The Radical Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ wasn’t an author I came across when I first came across science fiction: she was someone that I slowly became aware of more recently, when I started working at this on a more professional and critical level. Part of this came from friends who were interested and researching her, and over the last couple of years, I’ve gained an appreciation for the few works that I have read.

What I find most interesting is her relationship with the genre: many of the arguments she put forward back in the 1960s/70s/80s still hold true today, and if anything, they’re even more relevant. For me, Russ makes a lot of sense, and her arguments not only apply towards better representations of men and women in science fiction, but make an excellent argument for simple innovation in writing science fiction. I can see why she was frustrated, and why she was angry.

Go read The Radical Joanna Russ over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith. This is a book that I think I need to pick up for my own library at some point: it’s a very interesting survey of SF literature.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. Solid biographical sketch of Russ here.
    The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany. Delany has a short essay on Russ’s Alyx stories, and it’s a good one.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch. My feelings on Disch’s book is complicated: it feels a bit argumentative at points, but he has some interesting insights into Russ fit with other contemporaries during the 1970s.
  • Across The Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, Larry McCaffery. McCaffery has an excellent oral history interview with Russ, which provided me with a wealth of information, but some good ways to look at science fiction as well.
  • We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, Brit Mandelo. Brit’s a friend of mine, and I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now. She’s become a good expert on Russ through this book and her column on Tor.com.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes a good amount of space to Russ in this book, placing her in some good context with her peers.
  • NY Times Obituary: This obit has a number of good, critical details of Russ’s life.
  • Joanna Russ Biography: This was particularly helpful figuring out where she worked, year to year.
  • Russ, Joanna: Clute has a short, insightful biographical sketch of Russ here.
  • Joanna Russ (1937-2011): Locus’s obituary, which provided some minor details.

Interview with Joe Haldeman

A while ago, I wrote about Joe Haldeman and his debut novel The Forever War, and promised to post up our conversation. Here it is:
Andrew Liptak: What can you tell me about how you first came across science fiction? What do you first remember reading, and what made you stick with the genre?

Joe Haldeman: The first sf book I read was the Winston Juvenile ROCKET JOCKEY, by Philip St. John (pen name of Lester del Rey).  My teacher caught me reading in class and took the book away – but then returned it with the admonition not to read in class, and loaned me a bunch of other YA science fiction, from her daughter’s collection.

Why did I stick with the genre?  There was nothing else like it.  It totally captivated me, and in fact I resisted the teachers and librarians who tried to interest me in other books.

AL: I’ve read that you traveled quite a bit as a child – how did that impact how you viewed the world? Did this impact your writing?

JH:  I suppose it must have affected my writing, because “home” was rather a plastic designation; I lived five places in my first seven years.  The huge wild beauty of Alaska might have made the unearthly more accessible to me than it would have been to a child who grew up in a more prosaic place.

AL: You attended University of Maryland, where you studied physics and astronomy. Was it your interest in the subject that brought you to science fiction, or the other way around?

JH:  My interest in sf and astronomy grew simultaneously, at least through my mid-teens; I didn’t think of them separately until I was older.

AL: Following your graduation from college, you were drafted into the Army. What were your feelings on the Vietnam War at that point?

JH:  I was against it – certainly against my being in it!  I was a pacifist by natural inclination, but knew that pacifism didn’t make sense to other people.  (Of course the status of a draft-age pacifist is necessarily ambiguous.  He may just not want to die or lose precious parts.)

AL: What was Basic like after graduating from college?

JH:  I was the only college graduate in my company, and also the oldest man.  I got some grudging respect from the others for both things.

None of them read science fiction, of course; most of them either couldn’t read or found reading difficult.  Only two other guys read for pleasure.

I must say more than that, though.  These illiterate men had a very high regard for the books they couldn’t read.  That’s not meant to be ironic.

And I learned invaluable things from them.  Not being able to read is a handicap, but it doesn’t make you subhuman.  I was astonished (in my naiveté) at how much we had in common.

AL: Do any of them appear in your books?

JH: I took the protagonist’s name Farmer in WAR YEAR from a friend who was in my platoon in Vietnam.  The character in the story looks like the real person and has a similar background.

AL: What can you tell me about being shipped out to Vietnam? Your biography on your website states that you were assigned to the 4th Division. What was your job here?

