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.

Captain Video and his Science Fiction Authors

While I’ve written about books and magazines for this column, there’s other mediums where science fiction lives: television and film. I haven’t talked about that much for the column (given that Kirkus Reviews is primarily a book magazine), but there’s some fascinating times when they’ve crossed over. One such case is one of the first science fiction television shows, which caught my interest based on the authors who wrote for it: Asimov, Clarke, Vance, and others. The show was Captain Video and his Video Rangers, and it’s a neat program that forms a solid branch from the literature world to the television world, helping to bring about other major television shows that followed.

As a bonus, there’s several episodes online:


Go read Captain Video and his Science Fiction Authors over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of the Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey mentions this show in passing, and how it related to the early TV world at the time.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World,
  • Thomas M. Disch. Disch also mentions this in passing, and notes that it’s a forerunner to some of the early TV shows.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer. There’s some great quotes in here from Clarke’s experience working on the show, as well as quotes from the producer, Druce.
  • Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time, edited by Larry Steckler. This fannish (read, meh) biography of Gernsback provides some good context for SF as a technological phenomenon.
  • The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television, David Weinstein. This book has some fantastic information about the DuMont network and particularly, some great details about the TV show and the behind the scenes work, although not much about the authors.

Online:

Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

 

Andrew J. Liptak: When did you first read science fiction, and what about it made you stick with it?

KSR:  I began reading science fiction when I went to college, at UC San Diego in the early 1970s.  I had grown up in Orange County California, and seen an agricultural community (orange groves) get turned into a giant urban sprawl very quickly, and when I ran into science fiction it seemed like a realism to me; it expressed things I had seen with my own eyes.  That made it very appealing and I was instantly won over.  That it was the time of sf’s New Wave made it extra exciting.

 

AJL: What were some of the New Wave books that you read that excited you the most?

KSR:   Joanna Russ’s AND CHAOS DIED and THE FEMALE MAN, J.G. Ballard’s disaster novels especially THE CRYSTAL WORLD, Samuel R. Delany’s THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, Thomas Disch’s CAMP CONCENTRATION, Ursula Le Guin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Gene Wolfe’s THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, and many others.

 

AJL: What are some of the authors who have inspired you and your books?

KSR:  All of the writers in the previous list, plus Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatski brothers, Philip K. Dick, also many non-science fiction writers such as Joyce Cary, Peter Dickinson, Cecelia Holland, Virginia Woolf, and so on.  I like a lot of writers and then go from there.

 

AJL: Your background is a bit different from other science fiction novelists: you earned your PhD in English. How has that shaped how you put together your novels?

KSR:  I love reading and it is for me a kind of religion in that it is the source of my values.  So it was natural to become an English major, and I am still always reading fiction.  I like the history of the novel and feel that early novels like Defoe’s Moll Flanders or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy are among the genre’s masterpieces, so I am always reading backward in the history of the novel and finding new treasures.  When it comes to how that applies to my own novels, I’m not so sure how it works; it’s very indirect.  I like reading all kinds of literature, and literary criticism too, but how all that influences me when I write my own books is mysterious to me.  Mostly I am trying to make scenes work and then put together stories.  It’s very immediate, and what I’ve read previously seems distant in those moments of creation.  But I’m sure it is helpful even if I don’t know how.

 

AJL: Your doctoral thesis was on Philip K. Dick’s novels: has his works had a particular impact on your own writing?

KSR:  There are two main aspects to it, I think.  One has to do with form, and involves Dick’s use of the roving point of view, in which different chapters are narrated from the point of view of different characters; he did that a lot, and I have too.  Then in terms of content, I like how he always featured ordinary people caught up in large historical situations, from a leftist perspective.  I’ve done a lot of that too.

 

AJL: Tell me a little bit about your Mars trilogy: When did you first realize that you wanted to write about Mars?

KSR:  I knew it when I saw the photos from the Viking orbiter, which included stereoscopic 3-D photo pairs where you could see what the landscape might look like, somewhat like early primitive versions of Google Earth.  These were NASA publications that came out in the late 1970s.  At that point I had started writing science fiction and had been hiking in the Sierra Nevada of California for some years, and so I began by writing stories about hiking around the amazing Martian landscape, which really was something quite new, revealed to us at that level of detail for the first time in 1976.  At that point I also realized that only by terraforming Mars could you actually backpack there; and there were scientific articles coming out about terraforming Mars in those years, so I paid attention to those, and thought, that would be a good story to tell.  I spent about ten years thinking about that and collecting research materials.

 

AJL: How much of an impact did those pictures from the surface of Mars have on science fiction fans, do you think?

KSR:  It’s hard for me to judge or say for sure, but I suspect they were viewed by all science fiction fans with great interest, as the community already had a strong feeling for Mars as an sf landscape, and the “dry Mars” that turned out to be the real one was portrayed by Bradbury and Clarke, so it was no great surprise or disappointment.  Possibly there was a feeling of “we knew that, but it’s nice to see the details now.”

 

AJL: You were seventeen when the Apollo 11 lunar mission landed on the moon: what were your memories of that?

KSR:  I was with my parents in Florida where my dad worked in summers at Eglin Air Force base, and I recall watching the landing on TV and feeling amazed.

