The Not-So-Typical Adventures of Lois McMaster Bujold

The idea of genre is a helpful and annoying one: people like to identify where things fit, particularly on bookshelves, but they don’t want to be constrained by it. As we’ve seen over the course of this column, science fiction’s character has vastly changed in the centuries of its existence, transforming and splitting into its own little factions over time.

Science Fiction history tends to focus on the transition between Golden Age SF and New Wave SF, but it doesn’t really seem to examine how truly complicated the situation was moving into the 1980s and 1990s, where science fiction became an even broader definition than ever before, encompassing new works that were different than what came before.

Particularly, one gets the impression that the New Wave gave way to Cyberpunk and that was it: the truth is more complicated. While it left a large impression, older forms were undergoing their own transformations at the same time. One notable author to look at this with is Lois McMaster Bujold.

Go read The Not-So-Typical Adventures of Lois McMaster Bujold over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Interestingly, The SF Encyclopedia noted that while Bujold has become a highly popular author, there’s not much written about her. That’ll change later this fall with a dedicated entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series issued by the University of Illinois Press. In the meantime, I found few entries in my usual references.

Evolution of a Space Epic: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

Over on Barnes and Noble’s SciFi & Fantasy blog, I’ve got one of the biggest articles I’ve ever written: the Evolution of James S.A. Corey’s series, The Expanse. This has been in the works for several months now, and it’s really exciting to see it hit the light of day.

This article covers the entire background of where The Expanse came from. It started as an MMO pitch, became an RPG, then a book, then a series, and now, a television show. In March, I visited the television set, and since then, I’ve been researching, interviewing and writing.

This was a helluva lot of fun to write about, and I’m looking forward to the television show. After all of this, I’m convinced that the show will be a big one, and one that’ll be returning SyFy to its roots in a grand way.

Read the entire article here. It’s a long read: 10k+ words.

Sources.

I’m not going to annotate these sources, but here’s the list of interviews and articles I drew quotes from. In the article, where an interview isn’t linked, it’s one that I conducted myself.

2007:

2008:

2009:

2010:

2011:

2012:

2013:

2014:

2015:

  • Syfy orders ‘The Expanse’ series based on ‘Leviathan Wakes’ (think ‘Game of Thrones’ in space):
  • http://www.ew.com/article/2014/04/11/syfy-the-expanse
  • Interview with Ben Cook
  • Interview with Steven Strait
  • Interview with Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Interview with Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Interview with Liza Williams
  • Interview with Raja Doake
  • Interview with Daniel Docui

There’s a ton of people to thank for their help here. In no particular order, the following people were instrumental in making this come to life:

  • Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Ben Cook
  • Steven Strait
  • Maureen Granados
  • Liza Williams
  • Raja Doake
  • Joel Cunningham
  • Karen Tyrell
  • Daniel Docui
  • Ellen Wright, Will Hinton, and Alex Lencicki.

John Wyndham and the Global Expansion of Science Fiction

One of my favorite activities is to browse through used bookstores to see what turns up. I don’t buy a lot of new science fiction novels anymore: It’s worked out so that most of the books I want to read come to me for reviews (although I still buy my share of new books, usually from several of Vermont’s fantastic indie bookstores), but there’s something cool about an older paperback. One such recent purchase was a pair of John Wyndham novels, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. They’re gorgeous Penguin editions with some outstanding cover art.

One of the larger debates in science fiction that’s raged on for decades concerns the definition of the genre. What constitutes science fiction? There’s tons of definitions out there, but there’s also arguments which attempt to exclude books. I’ve had people complain about some of my Buzzfeed lists of new books, saying that there’s too much ‘literary’ inclusions. Certainly, recent books such as The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and California by Edan Lepucki have their feet in both sides of the argument: authors inspired by genre fiction, but whose works are broadly appealing to mainstream audiences.