JH:  I was made a combat engineer (pioneer), but that doesn’t have much to do with engineering as a professional or academic discipline.  What we repeated to each other, wryly, was that engineers were too dumb for the infantry, so they gave us a shovel rather than a gun. (Of course we did have guns, in every variety, but I used the pick and shovel more often.)

AL: How did you experience the war?

JH:  I sort of passed through it like a very realistic nightmare.  Badly injured, I stayed in Vietnam, rather than returning stateside, because of a clerical error (though I was mostly out of combat those five months – only three enemy attacks).

AL: What can you tell me about your injuries?

JH: One big bullet wound in the upper thigh, a .51 caliber machine-gun round that was part of a booby trap.  At the same time I absorbed about twenty large shrapnel wounds and perhaps a hundred smaller ones.  Five of those impacted my testicles, and gave me as much trouble as the bullet.

AL: Your first story was ‘Out of Phase’, published by Galaxy Magazine in 1968. What prompted you to start writing science fiction?

JH: I was writing science fiction (in the form of long comic strips) in the fourth grade.  Never stopped.

AL: Your first novel was titled War Year, about your experiences. Why write a fictional account of your experiences, rather than a memoir or history?

JH:  I saw myself as a fiction writer.  WAR YEAR is a slightly fictionalized memoir.  It seemed like the natural approach.  I wrote up an outline and a couple of sample chapters (with Ben Bova’s encouragement) and sold it to the first publisher who saw it.  Most of the action and descriptions are copied from the daily letters I wrote home to my wife while I was in Vietnam, combat and then hospitals.

AL: The novel you’re best known for is your debut SF title, The Forever War, written at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where you got your MFA. Where did this story first appear from?

JH:  It came out of a series of novelettes and novellas that were published in Analog magazine.  (Actually, it was written as a coherent novel, and dissected into episodes for the magazine.  Makes it an “episodic” novel, but so what?)

AL: Sorry, I think that I phrased that poorly: where did you come up with the idea for William Mandela and the plot of The Forever War?

JH: He was almost purely autobiographical.  The  plot of THE FOREVER WAR grew out of the novelette “Hero,” which was just a science-fictional translation of my experiences in Vietnam, plus some cool aliens.

AL: How much of your experiences in Vietnam inspired The Forever War?

JH: Almost all of it.  I wouldn’t have even thought of writing the book if I hadn’t been a soldier.

AL: A lot’s been made of its connections to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and how you felt it was a work that glorified war. Do you write The Forever War as an anti-war novel?

JH:  Of course it was an anti-war novel, but it wasn’t an “answer” to STARSHIP TROOPERS, as some people claimed.  Novels aren’t conversations.  I liked STARSHIP TROOPERS for what it was, a quickly written didactic novel with some great action scenes.

AL: What did Heinlein think of The Forever War?

JH:  He liked it very much.  When we met, he told me he had read it three times.

AL: The Forever War was written as a sort of thesis for your MFA program? I take it you passed? ;)

JH:  Easily.  I don’t think anyone who actually finished a book did not get his or her degree, while I was at Iowa.  (Not unusual for MFA’s, anywhere.)

AL: What did your instructors think about the book? Was there any question about genre or encouragement to steer clear of SF?

JH: My advisor, Vance Bourjaily, liked it very much, and really, his opinion was the only one that mattered.  The professor in charge of the department, Jack Leggett, and one senior professor, Stanley Elkin, detested any science fiction – or genre fiction of any description, for that matter.  But Vance liked it very much (partly as a fellow combat veteran), and we became friends.

Stephen Becker, another senior professor, really liked my work, and I loved his.  A few years later, I went out to Tortola to collaborate on a novel with him.  We had a good time, but couldn’t make the novel cohere.

AL: Once the book was written, what was the sales process like?

JH:  (for WAR YEAR) Almost invisible.  Holt didn’t know what to do with it, so it didn’t do anything.  One ad, about an inch square in Publishers Weekly.

It got a full-page review in The New York Times, but Holt never followed up on that.  The advertising budget was less than a thousand dollars.

Maybe this was the low point of my career:  Right after WAR YEAR came out, I went to the annual publishers’ convention in Washington, D.C.  I had borrowed an editor’s name tag, and so was anonymous when I went to the Holt, Rinehart and Winston table.  They had a copy of WAR YEAR there, and I asked the salesman about it.  He said he’d read it and thought it was a good book, but they weren’t pushing it.  “It’s about Viet Nam,” he said, “so nobody’s gonna read it.”  So I slunk out radiating despair.