 

AJL: Do you see any differences in how the science fiction community responded to Apollo 11 vs. that first Viking lander?

KSR:  Again, hard to speak for the sf community, and I only got to know it personally in the early 1980s, so this is guesswork or historical, but I think the moon landing with people was world history, whereas the Mars Viking thing was less huge, more a space science specialist thing, although it’s also true that anything to do with Mars gets a big response from the general public.

 

AJL: The Mars books cover a lot of ground: colonization, politics, corporations, environment. What particular challenges did you have when assembling the books?

KSR:   It was a long project, but I wasn’t doing anything else in those years except take care of my family as a house husband, so I had the time and the focus to go long.  The challenges I guess involved keeping a sense of the flow of the book, and keeping the balance between the various point of view characters; and then above all, figuring out what happened next in the story, why and how.  It was basically the usual novel writing problems, but extended over a long time and a lot of pages:  six years, 1700 pages.

 

AJL: What was the writing process like? In my copy of Red Mars, your blurb mentions that you were hard at work writing Green Mars. When you wrote the first book, did you know what would be in store for Book 3?

KSR:  I knew all along that I wanted to tell the story of the terraforming of Mars, and the creation of a new human society there, multicultural and in certain ways kind of utopian compared to now.  So I knew that much, which was enough to guide me through the process of figuring out what should happen along the way.  When I started writing the book, in 1989, I quickly realized that it was going to be a very long book, and my agent and editor of that time said to me, Stan, we call that a trilogy; and so I shifted the title from Green Mars, which was my idea for the title for the whole book, to Red, Green, and Blue Mars.

 

AJL: What was the publication process like, and how did you integrate any new scientific information about Mars into your books?

KSR:  Publication was straightforward, led by my HarperCollins editor Jane Johnson in England, who always got the books out first, and encouraged me greatly throughout the process; a driving force.  There was not much new information about Mars in the years I wrote, but what information there was came out packaged in a huge anthology from the U. of Arizona called MARS which came out in 1992 and gave me new things to say in GREEN and BLUE MARS.  It looked like I had saved good things for later in the trilogy, but actually I learned them while writing and did not know them before, so that was a nice thing to have happen.

 

AJL: What did you learn from your California Trilogy that you applied to writing your Mars trilogy? What did you learn from your Mars books that you applied to the ones that came after?

KSR:  Three Californias is not a trilogy in the same sense as the Mars trilogy or the 40-50-60 trilogy.  The latter two are really just long novels in three volumes, but Three Californias is a triptych of three novels each portraying a different future for California and the world.  So, what I learned from those three novels is that I could write a novel, and in writing a novel I was helped by moving around in point of view, from one character to another, so that the reader got different perspectives on the characters and the story.  Those lessons I applied to the Mars trilogy, although everything was then done on a larger scale.  Also, writing the Three Californias taught me there were things I wanted to do differently in the Mars book; I wanted to do more exposition, to talk about history directly, to tell a global story.  So there were negative lessons as well as positive lessons, you could say.

From the Mars trilogy, I learned that I could use a similar format to tell a global story that covered centuries, which helped me hugely when I wrote The Years of Rice and Salt.  After that the help was more indirect.  I think I could say the Mars trilogy made me fearless.  After doing that, I was willing to try anything.

 

AJL: Your fourth Mars book is a collection of short fiction: how did that book come to be?

KSR:  I wanted to create a context for two earlier Mars stories I had published, “Exploring Fossil Canyon” and “Green Mars,” what I called my Roger and Eileen stories, and these were a different Martian history than the one in the trilogy, so I started thinking about alternative Mars and how I could portray a kind of cloud of alternatives around my trilogy, along with some “secret histories” about relationships and so on, that had not been revealed in the trilogy but would help to explain some things.  Also more folk tales, some new stories, some poems, the Martian constitution, etc.  It became a true anthology and companion volume, not straightforward but I hope interesting if one liked the trilogy.  It helps make that book more interesting if you’ve read the trilogy first, for sure.

 

AJL: Critics have noted that one of your recent books, 2312, bears a number of similarities to your Martian books: what potential do you see for humanity in the solar system?

KSR:  Well, that’s a good question, and I guess it takes all my books to answer it.  I’ve been thinking for a long time, since Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness, books from the early 1970s and early 1980s, that the solar system is our neighborhood, so to speak.  We can reach it, move around in it, establish scientific stations on various planets and moons in it.  It’s a resource, and a place to learn things about how to live on Earth.  It’s spectacular real estate.  Earth will always remain our home and our main place.  It might be best to think of the solar system in the way we think about Antarctica.  It’s there, it’s interesting and beautiful, it can help us learn how to live; it will never be our main place.  Then beyond that, meaning centuries from now, it could be that Mars in particular might become an even more human place, a second home.  But it won’t happen unless we learn how to live on Earth sustainably.

 

AJL: I attended a NASA conference where a speaker noted that modern spaceflight and exploration isn’t like the US expansion into the west, but more like the early polar exploration missions of the 1800/1900s.

