them down. His allies include Black Panther, Black Widow, War Machine (Don Cheadle), the Vision (Paul Bettany), and a teenaged newcomer, Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Audiences get the big, BIG fight they’ve paid their money for. Lil’ itty-bitty Ant-Man surprises everyone by transforming into humongous, king-sized Giant-Man, giving Captain America and Bucky space to flee to an airplane hanger and continue to pursue Zemo. Wet-behind-the-ears Spider-Man proves his worth by bringing down the suddenly formidable Giant-Man with his webs. However, tragedy ensues when the Vision, trying to take down the Falcon with his solar eye beams, instead hits his ally War Machine, knocking him from the sky and severely injuring him.

Iron Man views evidence that indicates that Bucky was framed for the Vienna explosion. He rockets off to Siberia to assist Captain America and Bucky with their foiling of Zemo’s plans. But Zemo’s greatest, most diabolical plot is yet to unfold. At an abandoned Soviet-era military base in Siberia, Zemo shows Iron Man/Tony Stark old video footage of the Winter Soldier, under Soviet mind control, assassinating Tony Stark’s parents, Howard and Maria Stark. Furthermore, it turns out that Captain America was aware of at least aspects of the assassination and never revealed this to his good friend, Iron Man.

Iron Man and the Winter Soldier throw down! (copyright Marvel Studios)

In a blind rage, Iron Man attacks Bucky and Captain America. He manages to rip off Bucky’s cyborg arm, but Captain America uses his indestructible shield to disable Iron Man’s armor. Cap and Bucky take off. Zemo is apprehended by the Black Panther, who has overheard him confess his responsibility for the explosion that killed King T’Chaka. The reason behind all the scheming? Zemo lost family members in the Avengers’ war against Ultron in Sokovia, resulting in his vow to destroy the Avengers from within.

The former Avengers who fought beside Captain America against Iron Man’s team have been imprisoned on the Raft, a mid-ocean, floating super-jail. Captain America breaks them out, and the renegade heroes head for sanctuary in Wakanda, the Black Panther’s highly advanced African nation, where the Black Panther, now king, vows to find a cure for Bucky’s susceptibility to mind control. Iron Man and Spider-Man start a bromance. We see a teaser for the next Avengers movie. THE END.

Homeland Security Lesson #1: Kinetic operations against non-state combatants in densely-populated urban environments risk political and public relations harm to the more responsible, law-abiding side.

When mutant hexes go awry… (copyright Marvel Studios)

What gets all the trouble rolling for the Avengers? Their efforts to prevent Crossbones and his Hydra mercenaries from stealing a deadly virus accidentally result in a score of deaths and injuries in Lagos. This unintentional and highly-regretted event (despite the fact that the Avengers’ apprehension of Crossbones likely prevented the deaths of tens thousands from maliciously spread disease) brings the heavy hand of the United Nations down on the Avengers. Both the United States and Israel have experienced this same dynamic at work when their armed forces have pursued terrorists or insurgents in heavily populated urban areas. The enemies of both nations have used civilians as human shields. The U.S. and Israeli militaries have both exercised considerable care to avoid civilian deaths, the latter taking the trouble to telephone individual Gazan Palestinians, who were living in apartment buildings being used by Hamas as weapons depots, prior to Israeli missiles being launched against those structures. However, the fog of war, technical malfunctions, and enemy action have frequently resulted in unintended civilian deaths, for which the U.S. and Israeli armed forces, expected by many to be able to use force with exacting precision, have been unjustly blamed.

Homeland Security Lesson #2: Be aware of the potential for blow-back.

Bye-bye, Sokovia, we hardly knew ye… (copyright Marvel Studios)

The Avengers, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, did not set out with the intention of devastating the small nation of Sokovia; they meant only to save all humanity from the machinations of Utron. Ultron’s actions (levitating Sokovia’s largest city to use as an asteroid weapon to strike Earth and cause a planetary catastrophe which would end all human life, freeing up the planet for robots) led to the destruction of Sokovia and the deaths of many of its citizens, but because the Avengers failed to save them, they were labeled the malefactors by some. One of those bitter Sokovians turned out to be Colonel Zemo, who manages in the current movie to pull off the unlikely hat trick of disrupting and disbanding the Avengers (see Lesson #3 below). Similarly, the successful efforts of the U.S. in the 1980s to arm and train the transnational Islamic mujahideen, whose members included Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan arguably helped lead to the militarization and radicalization of a whole generation of Muslims, many of whom disliked the U.S. as much as they did the Soviet Union. Our efforts helped push the Russians out of Afghanistan and definitely helped weaken the Soviet Union, but they also helped create new cadres of transnational terrorists.

Homeland Security Lesson #3: Beware false-flag operations.

Nefariously clever revenge-seeking evil dude Colonel Zemo (copyright Marvel Studios)

Colonel Zemo, with no super-powers of his own, is able to do something no other villain (not even the supremely powerful Loki) has been able to pull off — smashing the Avengers. He does it not by physically overpowering any of them, but by using deception and psychological tricks to pit them against one another. Some commentators on the War on Terror have come to the conclusion that the greatest harm al-Qaeda has been able to inflict upon the United States has been its complicity in pulling the U.S. into decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing the U.S. to expend a trillion dollars and lose thousands of its soldiers and Marines. None of the 9/11 plotters were either Afghans or Iraqis. However, by holding secret meeting with Iraqi government figures and by taking refuge within Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were able to implicate those two governments in their terror activities, enough so to convince the Bush Administration that first the Taliban and later Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power.

Homeland Security Lesson #4: Sometimes an enemy’s innovation can only be defeated by an innovation of our own.

Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man but is trumped by Spider-Man (copyright Marvel Studios)

Ant-Man’s surprising transformation into Giant-Man nearly turned the tide of battle against Iron Man’s squad. But Iron Man’s team regained the initiative when Spider-Man, a previously unknown quantity, used his web-shooters in a new fashion, winding his webs around Giant-Man’s legs and causing the colossus to topple over onto his face, knocking him out of the fight. Similarly, in Iraq, the insurgents’ innovation of powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused significant casualties among American troops, who often convoyed in unarmored Humvees. U.S. casualties were radically reduced by the innovation, first carried out by U.S. servicemen acting on their own, and later improved upon by defense contractors, of armoring the undersides of light Army and Marine transport vehicles against roadside bombs. In the same fashion, al-Qaeda’s innovation of using jet airliners as suicide bombs was defeated by a pair of American innovations — the willingness of the passengers on Flight 93 to sacrifice themselves to prevent the terrorists from taking full control of the plane, and the institution of armored cockpit doors on all passenger aircraft.

Superhero stare-down (copyright Marvel Studios)

Homeys on Film: Homeland Security Lessons from Bad Movies

Copyright 1964 Toho Films

Copyright 1964 Toho Films

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)


In Japan, the head of the Pacific Pharmaceutical Company decides his marketing campaign needs a big boost. Come up with a new advertising jingle? Hire a down-on-her-luck movie star to do personal appearances? Hand out free samples at school playgrounds? No — find a giant monster to put on display! The director hires a pair of explorers to to Faro Island in the Solomon Islands chain, where rumor has it that a gigantic beast traps the natives in a web of fear.

Meanwhile, an American nuclear submarine, on patrol in the Arctic, comes across an iceberg emitting a strange, green glow. While checking it out, the sub’s crew accidentally ram the iceberg… and, wouldn’t you know it, end up freeing Godzilla from his icy prison (where the big lizard had been trapped since the end of Godzilla Raids Again).

On Faro Island, the two explorers and their assistant hook up with the local natives just before a giant octopus(!) emerges from the sea and attacks the village. The natives’ god, King Kong, arrives on the scene and drives away the octopus. Luckily, the villagers have already prepared an offering for Kong, a medicinal berry brew that the big ape happily laps up and which causes him to take a blissful nap. While Kong is snoozing, the explorers build a huge raft, drag him onto the raft, and tow him back toward Japan… because Japan is short on destructive giant monsters, obviously.

Back in Japan, Godzilla has made his big entrance, stomping on a commuter train and several villages, heading for Tokyo. Out at sea, Kong awakens and starts playing tug-of-war with the ship which is towing him, which prompts the crew to blow up the raft. This is but a temporary inconvenience for Kong, a strong swimmer, who does his Mark Spitz thing and begins breast-stroking toward Japan and his eventual meet-up with Godzilla.

A television commentator helpfully opines that Godzilla and Kong are natural enemies (because, as every small school child knows, dinosaurs and giant gorillas clashed every single day during the Jurassic Period). The Japanese army digs a huge pit filled with explosives to trap and hopefully kill Godzilla. Kong arrives and has an inconclusive first battle with the radioactive dinosaur, not appreciating Godzilla’s ability to set his chest hair on fire. Godzilla laughs off the pit filled with explosives but is deterred by the army’s fall-back plan, an electrical barrier which shocks him with a million volts. However, Kong has a very different reaction to the high-tension wires — he chews on them like they’re linguine, delighting in the tasty electricity, which makes him feel like he’s on top of a cool and wintry mountain (no, that’s York’s Peppermint Patties); er, which tickles his innards (no, that’s Mountain Dew); well, which gives him a buzz at least as good as what he got from the berry juice back on Faro Island.

Speaking of those handy berries, the authorities get their hands on a batch and form it into berry bombs, which they detonate around Kong’s head while he is reprising his old star-turn atop New York’s Empire State Building, this time atop the Tokyo Tower. Kong takes another pleasant nap while the military comes up with yet another brilliant plan, this time hooking Kong up to gigantic helium-filled balloons so they can dump him into the crater atop Mount Fuji. The big ape’s peaceful slumber is interrupted by the roar of Godzilla below. Kong awakens, disentangles himself from the balloons, and drops onto his foe. Their battle resumes, and Kong is once again getting the worst of it, until a thunderstorm brews up. Lightning strikes the weakened Kong, not only restoring his strength, but also giving him the temporary superpower of shooting electrical bolts from his hairy fingertips. He uses this new power to befuddle and shock Godzilla, and the two end up wrestling, then tumbling off a high cliff into the ocean. Only Kong emerges from the depths (and, no, the rumor that the Japanese domestic version of the movie had Godzilla emerging triumphant is false). Having seen enough of Japan for one 91-minute feature, he swims back toward Faro Island, perhaps anticipating a nice repast of berry juice and calamari.

Homeland Security Lesson #1: Be Willing to Increase the Intensity of Your Defensive Measure

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

In the first Godzilla movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the Japanese military attempted to halt Godzilla’s advance towards the heart of Tokyo by erecting a set of power lines which carried three hundred thousand volts. This proved insufficient; Godzilla walked right through it. Two movies later, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, they upped the voltage to a million volts, which had the desired effect of making Godzilla steer clear. However, this leads into our next lesson…

Homeland Security Lesson #2: What Has Worked in the Past Will Not Necessarily Work Now

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Homeland security defenders must accept the painful fact that their antagonists will learn and change, altering tactics and taking on new, more potent capabilities. In the very next film in the series, Godzilla vs. the Thing (aka Godzilla vs. Mothra), the Japanese army tries to repeat its success with defensive power lines, but in the interim, Godzilla has upped his game, and just like in the first film in the series, he wades right through the electrical barrier, trashing the expenditure of millions of yen.

Homeland Security Lesson #3: What Works Against One Antagonist May Not Work as Well Against Another

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Yes, those million volts of electricity deterred Godzilla. However, when Kong entered the picture, what didn’t destroy him only made him stronger. In fact, the electricity, rather than repelling him, arguably attracted him deeper into Japan looking for more of the same, since he found a million volts so delectable.

Homeland Security Lesson #4: If Your Primary Tool is a Hammer, You Mustn’t Assume That Your Foe Will Necessarily Act Like a Nail

Copyright Toho Films

Copyright Toho Films

Organizations, like individuals, can become prey to habits. Particularly organizations like branches of the military, which are tied into long, costly procurement cycles. If an army is heavy with tanks and self-propelled artillery, it will tend to want to use those tools… again and again. This is not necessarily wise. Tanks and artillery have never, never, NEVER worked against Godzilla. Not in the first movie, not in the second movie, not in the third… not once, not ever. Godzilla laughs at tanks and artillery. He takes great amusement from watching the tanks melt beneath his radioactive breath and the tank crews jump out of the hatches and run around on fire until they crumble into ashes. The Japanese army wasted its money for decades on tanks and artillery, until they finally wised up in the later films and began investing in more reasoned and advanced anti-Godzilla technology, such as Mechagodzilla and Super X versions I-III. None of those expensive procurements worked, either, but at least they weren’t so obviously futile as the tank battalions. The only truly effective anti-Godzilla technology ever fielded, arguably, was Dr. Serizowa’s Oxygen Destroyer from the first film, but the army looked askance at it since they hadn’t invented it (or paid for it), and they never bothered to redevelop it after its inventor committed suicide and destroyed the formula. Better to spend the money on more tanks, I suppose…

Homeland Security Lesson #5: The Enemy of Your Enemy is Not Necessarily Your Friend

King-Kong-vs-Godzilla photo 2

Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan; I imagine every general on the Japanese army staff was clamoring to claim credit for the supposedly inspired strategy of pitting the more pliable King Kong against the more dangerous foe, Godzilla. However, this strategy could just as easily have gone badly awry. Kong, after apparently vanquishing Godzilla, made the decision to call it a day and head back for Faro Island. But he just as plausibly might have headed back to the coast of Japan. After all, Japan had offered him the enticements of (a) abundant electricity and (b) attractive young girls to paw. And Kong’s feet were just as broad as Godzilla’s, just as capable of stomping rural hamlets into the mud or of kicking over Tokyo radio towers and bashing in venerable Shinto shrines. The Japanese military got lucky. They shouldn’t count on that luck.

