Stanislaw Lem and His Push For Deeper Thinking

Almost ten years ago now, I picked up a copy of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and was struck at how different it was compared to a number of the other books I was reading at the time. It was an interesting and probing novel, one that I don’t think I fully understood at the time. (I still don’t).

Lem is an author who is truly uninhibited by genre convention. Last column, I looked a Ursula K. Le Guin, and have been thinking quite a bit about how science fiction authors began to put themselves into a box midway through the century when it came to ‘hard’ science fiction. Limiting a story in some regards requires one to limit one’s own imagination: after all, we’re talking about fiction, where authors can make up whatever they choose. Lem was one of the authors who could make up a considerable story and then deliver it.

Go read Stanislaw Lem and His Push For Deeper Thinking over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss. Aldiss has a delightfully snarky section devoted to Lem and his works here: both recognizing his brilliance, but also deplicating his attitude towards his fellow authors as well.
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Mike Ashley. This work has a couple of sections on Lem, which were very helpful in figuring out where he first was translated into English.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley. This installment of Ashley’s series contains quite a bit more information on Lem’s interactions with the SF community in the 1970s.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition. Richard Bleiler. This book of thumbnail biographies contains one on Lem by Peter Swirski, which is an excellent survey of Lem’s life and works.
  • Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. This book provided some excellent information on Lem’s legacy.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature vol 5, William Magill. Magill’s text contains an excellent analysis of Lem’s Solaris, which helped me understand the book a bit better.
  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews With Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, edited by Larry McCaffrey. This is an excellent book of interviews, and while Lem isn’t interviewed, he is brought up a couple of times.

The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of science fiction’s greats: her stories Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Dispossessed rank among the genre’s best works, and she moves easily between science fiction and fantasy, writing things that science fiction authors had barely touched before she came onto the scene. To say she was influential is to undersell one’s words.

I have to say, of all of Le Guin’s works that I’ve read, the ones that I’ve enjoyed the most was A Wizard of Earthsea, which I read years ago. Of all the fantasy novels I’ve picked up, it’s probably one of the ones that’s stuck with me the most.

I’ll say this once: there’s some columns that have come together quickly. Others are far harder to put together: case in point, trying to summarize the influence of one of the genre’s greatest living figures, Ursula K. Le Guin. Never mind that her fiction still challenges me and makes me feel incredibly tiny, or that her words are something that I can hardly imagine coming close to in style or grace. This was a hard one to write, but rewarding, all the same.

Go read The Left and Right Hands of Ursula K. Le Guin over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss devotes a number of pages to Le Guin and her influence on the genre, holding her critically at arm’s length, which is interesting to see: few authors have really had this treatment in this particular book. He acknowledges her stance in the genre, but chastise her for being preachy.
  • In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood. Atwood actually dedicated this collection of essays (which is very reminiscent of Language of the Night), and devotes one essay to her, where she discusses her fiction in a very useful way.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion, by Susan Bernadro and Graham J. Murphy. This is a dedicated volume on Le Guin, and I found it to be exceptionally helpful with some publication details and commentary on her works, especially the stories I haven’t read (yet).
  • Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, by Elizabeth Cummings. Another critical survey, this one likewise had some helpful commentary and details.
  • The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction, by Samuel R. Delany. Delany’s complicated survey of the genre is a dense, detailed one, and contains a good section on The Disposessed.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, by Thomas Disch. Disch’s history is a decent one that I’ve used before, but I was a little surprised to see him absolutely castigate Le Guin and other feminist authors here.
  • The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s book of essays on science fiction and introductions to her book is possibly one of the best non-fiction books that I’ve read on the subject. It’s an excellent demonstration that Le Guin is an utterly powerful, brilliant and intimidating figure in the genre.