(For THE FOREVER WAR –  It got a small positive review in the New York Times – as a mainstream book, not science fiction.  I think that helped quite a bit.  In those days the NYTBR did have a science fiction column, but it was definitely treated as a poor relation, compared to things that were published in the main part of the book.)

AL: I heard that you first sold The Forever War to Terry Carr at Ace Books. What happened with that?

JH: Terry got fired and was told to take his books with him.

AL: The Forever War was also serialized in Analog (I have a copy with ‘Hero’ in it!): what was the reception like in the fan community as that was being released?

JH: What I remember is that everybody loved it.  That’s probably not true, but it’s what I remember.

AL: What was your reaction to the number of awards that it began to win in the mid-70s?

JH:  I was surprised.  Now I’m less surprised.

I knew I was a good writer then, but I was surrounded by good writers who weren’t making a living.  Now I know that if a person is a good writer, success may come from a combination of luck and talent — or it may not.  I had enough of both, and good timing along with the luck.

Seventeen publishers turned down THE FOREVER WAR, usually with the explanation given above – good book but nobody will touch it.  The eighteenth, Tom Dunne at St. Martin’s Press, decided to take a chance.  That made all the difference.

AL: Nobody would publish the novel because it was about Vietnam?

JH: Right.  Vietnam novels were un-sellable.

AL: The book has consistently been named as one of the best SF novels out there since it’s publication: do you think that it’s become more relevant since the US has been engaged in the Middle East?

JH: Maybe so, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my intentions – except that one war is much like another, from the ground-pounder’s point of view.

AL: What has the reaction been like from the veteran / soldier community?

JH: Soldiers and veterans have been very positive about the book, though I suspect that a large part of that is people not saying anything if they didn’t like it.  Criticizing a disabled veteran, after all.

The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr.

Science Fiction publishing is full of strange characters, but there’s one story that seems to really capture people’s attention consistently: James Tiptree Jr., a brilliant figure who seemed to appear out of nowhere, earn a number of awards, and maintained a fairly elusive personality in science fiction circles. It wasn’t until a decade of writing that it was revealed that Tiptree wasn’t actually a guy: it was a woman named Alice Sheldon, with an utterly fascinating background: she had traveled the world, participated in the Second World War, worked for the CIA and had a PhD.

Sheldon proves to be an interesting figure, challenging a number of preconceptions for gender in science fiction (not just with her alter ego). What’s interesting about Sheldon is that she endured and wrote about a number of the same issues that we seem to face in science fiction right now: how are women represented in fiction and how are female authors treated differently than their male counterparts? Sheldon’s story is illuminating when it comes to this.

This post comes at a sort of weird time, as blogger Requires Hate was revealed as Benjanun Sriduangkaew: The revelation comes as one personality is drastically different from that of the other, and there’s been a lot of discussion around that topic. The Tiptree/Sheldon situation is vastly different, but it is interesting to see just how people use pen names. There’s a number of women who have resorted to the practice: C.L. Moore, Andre Norton and others, with each rationalizing their use differently. Moore, for example, was worried about her employer finding out and firing her (he wasn’t a fan of the pulp magazines). Sheldon wanted to compartmentalize her professional academic and writing lives. Others wanted to make sure that they were actually considered for publication – for good reason.

Go read The Slow Unveiling of James Tiptree Jr. over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Transformations: The Story of Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, Mike Ashley: Ashley has a couple of insights into Tiptree’s early stories.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980. Ashley devotes more space to Tiptree in this volume.
  • Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery. Tiptree pops up quite a bit in here, with some good analysis on his stories.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. There’s a pretty comprehensive biographical sketch of Tiptree in this book.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, by Eric Leif Davin: This book is a detailed study of women in science fiction, but largely before Tiptree’s entry into the genre. However, Tiptree pops up quite a bit.
  • Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, edited by Mary Flanagan + Austin Booth.  This mixed fiction and critical theory anthology has one of Tiptree’s stories in it: The Girl Who Was Plugged In, which is a fantastic read.
  • Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, Guy Haley. Alice Sheldon has a great entry in this neat book.
  • The Battle Of The Sexes in Science Fiction, Justine Larbalestier: Larbalestier looks at a number of Tiptree’s prominent stories.
  • Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Justine Larbalestier. Larbalestier edits this volume, and it has one of Tiptree’s stories (And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hillside), along with some analysis by Wendy Pearson.
  • Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, Larry McCaffery. Tiptree/Sheldon doesn’t have an interview in here, but there is a good interview with Joanna Russ, who provides some good contextual information.
  • James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, Julie Philips: This is the definitive biography of Sheldon and her personal. My post is a pale reflection of what’s in this book, and I highly recommend this detailed, interesting and outstanding biography.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts: Roberts devotes some good details about Tiptree’s place in the SF genre.