King Kong vs Godzilla photo 1

See you next week for more Homeys on Film!

Cover for Hellfire and Damnation

Hellfire and Damnation - High Resolution

This is the cover for my upcoming book, Hellfire and Damnation: the August Micholson Chronicles, Book 2, coming out from MonstraCity Press in August, 2014. And here is the “teaser” for that book:

The second book in the thrilling Civil War steampunk supernatural suspense series begun with Fire on Iron. In this installment in the series, August Micholson must clear his name — he is accused of being a traitor to the Union and a sabateur and faces a court martial. He escapes his prison in an observation balloon, but then he is faced with monumental twin challenges — restoring the mental health of his “madness plague”-striken wife Elizabeth, and figuring out a way to halt General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania!

Here’s a gallery of the work that James of the Humble Nations: the Book Covers, Musings, & Fiction of ‘Cheap Literature’ Smith’ has done for me thus far:

James has hundreds and hundreds of pre-made covers available for writers to purchase for $35 apiece, and he often offers specials on them. If none of his pre-made covers work for you, he also does what he calls “Commission Rapide,” which is where you pick out a few images from ShutterStock and give him your title and instructions, and “Full Commission,” where you let him do all the work and he presents you with three different alternatives. He is very easy to work with and very friendly, and his prices are some of the best out there. As you can see from the gallery above, the quality of his work is quite high (the book covers are all “Commissions Rapide,” and the logo was a complete original that he put together for Dara and me for MonstraCity Press). He does ebook covers and for a small additional charge turns an ebook cover into a full, wrap-around cover for a CreateSpace or Lightning Source/IngramSpark trade paperback. I highly recommend him!

The Decline of the Literary Celebrity

Stephen King

Stephen King

Who would be the most recognizable living literary celebrity to the average man on the street today?

I would guess Stephen King, and that being mainly because so many of his novels have been turned into popular films (and the fact that he, himself, has appeared rather frequently in movies and on television). I would give the runner-up spot to Maya Angelou, and that mainly for her poetic recital at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration and for her political activities on the behalf of Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama since then.

But would the average man on the street recognize the faces of any of the last twenty recipients of the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel, or even the Nobel Prize for Literature? Would they recognize any of their names?

I highly, highly doubt it.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Such was not always the case in the United States. As recently as the 1980s, the face and name of Norman Mailer were immediately recognizable. Now, admittedly, Mr. Mailer was famous for more than his books – he was also famous for stabbing one of his wives and for ticking off a couple of generations of feminists. But in the decades prior to the 1980s, literary celebrities, of whom Norman Mailer was one of the last ones, were not at all uncommon. The names and faces of writers such as Arthur Miller (also famous for his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe), Truman Capote, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway frequently appeared on the covers of such popular periodicals as Life and Time.

But there was a golden age of literary celebrity, prior to the pushing aside of novels as the favorite mass media of cognoscenti and commoners alike, and that was the latter half of the nineteenth century. Then, celebrities such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens could have lived very, very comfortably off just their speaking fees. Before the advent of the movies, radio, and television, they were the Charlie Chaplins and Clark Gables of their day. Then, unlike today, when any potential literary celebrity must have an easy faculty with television, a literary celebrity did not even need to have a pleasant-sounding voice.

I was struck by the following scene from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1870 novel Devils, in which one of the supporting characters, the famed writer Karmazinov, is a wickedly funny caricature of the equally famed real-life Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev:


Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev

“When rumors had reached us of late that Karmazinov was coming to the neighborhood I was, of course, very eager to see him, and, if possible, to make his acquaintance. … When we met he was standing still at the turning and looking about him, attentively. Noticing that I was looking at him with interest, he asked me in a sugary, though rather shrill voice:

“’Allow me to ask, which is my nearest way to Bykovy Street?’

“’To Bykovy Street? Oh, that’s here, close by,’ I called in great excitement. ‘Straight on along this street and the second turning to the left.’

“’Very much obliged to you.’

“A curse on that minute! I fancy I was shy, and looked cringing. He instantly noticed all that, and of course realized it all at once; that is, realized that I knew who he was, that I had read him and revered him from a child, and that I was shy and looked at him cringingly. He smiled, nodded again, and walked on as I had directed him. I don’t know why I turned to follow him; I don’t know why I ran for ten paces beside him. He suddenly stood still again.

“’And could you tell me where is the nearest cab stand?’ he shouted out to me again.

“It was a horrid shout! A horrid voice!

“… I almost turned to run for a cab for him. I almost believe that was what he expected me to do. …

“He suddenly dropped a tiny bag… I flew to pick it up.

“I am convinced that I did not really pick it up, but my first motion was unmistakable. I could not conceal it, and, like a fool, I turned crimson. The cunning fellow at once got all that could be got out of the circumstance.

“’Don’t trouble, I’ll pick it up,’ he pronounced charmingly; that is, when he was quite sure that I was not going to pick up the reticule, picked it up as though forestalling me, nodded once more, and went his way, leaving me to look like a fool.”


Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

I actually had a very similar experience to that of Dostoevsky’s hapless narrator. My run-in was with the famed (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

In 1987 or thereabouts, I was browsing among the long aisles of science fiction and fantasy books at Forbidden Planet, a huge SF, fantasy, and horror books, comics, and toys store located at Broadway and East 13th Street in Manhattan, when I happened to see Harlan Ellison also browsing on the very same aisle. Trying to be as discreet as possible, I spent the next ten minutes following him around the store, staying at least three quarters of an aisle away, checking out what he was checking out. Then, having selected a few books, he went to the register to pay.

With his back turned toward me, I felt liberated to openly stare at the man and his purchases (none of which I can recall). I hid at the edge of an aisle and watched him head for the exit. But just before he left the store, Ellison swiveled around sharply, stared right at me with a sardonic smile, and offered me a little wave. Then he walked outside. Just like Dostoevsky’s narrator, I was left feeling like a fool in my own eyes.

In the science fiction world of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Harlan Ellison was the science fiction world’s Norman Mailer, equally as famous for his outrageous conduct as for the stabbing quality of his writing. His name and face were instantly recognizable to the great majority of science fiction fans, thanks, in part, to his photo appearing on the back dust covers of such seminal anthologies as Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions and for his having written one of the most fondly remembered and honored episodes of Star Trek, the heart-rending “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Yet today, fans of written science fiction are a very minute sub-group of the mass of sci-fi and fantasy fans, most of whom have knowledge of the field that begins either with Star Trek or Star Wars, or any of an innumerable number of sci-fi video games or roleplaying games. I would venture a bet that at DragonCon, perhaps the largest “pure” science fiction convention on the planet, host to up to 40,000 attendees, perhaps two percent of those attendees would recognize the name Harlan Ellison, and considerably less than one percent would be able to pick his photo out of a lineup. Yet as little as thirty-five years ago, his face was one of the most recognizable in the science fiction world. Now only Neil Gaiman, known more widely for his Sandman comics and his leather jacket than for his novels, might be recognized by a fraction as many science fiction fans as Harlan Ellison was recognized by in his heyday. The name George R. R. Martin would be recognized by some, but that is only because his series A Song of Fire and Ice has been turned into the massively popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. The total pool of fans of the genre has grown so much larger, and the space occupied within that fandom by written works has shrunk even faster.

Such is the fate of the literary celebrity today…

5/6/14 Addendum: A commenter over at The Passive Voice writing industry blog points out the case of Michael Chabon. I think Chabon is richly illustrative of the point made by my article. He has won several of the top literary awards; his books, while considered literary fiction, are very accessible to the wider reading public and feature strong, well-constructed plots; he is exceptionally photogenic (People Magazine once named him “One of the Fifty Most Beautiful People in America”); and, much like Ernest Hemingway was in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Chabon is the personification of his era’s dominant/elite conception of masculinity. If this were any time between 1930 and 1980, the era when the mass media lionized top writers, Chabon’s face and voice would be everywhere. But with the splintering of both the mass media and popular culture into thousands of sub-segments, as opposed to the monolithic mass media and pop culture which existed until fairly recently, Chabon is as lost in the crowd as any of us (despite his appearance in People Magazine, which itself does not have nearly the same clout it once had).

Two Dozen Outstanding Independent Bookstores – the Death of the Physical Bookstore is Greatly Exaggerated

Octavia Books in New Orleans

Octavia Books in New Orleans

Whereas many blogs on the publishing field mourn the coming death of the physical bookstore, the membership of the American Booksellers Association (the trade group for independent bookstores) has been gradually growing each year since 2010. And the website has published two lists of outstanding independent bookstores, one listing 45 stores, the other listing 25 stores. These articles are a real treat for lovers of independent bookstores.

Some of these stores are fairly new, founded since the most recent economic downturn. But many of them are long-standing central gathering places for their neighborhoods, their storied existences stretching back over decades.

I’ve gone through the list of 70 independent bookstores and note below the 15 stores I have a personal familiarity with.

Politics & Prose, Washington, DC
This is my current “hometown” bookstore, being only six miles away from my workplace in downtown Washington, DC. I’ll admit to not yet having made the 45 minute subway trip there, but this store has a reputation as one of the most outstanding booksellers in America, so I will get there eventually. Presidents, ex-presidents, and presidents’ wives have given readings here (and maybe I will too, someday).

BookPeople, Austin, TX
I visited this store several times when I lived in New Orleans and used to make fairly regular trips to Austin for ArmadilloCon. Wonderful ambiance, and very friendly to readers of science fiction and fantasy (they have a huge selection of such books).

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, CA
This is one of the most famous bookstores in America, founded by one of the original Beats, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. When I visited San Francisco on business a couple of years back, it was at City Lights that I discovered I needed reading glasses – I spent so long browsing there that I had a splitting headache later that night, and my eyes felt like they were about to fall out of my head. When I got home, I immediately bought a pair of reading glasses, and that fixed the problem. City Lights is also a publisher of poetry, non-fiction, and Beat-related fiction.

Atomic Books, Baltimore, MD
This is a store which I’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t gotten to yet. But I am very familiar with their terrific website, from which I’ve ordered lots of fun and eclectic stuff. Their specialties are graphic novels, pop culture, and alternative/weird lifestyles and fandoms; right up my alley! Baltimore isn’t that far from my home, so I will get there, eventually.

Books & Books, Miami, FL
This is actually an indie-mini-chain of bookstores and coffee spots/booksellers in the Greater Miami area, with the largest and oldest store located in downtown Coral Gables. I did a signing there in 2005, when I was staying in Miami Beach with my family following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (my home city was off-limits for nearly two months). The owner, Mitchell Kaplan, who founded the flagship Coral Gables store in 1982, was a big supporter of Hurricane Katrina relief, running at least one benefit reading during the crisis; for that, I will be forever grateful. Books & Books’ various locations sponsor approximately 60 author readings each month.

Square Books, Oxford, MS
This is one of my favorite stores in the whole world, in one of my favorite small towns (home to William Faulkner, whose house is now a fascinating museum). Two levels of literary goodness; and if you desire literature or non-fiction at a bargain price, Off-Square Books is right around the corner, specializing in quality close-outs. I signed stock there several times in the mid-2000s.

Maple Street Books, New Orleans, LA
For many years, one of my favorite “home town” bookstores. Maple Street Books is the grand-daddy of the Uptown New Orleans independent booksellers, having been founded in 1962 (here’s a terrific article on the store’s history, written by local mystery author Kris Wiltz, who is pretty terrific herself). Many, many were the times I stopped in to browse or to sign stock of the Fat White Vampire books.

Housing Works Bookstore Café, New York, NY
This is a very fun used books store and café in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, where all the books are donated, and all funds raised above operating expenses are donated to various housing-related charities.

D. J. Wills Books, La Jolla, CA
Founded in 1979, this very well-stocked store is also the home of the La Jolla Cultural Society.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
Wow, do I wish the Elliott Bay Book Company was a little closer! I’ve only gotten to visit there twice, once on my honeymoon with Dara in 2003, and the other time on a recent work-related trip. One of the largest bookstores in Seattle, which is one of America’s great cities of readers, and located in historic Pioneer Square, not too far from Underground Seattle (where the TV movie The Night Strangler was filmed). Back in 2003, I bought an issue of Locus Magazine which had one of the first reviews of Fat White Vampire Blues, a review so wonderful it brought tears to my eyes. For that reason alone, I’ll never forget the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Strand Bookstore, New York, NY
Eighteen miles of books! New, used, and close-outs! Three stories big! In the heart of Manhattan! Back when I lived in Long Island, I used to take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan nearly every weekend, and more weekends than not, the Strand was on my agenda. It is a not-to-be-missed destination for any book lover who visits NYC.

Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA
I simply cannot over-praise Octavia Books and its owners Tom and Judith Lowenberg. Tom and Judith hosted the “opening night” readings and signings for both Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampires. They also hosted three annual George Alec Effinger Memorial Readings, each timed to coincide with the release of a new retrospective hardback edition of George’s fabulous short fiction from Golden Gryphon Press (now, sadly, defunct). Octavia Books is far from defunct, however. Tom and Judith were two of the very first merchants to re-open in New Orleans following the re-opening of the city to its inhabitants, and they provided a vital community gathering center and source of “normality” during those stress-filled first several months after the storm. Since then, they have gone from strength to strength, hosting several author events each week (with free refreshments).

Book Revue, Huntington, New York
During the three years I lived on Long Island, this was my home-away-from-home. Along with Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, this is the center of Long Island’s literary culture.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, New York, NY
A fixture of the East Village bohemian scene ever since its founding in 1977, this was also one of my “not-to-be-missed” stops on my long walks from Chelsea to Alphabet City. Open seven days a week until midnight!

Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café, Washington, DC
A fun place to both browse and eat, Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café features late hours, a big menu, and plenty of books to eyeball. I plan to have my fiftieth birthday lunch there.