Online Sources:

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s Magicians and The Magician King have both had a particular impact on me as a reader. I picked up The Magicians right around the time I was getting out of graduate school and existing in this strange period where I had little direction and less ambition to do much of anything. I picked up and loved The Magician King even more when it was released. And now, with The Magician’s Land, the trilogy comes to a triumphant close. It’s a bittersweet realization, because these three novels feel as though they spoke to me throughout my twenties. Now, with the close of the trilogy, it’s all about moving on. 

(Some spoilers)

The Magician’s Land picks up shortly after Quentin is unceremoniously dumped out of Fillory and returned to Earth. He’s lost the place in which he most cared about after saving the world, and he finds himself welcomed back to Brakebills as a new instructor before he’s recruited for a mysterious task. All the while, Fillory is coming to an end, where Eliot, Janet, Josh and Poppy race to figure out how to save their world from destruction. It’s hard to say more, lest too much of the book is spoiled, but to say the least, Grossman goes all out with this particular story.

The Magician’s Land threw me a bit when I first started reading it: there’s a lot of play here in the structure of the book. Grossman loops back and forth with various storylines, starting in one place, going back and setting events into motion across several worlds. It’s complicated, most likely warrants another couple of readings, and I’m completely happy with that. Each of the books have played with undermining some of the more traditional fantasy tropes, but with each, Grossman has experimented with style, and The Magician’s Land tops the lot nicely. The duel running storylines of The Magician King really made the book for me, and the four or so threads that we play with here work out nicely.

As The Magician’s Land feels like Grossman’s most complicated work, it’s also the most grown up. Where The Magicians looked at learning and growing one’s identity along with one’s surroundings, The Magician King is all about finding a purpose with one’s life. This book, on the other hand, is a sort of coming of age novel, one where Quentin sets about literally building a new world and direction for his life.

This is where the trilogy as a whole speaks to me. I first picked up The Magicians at a point where I could relate to Quentin, and later, The Magician King in my late twenties, when I was starting to settle into a career and family life. The Magician’s Land comes at a point when I’m leaving my twenties. I own a house, am part of a family, have various professional and personal responsibilities. I’ve changed somewhat from the person I was in 2009. Quentin has as well, gone from a fairly insufferable magician to someone far more mature.

Grossman’s worlds have grown as well. The Magicians simply featured Fillory and our own world, plus some tantalizing hints of others. King introduced us to the greater magical world here on Earth, but Land is a grand tour of this fantastic world. The strangeness of Fillory explodes into view, complex and artificial at the same time. The magical world within Earth gets some greater context, and the idea of a place is a central concept of this book: where does one go, and what lengths does one go to to make their own home? There’s a sense of moving on throughout here: Quentin is kicked out of Fillory (all the while Fillory is vanishing), from Brakebills and he loses his father. In many ways, it’s not too similar from what we normally experience: we leave home, all that’s familiar to us, and to survive, we must build our own, whether it’s a house and family, a fantasy world, or a new life. Grossman covers all the bases here, and with it, brings the Magicians trilogy to a close. It’s a fitting and heartwrenching at points, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Magical Worlds of Christopher Plover

It’s always cool to find previously unknown authors while doing research. Recently, I came across a relatively unknown fantasy author who had some close ties to some of the giants in fantasy: Christopher Plover. Famous for his Fillory and Further series, he’s relatively unknown today. Recently, his works seem to have inspired one recent series of books, The Magicians trilogy, by Lev Grossman, who’s latest book, The Magician’s Land, came out earlier this week.

Go read The Magical Worlds of Christopher Plover over on io9.

Sources:

  • The Magicians, Lev Grossman. Grossman’s trilogy contains some good details about the Fillory novels and their elusive author. There’s a number of details about the nature of the story’s creation, and a bit about Plover.
  • The Magician King, Lev Grossman. More about Plover is revealed in this novel, as well as some details about the Chatwins.
  • The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman. Rupert Chatwin’s autobiography and relationship to Plover is revealed here.
  • Christopher Plover Official Website: This particular site is a good starting point for Plover scholars. There’s some good descriptions of each of the novels, as well as some good biographical elements on the site.
  • The Magicians Wiki: fans of Plover have put together an article on the Fillory and Further novels.
  • The World in the Walls, Chapter 1. Those of you interested in reading a bit of the Fillory and Further series can pick up the first chapter here.