Throughout my column with Kirkus Reviews (and a major topic for the book that it’s turning into), I’ve been fascinated by the way science fiction has adapted over time, and how, in an increasingly technological world, elements that used to be confined to genre novels have bleed into mainstream works. Certainly, thrillers from authors like Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy would have been the stuff of genre fiction in 1939, and there’s certainly plenty of mainstream fiction novels that deal with genre-like material simply because it’s become relevant in this day and age.

I think much of the angst over this comes not from content, but the sense of betrayal for a closed-knit community, for branching out of the genre and into larger, more profitable waters. Science Fiction is fairly insular, with a churning melting pot of science fiction fans and professionals working in close proximity to one another, often from a very early age. Organized fandom is probably not too dissimilar to a cult or religious group, with their own idols, worships and rituals, and where any attempt to modernize or drastically change the makeup is met with open hostility.

Science Fiction has left the community: major films like Star Wars broke those doors open years ago, and if the increasing popularity of shows like Arrow, or The Big Bang Theory, events like San Diego Comic Con or film franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe are any indication, they’re not closing anytime soon. Going back to the 1930s/1950s, there’s already cracks in the exterior, and John Wyndham proved to be an interesting author to look at when it came to jumping from the science fiction world to that of a larger, mainstream audience.

Go read John Wyndham and the Global Expansion of Science Fiction over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

Print:

  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley has a dedicated couple of pages looking at Wyndham, particularly when it came to the start of British Fandom.
  • Martians, Morlocks and Moon Landings: How British Science Fiction Conquered the World, Jamie Austin. This is a book that recently arrived for me, and they talk quite a bit about Wyndham and his famous work.
    Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, edited by Richard Bleiler. There’s an excellent biographical thumbnail of Harris in this book.
  • Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction, Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz is someone to always take with a grain of salt, but he includes an interesting piece on Wyndham and his works. It’s interesting to see his opinions on Harris’s stories, as opposed to other genre critics.
  • The Way the Future Was: A Memoir, Frederic Pohl. Pohl mentions Wyndham’s sale of Triffids and how it was a landmark sale.
  • Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham / Edmund Morris. Edmund Morris provides an excellent contextual introduction in this 2003 edition of the novel.

Online:

  • John Wyndham & H G Wells, Christopher Priest. Priest has some interesting things to say about Wyndham and Wells.
  • Wyndham, John. The SFE has a good overview of Harris’s career and his place in genre history.

Destination: Mars

So, I have a nonfiction piece up on Clarkesworld Magazine, one of the best science fiction magazines out there. This post covers a topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now: how Mars was discovered, but also how as we learned more about it, our stories changed.

This is one of the distinguishing features of science fiction, I think. Looking over the genre’s entire body of literature, you can see how authors have updated their depictions of a place in near-real time. The stories put together by authors like Wells and Bradbury are radically different than that of Robinson and Weir.

Moreover, this subject is a really interesting way to see how scientific innovation, research and discovery actively and directly impact the arts world. Authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Andy Weir were reading the latest research to come from probes and scientists.

When it comes to defining science fiction, many people point to a common definition: ‘Science Fiction is fiction that cannot exist without a scientific component.’ I think that an alternative should be considered: that science fiction literature is a genre that would never have existed without various scientific and industrial revolutions, and which directly comments on said impact of such revolutions.

Read Destination Mars over on Clarkesworld Magazine.

The Very Amusing Douglas Adams

I remember the moment very clearly: I was with my friend Erica at a writer’s conference in 2001, when we learned that Douglas Adams had passed away. It was the first time I was really struck that an author I enjoyed would no longer write something, and we both commiserated over the book that really really loved: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I read this book a number of times over the years, and I’ve always been struck at how *funny* it is. It’s remained so in that time, and one of the things I was later surprised at was how the book came to be. It’s alternatively been a radio show, audio drama, novel, television series and movie, and remained ridiculously popular throughout the whole time. I’ll even admit that I enjoyed the filmed version.