KSR:  I agree with that.  It’s not the wild west, but Antarctica, that provide the more accurate analogies.  It’s like a super Antarctica up there, even colder, more dangerous, more interesting, etc.

 

AJL: Mars is one of the first destinations for science fiction, ever since someone misinterpreted the word ‘Canali’. Wells, Burroughs and Bradbury have all set stories on the red planet: did this figure into how you developed your own trilogy?

KSR:  Mars is a great science fiction story space.  In the way they talk about “The Matter of Britain” when they talk about all the Arthurian legends, sf has “the Matter of Mars.”  In each generation since the time of Percival Lowell, the Mars presented by the scientists has been taken up by sf writers to become a new story space.  All that got hugely sharpened in focus in 1969 and 1976, when Mariner and Viking gave us the planet in so much more detail than we had ever had before. But the fundamental truths of the human relation to Mars were mostly set out by Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles:  the Martians are us, we will change there, the ghosts of our stories about the place will always haunt us when we really get there.  These are permanent truths, and things I wanted to join and emphasize in my own Mars novel.

 

AJL: Do you pick up other books about Mars? Andy Weir’s debut seems to have become extremely popular (Ridley Scott is set to start filming an adaptation soon.)

KSR:  I have not read the Andy Weir book though I hear good things about it.  “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” is a good story, first told around 1903, but bringing it up to date with the latest knowledge about the planet and our space program is an excellent idea.

 

AJL: There have been plans over the years for various adaptations, and last I saw, Spike TV is looking to adapt the trilogy for a television series. How is that progressing? Does it stand a better chance as a television series now that shows such as Game of Thrones have proven to be successful?

KSR:  I don’t know enough about TV to answer these questions, but I have the sense that TV in general is on the look-out for stories that are long and complex and historical in nature, partly because of Game of Thrones, so in that sense I think the time is right for filming a TV series based on my Mars trilogy, and Spike TV seems committed and serious.  So it seems very possible that it might happen.  That would be great, but for the most part I am just cheering on the people involved with this process.

 

AJL: Did you watch the Curiosity Rover’s landing? What are your thoughts on the current efforts to explore and reach Mars?

KSR:  I love Curiosity and all the other robot landers on Mars.  The clarity of their photography is just mind-boggling to me, after 25 years of looking at fuzzy Viking images.  It’s like getting glasses for the first time.  And the planet is looking more and more beautiful.  So I follow all that with great pleasure.  And I see NASA is again proposing that we go there with human astronauts, a very exciting idea.  I think it can stand for our utmost reach outward, the hardest technological thing that we can do in terms of travel, in our time.  It’s not the solution to creating a sustainable civilization, which is our first priority, but it’s very exciting and inspirational.  A beautiful project.

 

AJL: I came across a video recently called Wanderers (http://vimeo.com/108650530), which the filmmakers directly cite your books, and they really speak to the beauty of the potential for humanity in space. Do you think we have the ability to leave behind our darker elements if/when we do venture onto other worlds?

KSR:   Many have noted that this beautiful little film seems to be illustrating scenes from my 2312 and Mars books, and I would agree.  Some scenes portray things written only in my books, such as surfing the rings of Saturn, etc.  It’s a great tribute and very beautiful.

 

AJL: What can we expect from your upcoming novel, Aurora?

KSR:   I’ve tried to do my usual thing, and write about the idea of going to a nearby star system, in this case Tau Ceti, which has an array of planets we know about, and in doing so describe what would really happen in such an attempt.  So it is a novel about coping with problems, and committing to a giant adventure based on this old and great science fiction vision, the multi-generational starship, and the arrival at a planet new to humanity.

The History of Serialized SF Gets a New Chapter

The History of Serialized Fiction Gets a New Chapter

Since its early days, Science Fiction and Fantasy has told astonishing stories, but you couldn’t always find them in a bookstore, or even as a single novel.

The genre has seen many changes over the years, beginning with the magazine before the rise of a bound novel, and now, the introduction of the eBook. The pioneering SF novels weren’t released at once, but in a serialized format. Now, that might be returning.

In the early 1900s, magazines reigned supreme in the United States. One author, a destitute Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a magazine market with fiction of such poor quality, he could write something just as entertaining and just as bad. He was enormously successful with it: his first serialized stories created iconic characters and story lines, such as John Carter and Tarzan in the early 1910s, and continued for decades. Shortly after the serialization of his stories, he was able to quickly put his serialized stories back together into a single volume: Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1914, and A Princess of Marswas published in 1917. He eventually published dozens of follow-up novels.

Other authors, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, followed suit, writing up his stories, and splitting them up for the magazine market, and eventually publishing them as a single, cohesive novel. Smith, considered the founder of the Space Opera subgenre, wrote long, episodic space epics which were well suited for the pulp magazines. His first serialized series, Skylark, was assembled in 1946 with The Skylark of Space. Another was collected in 1947 as Spacehounds of IPC, while his next major series, the Lensmen, was serialized in Amazing Stories in 1934, eventually published as novel,Triplanetary, in 1948, with a number of sequels.

The first major stage existed without a dedicated market for novels, and as a result, authors found ways to get their stories published, helping to set up the demand for standalone science fiction novels. As the market for novels grew, authors began putting their short stories together into books of their own, in a type of story known as the ‘Fix-up’ novel.