 

 

 

* Yes, this is a bit of a parody. The Magician’s Land, however, isn’t, and it’s an extraordinary end to the series.

30 Years of William Gibson’s Neuromancer

 

I’ll have to confess that I read Neuromancer only a couple of years ago, and at the time, didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was a book about computers, written before computers were really a thing. The strange thing about William Gibson’s fantastic novel is it’s staying power and how it’s positively brimming with fresh ideas in a genre gone stale by the early 1980s. Going back to re-read Gibson’s works (especially in Burning Chrome), I’m shocked at how vibrant and raw his writing is.

Neuromancer is one of the more important books to enter the genre, and as it celebrates its third decade in print, it’s an interesting one to go back and look upon and to understand just how revolutionary the title was at the time.

Go read 30 Years of William Gibson’s Neuromancer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Authors, Larry McCaffrey. There’s a fantastic interview with Gibson in this book, which provided some keen insights into the development of Neuromancer. It’s also online here.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes several pages to Neuromancer and Gibson’s influence, providing some key insights into how Neuromancer came together.
  • Modern Masters of Science Fiction: William Gibson, Gary Westfahl. This short book came out last year and is part of the fantastic Modern Masters series from the University of Illinois Press. This particular volume is excellent: it’s a detailed look at Gibson’s works, and a bit about his life

Fittingly, a number of sources came from the internet, through interviews or blog posts from Gibson:

War Stories: The Book!

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So, UPS stopped by with five boxes loaded down with copies of War Stories. It’s a real book! I can flip the pages, my name is on the cover, and holy crap, guys, it’s a real book! Now begins the process of shipping them out to Kickstarter backers – I see many envelopes in my future.

Here’s the final cover and description:

War is everywhere. Not only among the firefights, in the sweat dripping from heavy armor and the clenching grip on your weapon, but also wedging itself deep into families, infiltrating our love letters, hovering in the air above our heads. It’s in our dreams and our text messages. At times it roars with adrenaline, while at others it slips in silently so it can sit beside you until you forget it’s there.

Join Joe Haldeman, Linda Nagata, Karin Lowachee, Ken Liu, Jay Posey, and more as they take you on a tour of the battlefields, from those hurtling through space in spaceships and winding along trails deep in the jungle with bullets whizzing overhead, to the ones hiding behind calm smiles, waiting patiently to reveal itself in those quiet moments when we feel safest. War Storiesbrings us 23 stories of the impacts of war, showcasing the systems, combat, armor, and aftermath without condemnation or glorification.

Instead, War Stories reveals the truth.

War is what we are.

 

I’m biased, but there are some fantastic stories in here. Early indications from readers are really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing this out and about the reading public.

If you missed out on the Kickstarter and want a copy, you can now preorder the anthology and get the ebook for free! Our expected publication date is October.

You also have a day and a bit left (ends August 1st) to register to win one of two copies from GoodReads.

Defining SF

It must be remembered that we live in an entirely new world. Two hundred years ago, stories of this kind were not possible. Science, through its various branches of mechanics, electricity, astronomy, etc., enters so intimately into all our lives today, and we are so much immersed in this science, that we have become rather prone to take new inventions and discoveries for granted. Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress, and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations – impossible 100 years ago- are brought about today. It is in these situations that the new romancers find their greatest inspiration.

- Hugo Gernsback, Amazing Stories Magazine No. 1, April 1926. (Read the entire issue here.)

 

That’s… a very astute definition of science fiction, I think. Gernsback was a bit over the top at points, but I think that hits the nail on the head for the type of stories that defined the genre. Must file this away for later.