Go read The Very Amusing Douglas Adams over on Kirkus Reviews:

Sources:

  • The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide: Complete and Unabridged by Douglas Adams. I don’t know what happened to my original paperback copy, but my wife owns the omnibus edition, which has a very good introduction by Adams, which provides some good details about how the story came to be.
  • Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion by Neil Gaiman. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman wrote a guide to Hitchhiker’s Guide. This isn’t a great source most of the time: Gaiman assumes that you’ve read other texts, such as Webb’s biography, and there’s a weird apologetic “This has been covered elsewhere” attitude throughout some of it, but there’s some interesting details that come out about the creative process.
  • Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams by Nick Webb. Nick Webb, who originally commission the novel, wrote the official biography after Adams’ death, and it’s full of details, interesting facts about Adams’ life.

Review: The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, by Mary Pilon

For me, the best types of history books are the one that look at something that seems innocuous, but turns out to be a small part in a much larger story. Mary Pilon’s history The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game is one such book, and it’s an excellent look at the history of the board game Monopoly and how its history is murkier than one would ever expect. The board game you likely played as a family has a long, fascinating and exciting story behind it, and a story that ties into tax philosophy and business practices from major game maker Parker Brothers.

The commonly recounted history of the game goes like this: one man, Charles Darrow, unemployed during the Great Depression, went into his basement to make up a game to keep his family entertained through the dark times the country was going through. He emerged with Monopoly, and ended up selling it to Parker Brothers. He gets paid, Parker Brother has a hit on their hands, and the country gains a beloved pastime.

That’s not the full story, however. Pilon recounts the story of Lizzie Maggie, an advocate for a single-tax system and feminist activist who came up with the game’s immediate forerunner, The Landlord Game, patented it and continued on her way. Interestingly, the game was one that sought to demonstrate how rent created wealth inequality. Over the following years, the game and numerous imitators sprang up across the Northeastern United States, particularly in Quaker communities. From the early 1900s, the game was a popular pastime.

In the 1930s, Darrow was introduced to the game, and after some tinkering, he sold the game to Parker Brothers, passing it off as his own creation. The company didn’t look too deeply into Darrow’s story, and pushed his own creation narrative on the public, and it slowly became accepted fact as the game’s popularity skyrocketed.

This is a story of intellectual property, and Pilon deftly picks up the story with an economics professor, Ralph Anspach, who had created a game titled Anti-Monopoly. His game touched off years of litigation between himself and Parker Brothers, who had aggressively defended their product and its trademark. In the course of his work to try and save his own game, Anspach uncovered much of the hidden history of the game to support his legal argument that Monopoly had been widely known to the general public.

Pilon goes through the history of Monopoly’s predecessors to help with the main objective of the book: looking at how Parker Brothers took the game over, repackaged it and maintained a firm hold on the game, warding off any potential competitor through litigation: ironically, creating a monopoly of their own. Parker Brothers doesn’t come off well here, and this is where the book feels like it could have been a bit better. A disclaimer in the back of the book notes that Parker Brothers refused interviews, which is a shame: there’s an interesting story from their side about how they created a national past time, especially when you begin to consider how important they are to the board gaming industry. Some of the more interesting parts of the books are the insights into the formation of Parker Brothers.

Additionally, the last half of the book is wholly focused on the trial and legal issues: it makes for an interesting David and Goliath story, but I guess I was hoping for a bit more. Parker Brothers has exploded the game in the last couple of decades, from publishing licensed versions of Monopoly (I have a copy of the Star Wars version at home), to the games companies like McDonalds and Shaws have run year after year: there’s nary a mention here, which would have been interesting to see.

Regardless, The Monopolists does what most good, readable (read: Non-academic) nonfiction titles do: they present an interesting and exciting story that plays out well and serves to look at the much larger picture surrounding it. Here, we see a bit of the social fabric of the United States at the end of the 1800s and well into the 1900s. For me, fondly remembering the endless games I played with my siblings, it’s an interesting read that imparts some new trivia and context for those many hours we spent passing go and collecting $200.

