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.

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:

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.

Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Known Space Stories

Ringworld is a novel that’s always stuck with me. I picked it up alongside authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, and other authors from that point in time. Foundation and Dune are two books that are among my favorites, but Ringworld has long been the best of the lot. It’s vivid, funny, exciting and so forth. Reading it again recently in preparation for this column, I was astounded at how well it’s held up (as opposed to Foundation) in the years since it’s publication, and I can’t wait to read it again. Plus, that cover is just beautiful.

Go read Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Known Space Stories over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: History of Science Fiction, by Brian Aldiss. Aldiss’s book has some good context for Niven’s rise, as well as the impact of his books.
  • Gateway to Forever: The story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, by Mike Ashley. Ashley recounts some of Niven’s early works in the Known Space, along with the state of magazine fiction during that time.
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, by Mike Ashley. Niven’s stories taper off in the 1970s, but Ashley looks over his works during that point in that time.
  • Science Fiction Writers, 2nd Edition, Richard Bleiler. Bleiler has a biographical essay on Niven and his life in this book.
  • Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, edited by Reginald Bretnor. There’s some good background information on Niven’s works here.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. There’s some good political context for SF in the 1960s/70s here, and some solid information on Niven’s works.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol 4. Frank Magill. Excellent review of Ringworld in this volume.
  • Science Fiction Dialogues, edited by Gary Wolfe. There’s a great essay here talking about the connections between Ringworld and the Oz books.

Internet Sources:

Finally, many thanks to Larry Niven himself for answering my questions. I’ll post up the interview at some point in the near future.

Andre Norton’s YA Novels

When I worked at a bookstore (the now defunct Walden Books), I had a co-worker that loved Andre Norton. I’d never read any of her books throughout High School, although I was certainly familiar with her name. I wish now that I did.

Norton wrote largely for what we now call the YA audience: teenagers, with fantastical adventures throughout numerous worlds and times. She was also largely ignored or dismissed for writing ‘children’s literature’, which is a shame, because it’s likely that she had as great an influence on the shape of the modern genre as Robert Heinlein, who’s Juvenile novels attracted millions of fans to new worlds. Norton was the same, and influenced countless readers and writers for decades. It’s fitting that the major SF award for YA fiction is titled The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Go read Andre Norton’s YA novels over on Kirkus Reviews.
Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss contends here that Norton was part of a growing movement in science fiction in the 1950s, along with a small core of other authors.
  • Who Wrote That? Andre Norton By John Bankston. This book designed for YA readers seems to be the only Norton biography on the market right now. I used the chronology to help structure this post.
  • Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow, edited by Reginald Bretnor. Anne McCaffrey has an essay in this book that mentions Andre Norton briefly.
  • The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Paul Allen Carter. Carter talks about Norton very briefly here in a larger context within the genre.
  • Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, by James Gunn. Norton has a couple of mentions here, talking about her work in the 1950s.
  • Science Fiction after 1900, Brooks Landon. Landon’s book is a great look, and he talks about Norton a couple of times in this book regarding her influence in the genre.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James. This book also mentions Norton sparingly, but does so within the context of SF, Women and the 1950s.
  • The Faces of Science Fiction: Intimate Portraits of the Men and Women who Shape the way we look at the future, Patti Perret. Norton has a portrait in here, where she talks about science fiction as an entertainment medium.

Web:

  • Andre Norton correspondence, literary and dollhouse, Cleveland Public Library. There’s some interesting letters here that talk quite a bit about Norton’s character and personality.
  • Obituaries: Los Angles Times and The Guardian. Both were helpful, as they provided some good (although at times, inaccurate) details about her life.