Launch Pad 2014

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Where to start?

Last year, I was accepted to the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, after seeing a number of friends and mentors attend over the years. At the same time, Bram was born, and it became clear that my taking off for a week while he was several months old would have never worked. So, I deferred to 2014. I’m glad that I did: it would have been crushing to miss Bram grow in those early months, and I can’t imagine meeting a better group of people than the ones who attended this year.

I flew out to Launch Pad from ReaderCon. A 5:00am flight took me to Philadelphia and then on to Denver. I’ve been out to the American west a couple of times (New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), but never Colorado. A fantastic landscape opened up as we descended, and soon, I was grouped with several Launchies waiting for a ride to the University of Wyoming. Eugene Myers was on my flight (he was the only other classmate that I’d met before), and we chatted with a couple of newcomers, including Ann Leckie, Bill Ledbetter and Gabrielle Harbowy. Launchpad attendees trickled in over the course of the afternoon, and soon, the first and second vans were away.

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The Wyoming’s landscape is fantastic. The drive north showed off some fantastic rock formations and terrain, and we stopped for pictures at least once on the ride to Laramie. Along the way, we chatted, newcomers tentatively feeling out each other’s personalities and interests on the two hour drive. It was then dinner, check in and sleep after a long day of travel.

Monday started us off bright an early with introductions. We met our instructors: Christian Ready, who used to work on the Hubble Space Telescope, Andria Schwortz, who’s currently going for her PhD, and Mike Brotherton, science fiction author, faculty at UoW and founder of the program, all of whom were fantastic throughout the week. We then launched into a discussion of the sheer size of the universe, getting it firmly ground into us just how small we are in the cosmos.

We spent the rest of the day going over the solar system, phases, lunar cycles, and a bit more throughout the day. Tuesday was looking at the electromagnetic spectrum, with some practical laboratory experiments as we tried to identify various gases based on their spectrum. The afternoon was spent looking over theories of gravity and the various theorists who helped create our current understanding of how everything moves around in space. That night, we tried to use our telescopes, but it was overcast. Wednesday was spent looking at exoplanets, and we were introduced to practical, everyday tools that help crowd source the hunt for planets, based on the data collected by Kepler.

 

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Thursday was busy – the entire day was spent outdoors, first on a hike at at Vedauwoo, which was fun – 3 miles around a pile of granite. We returned to talk about supernovae, black holes, neutron stars, and some science fiction applications to everything we’d been discussing before setting off to see the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO). A narrow road leads up to the top of Jelm Mountain, where the observatory is perched. I’d never visited one before, and it was impressive: a 2.3 meter mirror observatory, with a small workshop and apartment set up along with some radio towers. The mere sight of it turns a group of adults into excited children, especially when it moves into place. They let us sight in a couple of stars, taking their temperature and distance. After we were finished inside, we went out, and was treated with a fantastic view of the heavens: the milky way splashed overhead, along with Mars and Saturn. It wasn’t an unfamiliar view for me: Vermont is lucky in that we don’t have a whole lot of light pollution, but several of my classmates hadn’t seen the sky like that before. Even to someone who’s seen it before, it’s still an incredible view against the wide open Wyoming Sky.

Friday and Saturday consisted of more classroom activities and lectures, before we began to pack up. I was the first to leave: my flight left at midnight on Sunday morning. 18 or so hours later (with a car ride, two planes, two subway routes, a train and another car ride), I was home.

What’s astonishing to me is the close bond one forms with a group working in intensive situations. I’m usually nervous meeting new people, and while I knew or was acquainted with just a couple of people there, I found an entirely new group of friends that were all interested in the same things as I was. We were a broad cross-section of the genre world: TV writers, game designers, novelists, short story writers, non-fiction writers, all interested in astronomy. They were: Amy Casil, Geetanjali Dighe, Doug Farren, Susan Forest, Marc Halsey, Gabrielle Harbowy, Meg Howrey, Ann Leckie, William Ledbetter, Malinda Lo, Sarah McCarry, Eugene Myers, Jenn Reese, Anne Toole, James Sutter, Todd Vandemark and Lisa Yee. We spent a lot of time in the same classroom, and many hours after talking about all things astronomy, science fiction and everything in between. We bonded as a group, and in various smaller groups. They are each fantastic individuals and talented individuals, and I can’t wait to see each and every one of them again at some point in the near future.