A. Merritt and Plausible Science Fiction


Last column, I wrote about Jack Williamson, and in doing so, I came across another name frequently: A. Merritt. Merritt was an pulp author in the early days of science fiction, and was highly influential to a number of other authors. His career as a journalist and his numerous short stories helped to reinforce some of the character of science fiction: he helped to establish speculative fiction as a genre, not through his imagination, but through his presentation of his characters and scenarios. This is a distinction that I feel is important: it’s a characteristic that most science fiction stories hold to.

Plus, I love that cover up above. It’s wonderful.

Read A. Merritt and Plausible Science Fiction over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950, Mike Ashley. Ashley has some good contextual information here, and Merritt shows up a couple of times.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, Eric Leif Davin. Merritt shows up a couple of times here, as he was influenced heavily by Francis Stevens.
  • A. Merritt: Reflections in the Moon Pool, Sam Moskowitz. This is a longer biography of Merritt’s life, authored by genre historian Sam Moskowitz. There’s historiographic issues with Moskowitz’s writing (he rarely cites sources and relies on ancedotes), but there seems to be some decent information here, as well as some good commentary.
  • Merritt, A. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has some good information here about Merritt’s life and career.

VeriCon Schedule

This weekend, I’ll be attending VeriCon at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. Here’s where I’ll be:

  • Friday: 7pm – 8pm, Editing and Translating Genre Fiction. (With Ken Liu, Alex Shvartsman, Patrick Nielsen Hayden)
  • Sunday: 10am – 11am, Military SF and Fantasy (With Luke Scull, Ken Liu, Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

The full schedule for the weekend can be found here!

Jack Williamson’s Space Operas

Space Opera is a genre near and dear to my heart, and as I’ve written for Kirkus Reviews, it’s clear that space opera is one of the genres that’s been a central focus of science fiction: the idea of travelling through space and visiting new worlds is a particularly interesting one. Space Opera has changed over time, and one of the authors responsible for setting up some modern styling of it is Jack Williamson, who enjoyed a particularly long career as an author.

Go read Jack Williamson’s Space Operas over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Writers, Robert Belier. There’s an excellent biographical sketch here in this book.
  • Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Katheryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. Hartwell and Cramer have a good overview of the history of Space Opera in their anthology, and Williamson has some pointed remarks in it.
  • The History of Science Fiction, by Adam Roberts. Roberts has some good comments about Williamson’s place in genre history, as well as some of the other authors writing around that point in time.
  • Williamson, Jack. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction likewise has some good contextual information on Williamson and his career.

Book Review: The Human Division, by John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s latest addition to his Old Man’s Warseries, The Human Division, opens with a bang. A diplomatic ship skips into a system in preparation for a high level meeting with an alien race, only to get blown out of space by an unknown attacker. What follows is a Heinlein-ian thrill ride that tilts the balance of power in the galaxy – that’s just the first episode.

Taking place after The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale, The Human Division is notable for a couple of reasons: it’s a long-awaited addition to the popular series, which left on a somewhat ambiguous note. The book – I’d hesitate to call it a novel – is also an experimental one that pulls in the digital and audio logistical footprints in ways that haven’t really been possible before now. And finally, the book is notable because it is an interesting, exciting, and somewhat more mature addition to the series.

The Human Division picks up just months after Earth was confronted with an Alien fleet, led by Major John Perry, who revealed some disturbing truths behind the planet’s relationship with the Colonial Union. Faced with intense competition from over six hundred alien species and the rise of an organized group known as the Conclave, the Colonial Union, which relied on humanity’s home world for a large supply of recruits. What follows in this set of stories is the aftermath.