The lists missed some terrific independent bookstores with which I’m personally familiar. I list 9 additional stores below.

The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN (formerly known as Davis-Kidd Books)
This huge store in Memphis was a centerpiece of my 2004 tour for Bride of the Fat White Vampire. They treated me with exquisite courtesy and are just as welcoming to their customers.

University Books, Seattle, WA
Another of Seattle’s tremendous independent bookstores, this one is close to the University of Washington and features a huge, and very well-curated, science fiction and fantasy section. A highlight of Dara’s and my honeymoon in Seattle, along with the Elliott Bay Book Company.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Seattle, WA
For mystery lovers who are visiting Seattle or who live there, this gem of a store, hidden on a side street in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, nestled between several cafés, is not to be missed. A huge selection of new and close-out mysteries from all the major (and minor) names in the field.

Left Bank Books, Seattle, WA
You revolutionaries and anarchists out there will not want to miss this tiny store nestled within the Pike Place Market, not far from the fresh fish vendors.

Arundel Bookstore, Seattle, WA
A very well-stocked store located just blocks from both the historic Pike Place Market and the Pioneer Square neighborhood; very close to the bay and all its attractions.

Borderlands Books, San Francisco, CA
I am very fortunate that I can call the owner of this wonderful science fiction, fantasy, and horror bookstore, Alan Beatts, my friend. He invited me to do a signing of The Good Humor Man and the Fat White Vampire books at Borderlands on my one and only trip to San Francisco (also home of one of my publishers, Tachyon Publications). I could’ve spent three times the couple of hours I’d allotted for browsing. Borderlands also features a terrific coffeehouse and bakery on the premises.

Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego, CA
This carefully curated science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror bookstore is a San Diego mainstay. They’ve always been big supporters of my Fat White Vampire books. The staff there are extraordinarily knowledgeable about their stock; it’s worth your time to just go spend an hour chatting with them.

Garden District Book Shop, New Orleans, LA
Owner Britton Trice knows his books. He located his store in the historic Rink property in the Garden District of New Orleans, along fabled Magazine Street, upstairs of a popular coffeehouse. Garden District Books specializes in signed books by local authors, so if you want your signed Anne Rice tome, this is the place to get it!

Finally, here’s a story from the 9/23/13 issue of New Orleans Gambit on the state of New Orleans’ indie bookstores, which, considering the small size of the New Orleans market and the large number of independent booksellers, is far more positive than the doomsayers would have you believe. The Uptown Borders Books died a year after it opened (in the shell of the old Bultman Funeral Home, ironically enough), but this cluster of Uptown independent bookstores has been going strong for years.

Hail the independent bookstore! Long may you survive and thrive!

Update on 4/24/2014: Jay Ouzts at the Passive Voice blog reminds me that I missed Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi. How could I possibly forget them???? I actually did a signing there on a couple of occassions for the Fat White Vampire books. One of the nicest independent bookstores in the South, in an absolutely beautifully designed location. Plus, downtown Jackson sports some classic diner-style restaurants, which are a short drive away from Lemuria.

New MonstraCity Press Website Debuts!

Monstracity Press Logo

I’m very proud to announce the debut of the new MonstraCity Press website! The website includes all of MonstraCity Press’ publishing plans through August of 2016, including the continuations of the Fat White Vampire series and the August Micholson Chronicles (the series that begins with Fire on Iron).

Here are the upcoming Fat White Vampire titles:
Fat White Vampire Otaku, (Jules Duchon #3), May, 2014
Hunt the Fat White Vampire, (Jules Duchon #4), February, 2015
Ghost of the Fat White Vampire, (Jules Duchon #5), November, 2015
Fat White Vampire Rehab, (Jules Duchon #6), May, 2016

Here’s a tie-in book that takes place in Jules Duchon’s New Orleans contemporaneously with the catastrophic events of Fat White Vampire Otaku and which explains the origin of Hurricane Antonia (the fictional counterpart of Hurricane Katrina):
The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club, November, 2014

Here are the upcoming August Micholson Chronicles titles:
Hellfire and Damnation, (August Micholson #2), August, 2014
Fire on the Waters, (August Micholson #3), May, 2015
Home Fires, (August Micholson #4), February, 2016

Here are a pair of stand-alone novels:
No Direction Home, (near-future science fiction), August, 2015
The End of Daze, (satirical eschatological fantasy), August, 2016

Dara Fox, my lovely wife, is serving as Managing Editor and Co-Publisher, and I have granted myself the title of Co-Publisher, too.

Please visit the website of MonstraCity Press often!

Update to Upcoming Projects Page

My update to my Upcoming Projects page can be found here. You may be surprised to see how many books I have in the pipeline, including several that will be published later this year by MonstraCity Press. See my Upcoming Projects page for brief descriptions of books 4-6 of the Fat White Vampire series and books 2-4 of the August Micholson Chronicles series, along with descriptions of several stand-alone science fiction novels which I have written and the first three books of the Mount MonstraCity series for middle grade readers (each of which has been written). I hope you’re as excited as I am!

My Friend, Lucius Shepard (August 21, 1943–March 18, 2014)

Lucius Shepard

Many obituaries, many still to be written the world over, will focus on Lucius Shepard’s tremendous body of work in the science fiction and fantasy field. Having known Lucius personally, I’d like to take a different tack. I’d like to focus on the Lucius who was such a good friend to my family and to me.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Lucius not too long after my first novel, Fat White Vampire Blues, hit the bookstores. I believe the first time Lucius and I spoke was at the World Fantasy Convention in Tempe, Arizona just before Halloween of 2004, when my first son, Levi, was less than a year old. Dara and I dressed Levi in a little gorilla costume for Halloween, and we walked from the hotel for some dinner with Lucius. When he found out who I was, Lucius said he’d read my book and told me to expect my protagonist, Jules Duchon, to receive fan mail.

A year later, at ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas, Dara and I saw Lucius again. He mentioned that he’d be coming down to New Orleans to do research at the Tulane University library on William Walker for a book he was writing. Dara and I told him he should stay at our home on the West Bank of New Orleans and that I would be happy to drive him each day to the library and pick him up from the Algiers Ferry landing. While he was staying with us, one of my dining room chairs broke while he was sitting in it. Rather than getting indignant about how the incident might reflect on his great size and weight (Lucius was a big guy), he was incredibly apologetic about breaking my chair. To me, that’s Lucius in a nut shell… a gentle, polite giant, a sort of huge tame bear who had somehow wandered into our home.

This impression I had of him was only solidified later that evening. Dara’s and my cat, Snagglepuss, seemingly escaped the house when Lucius went outside for a cigarette break. Lucius and I spent an hour and a half driving through the neighborhood in search of that cat. I’ll never forget Lucius’s oddly high-pitched voice calling out, “Here, Snaggy! Here, Snaggy, Snaggy, Snaggy!” We later found the cat hiding in one of the rooms inside our home, so he’d never gotten out in the first place. But I’ll never forget Lucius’s very sincere concern. How strange it was, to have had one of the brightest stars in American literature sitting next to me in my little blue Ford Focus, calling out the window for a missing cat!

Lucius did something very special and very touching for me when my family and I were trapped outside our home for months in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Knowing that there was a good possibility that my entire collection of books had been destroyed by the hurricane’s floods (they weren’t, after all, since Dara and I were fortunate enough to live on the West Bank, in a separate flood zone from the rest of New Orleans—but Lucius didn’t know that, and neither did we at the time), and also knowing I had no reading material at the Florida condo where my family and I had taken shelter, Lucius shipped to Florida a carton of all of his books, signed and personalized. I have them on my shelves still.

Sad to say, Lucius and I did not stay in close touch after Hurricane Katrina. We never had any sort of a falling-out; we both just found ourselves too busy to do more than follow each other’s ups and downs on Facebook. I would send him “get well soon!” messages whenever I read that he had had an eye operation or that he was laid up with some sort of an illness (which happened distressingly frequently).

The last time we spoke was the Sunday morning before I suffered my own personal mental breakdown (due to issues completely unrelated to Lucius). A friend of Lucius’s, along with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction’s editor, Gordon Van Gelder, had each emailed me and asked me if I would call Lucius at home so that he could practice his speech. He had suffered a stroke and needed to speak with friends he was comfortable with so that he could regain his speaking abilities. When I reached Lucius that morning, he was astoundingly upbeat about his prospects. I remember telling him, “Lucius, if I ever suffer anything like what you’re going through, I hope I can face it with half the bravery and fortitude you’re showing me this morning. All I can say is, you are a superhero!”

The very next day, I suffered physical symptoms related to my emotional breakdown which mirrored the impact of a stroke. A few weeks after I got out of the hospital, I sent Lucius a message on Facebook telling him about my experience and praising him as my role model; my experience of his bravery and fortitude had helped me get through that awful week in the mental hospital.

I don’t know whether Lucius ever received that message; I don’t know whether his stroke allowed him to check his Facebook messages. I also tried reaching him on the phone again, without success. But I hope he saw it.

Farewell, Lucius. As a friend, a writer, and a human being, you were a superhero to me!

Super-Sized Showa Era Sadness (the Way the Future Once Looked)

These retro-futuristic images from Japanese magazines struck a chord in me. They raised emotions in my breast (bemused sadness and nostalgic longing) which are probably the precise opposite of the emotions their artists, either in the halcyon days of pre-WW 2 Japan or in the wildly optimistic and forward-looking Japan of the early 1960s, intended to inspire when they originally created these images (I imagine the artists, if they had any goal at all aside from cashing a paycheck, wanted to elicit feelings of awe and happy anticipation at the marvels the future would bring).

I think the reason these images inspire bemused sadness and nostalgic longing in me is that they were originally published, not in the pages of Japanese science fiction magazines, but in the Japanese equivalent of our American magazine Popular Mechanics, which meant that these gigantic, awe-inspiring machines were fanciful or fantastical versions of machines which were thought to be (someday) practical and buildable. Suffice to say, Japan never saw propeller driven trains like these envisioned in 1936 (this one’s my favorite in this little selection; just take a gander at those fabulous passengers you can see through the windows!):

Japanese propeller trains from 1936

Or a super ocean liner which, when in distress, could launch self-contained life boat cruisers from a sea-level launching platform (I wonder whether or not the artist had any notion that just a few years after he would pen this drawing, the U.S. submarine fleet would be sending the majority of the Japanese merchant fleet to the bottom of the Pacific; probably not):

Japanese futuristic ocean liner launching life boats in 1936

Or an Arctic exploration vehicle which carries its own biplane (and all with US markings, too, a rather remarkable detail from a drawing published in a late 1930s Japanese popular magazine):

Japanese pre-war US Arctic exploration vehicle

Or this pre-war era car riding on super-sized tires or these boats floating on similarly giant-sized water-propulsion treads:

Japanse futuristic vehicles from 1936

Or these bicycle-like human-powered aircraft from 1965:

Japanese human-powered aircraft from 1965

On the other hand, Japan has witnessed magnetic levitation trains, perhaps not quite as outrageous as this one from 1964, though:

Japanese mag-lev train from 1964 Shonen Magazine

What flittered through my brain as I looked at these images (brought to us by those good folks at the Dark Roasted Blend website, which specializes in daily sharings of retro-futuristic images from around the world) is that the artists who drew them with such optimistic hopes in their souls have either been dead and buried for years or now reside in Japanese nursing homes, and the futuristic vehicles with which they graced the covers and interiors of popular Japanese mechanics magazines either never came to fruition or (like the magnetic levitation train) ended up being super-expensive disappointments.

Oh, well… they’re still marvelous to look at, aren’t they?

Frederik Pohl, Last Link to Science Fiction’s Golden Age, Has Died

Frederik Pohl, born on November 26, 1919, first published (a pseudonymous science fiction poem) in 1937 and continuously active in the science fiction world ever since, died at the age of 93 in Chicago on September 2, 2013. He was the last major figure whose career began during or before science fiction’s fabled Golden Age, that brief span of supercharged storytelling excellence which lasted from 1938 to 1946. His career in science fiction lasted seventy-six years, nearly equaling the longevity record set by his frequent collaborator, Jack Williamson (1908-2006), eleven years Fred’s senior, whose science fiction career spanned seventy-seven years.

Fred’s career was crowned with awards from both the science fiction community and the broader literary world. His 1977 novel Gateway won four major SF awards: the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. Over the span of his career, his works received four Hugo Awards, three Nebula Awards, and two John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. He won the National Book Award for his 1979 novel, Jem. He became the twelfth recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award in 1993. In 1998, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He won his final Hugo Award, granted him in 2010, was (oh-so-fittingly, given his history and roots) in the category Best Fan Writer; he won for his work on his blog, The Way the Future Blogs.

Even given his tremendous output of more than sixty-five novels and thirty short story collections, I would venture that Fred’s greatest contribution to the field of science fiction was as one of the prime architects of its infrastructure. Today’s reality of science fiction as a thriving literary and commercial realm spanning print, film, television, comics, role-playing games, and virtually every other form of popular media would, in all likelihood, never have come into being without the pioneering work Fred performed, both as a fan and as a professional, during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Had Fred and his fellow Futurians (who included Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, Donald Wollheim, and James Blish, among others) not created such a vibrant, resilient, attractive, a creatively fertile fan culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, science fiction as a distinct commercial and literary endeavor probably would have perished in the second half of the 1950s with the death of the pulp magazine industry.