One notable story, A.E. van Vogt’s, The Black Destroyer saw publication the seminal July 1939 issue of Astounding Magazine.  The story was the first part of what would be an early example of a ‘Fix Up’ novel, where several stories, not all of which were necessarily related, were re-edited and assembled into a single story. Three other short stories by Vogt, War of Nerves, published in May 1950 in Other Worlds Magazine, Discord in Scarlet, published in the December 1939 issue of Astounding Magazine, and M33 in Andromeda, appeared in the August 1943 issue of Astounding Magazine came together in 1950 to formThe Voyage of the Space Beagle.

Other novels followed in similar fashion: in the same year, Ray Bradbury’s acclaimed novel,The Martian Chronicles, contained almost 30 short stories, some of which had first appeared with the novel’s publication. Another notable book, Isaac Asimov’s collection, I, Robot, features ten short stories, all centered around Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Asimov would return for another collected novel, Foundation, considered his greatest work, assembled from four stories, Foundation, Bridle andSaddle, The Wedge and The Big and the Little, all published in Astounding Magazine between 1942 and 1944, with a fifth, The Psychohistorians, written specifically for the novel.

The serialized novel was a popular format for authors for a couple of reasons: the science fiction market was mainly focused around the short fiction and magazine scene, and the successful authors were writing numerous stories for publication, leaving plenty of material for larger stories. Additionally, there was a much smaller market for standalone novels: full time authors, who depended upon the small paychecks that they received from magazines, found this a harder market to break into.

In the mid 1930s, publishers had begun to experiment with cheaper, mass produced books. In 1935, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane found himself looking for something to read at a train station, only finding cheap magazines. He wanted a cheap, high quality paperback, and within the year, a publishing experiment had begun: Penguin began selling their classic novels, and was immediately successful. The success spread: in 1939, Simon & Schuster introduced Pocket Books. The world had been introduced to the mass-market paperback, a new format for books.

Serialized fiction continued: while science fiction magazine markets did decline, they didn’t vanish, and authors continued to find success with longer stories that were eventually republished in a single volume. A number of notable SF novels found their way to print in this fashion: Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz was published in 1960, which had originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Joe Haldeman’sThe Forever War was originally serialized in Analog Magazine (formerly Astounding), and Stephen King’s famous novel The Gunslinger were put together from various stories published between 1978 and 1981 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

As the magazine markets faded over the course of the century, the market for novels grew, aided by changing tastes in literature, and by the 1990s, fewer stories were published first in magazines before being published in a regular novel. However, a number of notable stories have followed this historical route to the bookstore.

King would later have enormous success with another serialized novel: The Green Mile, which was first published in six smaller volumes beginning monthly in March 1996, before being published as a single volume in 1997. The unique publication method earned King the title of the first author to place 6 novels on the best seller list at the same time.

Allen M. Steele’s novel Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar Exploration was initially published as a serialized novel in Asimov’s, beginning in the January 2002 issue, with Stealing Alabama, and continued with The Days Between, Coming to Coyote, Liberty Journals, Across the Eastern Divide, Lonesome and a Long Way From Home and Glorious Destiny, with the final book published together at the end of the year. A sequel, Coyote Rising, continued the story in 2004, and a third book, Coyote Frontier was written as a single novel, but wasn’t serialized.

Another author, Charles Stross, published his novel Accelerando in 2005, which was put together from a collection of stories from Asimovs between 2001 and 2004: Lobsters, Troubador, Tourist, Halo, Router, Nightfall, Curator, Elector and Survivor. The novel would eventually be nominated for the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards, and won the 2006 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

By this time, fewer stories seem to be Fix Up novels, although there are exceptions to this rule: Will McIntosh’s debut novel came together out of three of his short stories set in the same world: Soft Apocalypse, Street Hero and Dada Jihad. McIntosh noted that when the time came to write a novel, he found that the three formed the core of a connected story. The final version, bearing the title Soft Apocalypse, was released in 2011.

The major change has come with the rise of the eBook market. As the print magazine market has declined, the publishing world has moved into unknown territory. With eBook sales doing well, but conventional, mass market novels declining, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a major shift in the landscape. Where publishers were limited by the physical limitations of books, online booksellers have found an unprecedented ability to market and publish fiction of all lengths: where novellas and novelettes might have only been found from specialty publishers, websites such as Amazon.com, and online Magazines such as Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and Lightspeed have the ability to publish a wide range of stories of all lengths.

In 2013, author John Scalzi began a new experiment in publishing with a serialized novel called The Human Division. Taking advantage of both electronic, audio and print media and distribution, the latest addition to the Old Man’s War universe was serialized through e-retailers with an episode a week, beginning in January. The model for these thirteen stories appears more along the lines of a television show than that of a magazine, and a completed version will be collected in a hardcover volume set for release in May 2013.

With the rise of eBooks, tablet computers, eReaders and smartphones, it’s going to be interesting to watch how the publishing world will change and adapt to new reading habits. Throughout the history of the science fiction field, it’s clear that change has been a constant and continuing factor in how readers receive their entertainment: from weekly and monthly magazines to assembled novels to electronic experiments, the serialized novel has had a constant presence on readers bookshelves, and from all appearances, will remain there for years to come.