The sheer scale of The Human Division lends itself to be a difficult one for a conventional book, and this is where the novel’s structure comes in handy. Rather than chapters, we’re treated to thirteen episodes, bookended by two double-size episodes. Over the course of the spring, each of the thirteen episodes have been released on a weekly basis for those with e-readers and the various online retailers. If eBooks aren’t your thing, each episode was available in an audio file through Audible and iTunes. In this way, the episodes don’t necessarily form a linear course like you might find in a novel. Rather, they’re thirteen individual segments of the story that, when placed together, give you a coherent story. It’s not too dissimilar from what you might find with a television series. Indeed – there’s too much for a single novel, and the cliffhanger ending is reminiscent of what you’d find in most SF TV shows at the end of the season.

I like this format. We’ve talked a little about serialized science fiction already, and with the rise of mobile devices and eReaders, it’s a format that works well with the available technology. The story that Scalzi’s presenting is far-reaching, and there’s excellent coverage for the various ramifications of the events in Colonial Union-held space. We see diplomats under fire, hijacked space ships, political discourse, paranoid radio talk-show hosts, terrorist bombings and a truely epic finale.

The central focus of The Human Division the crew of the Clarke: Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry Wilson and Colonial Union Diplomat Hart Schmidt, Captain Sophia Coloma and Ambassador Ode Abumwe, and a handful of other regulars. The Clarke stories are the backbone of this tale, and if this were the television series the format emulates, they would be the main cast listed on the opening credits. The side stories draw in other characters: General Gau (seen in prior books), members of a wildcat colony, a CDF fire team, the survivor of a hijacked ship and a political talk show host who finds himself in much deeper waters than he thought. There’s generally a point in most episodes where the characters stand around and explain what’s happening to one another, which is a little annoying when you remember that this isn’t a television show, but a work of prose fiction. It works, in this context, but it feels as though it plays more towards the strengths of a motion picture, rather than a book, which seems to limit the characters a bit (but not so much the action). But, where they have their flaws, they also add in quite a bit of side material that adds to the main action’s context, which was very helpful.

When it comes to the non-Clarke episodes, some are engaging, such as The Sound of Rebellion, which carried forward a couple of interesting, underused characters. Walk the Plank, seemed to exist only to put a couple of things into action. It, along with This Must Be The Place, felt like under-utilized space. These are all small story fragments that in and of themselves are solid, but taken on their own, don’t do much. There’s also points where some of the details are redundant, because each episode is designed to somewhat stand alone. It’s when they’re assembled that a pretty interesting, overarching story comes into focus, and that’s where the real strengths of The Human Division are apparent.

I worked to sample the series in all of its incarnations: audio tracks, downloadable segments, and finally, the full novel, and overall, this works best reading it from start to finish in book form, but the individual ebooks/audio tracks are well worth picking up as well. Reading all of these in conjunction with one another, on a variety of platforms, highlighted the multi-purpose strength of this novel, which is what makes it the most notable literary experiment of its kind. The final version has some added material that doesn’t really add much to the overall storyline, but it was nice to see it included. I also found that while the book was designed to be accessible to newcomers to the series, it helps to have at least read Old Man’s War and more importantly, The Last Colony. They’re not essential, but when I went back to read TLC, a lot of plot elements fell into place, and provided some much-needed context. (Up to this point, I’d only read OMW.)

The most frustrating part of The Human Division lies with the overarching story, and with its similarities to a television show: there’s some good forward movement with the Clarke episodes, but there’s little resolution with the overarching story. Fortunately, a second ‘season’ of The Human Division has been commissioned, and we’ll be seeing more from the story in short order. But fans expecting a clear-cut novel will face a wait until the next book is released. Personally, I can’t wait to see what Scalzi has in store.

The bottom line: The Human Division flat out rocked. It’s a smart space opera novel that weaves together politics, characters and action that surpasses its predecessors in the series. For an experimental novel (and this isn’t the first online attempt at a serialized story), it seems to have mostly worked, and at points, worked incredibly well. More than just an experiment in the delivery medium, this is a fine read, and an excellent addition to the series. Season/Book 2 can’t come soon enough.