Although the literary roots of science fiction go back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), its establishment as a distinct commercial literary genre did not occur until a little more than a century later, with the publication of the first issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in April, 1926. At the height of the science fiction pulp magazine boom, in the early 1950s, more than sixty SF pulp magazines were being published monthly or bimonthly, allowing dozens of professional writers to make their livings solely or primarily from writing science fiction. However, the boom was followed shortly thereafter by a bust. The demise of the American News Company, the nation’s largest magazine distributor, in 1957 kicked off a chain of adverse circumstances which killed off the majority of the pulps. By 1959, the number of science fiction magazines had shrunk to a bare half-dozen, one-tenth the number of magazines which had been published at the height of the boom. Many professional writers, unable to make enough sales in the severely constricted market, stopped writing science fiction altogether. Some returned to the field in the mid-1960s, when the growth of the markets for paperback original fiction, both novel-length and short fiction, breathed new life into the field. Many, however, abandoned the field forever.

Several once-thriving popular fiction genres did not survive the death of the pulps, or only survived in an extremely attenuated form. Nurse stories, air-war stories, and knightly adventure stories went the way of the buggy whip. Westerns, once enormously popular, nearly disappeared from the marketplace. Yet science fiction survived its near-death experience, to emerge, in the late 1970s, as one of the most dependable and widely popular of the genres of commercial fiction, surpassed in popularity and sales only by romances and mysteries (and, if one takes into account its impact through wider media, science fiction might be said to have leapfrogged those rival genres in influence and popularity).

Fred Pohl had an awful lot to do with this.

the Futurians in 1938, with Fred Pohl in the middle row, second from right

Fred and his fellow Futurians basically established the notion of a farm team for science fiction. He established the paradigm of fans (short for “fanatics,” remember) developing their creative chops by writing and editing fanzines, then transitioning into paying, professional markets. Fred himself laid the groundwork by accomplishing this feat amazingly quickly. With only one professional sale under his belt at the time (the poem, “Elegy for a Dead Satellite: Luna,” published in the October, 1937 issue of Amazing Stories), Fred snagged a position as editor of two lower-rung science fiction pulps, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, in 1939, a position he held until 1943, when he was inducted into the U.S. Army. As editor, he purchased the earliest stories of many of his fellow Futurians (and some of his own, but always under pseudonyms). Even earlier, in 1937, he began a side career as a literary agent, helping launch the careers of many prominent science fiction writers, most notably Isaac Asimov, securing the sale of Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky, in 1950. Fred went on to become editor of two far more prominent science fiction magazines, Galaxy Science Fiction and Worlds of If, from the late 1950s to 1969; during his tenure, If won the Hugo for Best Professional Magazine three years in a row, from 1966 to 1968.

That fan-to-pro progression was key to the science fiction field’s survival and eventual resurgence following the Great Pulp Magazine Die-Off of the late 1950s. Fans didn’t merely read or write science fiction; they believed in it, they lived it, they clutched it to their breasts as a form of religious faith. Only practitioners with that sort of passion for the field and its possibilities could weather an almost complete disappearance of income from their chosen area of endeavor for five to seven years, keeping themselves afloat with other forms of work during the lean years between 1958 and the mid-1960s, when the paperback market began filling up the vacuum left by the death of the pulps. Only writers with an abiding faith in science fiction would dare attempt a career in SF publishing after the flame-outs of so many of their predecessors in the late 1950s. Fred never left the field. Even during its darkest days, he kept the flag of science fiction flying.

The Futurians had their counterparts on the West Coast, in Los Angeles. Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, Ray Harryhausen all began their careers as fans in the late 1930s and went on to major accomplishments in the areas of fiction writing (Bradbury), magazine publishing (Ackerman), and filmmaking (Harryhausen). Many notable science fiction writers who began their careers during the decades following the Golden Age mimicked Fred’s trajectory from young fan to young pro. Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock all made the transition from fan to pro during their teen years. Silverberg began his career in the late pulp era as one of the youngest and most prolific new writers of the mid-1950s. He weathered the near-disappearance of his science fiction markets in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writing best-selling history popularizations, then returned to science fiction in the mid-1960s as a trendsetter of science fiction’s New Wave, publishing a series of novels which became enduring classics. Moorcock emulated Fred’s feat of becoming a teenaged pro editor by becoming editor of Tarzan Adventures at the tender age of 17; he later took over the reins of Britain’s nearly moribund New Worlds science fiction magazine, making that periodical a focal point of the New Wave, publishing stories by J. G. Ballard, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss, and Thomas Disch.

Fred Pohl did not shape the future of science fiction only through his early work as an editor and literary agent and his establishment of the fan-to-pro career path paradigm. He, along with his friend and frequent collaborator Cyril Kornbluth, broadened the fields of scientific endeavors extrapolated by science fiction to include the “softer sciences,” fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, and economics. Their collaborative novel, The Space Merchants (1953) (first published in shorter form as “Gravy Planet” in 1952 in Galaxy Science Fiction), is a key document, the earliest extrapolation of the field of advertising in science fiction; it blazed a trail which led to the enormously influential novels of Philip K. Dick and to much of the work of the writers associated with the New Wave.

Up until the mid-1970s, Fred produced the majority of his fiction in collaboration, most frequently with Cyril Kornbluth and Jack Williamson. However, he experienced a major career resurgence in 1976 with the publication of Man Plus, winner of that year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel, and a new pinnacle in maturity and power for his solo fiction. Following this book, he went from strength to strength, publishing award-winners or nominees Gateway (1977), Jem (1979), Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), and The Years of the City (1984). Following the mid-1970s, when he got his “second wind,” Fred published forty-five novels and story collections – an incredible total for what was essentially a second career, following his first career from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, and certainly an inspiration for any writer feeling fatigued after “only” thirty-five years of work.

As if all these accomplishments weren’t enough, Fred also wrote one of the most readable and fascinating of the memoirs of a life spent in science fiction, The Way the Future Was (1978). This is a must-read, not merely for students and fans of the science fiction field, but also for anyone interested in the history of the Great Depression, of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, and of the growth (and near-demise) of the American Communist Party during the years leading up to World War Two.

Regarding the first half of Fred’s amazing career, I wrote a seven-part series on his partnership and collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth (that series of articles begins here). Using all available sources, comparing various versions of their novels (oftentimes, shorter versions were published first in one of the magazines, usually Galaxy, and were later expanded for book publication), I attempted to unravel the strands of their collaboration, to determine which of the two contributed which ideas, characterizations, and plot developments. I was curious to find out how close to the mark I’d come, so I emailed links to my articles to the only man who could provide confirmation of my theories – Fred Pohl himself. I was extremely gratified to receive return correspondence, in which Fred praised the work I’d done and suggested that I collect the articles into a short ebook (which I just may do one of these days).

Rest in peace, Fred. You were a giant in so many ways, and all of us who labor in the field of science fiction (and its many offshoots) owe you an immeasurable debt of gratitude.

Pacific Rim: Building the Modern Kaiju

I took my three boys to see director Guillermo del Toro’s giant monsters vs. giant robots thriller, Pacific Rim, earlier this week. We all left our neighborhood theater very impressed. I was convinced I’d just seen the most beautifully filmed giant monster sci-fi extravaganza in the history of giant monster sci-fi extravaganzas. In fact, despite an urgent, and I mean urgent need to visit the men’s room which arose about half way through the film’s two and a quarter hours running time, I glued myself to my seat, not wanting to miss even a moment of the spectacle.

This is worth noting, because I’m an old-school giant monster/dinosaur sort of guy; you couldn’t trade me two dozen Jurassic Parks and their CGI ilk for a single Ray Harryhausen-created stop-motion The Valley of Gwangi. I tend to think science fiction and fantasy films which rely upon large amounts of CGI effects (as nearly all do) tend to look monotonously alike and provide very little in the way of visceral, visual thrills. But the CGI artisans of Industrial Light and Magic managed to really wow me with their work on Pacific Rim. The early scenes off the coast of Alaska were particularly striking, as were scenes set in Hong Kong’s Bone Town (itself an effective evocation of Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles) and the climactic scenes of the giant mecha Gipsy Danger’s descent into the Breach, leading into the watery alien dimension from which the giant sea monsters have been emerging.

In an interview from 2012, del Toro stated that he instructed his designers to avoid direct visual quotes from the classic Japanese kaiju and mecha films and TV shows of decades past, even though he meant Pacific Rim to be a loving homage to those childhood delights. Instead, he wanted to aim for “operatic grandeur” and “epic beauty,” and he listed a Francisco de Goya painting, El coloso (The Colossus), as a primary inspiration for the visual take he wished to apply to Travis Beacham’s screenplay. I think del Toro hit his mark. I felt much the same sense of awe and majesty watching the film’s giant robots as I do when looking at Goya’s painting or when reading J. G. Ballard’s classic short story “The Drowned Giant.”

But what made Pacific Rim such a rewarding movie experience for me was that it backed up its evocative, breathtaking CGI effects with a decent script and a set of characters worth caring about. The makers of too many SF and fantasy blockbusters and would-be blockbusters of the post Jurassic Park era have thrown the great bulk of their efforts and budgets into the best CGI money can buy, assuming that “wow-‘em” special effects are all an audience for this type of film require. All too often, story and characters are treated as afterthoughts, appendages to the array of special effects. This may have worked (in terms of ticket sales, if not artistic value) back when CGI effects remained a novelty. But just as the same audiences who were terrified by the approaching locomotive in the 1895 film short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station required an actual story to be entertained a few years later, in 1902, when they went to see A Trip to the Moon, so do we SF and fantasy buffs require more than a really kewwwl spaceship, alien, dragon, or giant monster on screen in order to have an engaging film-going experience.

Central to the film’s plot is the conceit that single pilots lack the brainpower necessary to guide the kaiju-killing giant robots, or Jaegers; in order to prevent mental burnout and brain damage, a minimum of two pilots are necessary, and those two pilots must “drift” together, or establish a neural linkage, in order to make one of the gigantic mechas do its monster-killing thing. This conceit sets up both the protagonist’s tragic backstory (the death of his brother while the two men were linked, fighting a kaiju) and the film’s central love story, and it provides the hinge upon which the film’s climax swings (a supporting character uses the “drift” tech to link into the kaiju’s hive-mind and discover a way inside the enemy aliens’ dimension). This is clever and effective; as a creator of SF and fantasy plots, myself, I can appreciate the storytelling economy which results when a single McGuffin is used for multiple plot purposes.

The set design is especially noteworthy. I don’t believe set design has played this major a role in elevating the quality of a SF film since Blade Runner and the first two Alien movies. Nearly all the film’s settings are in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, so rust is a major element of the movie’s aesthetic. Everything is rusty; if some of the cast members would’ve sat still for more than thirty seconds, I’m sure they would’ve sprouted a patina of rust, too. The scenes depicting the building of the great barrier wall, stretching from Vancouver down to San Diego, have great visual impact, as do the scenes set in the Bonetown neighborhood of Hong Kong, locus for the processing and sales of bits of dead kaiju, which all take place in the shadows of a towering skeleton of one of the dead creatures.

Although the performance of the lead actor, Charlie Hunnam, is merely passable, several of the main and supporting performances rise above the merely pedestrian. Idris Elba has great screen magnetism as the doomed leader of the soon-to-be decommissioned Jaeger force, and Rinko Kikuchi is very appealing as the tough yet vulnerable heroine and love interest, equally adept at kinetic fight scenes and more intimate, emotional tableaus. The film benefits from a trio of comic relief characters who are not complete embarrassments (as such figures often are in SF and fantasy pictures) and who are actually engaging in their own right: Ron Perlman as the leader of the kaiju part selling ring, and Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb as a pair of socially maladroit scientists who study the kaiju and try to predict their attacks for the Jaeger force.

The movie supplies some wonderful “Easter egg” moments for long-time fans of the giant monsters and mecha genres. When fighting one of the kaiju, pilot Raleigh Becket activates Gipsy Danger‘s “rocket punch” feature, which supercharges the robot’s punch and nearly takes the giant sea beast’s head off; that was a wonderful moment for me, turning me back into a kid watching Johnny Socko and his Giant Robot in Voyage into Space. And at the close of the credits, when I saw that the movie was dedicated to the memories of Ishiro Honda and Ray Harryhausen (the latter of whom we lost just earlier this year), I stood up and applauded.

All that said, the movie is not without its flaws. The screenplay, in particular, suffers from several unforced errors, holes in logic which aren’t necessary for the plot to advance. About fifteen minutes into the film, we learn that the Jaeger program is being abandoned in favor of the building of gigantic walls separating coastal metropolises from the Pacific Ocean, from whence all of the giant monsters have emerged. As costly as building a Jaeger robot must be, surely building a three-hundred-foot-high steel and concrete wall along thousands of miles of coastline is infinitely more costly. Also, the entire history of twentieth century warfare demonstrates the superiority of a mobile defense (such as the Jaegers) over a static defense (such as the barrier wall, or its predecessor, the French Maginot Line). Not only that, but the history of the kaiju attacks demonstrates a steady progression in the size and power of the attacking monsters, so that monsters to come are certain to be able to breach the wall (which ends up happening). In battles between the kaiju and the Jaegers, about half the giant robots end up destroyed by the monsters, but the other half succeed in killing the creatures. The Jaeger program is terminated and the robots decommissioned because of a lack of skilled pilots, which has led to the diminishment of the Jaeger fleet. But surely an intensive program to identify and train promising pilots is much more cost-effective than building a barrier wall which is assured to eventually fail.