Joe Haldeman’s Forever War

When I was in High School, I devoured Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, but it wasn’t until I’d left graduate school that someone forced me to read The Forever War. When I did, I sort of missed the point of the book, and going back to it recently with this research, I’m finding that it’s a book that’s growing for me each time I read it. It’s certainly one of the best SF novels that I’ve ever read.

I’ve interviewed Joe several times already, and we included him in War Stories, with his story Graves leading off the TOC. Going back and looking at how his book was written has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while now, and after writing up this column, I have to say, I need to give the book another read to fully appreciate it, I think.

Go read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War over on Kirkus Reviews.

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss has some interesting points to make here about TFW and its placement in genre literature.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley. Ashley notes where Haldeman began writing and where he was able to first publish his stories.
  • Science Fiction Writers Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. Blieler has a good biographical sketch of Haldeman in this edition.
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Haldeman himself has some things to say about his own book. My 1991 edition has a good author forward.
  • Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, Guy Haley. This recently released book isn’t terribly academic, but it has a page devoted to Haldeman (written by Damien Walter). Overall, it’s a really neat, (dense) book with a TON of material. Good for flipping through.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol 2, Frank Magill. Magill has a solid review of TFW in volume 2.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about Heinlein’s interactions with Haldeman in 1975 here.
  • Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George Slusser and Eric Rabkin. There’s a fantastic essay from Haldeman called Vietnam and other Alien Worlds, which is well worth reading. (Here’s a good source online.

Online Sources:

  • Interim Report: An Autobiographical Ramble by Joe Haldeman. This is a fantastic autobiography from Joe, which provides some extremely helpful details about his life.
  • Many, many thanks to Joe Haldeman himself, who agreed to be interviewed for this. I’ll post up our conversation at some point in the near future.

Interview with Larry Niven

A while ago, I wrote about Larry Niven and his novel Ringworld for Kirkus Reviews. In doing so, I interviewed Mr. Niven, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about the genesis of the book. Here’s our conversation:

Andrew Liptak: You’re well known for your ‘Known Space’ stories. What prompted you to link them together as you wrote, and how did this affect the stories as you wrote them?

Larry Niven: Heinlein and Anderson and others had done linked stories. It seemed an obvious labor-saving move. Equally obvious: if the story idea didn’t fit my universe, build another for it.

Often the effect was that a story written for its own sake generated more stories.

Lately the various series are generating stories in other minds.
AL: How did you come to open up Known Space to other authors?

LN: James Patrick Baen suggested doing that. I told him that Known Space was mine and I wouldn’t share. Five minutes later I was saying, “We could open up the Man-Kzin Wars. I don’t do war stories.” It all derived from that: fifteen volumes of the Kzinti, and then five written with Ed Lerner.

AL: Ringworld is arguably one of your best known novels: what can you tell me about how this story was conceived and written? What was the writing, submission and publication process like?

LN: I was gearing up to terminate the Known Space series when I thought of Ringworld. I think I did the obvious but at this late date I’m no longer sure. The obvious: take the equator out of a ping-pong-ball Dyson sphere—the only useful part—spin it up and terraform the inside.

I was visiting bibliophiles when I borrowed a text and got the formula for spin gravity. Otherwise I’d have used bad math to write bad scenery.

I was at Madiera Beach at the Knights’ writers conference, when I thought of the Eye Storm. I tried to describe it to Betty Ballantine. Maybe it got through.

I wrote the ending as quick as I could. It felt like the book was getting huge.
That cover was done from my sketch, but by someone who just didn’t get it. I’ve seen much better Ringworld illos since.