I have to say, I’m proud to be an alumnus of the program, and of what I’ve learned in the course of eight days. It was like drinking out of a fire hose, but I feel that I understand the universe a little more. If you’re involved in the science fiction field to any professional degree, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you like reading about science fiction with a fairly realistic depiction of SF, I recommend donating to the program – it’s educational, hands on experiences like this that really make for major improvements in anything we do, whether it’s astronomy, history, business or any field in which we work.

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Returning home was welcome: I was hard to be away from Megan, Bram and the menagerie of animals for over a week, and after a long day of travel, coming home was perfect. But, I miss Wyoming and my classmates quite a bit, and if the chatter online is any indication, we’ll be in touch for a long time, sharing bits of science news, the books and stories we’ve written, and things of that nature. I know that when I go out and look at the night sky, one of them will likely be doing the same thing.

 

Frank Herbert’s Epic Dune Series

One of the first major SF novels that I picked up was Dune. Something about the copy at the library was striking: a figure against a desert. I tore into it and to this day, I can still visualize various parts of the book. It got me thinking about science fiction in ways that I hadn’t before, and I still count it as one of my favorite books. I’ve never read the sequels: I never wanted to be disappointed or let down by the other novels (much like I’ve never read the 2nd and 3rd installments of the Ringworld and Foundation trilogies).

I read Dreamer of Dune a number of years ago, and reading through it again to source this article, I was surprised at how much of an unlikable person Herbert was – he seemed to have a number of character flaws that made him cranky, angry and generally in trouble with the IRS. At the same time, it’s interesting to see just how big of a hill he had to climb to reach the heights he achieved over the course of a career. It’s a bit of a shame that he didn’t live long enough to really enjoy it or continue his series by himself.

Go read Frank Herbert’s Epic Dune Series over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert. I read this a number of years ago, and reading it again, this is a really painful book to read. It’s disorganized, not terribly well written, and not critical in any sense of the imagination. However, it did provide a number of details into when and how Herbert went about writing.
  • Frank Herbert, Timothy O’Reilly. This is an early biography of Herbert published in 1981, and it provides some outstanding detail to Herbert and his work.
  • The History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts. Roberts’ text, as always, is a helpful book for figuring out the context for Dune in the grand scheme of things, and provides some excellent information on the literary side.
  • Frank Herbret, William F. Touponce. This text mainly analysis the literary elements of Herbert’s books (most of them), and it’s a useful resource here.

Online sources:

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Jodorosky’s Dune is a phenomenal documentary that you should see if you have any interest in Dune.

Octavia E. Butler: Expanding Science Fiction’s Horizons

For years, I’ve had friends tell me that I should be reading Octavia Butler’s works, especially Kindred. I actually own a copy, and it’s been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to pick it up. When it came to the point where I’d start writing about the 1970s, it was pretty clear that Butler would be one of the authors that I’d be covering, and I picked up the book as part of my research. She’s a powerful author, and I’m a little sad that I didn’t read the book earlier. Researching Butler’s life is fascinating, and it’s becoming clear to me that some of the genre’s most important works emerge from outside of it’s walls.

Go read Octavia E. Butler: Expanding Science Fiction’s Horizons over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Book Sources to come – I don’t have them on hand at the moment.

Pasadena College
Carl Brandon Society
McCarthur Foundation
SFWA Interview
LA Review of Books: One / Two

Many thanks as well to Steven Barnes, Ann Leckie and Gerry Canavan for their input for this.