An even worse unforced error in the script is the chatter amongst a couple of the scientist characters that the present invasion of kaiju is a follow-up to a much earlier invasion from the alien dimension, the invasion which infested our planet with dinosaurs, who were actually advance forces from the alien world. The scientists state that the dinosaur invasion failed because environmental conditions – carbon density in the air, the acidity of the oceans, and global temperatures – weren’t optimal for the invaders eons ago; but since then, mankind has unknowingly “terraformed” Earth into a status much more congenial to the aliens (through our carbon pollution, acid rain, and subsequent global warming). This attempt on the part of the screenwriters to inject some contemporary PC “relevance” into the script is stupid and just plain wrong. First of all, both the carbon content of the atmosphere and global temperatures were MUCH higher in the era of the dinosaurs than now. Secondly, oceans covered a far larger percentage of the Earth’s surface during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Eras than today; the aliens are all water-based creatures, so they should’ve been much happier with Earth eighty million years ago than now. Thirdly, the dinosaurs were Earth’s dominant life forms for over a hundred million years. Yet this is considered an unsuccessful invasion? I call this script stupidity an unforced error because not including it in the dialogue would not have altered the movie’s logic one bit – discarding it would have improved the internal logic of the film’s backstory, in fact.

Another, equally glaring unforced error in the script is Jaeger Force commander Stacker Pentacost’s statement to hero Raleigh Becket that he has a plan to stop the kaiju invasion once and for all; this is how he tempts Raleigh out of his five-year retirement from piloting Jaegers, following the death of Raleigh’s brother. Pentacost’s plan? To have a Jaeger enter the top of the Breach in the mid-Pacific Ocean and drop a nuclear bomb down the throat of the narrow gateway between universes and collapse it. Glaring script problem/unforced error? Raleigh tells his new partner, Mako, that the Jaeger force has tried that exact same plan before and it failed. So why do any of them expect it to work a second time? And why risk the last Jaegers remaining on the planet to carry out a plan which has already been a botch? Later in the movie, Newton Geiszler, the scientist who successfully drifted with the remnants of a kaiju brain, uses his new expertise to discover a way around what made the nuke-dropping plan fail the first time, just in time to prevent the pilots of Gipsy Danger from making the same mistake all over again. This plot twist would have still worked had there not been any earlier attempt to drop a nuke into the Breach. Getting rid of this earlier attempt would mean Pentacost, Raleigh, Mako, and the rest of the Jaeger Force wouldn’t look like clueless doofuses for risking everything on a plan that had already failed due to unknown causes.

Although I list the film’s design team as one of its major strengths, I have to admit that it fell down for me in one key area – creature design. Too many of the movie’s numerous kaiju look and act too similarly to one another; with a few exceptions, it as though we are seeing the same creature attack again and again (the only one which stands out in my head is the one with wings). None of the creatures is given any personality whatsoever, beyond a “Hulk smash!” sort of destructive mania. Also (but this is a criticism I could hurl at most CGI creature movies), the monsters move about so quickly, in such a confusing whirl of motion, that we viewers never get a really good look at any of them. This is in contrast with the long, lingering views of the giant robots we are treated to.

All in all, despite my mostly script-related disappointments listed above, I hugely enjoyed watching this movie, and it is one of the very few creature films of recent years that I am eager to see again (if for nothing else, just to immerse myself in the rich visual spectacle again). An interesting question to ponder is whether Pacific Rim renders the next big kaiju project from Legendary Pictures, the 2014 American remake of Godzilla, entirely superfluous. What will the new Godzilla be able to bring to the screen which hasn’t already been surpassed by Pacific Rim?

Yes, Godzilla has a rich, sixty-year history, a tremendous supporting cast of fellow kaiju, and, in some of his incarnations, at least, a comparatively complex personality (compared to your typical dinosaur, that is) – Godzilla has been a parent, an ally to fellow kaiju and giant mecha, a determined foe of invading aliens, and a sometimes friend, sometimes enemy to humanity. However, judging from interviews with Frank Darabont, screenwriter of the Godzilla reboot, it sounds as if all those unique elements of the Godzilla mythos listed above will be tossed out the window. Darabont, acting as though he has never seen any of the dozen or so films of the Heisei or Millennium Series Godzilla movies, explains that he wants to return Godzilla to his 1954 roots as a terrifying force of nature. He heaps considerable scorn on the later films of the Showa Series, wherein Godzilla mellowed somewhat and actually displayed a sense of humor.

But if Godzilla in 2014 is to be a terrifying force of nature, and that is all, what will separate him from the kaiju of Pacific Rim? What will set the reboot above the earlier film for audiences who have already viewed Pacific Rim? The 2013 film featured at least ten rampaging giant monsters. Doesn’t that trump just one? Pacific Rim succeeded on the strength of its story, its characters and character interactions, and its gorgeous design sense. The new Godzilla, with only one giant monster (I assume) and no giant robots, will need to be amazingly strong in the story and characters/performances departments to just equal, much less surpass, Pacific Rim.

Given that getting a good, solid script down on paper seems to pose a far stiffer challenge to today’s producers of movie blockbusters than nailing the special effects, I fear that Legendary Films may end up disappointing those fans of Pacific Rim who hope to be even more wowed by the reboot of Godzilla next year. I hope they will manage to pleasantly surprise me.

Will the Rise of Self-Publishing Change the Portrayal of Commerce in Science Fiction?

The devious, scheming, evil Ferengi — emblematic of businesspeople in science fiction?

The confluence this year of Independence Day, my wife and I starting our own small business (MonstraCity Press), and my coming across this article, called “Commerce and Art,” got me to thinking about my own field of the arts, science fiction, and how commerce, entrepreneurship, and business in general are portrayed. Also, knowing that authors often write what they know best, modeling their protagonists’ careers on their own day jobs, I began wondering whether the ongoing shift in the production of both physical books and ebooks from traditional, large publishing concerns to micro-firms controlled by the authors themselves would have any impact on the portrayal of merchants and commerce in science fiction.

First, I wanted to see what is out there currently. I turned to that crutch for the quick-and-dirty researcher, Google, and did some searches. It turns out that most portrayals of commerce and business in science fiction are of large corporations. And those portrayals, to put things bluntly, aren’t pretty. Near the top of the Google results, I came across lists of the Top Five Most Reprehensible Corporations in Science Fiction, the Ten Most Evil Corporations in Science Fiction, and Fifteen Evil Corporations in Science Fiction.

Noticing a theme? Here’s a revealing quote from the first of these lists which neatly sums up their content: “From an early age, we science fiction nerds have been taught that all corporate entities, regardless of size or field of interest, are inherently evil and seek only to make the lives of the little people more and more miserable.” An article called “Corporations in Science Fiction” makes this similar observation:

“Whether describing a society in which governments have been replaced by greedy megacorporations, or one in which each individual is required to be incorporated at birth, science fiction has overwhelmingly tended to cast business as the villain.”

Were there any corresponding lists of positive (or at least non-evil) portrayals of businesses, businesspeople, or entrepreneurs in science fiction? I couldn’t find any. So I decided to perform a little experiment with a relatively brief survey of the field I had at hand, 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels, a list compiled by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison published in Britain in 2006. This minute book was handy for my purposes because it gives plot summaries and overall reviews for a hundred prominent science fiction novels, dating from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus to almost the present day.

I went looking for examples of prominent SF novels whose protagonists were businesspeople or entrepreneurs, especially curious to see if any were shown in a positive light. I found four. Barrington J. Bayley’s The Garments of Caen (1976) features a hero who is a tailor and entrepreneur in a galaxy where couture influences the destinies of worlds. Michael Bishop’s Ancient of Days (1985) centers on sympathetic restaurant owner Paul Lloyd, who becomes involved in a menage a trois with a specimen of Homo Habilis. The alien protagonist of Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) acts as a benevolent inventor and business owner while trapped on Earth and attempting to send water back to his parched planet. Bob Shaw’s Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) offers up the most intriguing example of a scientific entrepreneur on this brief list: Alban Garrod, who inadvertently invents slow glass, patents it, and then watches as his invention and resulting products change the world. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1952) does center on a protagonist who is the owner and CEO of a large corporation, Ben Reich, but Reich is a murderer and an antihero, so I can’t count this one as a positive portrayal.

I did a bit more digging and came up with a tiny handful of other positive portrayals of merchants or businesspeople in SF. A. E. van Vogt gave us the weapons makers and sellers of The Weapons Shops of Isher, who function as a counterbalance to that world’s government. Poul Anderson provided us with Nicholas van Rijn, a flamboyant Dutch capitalist adventurer who stars in Anderson’s series of Technic History novels. The hero of George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy, which is set in a future Islamic caliphate, is a fixer for a local gangster but also owns a club, where much of the novels’ action takes place. F. Paul Wilson’s popular Repairman Jack character can be seen as a sort of entrepreneurial small businessman, specializing in assisting customers with resolving problems of a supernatural or otherworldly sort (although the Repairman Jack books are more properly categorized as horror, rather than SF).

Very early, pre-Amazing Stories science fiction often focused on inventor-entrepreneurs as heroes. Thomas Edison himself is featured as the hero of Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss. Young inventor Tom Swift, created by Edward Stratemeyer, was the hero of more than a hundred juvenile novels by ghostwriters writing under the pseudonym Victor Appleton, published beginning in 1910. But Big Science, by the 1930s (and the beginnings of science fiction’s Golden Age), had passed the stage of the individual inventor/science entrepreneur and moved on to the realm of large corporations, governmental bureaus, and universities. So the engineer heroes of the Campbellian Golden Age were usually portrayed as the employees of large concerns, rather than as individual economic actors.

Still, by the 1950s, the science fiction published in Galaxy and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy had begun focusing on sociology, social psychology, and economics as types of scientific knowledge to be extrapolated. Commerce, the production of goods and the trading of those goods, is a basic human activity, present in one form or another in all human societies operating beyond a hunting and gathering stage. One might expect the number of stories and novels focusing on extrapolations of commerce would at least approximate the numbers of stories and novels featuring extrapolations of other basic societal and human functions, such as education, governance, diplomacy, reproduction, warfare, parenthood, and the arts. But aside from The Space Merchants and the almost entirely negative portrayals of large corporations alluded to above, there is surprisingly little in the SF canon.

Eric S. Raymond offers an explanation of why this is so is an article entitled “A Political History of SF.” He postulates that Campbellian Hard SF, the type of science fiction published in Astounding Stories and Analog from the late 1930s through John W. Campbell’s death in 1971, formed the ur-SF that all subsequent literary movements in science fiction (he lists these as the works of the Futurians, followed by New Wave in the 1960s, cyberpunk in the 1980s, and Radical Hard SF in the 1990s and beyond) have been reactions against. He describes the outlook of Campbellian SF as essentially Libertarian: “…ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion.” Accordingly, as this outlook tended to view commerce with an approving or at least neutral eye, the reactionary movements in SF (which have produced the bulk of what is generally considered the SF canon since the mid-1950s) have viewed commerce and capitalism with suspicion, if not hostility.

I would add another hypothesis: that a condemnatory attitude toward commerce and businesspeople among many SF writers stems in great part from larger trends affecting all writers in America since the mid twentieth century, not only the writers of speculative fiction. SF had its start as a brand of commercial fiction in an era during which the great bulk of fiction produced and sold was both commercial and disposable – the era of the pulp magazines. From the 1950s forward, however, many leading SF writers chose to raise their sights higher and aim for producing art literature, or at least fiction which could be enjoyed by a thoughtful, educated, literate reading public, highbrow or at a minimum midbrow. Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy in the 1950s, sought to publish a magazine which would be the equivalent of a New Yorker sold several centuries hence. The writers who formed the New Wave sought to incorporate the stylistic innovations of the Modernists into science fiction. Since the 1970s, science fiction has become an acceptable topic of discourse on college campuses, and more and more SF writers have as their day jobs teaching at post-secondary schools, just as a sizable percentage of literary/mainstream/non-genre authors have made their primary livings as university teachers since the beginnings of what has been called the Program Era in American fiction, the rise to dominance in American literary publishing of the graduates of creative writing programs.

So a goodly part of the herd of SF writers may be walking the same paths as the larger, or at least higher-status, herd of mainstream fiction writers. Stephen Miller, in his recent article “Commerce and Art,” states:

“Disdain for commerce is what might be called a topos—a recurrent theme in Western literature. … There are sympathetic portraits of businessmen in novels by Abraham Cahan, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis; yet after World War II, most American literary writers painted the business world in dark colors. In 1978, John Gardner complained that most contemporary American writers preached ‘a whining hatred of American business.’ … Jonathan Franzen takes the usual literary view of commerce. He argues that Edith Wharton ‘anticipates two … hallmarks of American society, the obliteration of all social distinctions by money and the hedonic treadmill of materialism.’”

Literary critic D. G. Myers has bemoaned the absence of meaningful, sympathetic portrayals of work in recent American literature. Nicole of the blog Bibliographing follows up on Myers’ comments by postulating that much of this absence of “real work” in American literature is due to the distance most American authors have maintained from any sorts of work apart from a limited number of white-collar professions:

“I suspect … that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the old complaint about ‘program fiction.’ If writers are ‘writers’ (and yes, I know many struggle and need to have day jobs to actually support themselves), if they go from BA to MFA to novel-writing, and if this is the new normal, and their peers all do the same, how much variety of experience outside a few professions are we now drawing on in contemporary fiction?

“I say ‘contemporary fiction’; I admit that I am largely thinking of a current New York–based literary scene that does, however, seem to dominate American letters at the moment. Not every character in these books is a writer, though they are often noted for their writer-narrators. But there is a fairly small circle of professions that are ‘acceptable,’ for lack of a better term, in contemporary fiction: writers, designers, journalists, perhaps lawyers and doctors, maybe a chef or two, professors, professors, professors, writers, writers… a ‘creative class,’ if you will.”