 

Interview with C.J. Cherryh

Late last year, I wrote about C.J. Cherryh about her career for Kirkus Reviews. During the research process, Cherryh kindly agreed to be interviewed. Here’s our conversation:

Andrew Liptak:  Where did you first come across science fiction, and what about it made you stick with reading it?

CJ Cherryh: My dad gave me a copy of Tarzan and the City of Gold—when I was about 7. Before that it was comics. I graduated to Conan at about 9-10. Read every ‘lost world’ I could find and was a fanatic listener to Tom Corbett on radio. When I found books of the same ilk, I read them. Age 9-10 family got a telly and I got addicted to Flash Gordon. Beyond that, I wrote my own.

AJL: I saw that you had begun writing when you were disappointed with the cancellation of your favorite television show at a young age. Did you continue to write between that time and when you began to publish professionally?

CJC: Yes. Daily.

AJL: Where did you first come up with your first novel, Gate of Ivrel? What was the writing and publication process like?

CJC: I’d sent Don [Wollheim] Brothers of Earth and he sent me a letter saying it wasn’t quite in their size range. First time I’d gotten a publisher to answer in person, so I wrote Gate in 2 months while teaching a full schedule. Ate at the keyboard, slept when I could.

AJL: How did Donald Wollheim first come across your stories at DAW Books?

CJC: I targeted Don, finally taking a systematic approach to sending out books, because I went through my own library and investigated who was the editor who had bought most of my favorite books—figured we had similar taste.

AJL: Serpent’s Reach was your first Union-Alliance novel. How did you go about constructing that world? Was there anything particularly different about the writing and publication process from your earlier novels?

CJC: I don’t know that it was the first. But I researched real astronomy to find a couple of stars in the right relationship and built the ecology based on what I thought might result from that class star. (Beta Hydri.)

[Her first was Brothers of Earth – this question was the result of me misreading her ISFBD entry]

AJL: Your novels are notable for their female protagonists in a field that was considered male-dominated: how was this received by readers while they were being published? 

CJC: My goal is to create characters that men can identify with just the same as women identify with the male heroes. Everybody wants to be a hero in what they’re reading.

What some of the Union-Alliance influences? I decided to set up a situation in which there were no ‘evil’ superpowers, just superpowers doing what superpowers do re their own survival, and to write stories from the viewpoint of people on both sides.

AJL: Who were some of the authors who inspired you?

CJC: Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Don Wollheim, Andre Norton, and Publius Vergilius Maro.

The Rise of the Paperback Novel

My latest post is up on Kirkus Reviews, this time pulling back from the trenches and looking at what my boss calls the 20,000 foot strategic picture. Throughout the column, I’ve largely looked at authors who’ve shifted the genre from point to point, but over time, I’ve started getting interested in the larger forces at play: the publishers and reading habits of Americans. As I work towards putting these columns towards a book, I’ve begun looking at some of the other influences outside of the arts world that have shaped SF.

One notable example of this is the actual medium in which people are reading. SF is a neat example of this, going from Dime Store novel to pulp magazine to mass market paperback / hardcover book, and now, to eBooks.

A while back, I went to a talk where the speakers described government and rules as the sort of software that makes society run in a particular way: in many ways, it’s a technology in and of itself. By the same token, these invisible systems that we construct – logistics, education, and science, are examples of this sort of technology: it’s not just the gadgets that we construct, but the way we make people live in a society that isn’t a hunter-gatherer one.

The paperback novel is one example of a technological innovation that really changed a lot in the publishing world: it not only changed how people began to read stories, but how they were produced in the first place. Authors had to shift their habits, but also the very types of stories which they had begun to write. Thus, the science fiction of the 1930s is vastly different in style, structure and content than that of the 1970s. It’s an interesting thing to examine.

This is the first part of two columns: the next is going to look at another major element that we might not think of often when it comes to the writing of books: chain and super bookstores.

Go Read The Rise of the Paperback Novel over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, Kenneth C. Davis. This is *the* book to read if you want to read about how paperback books came into being, in a great amount of detail. This is an excellent read, although my copy has been falling apart.
  • The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors, Al Silverman. This is a memoir from a major publisher, and he provides some interesting details into the workings of that world.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Second Edition, John B. Thompson. This is a new-ish book on the publishing industry, and it provided some excellent overviews on the broad history of the book and how it has been sold.

Web:

Huge thanks for Betsy Wollheim and David G. Hartwell for their input.

Interview with Ken MacLeod about Iain M. Banks

Recently, I wrote about Iain M. Banks for Kirkus Reviews. In conducting the research for that post, I spoke with one of his friends, fellow SF author Ken MacLeod, who graciously agreed to answer my questions. Here’s our interview.

Andrew Liptak: When did you first meet Iain Banks?

Ken MacLeod:  At Greenock High School around about 1969 or 1970. He claimed we met when I approached him to write a story for the school magazine (a story the teachers who had the last word on what went in rejected as too sweary or too gory) but I have only the vaguest recollection of the incident.

AL: Were the two of you close friends throughout High School?