AL: How did your background in mathematics help you with writing and describing the book and Ringworld?

LN: I don’t think the math helped as much as the mathematician’s way of thinking. Building logic towers from premises wrung out of thin air. Mathematics is a game.

AL: Ringworld won the Hugo and Nebula in 1971, Ditmar in 1972 and placed 1st in the Locus poll that year: what was the winning streak like for you?

LN: Unique. I haven’t won a Hugo since 1976. I only won the one Nebula. You should know that I worried about Ringworld. I was afraid it would be laughed off the stage.

AL: What do you think appealed to readers for such a reaction for the book?

LN: The Ringworld is a wonderful mental plaything. THE INTEGRAL TREES is better science fiction, but it’s not as easy to play with the ideas.

AL: You note in your introduction that you never planned to continue the Ringworld story, but fans prompted you do continue. How did you go about putting together Ringworld Engineers from there?

LN: It kind of shaped itself. Beginnings are difficult; I started Louis Wu at the bottom of a lost career, the opposite of Ringworld. I’d been ignoring the hominid races; I began building them. It ran from there.

AL: Do you have any future plans for Ringworld?

LN: No.

AL: Your novels are considered to be ‘Hard Science Fiction’, and I’ve heard stories about your first published story, Coldest Place in reaction to that (regarding Mercury). Who were your influences when it came to writing in this particular style?

LN: “Hard” science fiction was pretty soft when I started writing. FTL, psi powers, teleportation and many other notions were fair game. These days I try to hew closer to what we think we know. My influences were Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber…all the greats of that era.

AL: Were there any real-world influences (such as the space race) on Ringworld or the Known Space books? How do you think the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions impacted Science Fiction as a genre?

LN: I was pretty ignorant of the facts of daily life, politics, history. I didn’t get into those matters until I started collaborating. So reality didn’t have much effect on my writing early on.

AL: What can you tell me about the Galaxy Magazine pro/anti war ad?

LN: They made me decide. I chose to win a war we were already fighting. The truth may be more complicated, but they wouldn’t let me sit it out.

AL: Can you tell me a little more about this? Who made you decide, the magazine? What was their motivations for placing such an ad?

LN: Damon and Kate Wilhelm Knight gathered writers to a mutual criticism circle, once a year. One year they invited the conservatives to stay out while their like minded colleagues formed that first list advising an end to the Vietnam War. I did not appreciate being treated so, and when Poul shaped a counterattack, I joined it.

AL: What was your relationship with the Dangerous Visions anthology? (Aside from publishing a story in it – I saw that you were thanked in the acknowledgements).

LN: I loaned Harlan money. (It was paid back.) And I wrote an early story.

AL: Ringworlds have become popularized artifacts in science fiction: are you pleased to see this idea take off? Where did the idea of a Ringworld come from?

LN: Sure I’m pleased to have influenced the field, that way and others. Sometime the whole field looks like an ongoing conversation covering centuries.

The Ringworld derives from Dyson (Dyson sphere) via SF writers (who took it for a ping pong ball 93,000,000 miles in radius, with a star at the center) to the notion that you can’t have gravity generators, so you have to spin the thing, but now the air and water all cover just the equator…

AL: Are we ever going to see an adaptation of Ringworld on the big or small screen? I saw that SyFy had announced it last year, almost a decade after they originally announced it.

LN: SyFy has cancelled again.

AL: That’s a shame. Do you hope to see an adaptation made?

LN: I might not live that long.

AL: There’s a critical essay out there that compares Ringworld to The Wizard of Oz. Are these comparisons accurate or intended? Was Oz an influence for you?

LN: That critic convinced me completely. Yes, I loved the OZ books when I was in grade school, but I didn’t realize I was using the plot line. It just felt right.

AL: When did you first come across science fiction? Why have you remained a reader and writer in the genre?

LN: First there were fair tales (including the OZ books.) Then, Heinlein and a bunch of other writers of juveniles.

AL: Were you a magazine fan at all, or part of Fandom before you became a writer? If so, where there any authors that were a particular influence, stylistically?

LN: I was a magazine and anthology fan, but I’d barely heard of Fandom. When I knew I wanted to become a pro writer, I tracked them down.