I’d like to add another point; that would be the influence of gatekeepers, particularly editors at large publishing houses, over what appears on those houses’ SF lists. Since the 1990s, the consolidation of publishing firms into sprawling corporate concerns (a number of which contain publishing arms as very minor portions of their overall business plans) has produced a publishing environment in which editors have shrinking amounts of influence over the publishing process, as opposed to that exercised by the denizens of the Marketing and Profit-and-Loss departments. Acquiring editors must “push” the books they favor through onerous layers of bureaucracy. Might not their own baleful experiences in their places of work, which chip away at their self-worth and make mockery of their early ambitions to work in the publishing industry, be reflected in their choices of manuscripts? Might not the prevalence of the trope of the “evil corporation” on the lists of Tor Books, Del Rey, Victor Gollancz, Bantam Spectra, et. al., be a gesture of “Screw the Man!” from an editorial corps whose members view themselves as white-collar cogs in a grinding corporate machine? If true, this wouldn’t surprise me.

And now we come to the biggest, most disruptive change in the publishing of science fiction since the popularization of mass-market paperback books and the death of the pulp magazines – the emergence of ebooks, print-on-demand books, and an easily and widely accessed electronic infrastructure for the sales of such items. A major mode of production and distribution of written works is now in the hands of writers themselves. Many SF and fantasy writers who launched their careers publishing the traditional way will want to continue having their books put out by the big houses. But more and more will find themselves with no choice but to take up the reins of publishing, marketing, and distribution themselves, as the shrinking number of large houses purge their lists of mid-list authors and begin concentrating solely on that small stable of writers who can reliably produce bestsellers.

Writers have always been small businesspeople: contractors who produce novels, stories, and scripts for other businesspeople to distribute to the reading/viewing audience. But many writers have not seen themselves in this role, instead seeing themselves as employees of publishing houses (or even, as literary agents have taken over editorial responsibilities formerly exercised by editors at publishing houses, as employees of their own agents). Many writers I’ve known (and I count myself as formerly among this number) prefer a world in which they are only responsible for the creation of texts, wherein all the other responsibilities inherent in publishing – editing, cover design, production, finding and nurturing an audience – are the tasks of other people. But for more and more of us, that world is no longer an option.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Being forced to take up the reins of publishing means being forced out (kicking and screaming, possibly) into the broader world of commerce. This can be an eye-opening experience, one which challenges many previously held beliefs and assumptions. One story along these lines which I really appreciate is the story of former Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. After his retirement from the Senate, Senator McGovern decided to purchase an inn in rural Connecticut, the Stratford Inn. He wrote very honestly about his experiences as a business owner. The difficulties of complying with a tangle of federal, state, and local regulations drove him into bankruptcy and forced him to close his business. He writes:

“Calvin Coolidge was too simplistic when he observed that ‘the business of America is business.’ But like most sweeping political statements, even Coolidge’s contains some truth — enough, as I’ve learned, to make me wish I had known more firsthand about the concerns and problems of American businesspeople while I was a U.S. senator and later a presidential nominee. That knowledge would have made me a better legislator and a more worthy aspirant to the White House. … (L)egislators and government regulators must more carefully consider the economic and management burdens we have been imposing on U.S. business. … I’m for protecting the health and well-being of both workers and consumers. I’m for a clean environment and economic justice. But I’m convinced we can pursue those worthy goals and still cut down vastly on the incredible paperwork, the complicated tax forms, the number of minute regulations, and the seemingly endless reporting requirements that afflict American business. Many businesses, especially small independents such as the Stratford Inn, simply can’t pass such costs on to their customers and remain competitive or profitable. … I do know that if I were back in the U.S. Senate or in the White House, I would ask a lot of questions before I voted for any more burdens on the thousands of struggling businesses across the nation.”

Those are the word of a man whose experiences, late in his life, after he had already experienced a lifetime in politics at the highest levels (and as a tribune of the left wing of the Democratic Party), profoundly changed his thinking.

Just taking the first few steps in setting up a small business with my wife has exposed me to a whole world of activities with which I had no prior familiarity. Dara and I are both having to learn bucket loads of new skills, and learn them in a hurry. Many others have already walked this path ahead of us and have offered us the benefits of their experiences. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written very eloquently about the emotional challenges a writer faces when he or she becomes his or her own boss. Sarah Hoyt is another interesting and independent-minded author who is currently straddling the worlds of traditional publishing (she has a good thing going with Baen Books and a history with several other major houses) and indie publishing (mostly short stories for now, but she is moving towards putting up more of her novels herself as ebooks and POD books). Others are pioneering news ways of building a career in speculative fiction. Cory Doctorow is an advocate for the liberalization of copyright laws and has published several of his books under Creative Commons license, as well as having some of his novels traditionally published by Tor Books. The husband and wife team of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have operated their own small presses, Buzzcity Press and the Ministry of Whimsy Press, as well as packaged anthologies and coffee table books for other publishers, edited magazines, and published books with traditional large houses.

People learn by doing. Writers write what they have learned. Now that more and more science fiction writers are learning the skills required by small businesspeople, will at least some of the science fiction novels and stories of the future reflect a deeper insight into the psyches of merchants and the challenges posed by commerce? Twenty years from now, will it be just as easy to find online lists entitled “Ten Most Awesome Scientific Entrepreneurs in Science Fiction” or “Fifteen Heroic Businesspeople in SF” as it is to find “Top Five Most Reprehensible Corporations in Science Fiction”?

We shall see. We most definitely shall see.

Richard Matheson: He is Legend Now

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87 on June 23, 2013. Locus Online and Variety are two of hundreds of publications which have or soon will publish obituaries and tributes to one of the titans of twentieth century horror and science fiction.

I would struggle to add anything new to the commentary regarding Matheson’s literary and film output and its significance to the broad American culture. But what astonishes me personally is the realization of what a huge impact Richard Matheson had on my own childhood. The man was simply all over the map of early 1970s popular culture. When I was a kid in my most formative proto-geek years (the years between the ages of 6 and 11, which would be from 1971 or so to 1976 or so), hardly a month went by when I wasn’t exposed to another product of Matheson’s prolific pen. Exposed to it and imprinted by it. He was every bit as ubiquitous throughout the media of the early Seventies as his disciple Stephen King was in the Eighties.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane here…

I’m almost certain my first dose of Richard Matheson must’ve been repeated viewings on TV (either Saturday afternoon movies or Saturday night Creature Features) of The Incredible Shrinking Man. The 1957 film, whose Matheson-penned script was based on the author’s 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, is probably best remembered for its iconic images of its tiny protagonist battling a spider with a pin or inhabiting a doll house. But when I was a kid, the elements which burrowed their way most deeply into my consciousness were the film’s quieter, more subtle moments. The opening scene, for example, when the hero, aboard his boat, is enveloped by a cloud of radioactive particles or toxic pollutants, is supremely creepy. Subtly horrifying are the first indications that the hero is shrinking… his clothes no longer fitting, his wife noticing that she is now taller than her husband, and, the real gut-punch, when his wedding ring falls off his shrunken finger. The film ends in a way vastly different from any other movie I had ever seen to that point (and different from most films I’ve seen since). The hero neither dies nor triumphs. He is left in a state of ambiguous hope, free at last from the cellar which had imprisoned him and in which he had nearly died several times, but now faced with the potentially greater hazards, all of them unknown, to be found in his own, continent-sized backyard. That ending gave me shivers of wonderment, and it still manages to do so.

Much of Matheson’s earlier work in TV and film played in frequent syndication on the limited television channels of my youth. At least a couple of times a year, my local CBS affiliate would schedule an “Edgar Allan Poe Week” for its afternoon movies slots, meaning I could enjoy Roger Corman thrillers such as House of User (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963) with my mother after I came home from school, before I had to start my homework. All featured screenplays by Richard Matheson. The last picture on this list, The Raven, was actually a comedy about the magical escapades of rival sorcerers, played by Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre; its connection to Poe’s poem “The Raven” was extremely tenuous. Still, it remains a fun and lively piece of work (unlike Matheson’s follow-up horror comedy, 1963’s The Comedy of Terrors, whose leaden, utterly unfunny script wastes the talents of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price; I saw it recently on Netflix and think the script is the worst Matheson ever put to paper, by far; he wanted to write a sequel, but The Comedy of Terrors was a relative flop, so the sequel never saw the light of day, to the benefit, I’m sure, of Matheson’s reputation).

Then, of course, there was The Twilight Zone, whose syndicated reruns formed another staple of my youthful media diet. Matheson’s involvement with the series began in its first season, when Rod Serling adapted two of Matheson’s short stories into episodes: “And When the Sky was Opened” and “Third from the Sun.” Matheson wrote an additional fourteen Twilight Zone scripts himself, including some of the series’ most famous and well-regarded episodes, “The Invaders,” “Steel,” and William Shatner’s star turn in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” One of my favorites of Matheson’s scripts was for another episode starring William Shatner, the low-key but paranoia-wracked “Nick of Time,” set entirely in the booth of a diner. Other Matheson scripts included “The Last Flight,” “A World of Difference,” “A World of His Own,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Mute,” “Death Ship,” “Night Call,” and “Spur of the Moment.”

That was the old stuff. But the first half of the Seventies was crammed full of Richard Matheson projects, most of them on television, where I could catch their original broadcasts and the reruns (which I would assiduously scan my weekly issue of TV Guide looking for; my mother had a subscription, as I suspect most mothers of the time did).

1971 brought us Duel, an ABC “Movie of the Week” that was Steven Spielberg’s first directorial triumph. Matheson wrote the script based on his 1971 short story of the same name, published in Playboy. What a suspenser! Who can forget the horrific vehicular bullying suffered by poor Everyman Dennis Weaver at the hands/eighteen wheels of an anonymously malevolent truck driver, whose face we never see? What an impact that movie had on me as a kid!

1971 was also the year in which the second film adaptation of Matheson’s classic vampire novel, I Am Legend (1954), The Omega Man, hit the theaters. This film I didn’t see until a few years later, when it showed up on TV. But it was the first film that genuinely made my skin crawl; even Scream, Blacula, Scream! and The Return of Count Yorga hadn’t managed that. Those albino plague victims (even though they weren’t portrayed as vampires, unlike in the source novel), really freaked me out. I’d watched The Omega Man at least a dozen times before I ever saw the first film adaptation of I Am Legend, 1964’s low-budget The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and released by American International Pictures. Matheson, who did not have a hand in the script for The Omega Man, did work on the script for The Last Man on Earth, but he ended up very dissatisfied with the result, the product of four different writers; in order to retain his residuals, he allowed himself to be credited as “Logan Swanson.”

Undoubtedly, the best exposure to I Am Legend is to read the original novel itself. It is a short book, easily finished in the space of a single evening. One of my top recommendations for anyone who wishes to scare themselves silly is to read I Am Legend alone, at night, in a mostly darkened house. It was the first application of the techniques of science fiction to the subject of vampirism, and, as such, is a lodestone for all the vampire fiction that followed. Not only that, but the book grants Matheson a kind of grandfatherly paternity for the whole subgenre of zombie fiction, TV, and films. George Romero has said that the slow-moving, shuffling vampire hordes of The Last Man on Earth were a primary inspiration for his flesh-eating zombies in Night of the Living Dead. So, arguably, had there been no I Am Legend, there would be no The Walking Dead on AMC today.

Night Gallery was Rod Serling’s follow-on to his cult classic series The Twilight Zone (although Serling ended up with far less creative control over this series than he had with his seminal earlier one). Despite the myriad ways in which Night Gallery can be said to fall short of The Twilight Zone, the series featured a number of memorable episodes based on classic stories by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. Serling also called upon his old collaborator Richard Matheson to work with him again; Matheson provided scripts for the 1971 episode “Big Surprise,” based on his 1959 short story, and for the 1972 episode “The Funeral,” based on his 1955 short story. I have fond memories of Night Gallery (and I really should take another look at the best episodes on Netflix). Also in 1972, Matheson provided the script for the one-hour pilot episode of Ghost Story, NBC’s effort to compete with Night Gallery. Despite being hosted by a creepy Sebastian Cabot (and yes, Sebastian Cabot could be very creepy when he wished to be; see the end of The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” for what I mean), Ghost Story didn’t do as well in the ratings as Night Gallery, and a mid-season renaming of the series to Circle of Fear failed to save it from cancelation. But while it was on the air, I watched it every week.

In early 1972 I was hypnotized by one of Matheson’s best projects ever, his script for the ABC made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker. This film was, of course, the source material for the well-loved (and much syndicated) TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, which ran on ABC during the 1974-75 season and which starred Darren McGavin, reprising his role as reporter Carl Kolchak. Matheson didn’t write any of the scripts for the series (which remains a great favorite of mine), but his script for the original movie won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A year after the first movie’s broadcast in January, 1972, ABC aired a sequel, The Night Strangler, which also featured a script by Richard Matheson. Although not as well remembered as the original film (with its savage vampire), the sequel has its own merits, particularly its eerie setting in the Seattle Underground (which impressed me enormously as a kid; I finally got to see the place myself as a 39 year-old, on my second honeymoon).

How does an author help to ensure that a film adaptation of one of his books or stories is up to snuff? Adapt it himself! Richard Matheson followed this advice as frequently as possible. Not always with favorable results — see my notes above on his reaction to the script for The Last Man on Earth. However, he enjoyed a much better experience (and made a far superior film) with The Legend of Hell House, his 1973 script based on his 1971 novel Hell House. This is another film from the early Seventies that I caught on TV a few years later. I consider it one of the best haunted house films ever made, ranking up there with the original adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting. Roddy McDowell (fresh from his star turns in the Planet of the Apes series, including Battle for the Planet of the Apes, released the same month as The Legend of Hell House) is splendid as a paranormal investigator, and the film’s ghostly villain, Emeric Belascoe, is one of the most memorable menaces in the genre. This movie had almost as big an impact on me as a kid as The Omega Man.