KM: Not exactly. I have to be a bit tedious and specific here. There are two towns adjacent to Greenock, which is a small town on the Firth of Clyde on the West coast of Scotland. Upriver is Port Glasgow, which is where most of the maritime industry used to be, and downriver is Gourock, which was originally a resort – back in the day when steamship excursions on the Clyde were the best holidays most people could afford. Over the years the towns basically merged at the edges. Anyway, Iain’s family lived in Gourock, where his father worked for the Admiralty. Iain went to Gourock High School, which only catered for students up to their third year and the exams then known as O-levels. Anyone who wanted to do the next grade of exams, Highers, which were what you needed for university entrance, had to go to Greenock High School. So Iain arrived along with several other boys and girls in our fourth year. I was already part of a clique who thought they had deep thoughts and who were considered promising by our English teacher, Joan Woods. She encouraged us to form a creative writing group or something like that. Joan was a remarkable and much loved teacher who right from the start did innovative off-curriculum things like getting the first or second-year English class to analyse Simon and Garfunkel lyrics after listening to the album, and to study poems so new that they were literally only published as duplicated handbills. Years later I amused and surprised Brian McCabe by quoting a line or two one of his early poems from memory.

Anyway – the meetings of the writers’ circle began in some public room but soon became evening gatherings in Joan Woods’ living-room, and they continued even after the students involved had gone on to university. Several of us remained friends with Joan for many years afterwards. At some point in his high school years Iain became part of that clique, and we became closer friends when we were both at university – he at Stirling, I at Glasgow. We had an interest in SF in common and we used to meet on Saturdays when we were both home for the weekend, go out for long walks with our pals or go round to see Joan, who put up with our antics and gave us coffee and biscuits.

AL: Can you describe a bit about what he was like in person?

KM:  He was cheerful, affable and sociable, but enjoyed solitude — he sees to have done a lot of thinking while walking or driving. Very generous and loyal to his friends — he made a lot of new friends in the course of his career, but remained close to the friends he already had from his schooldays, and to his family. He had remarkable equanimity — in all the years I knew him I never saw him in a bad mood, or show more than a rare and momentary annoyance. He had a penchant for ordering and organising things: bookshelves and CDs and tools and so on, which I think went with how carefully he planned everything from his books to his schedule for the year. He had this focus and work ethic along with a capacity for recklessness, spontaneity and risk-taking — which, now I come to think of it, was quite measured and calculated as well: he took care to endanger only himself, and he could now and then get hilariously drunk in company but never drank alone.

AL: To the best of your knowledge, how did he begin to write science fiction? 

KM: The best person to ask is David Haddock, editor of the fanzine ‘The Banksonian’, even though I was there at the time and he wasn’t. He’s done the research, asked Iain questions and correlated reminiscences from interviews and so on.

You can find his talk outline on Iain’s pre-publication writing here.

However, as far as I know Iain’s first extended work of fiction that was actually typed and not handwritten was ‘TTR’ [The Tashkent Rambler] – a huge sprawling work set that wasn’t SF but was set in the (then) near future. (In the interviews with Andrew J Wilson cited below, he says that it was inspired by Catch-22 and Stand on Zanzibar.) Then after a couple of abortive novels, one of which was SF, he wrote the first draft of ‘Use of Weapons’.

AL: Where did he discover science fiction, and what about genre stories attracted him to them?

KM: Probably through TV series like Thunderbirds, Dr. Who and Star Trek, then SF books in the local libraries. Like every British SF writer of our generation, he’d mention seeking out the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF books on library shelves. He read very widely in all kinds of fiction even in high school, and gravitated towards SF by I guess his mid-to-late teens – in his final year in high school he wrote a dissertation on SF, and it had sections on ‘The Escapist Stuff’, ‘The Hard Core’, and (though I can’t swear to the title of this one) ‘The New Wave’. He’d read all the standard Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and then found the New Wave – Spinrad, Ballard, Keith Roberts, M. John Harrison – with Aldiss, I guess, as the bridging figure. The ‘New Worlds Quarterly’ paperback series was a big influence, both the stories and the criticism, mostly by Clute and Harrison.

AL: His first book was The Wasp Factory, a non-genre story: it’s not often that we see genre authors writing outside of the genre to the same regular schedule as he did: why do both? 

KM: He’d already written, sent in to publishers, and had serially rejected ‘TTR‘, Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, The State of the Art, and The Player of Games. So he thought he’d try something mainstream and middle-of-the-road … I remember him telling us he was writing a mainstream novel and sounding almost apologetic, as if we might think he was letting the side down. But I think he continued to write both literary fiction and SF because he could and also because the mainstream novels sold better.

AL: I remember reading somewhere that he wrote science fiction simply because he loved it. 

KM: Yes, that seems about right. He would say he enjoyed it slightly more than writing non-genre fiction (which is a genre in itself, one he and I sometimes labelled ‘LF’, ‘lit-fic’, or ‘lie-fi’).

AL: Do you recall what his reaction was like when he finally sold Consider Phlebas? Was there a sense of relief?

KM: Glee, I seem to recall. He was very pleased to have an SF novel published at last, but I don’t think he ever doubted he eventually would.