AL: A friend of mine who’s working on her PhD in soil ecology has two questions: In Bowl of Heaven, human intentions and behavior are misunderstood by the other sentient creatures they encounter, leading to conflict that could have been avoided if both species better understood one another. Do you think this also happens here on Earth, and if so, what implications does it have for efforts to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity? How could environmentalists and policy-makers benefit from reading Bowl of Heaven? How could the ideas explored in Bowl of Heaven help set research agendas for scientists studying animal behavior?

LN: Misunderstandings have caused conflicts through the ages, but less often today. Communications are better. Today conflict arises from real differences.
Biodiversity and ecosystems should be preserved…but won’t be until someone can make that economically feasible.

Reading Bowl of Heaven will make smart people smarter. The lessons are in there. Research agendas in animal behavior? I’m not sure. Ask Greg Benford.

 

There’s been others championing Ringworld – Lev Grossman recently published a great look over at Time.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time

One of my favorite books is easily A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. I can’t remember when I first read it, but when I went back to it a couple of years ago, I was struck by its prose and outstanding story.

What’s more astonishing is that it was rejected dozens of times from publishers, before going on to win one of the major awards for YA literature. Moreover, it’s still highly relevant to any teenager or young reader today.

Go read Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, Madeleine L’Engle. This was a moderately useful book, as it contained some biographical elements.
  • Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, Leonard Marcus. This is an astounding book, and I wish that each one of the authors that I’ve looked at had something similar. It’s an entire book of oral histories, conducted with people who worked with or who were close with L’Engle. It’s a fantastic source.

Online Sources:

  • Madeleine L’Engle: Short biographical sketch from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • The Storyteller: Fact, fiction, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle. This is a fantastic article on the life of L’Engle, and Zarin does a great job parsing out the complexity of her character. It’s well worth a read.
  • Obituary. L’Engle’s obituary from the New York Times, which provides some interesting details about her life.
  • L’Engle, Madeleine. Biographical entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
  • ALA’s Banned Books Page. The American Library Association’s home page for their Banned Books week, which includes links to the lists of books that are frequently challenged and banned.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book to review for SF Signal, looking for something different. That book was Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it turned out to be one of those books that quietly never quite left my head.

Thinking about Roadside Picnic and its authors, as well as our last column on Stanislaw Lem, we get a good starting point for examining how science fiction developed outside of the United States. Given that a lot of SF has been published here in the US, we appear to be a leader in the genre, for better or worse.

At the same time, we forget, ignore or simply don’t realize that authors such as Lem and the Strugatskys were as big as the giants in the United States: on par with Bradbury, Asimov or Heinlein. Examining their publishing experiences and approaches to the genre is good to highlight the limits and potential of genre, but also where US authors and fans tend to put on blinders for the world around them.

As awareness of foreign SF grows (see Clarksworld’s Chinese SF project, funding now), it’s important to realize that a) this isn’t a new phenomenon, and b) SF isn’t limited to the United States and England.

On top of all that, go read Roadside Picnic. It’s a phenomenal book.

Go read Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology after Utopia, Edith Clowes. This is a particularly detailed volume on Russian literature, and partiularly looks at the science fiction’s complicated relationship with utopian fiction and their own country’s political history. This particular book looks at how the Strugatsky’s works fit into this.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Landon discusses the brothers at length, with a fairly good analysis of their works.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Frank Magill. There’s an excellent review of Roadside Picnic here.
  • Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature, Rosalind J. Marsh. This book has a good look at works of the brothers.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers, Stephen Potts. This is a short book, but a good overview of the brother’s works and career.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a couple of paragraphs of the brother’s career and how it fits into a bigger picture.
  • Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Robert Staicar. There’s an excellent essay about the brothers here.
  • Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This was my introduction to the brothers: the 2012 translation, which threw me at first, then drew me in completely. It’s a Weird book, while also a Hard SF one at the same time. It still sticks in my mind, years after reading it. Ursula K. Le Guin opens the book, while Boris provided an afterword.

Online Sources:

  • SF Encyclopedia. As always, the SF Encyclopedia has a good, comprehensive entry on the subject, particularly when it comes to their placement in the genre.

Two obituaries for Boris, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times helped provide some details of their lives, as well as some critical look at their careers:

I hate to do it, but I had to rely a bit on Wikipedia’s entry for the brothers, which provided some minor details, although I tried to rely on entries that were backed up with sources.

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 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.