Rounding out his Murderers Row of early Seventies projects was the classic Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 ABC made-for-TV movie which was based on three of Matheson’s short stories. Everybody who has seen it remembers the segment called “Amelia,” based on the short story, “Prey” (this was the only one of the three segments for which Matheson wrote the script; the other two were adapted by William F. Nolan from Matheson’s stories). Karen Black stars in all three segments; in “Amelia,” she plays a woman who lives alone and unwisely brings a cursed Zuni fetish doll into her apartment as a decoration. This is the movie that type-cast Karen Black and relegated the rest of her career to roles in B-movie horror pictures; the former A-list actress (nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces) later said in an interview, “I think this little movie took my life and put it on a path that it didn’t even belong in.” But many fans of the horror genre would agree that Karen Black’s loss was our gain; few actresses are more closely associated with the horror genre of the Seventies, and much of that association is due to the indelible impression she made in Trilogy of Terror.

Wow! What a list of memory-makers from my childhood! And all from the pen/typewriter of one man, Richard Matheson. Mr. Matheson, thank you for the unforgettable images, in prose and on film, you have left for those of us “Born of Man and Woman” on this planet “Third from the Sun;” your “Disappearing Act” has left behind A Stir of Echoes which will never fade. May you find peaceful repose somewhere on The Shores of Space.

Burn the Witch! Swarm Cyber-Shaming in Science Fiction

I have a tremendous amount of fondness for the science fiction community, both professionals and fans. The SF community was boundless in their generosity and support for me and my family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Dara, the boys, and I have all benefitted from the friendships we’ve formed at dozens of conventions and bookstore events over the past decade.

But I feel compelled to point out, or at least suggest, that a vocal and very cyber-visible portion of the SF pro and fan community have not been covering themselves in glory recently. In fact, they have been acting like a mob. A cyber-mob. And a mob is an ugly thing.

Unfortunately, the worst harm to the target of criticism comes not from individual critiques (which vary greatly in their quality of argument; many critiques that I’ve come across do not rely upon any familiarity with the source documents of the controversy at all, merely upon commentary derived from those documents and unsubstantiated assumptions about authorial intent). Individual critiques at least come from individuals, persons who can be responded to and perhaps even persuaded that the critique target’s intentions were not so malign/evil after all. Rather, the worst harm comes from the aggregated mass of such critiques, which tends to snowball, and which unfortunately has snowballed, from the members-only online discussion forums of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to hundreds, if not thousands, of personal blog posts, Facebook posts, and Twitter tweets, and finally to such mainstream publications as Britain’s Guardian newspaper and Slate, the online magazine, which are read by millions who most likely otherwise would have no notion whatsoever of flaring controversies inside the insular subculture of science fiction writers and fans. Once such critiques reach a critical mass and begin snowballing in this way, they become a creature out of the control of any individual actor. This is how reputations are irreparably damaged and careers are thrown off the rails, if not destroyed.

Did the original criticizers want this to happen? In an attempt to be charitable and fair, I will assume that many, if not most, did not. They wanted to make their displeasure known; some wanted to provoke changes which they felt needed to be made in SFWA and its management of the SFWA Bulletin. Some of the criticizers, however, caught up in the adrenaline rush provided by participation in a large group expression of shared moral outrage, are undoubtedly pleased at whatever lasting harm might be done to Barry N. Malzberg and Mike Resnick, the authors of the articles which prompted the online firestorm, and Jean Rabe, the former editor of the Bulletin who commissioned the articles (and who has since resigned her position under pressure).

A bit of self-disclosure: I’ve met Mike Resnick on a couple of occasions at conventions (and I bought some magazines once from him on eBay, too). During our brief conversations, he was cordial, sensible, and seemed to be paying attention to what I had to say (which was either about the writing biz or our shared friendship with Barry). Barry Malzberg, on the other hand, has been a close friend of mine for the past ten years. He has been tremendously gracious and generous during our long correspondence. I have visited him and his wife at their home in New Jersey. Most striking to me have been the reactions of other SF professionals when I’ve mentioned my friendship with Barry. A number of them have shared accounts with me of how Barry reached out to them during low points in their writing or editing careers or personal lives, and how his encouragement, support, and assistance had made a great, positive difference for them. Barry has never discussed any of this with me. But it seems as though if the field of science fiction has a secret saint, that person is Barry Malzberg.

I came late to this particular controversy. This storm has been gathering strength for the past seven months, since the distribution in November, 2012 of issue 200 of the SFWA Bulletin to about 2,000 SFWA members, subscribers, and a thousand or so readers who purchase their copies from a newsstand or bookstore. But the brouhaha truly began blowing up online in late May of this year, after distribution of issue 202 of the Bulletin. I’ve been a SFWA member for the past ten years, so I receive the Bulletin every three months as a perk of my membership. Mike and Barry have been contributing a regular column to the magazine, the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues, since 1998. The column generally consists of the two of them, both old science fiction pro writers whose careers in the field date back to the late 1960s (Barry won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, and Mike was the Guest of Honor at the most recent WorldCon, Chicon 7), bantering back and forth on issues of current import to the publishing world or its science fiction and fantasy corner (such as the emergence of small presses or self-publishing), matters of writerly advice (how to best find an agent or decipher a publishing contract), or surveys of various aspects of the history of the science fiction field (such as the history of women science fiction and fantasy authors and women editors and publishers in the SF field… the stealth minefield onto which they blithely trod in issues 199 and 200 of the SFWA Bulletin). I usually make it a habit to read the newest Resnick/Malzberg Dialogue as soon as I receive my copy of the Bulletin. But starting with issue 199 (the Fall, 2012 issue), my copies of the Bulletin began accumulating on my nightstand, waiting to be read, pushed down on my reading list by big, thick Russian novels and various research books.

It wasn’t until this week that I glanced at the Locus Online website to catch up on SF news and book reviews (I’d also been neglecting both the print and online versions of Locus) and saw a link to the Guardian Online article that I reference above, entitled “Science fiction authors attack sexism in row over SFWA magazine”. Reading it, I learned that Mike and Barry were at the center of an online controversy over alleged sexism in SFWA, which focused both on several of their recent columns and the cover to issue 200 of the Bulletin, which featured an iconic image of a barbarian woman warrior/goddess in a chainmail bikini, brandishing her bloody sword over the corpse of a Frost Giant. The article provided a link to an online roundup of commentary from dozens of science fiction professionals, would-be professionals, and fans. Perusing this long selection of snippets, seventy-six of them at last count, I noted the following epithets being applied to Mike and Barry or to their words: unprofessional (the kindest of the lot), wankers, regressive, outdated, condescending, sources of “sexist douchebaggery,” “misogynistic, irrelevant dinosaurs,” “old men yelling at clouds,” “majority men in power,” “hideous, backwards, and strangely atavistic,” “blithering nincompoops,” antiquated, “deeply offensive,” “at best stupid and at worst censorious,” “sexist dippery,” gross, “never ending stream of sexism,” shitty, prehistoric, and, perhaps most colorful, “giant space dicks.” Also linked to on this list was a charming blog post entitled, “Dear Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick: Fuck You. Signed, Rachael Acks” (which, incidentally, is the #3 search result of 187,000 results when you type in the words Barry Malzberg into Google’s search bar).

Holy bejezzus, I thought to myself as I read through this list. What did Mike and Barry do? Had they gone all Westboro Baptist Church in one of their recent columns?

I went home that night and dug my most recent four issues, all previously unread, of the Bulletin out of my “to be read” pile. And I read all four Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues in order (the Dialogue from issue 201 plays no part in the brouhaha).

Never in my forty-eight years have I witnessed such an immense chasm yawning between an inciting incident and the level of vitriol it inspired.

Let me provide a bit of background. In their fifteen years of writing Dialogues together (I’ve read about three-quarters of their columns), Mike and Barry have developed a comfortable, familiar, semi-comedic shtick, complete with complementary personas (Mike is the can-do, look-on-the-bright-side face of the duo, whereas Barry typically luxuriates in his role as the Eeyore of science fiction). Both gentlemen are in their seventies and have been around the block many, many times, so quite a few of their columns, particularly the retrospective, survey-of-the-field entries, have a “those were the days” sensibility to them. They strive to share with their readers a feel for what it might’ve been like to belly up to the bar at the 1975 WorldCon and eavesdrop on the shop talk and gossip of some of the “old pros.” I readily admit that I eat this kind of stuff up; I’m a buff for any in-depth history of the field, replete as it is with such colorful personalities and their exploits, and I’ve happily devoured Barry’s, Fred Pohl’s, Jack Williamson’s, and Damon Knight’s memoirs over the years. Mike’s and Barry’s sensibilities in their columns cannot be fully appreciated unless one understands that they were both fans before they ever became professionals. They love science fiction and its traditions, and they are passionate about it. Having both been active in the field, either as aficionados or as pros (frequently as both), for going on fifty-five years, they have a wealth of personally experienced or second-hand anecdotes to share, and they delight in doing so. When writing their surveys of the field, whether they are focusing on writers, editors, publishers, agents, or artists from the Golden Age of SF to the present day, they try to insert some colorful anecdotes about each notable they discuss, in order to flesh out the personalities of oftentimes obscure, forgotten, and/or long-dead figures. Barry, in particular, has dedicated a large chunk of his career to attempts to rescue beloved predecessors from the darkness of obscurity (see the essays in his The Engines of the Night, Breakfast in the Ruins, The End of Summer: Science Fiction of the Fifties, The Science Fiction of Kris Neville, The Science Fiction of Mark Clifton, and Neglected Visions). Both men enjoy gossip, the sort of stories which used to be (and maybe still are) traded back and forth at convention bars, and given the tangled, intertwined personal histories of many major figures in the field (multiple tomes have been written about the love lives and swapped spouses of the Futurians, just to cite one example), there is a lot of old gossip to share. (And in case you consider this a strike against them, please ponder the high percentage of even the highest-toned literary biography which is composed of what is actually well-sourced gossip.)

The editor of the Bulletin, Jean Rabe, asked Barry and Mike to write a column or two on the history of women in science fiction. This request resulted in two columns, published in issues 199 and 200, entitled “Literary Ladies: Part One” (focusing on writers) and “Literary Ladies: Part Two” (focusing on editors and publishers). One of the pair (I suspect it is Mike) has a longstanding weakness for alliteration; thus, the “LL” of “Literary Ladies.” In accordance with the titles of the articles, Mike and Barry frequently (but by no means exclusively) refer to their subjects as “lady writers,” “lady editors,” or “lady publishers” (there are a few “lady agents” mentioned, too).

This use of “lady” as a modifying adjective is one of the primary complaints the legions of critics online have hurled at Mike and Barry, a main plank in their contention that the pair are “reactionary, shitty, prehistoric, misogynistic, giant space dicks” (to mash up just a few of the pejoratives I’ve quoted in the list above). Now, maybe it’s just me, but I have never encountered the use of the word “lady” as a pejorative or even as having a negative connotation. At least when I was growing up, it was a compliment, a label for those of the female gender to aspire to. Is the word a bit old-fashioned? Sure. Does it have a bit of a musty smell about it? A case could certainly be made. Is it mean-spirited? Hell, no.

And that’s before we even get to the actual content of these two articles. Barry and Mike praise their pantheons of women writers, editors, and publishers to the skies! They idolize many of them. Far from giving them condescending pats on the head, they fully recognize the daunting social handicaps these women faced in the professional world of publishing prior to the 1980s and cite them as enterprising, talented, and incredibly driven pioneers. There are no snide put-downs in these articles; there are no put-downs at all. These articles were labors of love. Mike and Barry knew that some of the women they’d be discussing would be familiar to the Bulletin readership, but that many would not be (particularly the women editors of such magazines as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Fantastic from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s). Even I, a pretty well-read amateur historian of the field, found myself encountering personalities of whom I had no prior knowledge. Mike and Barry did a service for both their readership and for many otherwise forgotten notables in our field, women who they state had as big an impact on the evolution of science fiction and fantasy in America as John W. Campbell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein did. (And, as has been said about Ginger Rogers when comparing her skills to those of her partner Fred Astaire, they did it dancing backwards.)

The other sin laid upon the heads of Mike and Barry regarding their “Literary Ladies” articles is that they mentioned the physical attractiveness of some of their subjects. In sharing an second-hand anecdote about how one of the few women editors of the 1950s had prompted many women to join a previously all-male Cincinnati, Ohio fan organization, Mike mentioned the editor, briefly the only female participant in the club, had looked quite beautiful in a bikini at the hotel pool of a local convention – causing the wives of the male fans to join the club in order to keep an eye on their husbands! The original teller of the anecdote was the wife of one of those male fans, who told Mike that the editor, later a close friend, had earned the wife’s everlasting gratitude for sucking her into fandom. Reading it, I’m sure Mike intended it to be an amusing and endearing anecdote, a window into the world of SF fandom (and the larger society) of the 1950s. For many readers, apparently, it didn’t come off that way. But I’m judging the man on what I reason his intentions to have been, and I firmly believe intentions must be given weight in situations such as this one, which come down to one subjective experience versus another.

In another instance, Barry comments on the physical beauty of a woman editor from the 1920s and 1930s, a woman he only knows from her photographs and from the body of work she left behind. Again, I see his comments as an attempt to add a third dimension (I could say “flesh out” or “add skin and sinew to the bones,” but I would risk being misinterpreted, wouldn’t I?) to an otherwise dry recitation of the woman’s accomplishments in the early SF field. I have shared Barry’s experience in having surprising beauty leap out at me from a vintage photograph, beauty which could not be cloaked by the alien or frumpy (to me) clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of the era. Some people are exceptionally beautiful, and it is noteworthy, even when writing about writers (or editors). Nearly all accounts of Jack Kerouac’s career dwell upon his magnetic, athletic handsomeness as a young man, and how iconic photographs of him have helped to build his enduring mystique. Somewhat similarly, Franz Kafka’s striking appearance and demeanor, preserved in a handful of photographs and reminiscences of his contemporaries, have been grist for the mills of dozens of biographers. Kafka’s last lover, the Czech writer, editor, and social activist Milena Jesenka’, was a beautiful woman; her biographer and friend, Margarete Buber-Neumann, wrote extensively about Milena’s beauty and the effect it had upon the people (men and women) around her, and how she suffered from her beauty’s degradation in the German concentration camp where she perished.