AL: What inspired his Culture novels and the world he built?

KM: The way he explained it was that he wanted to write about a morally and psychologically flawed mercenary fighting on the side of a genuinely good society, and so proceeded to work out what kind of society he himself would most like to live in. When he told me about this society I told him it was communism, in the sense of the Marxian vision of a society of abundance without classes, the state, or money. He came to agree but I don’t think that influenced anything that went into the Culture: he just worked it all out from first principles. I’ve written about this here and here.

AL: I know there’s been a number of people who have pointed to his Ringworlds as being directly borrowed from Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld. Was there a sense of ‘let’s add in everything that’s cool’ to the Culture novels?

KM: No – look at all the trad space opera cool stuff he left out! He may well have been inspired by Ringworld, but he arrived at Rings by his own route. As far as I can recall he worked out Orbitals first – he figured out how big a rotating structure would have to be to have centrifugal force of one gravity on the inner surface and a 24-hour day, quickly realised that no known material could sustain it, and handwaved in force-fields to hold it together. If you can do that you can do Rings, so he threw them into the background but I don’t think there’s a story specifically set on a Ring.

AL: What did Banks hope to accomplish with the Culture: where there certain things he sought to cover and examine? 

KM: His running gag was that he’d sought to capture the moral high ground of space opera for the Left. He wanted to write big-scale colourful adventures that were well written and weren’t Social Darwinism Within that he explored particular topics -the themes are pretty much worn on the sleeve: there’s an ongoing debate over the morality of outside intervention, for instance, and responsibility in general. But I think the themes kind of emerged from the settings and stories.

AL: What particular right-wing elements of space opera was he uncomfortable with?

KM: Basically the unimaginative projection of present-day societies into the far future, and the not exactly hidden endorsement this gives to aspects of these societies, such as imperialism and militarism as well as capitalism. He was just as sceptical of Asimov’s more liberal version of that, taking suburbia to the stars. I seem to remember him saying that Dune – which he enjoyed and admired, though he derided the ending (he said something like “‘History will call us wives’ – come on, Frank, is that the best you can do?”) was somehow absurd in postulating an interstellar humanity that wasn’t just imperial but feudal. I replied that it wasn’t really compatible with the materialist conception of history, which made us both laugh at such a mild and obvious demurral.

AL: Which of the Culture novels were his favorites?

KM: He always said Use of Weapons was his favourite – I think partly because it’s a very strong book, but also because it’s full of the joy of inventing not only the Culture but also the other worlds where the action is set, a joy that’s itself shot through with his own youthful vigour and sense of discovery, and of making use of all the knowledge and experience he’d had up to that point. Beyond that it’s hard to say. Look to Windward was one he was fond of, partly because of the intensity of its moral seriousness.

AL: He wrote several non-Culture SF novels. Why did he take the break in the 1990s?

KM: The break wasn’t quite as big as it seems. We have to bear in mind that the sequence of writing wasn’t the sequence of publication. Against a Dark Background was the second SF novel he wrote, though it was published fourth. After Consider Phlebas, he revised his three already-written and oft-rejected space operas. It may be just a matter of chance that the non-Culture one was the last of these. By this point he wanted to ‘write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn’t the Culture … I’ll go back to that in the next science fiction novel.’ (‘Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill: Conversations with Iain Menzies Banks’, Andrew J Wilson, Foundation Vol 42, No 116, Winter 2012/2013, 2014). It’s interesting that the next Culture novel, Excession, is a departure from all the earlier works in that the attention is much more on the Minds, we see them and other machines more often as viewpoint characters, and the Culture is brought bang up to date with nanotechnology and virtual reality and much more intimate interfaces between humans and machines than we see in the earlier work. But all that is adumbrated in Feersum Enjinn, which I think is his first real 1990s, post-cyberpunk SF novel.

AL: Did he have the same goals with those books as the Culture novels?

KM: There was the same moral sentiment, and the same exuberance of creation, but without the constraint of having to think ‘Now, how would a truly good and immensely powerful society respond to this appalling situation?’ Though of course one of the non-Culture novels, Transition, has in that respect a Culture analogue in the Concern.

AL: Why write outside of the series?

KM: He wanted to explore other possibilities – to set a novel with megastructures in it on Earth, in the case of Feersum Enjinn, or a universe full of aliens and empires in our own future, in The Algebraist. Also, quite simply, he came up with ideas that didn’t fit the Culture universe and he didn’t want to be locked into one series, however open-ended.

AL: What was the first thing from him that you read? 

KM: A pun-filled parody spy-thriller-type adventure story hand-written in a school exercise book and illustrated with montages of pictures clipped from magazines, mostly Sunday colour supplements. (A technique inspired by Terry Gilliam’s graphics from Monty Python, and possibly Private Eye covers and the alternative/underground press of the time.)

AL: Can you tell me a little about the Scottish SF circle? I know that there’s a solid knot of authors from there. 