The last set of complaints about Mike and Barry have to do with their column from issue 202 of the Bulletin, entitled “Talk Radio Redux.” This column was a response, an obviously emotional one, to the sorts of criticism (see my summary above) which had begun filtering back to them regarding their two columns on “Literary Ladies,” criticism with which revulsion of the woman warrior cover to issue 200 had gotten conflated. This set of complaints focuses on Mike’s using the words “censorship” or “attempted censorship” when referring to the feedback and actions of some of the readership and to Barry’s use of the term “liberal fascist.”

“Liberal fascist” is a term that has its origin in (or at least can trace its popularization to) Jonah Goldberg’s 2009 book, Liberal Fascism: the Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. The book is an account of the influence that certain aspects of Woodrow Wilson-era Progressivism (the ancestor of today’s Progressive movement), such as promotion of eugenics, an emphasis on the growth of state power and control of the state over key industries during times of state-declared emergency, and proto-environmentalism/nature worship, had on the various flavors of European fascism which developed and flourished during the 1920s and 1930s. The book also makes note that, in contrast with the commonly held belief that fascism was a rightwing movement, Benito Mussolini and the German and Austrian founders of the National Socialist Workers’ Party saw themselves as men of the Left, emerging from and expanding upon the Socialist tradition in a way separate from (and opposed to) Communism.

Personally, I think Barry was a little off in his use of the term “liberal fascist,” although I understand the emotion behind his use of the words. Fascists are defined in part by their intentions and efforts to use the powers of the state to silence opposing viewpoints. None of Barry’s and Mike’s critics have tried to do that (although perhaps some may fantasize about it). Similarly, Mike was imprecise when he used the word “censorship.” Censorship implies either the use of state power to silence an individual or the actions of an entity with economic power over an individual (such as the individual’s publisher) to block or change that individual’s expressions, under threat of economic penalty. Again, none of Mike’s and Barry’s critics are in a position to be censors. What they have been doing, however, does have its roots in an authoritarian tradition separate from, although related to, fascism. Mike and Barry have been mau-maued. Mau-mauing (a term popularized by Tom Wolfe in his 1970 account of the New Left of the 1960s, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers) is a form of intimidation through widespread social shaming, ostracism, confrontation, and (either implied or explicit) threats. Although it is associated with the New Left, it has its origins in the standard operating procedures of the Old Left, when Communist parties in the Soviet Union and throughout the West utilized self-criticism and group criticism sessions to enforce groupthink and to stamp out nonconforming ideas and ideologies. (Many former American Communists of the 1930s listed the 180 degree turn from “Hitler is our mortal enemy” to “Hitler is our ally” following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and their horror at the reeducation sessions which ensued as crucial to their break with the Party.) Saul Alinsky, in his Rules for Radicals, listed as Rule #12, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it,” an endorsement of the technique of mau-mauing. Numerous American universities, both public and private, now staffed by professors and administrators who often have ties to or have been influenced by the New Left, have instituted speech codes which explicitly define certain forms of student speech and expression as being outside the bounds of permissible activity on campus, subjecting offenders to administrative penalties up to expulsion (a move to institutionalize and bureaucratize mau-mauing, pushing it towards what could be formally defined as censorship). Coincidentally, the same years which have witnessed the emergency of speech codes on many campuses have also witnessed an accelerated symbiosis between the pro SF community and academia (in that greater numbers of SF/fantasy writers have as day jobs teaching at the post-high school level, and SF literature and film has become an increasingly respectable and popular subject of university courses).

Given the prevalence of academic jargon from Cultural Studies or other Studies departments in their comments, I imagine a goodly number of the criticizers on the SWFA discussion boards and the broader Internet are either university instructors or possessors of an advanced degree from one of those programs. For many individuals under the age of forty who have been through the university system, mau-mauing may seem normative, or at least unremarkable. They have seen it at work through divestment campaigns of various kinds (divestment from Israeli companies or U.S. companies which provide goods to Israel which might be used in security operations against Palestinians, or from companies involved in fossil fuel production, or from companies connected to certain figures active on the Right, such as the Koch brothers) and through shout-downs and other disruptions of speakers invited to campus whose backgrounds or viewpoints are contrary to those favored by student activists.

Many of the criticizers may not consciously realize that they are mau-mauing Mike and Barry, but mau-mauing is what they are engaged in. Some commentators have pointed out the criticism is not censorship. True; but in this instance, rather irrelevant. Other commentators have stated that freedom of speech does not imply a right to a paid platform (such as that enjoyed until now by Barry and Mike with their quarterly columns for the Bulletin). Again – true, but irrelevant. For what the protesters either seek to do or end up abetting is not censorship, but what can be called shunning and shaming, an application of a radioactive aura to these two men which will make not only the future editors of the Bulletin but also editors at other periodicals and publishing houses, organizers of conventions, literary prize juries, and media outlets shy away from wanting any connection with these two and their works. Remember, this story has now broken out into mainstream outlets such as Salon and the Guardian; people who previously had never heard of Mike Resnick or Barry Malzberg or any of their books will now have their initial (and most likely only) impression of them branded with a scarlet “S” for “Sexist,” as detrimental a negative label in our time as “Adulterer” was in the time of the Puritans. As Barry himself stated in the column “Talk Radio Redux,” the most potent form of censorship is self-censorship, the type that occurs in a writer’s head before he or she sets fingers to keyboard. The mau-mauers, consciously or not, are using Mike and Barry as cautionary examples – “Look what we’ve been able to do to the reputations of a WorldCon Guest of Honor and to a man who has written close to a hundred novels and over 250 short stories, several nominated for Hugo or Nebula Awards. If we could do this to them, what do you think we could do to you if you commit ThoughtCrime?”

The virtually thoughtless piling on is perhaps the most appalling. So many of the criticizers whose comments I have come across admit they haven’t even read the columns in question. Once the ball of shunning and shaming got rolling, hundreds of onlookers, alerted by social media, jumped on the bandwagon, attracted by the enticing glow of participating in shared moral outrage. Moral preening is on overload; industry professionals and would-be professionals frantically signal to each other that they are right-thinkers. According to the mau-mauers, Mike and Barry did not merely misspeak (miswrite?); they did not have decent-enough intentions which were ruined by Paleolithic habits and blinkered upbringings; they are morally suspect, malign and vicious and evil. It’s burn the witch! all over again, but this time on a pyre of blog posts and Tweets.

I mentioned before that I completely understand the vehemence of Barry’s reaction to all this. One sadly ironic aspect of this brouhaha is that Barry is a lifelong man of the Left. He was staunchly antiwar during the Vietnam era (see early stories such as “Final War”), and his dream president was (and remains) Eugene McCarthy. I fully believe, based on his writings about Alice Sheldon and Judith Merril, that Barry considers himself a feminist, and an avid one. Condemnation from one’s “own side” always burns hotter in one’s craw than condemnation from “the other guys,” which can be easily rationalized away; just as criticism (especially when viewed as unfair) from one’s own family hurts much worse than criticism from relative strangers. Forty years ago (and in all the years since), Barry was a fierce advocate of the New Wave in science fiction, whose practitioners (with the sole exception of R. A. Lafferty) were all politically aligned with the Left, as opposed to old-timers such as John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein. Now Barry must feel as though the children of the Revolution are eating their elders (as so frequently happens, it seems).

You still don’t think swarm cyber-shaming is a genuine phenomenon? Here’s a statistic for you. As of this afternoon (June 19, 2013), typing in the three words, Barry Malzberg sexist, into the Google search bar produces 807,000 results (oddly enough, far more than the 187,000 results you get in you only type in two words, Barry Malzberg). In contrast, typing in the author’s name and the title of his best known novel, Beyond Apollo, winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, produces 41,000 results.

Folks, this is insane.

I do not believe there was any conspiracy to do this to Barry and Mike. I believe this smear started on a small scale and then grew like mutant kudzu in the echo chambers of the web. Now the smear has metastasized into a Frankenstein’s monster which has escaped the control of any individual or organization; with that much mud out there, no amount of counter-narrative will ever wash it away.

One of the cruelest knives shoved into Barry’s back was the alteration of his Wikipedia entry. Now, thanks to an anonymous interloper with a baleful lack of perspective, more text is given over to this current incident (a full paragraph) than is devoted to Barry’s considerable and award-nominated nonfiction work (no mention at all). Whoever performed this small act of vandalism (also done to Mike’s entry) is a lout and a bully.

Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of swarm cyber-shaming in the science fiction community, and I fear it will not be the last (what produces results tends to get repeated). The first eruption was that which surrounded Orson Scott Card when he publicly affirmed tenets of his religion, Mormonism, concerning homosexuality. Recently, his swarmers attempted to shame/pressure DC Comics into never hiring Card again, after he did a work-for-hire story for a DC Comics anthology. “RaceFail” was the tag applied to a 2009 online dustup regarding various professionals’ comments on, and then comments on the comments, and then comments on the comments on the comments about the handling of racial issues and identity in science fiction. In 2010, we had WisCon, the renowned feminist science fiction convention, disinvite award-winning author Elizabeth Moon as their Guest of Honor due to comments she made on her blog about the surprising forbearance non-Muslim Americans have shown their Muslim fellow residents in the years since September 11, 2001 (as opposed to the myth of a rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S.). And now we have this… Old FogeyFail? I was very disappointed to see on the list of Barry’s and Mike’s most vocal condemners a very prominent editor for a very big imprint who complained bitterly in 2009 about his unfair treatment at the hands of fans and fellow pros after he made some comments about the RaceFail affair; his wife (another prominent SF pro) got on various message boards to scold the scolds for going after her husband and contributing to his depression. Now, obviously a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, this same editor seeks to reestablish his bona fides with the mau-mauers by doing unto Barry and Mike what was done unto him. Shame on you, sir.

From the website Judaism 101:

A Chasidic tale vividly illustrates the danger of improper speech: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”

I’ve warned my fellow writers and creators about too blithely plunging into online controversies, dropping their pants on social media, and wearing their political affiliations as neon tattoos. Why risk alienating half your potential audience? I also said that one must pick one’s battles carefully; issues and situations may arise which outweigh one’s potential financial/career interests, and which one can avoid engaging in only at the risk of one’s self-worth.

For me, this is such an issue. Barry Malzberg is a friend; more than that, he is a profoundly decent and kind human being. I cannot stand idle while this good man’s reputation is unjustly tarnished. The old saying is that bad speech can only be combatted with good speech. As I wrote above, I fear that in this Internet Age, the mud gets replicated so fast and so incessantly that it can never be washed away. I’ve gone on much longer than I originally intended, wanting to wash away as much mud as I can. My washcloth is small, unfortunately. But it won’t go unused.

Update on June 22, 2013: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, which brought in so many new readers. I apologize that I haven’t been able to respond to each of the comments. My main computer is in the shop, and the boys are begging me to take them swimming. If you’d like to support Barry, his most recent book of essays, Breakfast in the Ruins, is excellent, a fantastic read for anyone with an interest in the science fiction or mystery fields. Also, Mike and Barry have collected many of their Dialogue columns into a book called The Business of Science Fiction.

Update #2 on June 24, 2013: The Los Angeles Review of Books features this very detailed, incisive review of The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which has just been released… a compendium of what Barry considers the best of his more than 350 short stories. Along with Breakfast in the Ruins and The Passage of the Light: the Recursive Science Fiction of Barry N. Malzberg, this new collection is an essential introduction to Barry’s huge body of work.

Baltimore Book Festival Appearances

This coming Sunday, September 30, 2012, I’ll be signing books and speaking on several discussion panels at the 17th annual Baltimore Book Festival. Here are the details:

Festival Dates: September 28-30, 2012

Hours: Friday & Saturday: 12-8pm; Sunday: 12-7pm

Location: Baltimore, Maryland, in historic and picturesque Mount Vernon Place

Attendance: 55,000+ festival-goers over the weekend

Admission: Absolutely FREE and open to the public.

Description: The festival features 200+ author appearances and book signings; 75+ exhibitors and booksellers; non-stop readings and panel discussions on eight stages; cooking demos by celebrity chefs; poetry readings and workshops; panel discussions; walking tours; hands-on projects for kids; live music; and a delicious variety of food, beer and wine.

Here’s my schedule (all times listed for Sunday, 9/30; all panel discussions will take place at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Stage):

Noon to 1pm: I’ll be signing books in the Authors Tent

2pm: Vice Squad with Blasters
Can we predict the bad behavior in science fiction? See what scenarios our authors come up with for future misbehavior. Panelists include: Bud Sparhawk, Brenda Clough and Andrew Fox.

3pm: Readings with SFWA Authors
Come listen to SFWA authors read from their work, engage them in Q&A, and win great prizes! Panelists include: Cat Rambo, Raul Kanakai, Sarah Beth Durst, Andrew J. Fox and Brandie Tarvin.

6pm: Movies and Reading
Has the popularity of movie adaptations improved or dumbed down the written word? What about books that were turned into movies; is the union of Hollywood and literature for better or for worse? Panelists include: Andrew Fox, Walter Greatshell and Brenda Clough.

I hope some of my friends and readers will be able to come to the Festival. This will be my first year attending, and this is also SFWA’s first year as an official sponsor/partner of the Festival. Let’s hope for good weather, as this is an entirely outdoor/tented event. No thunderstorms, please!

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