KM: Well, it’s more of a loose skein really – there are separate knots of fans and writers in Glasgow and in Edinburgh, and I don’t know about any other local concentrations though they must exist. There’s a very active fandom and writers’ circle in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there is a loose circle around people who were members of the Edinburgh University SF/F society years ago, and the friends they’ve accumulated along the way, with Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson as central figures. There’s also an overlapping circle of writers who met through Andrew Greig, who used to live in South Queensferry and who I first met many years ago when he was writer in residence at Edinburgh University. I introduced him to Iain, and he introduced us to novelists and poets such as Ron Butlin, Regi Claire, Ian Rankin, the late Edwin Morgan, Brian McCabe, Lesley Glaister, all of whom became our friends too.

AL: Is there something about Scotland that sets you guys apart from the rest of the genre field, either politically, environmentally or otherwise?

KM: I think in most respects we’re fairly typical of British SF writers. The famous Caledonian antisyzygy can be seen in my writing and in Iain’s, but by and large you’d be hard put to distinguish Scottish SF from British SF as a whole. Besides – as I think it was Paul McAuley who said – there just aren’t enough of us to be a statistically valid sample.

AL: Did Banks have plans for other Culture novels beyond Hydrogen Sonata? What might it have covered?

KM:  He had an idea for a novel about a character who had stored some of his memories in ammunition, so every time he used his weapon he lost part of himself. He hoped to have left enough of an outline and notes for me to write something from if he didn’t have enough time left to write it himself, but sadly his illness didn’t even leave time for even an outline. It was a generous idea, and typical of Iain, in that he inisted he would like me to write the novel in my own way and not in a pastiche of his, but even so I think I would have found it almost impossible.

AL: What was his writing process like, and how did he construct The Culture as a world?

KM: He read widely, thought a lot, made page after page of notes of ideas, and then when the time came to write another book he would look through his notes, extract or otherwise come up with a story idea, write a detailed outline and then sit down for two or three months and bang the thing out at a rate of about five thousand words a day. He constructed the Culture initially with a lot of drawings of ships and orbitals, weapons and drones and so on, maps of locations, lists of names … ship names and character names, which he had a real knack for inventing or finding. There’s a minor character in Against a Dark Background called Elson Roa, the leader of gang of solipsist bandits, and after I’d read it in draft Iain showed me where he’d found it: a broken street sign for the street where he lived, Nelson Road.

The Culture of Iain M. Banks

Last year, I was shocked to read that Iain M. Banks announced that he had cancer and was going to die within months. I had first come across him when I picked up Consider Phlebas, and several of its sequels when my Waldenbooks shut down and liquidated its stock: his books were amongst the first that I grabbed and stuck in the backroom to hold while we waited for the store to close. I really enjoyed the novel, although I’ve yet to really pick up any of the others. I was facinated by the depth and breadth of the Culture.

Banks plays a critical role in the resurgence of space opera in England, leading a number of other well-known authors such as Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and others around the 1990s. Space opera is a type of story that’s not been well recieved, and Banks sort of bridges the gap between authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and C.J. Cherryh and those such as James S.A. Corey.

I have a growing stack of Culture novels that I’ve picked up over the years, and I look forward to digging through them. After Banks passed away in 2013, I think it’s best to savor them.

Go read The Culture of Iain M. Banks over on Kirkus Reviews.

Print:

  • Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss speaks about Banks briefly, as his career was just starting up.
  • SciFi Chronicles, Guy Haley. Haley’s book has a page about Banks and his works. This is a neat book, and while it’s not terribly scholarly or anything, it provides a LOT of information to work with.
  • The Space Opera Renaissance, edited by Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. Cramer/Hartwell have a fantastic introduction to Banks’ short story in this fiction anthology and a look at the evolution of Space Opera as a whole. Banks is noted as someone who brought a new resurgence to the genre in the late 80s/90s.
  • Science Fiction, Roger Luckhurst. Luckhurst speaks about Banks and his works in some critical detail.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts devotes some space to Banks, placing him in context with a greater SF movement in English space opera.

Online Sources:

This was probably the first time I found a lot of online sources, commentary and interviews with one of my subjects. Here’s where I went for information:

I’d also like to throw out a huge thanks to Ken MacLeod, who agreed to speak with me about Banks and his life. I’ll put the interview up in a bit.

The Worlds of C.J. Cherryh

C.J. Cherryh is an author that I’ve come across quite a lot, but was never one that I really ever got into. Recently, I’ve become more interested in her books, particularly Downbelow Station, which prompted me to take a look at her career. It’s a facinating one that pulls in some of the legacies of her predecessors (such as Robert Heinlein and similar), and newer innovations that made her career different than that of her predecessors: she was primarily a novelist, rather than someone who started in the pulp magazines.

Go read The Worlds of C.J. Cherryh over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Science Fiction Writers Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. This volume has a solid biographical sketch of Cherryh.
  • Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith. Bacon-Smith’s book had some excellent insights into the work of women during the 1980s which I used for the Russ piece, and it once again came in handy this time.
  • The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch. Disch has some interesting things to say about how genre fiction changed with female authors being influenced by one another.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Brooks has some good points about genre placement.
  • The Faces of Science Fiction: Intimate Portraits of the men and women who shape the way we see the future, Patti Perret. Perret has a photograph and paragraph from Cherryh, which I found particularly helpful.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a solid, critical section on Cherryh’s works.

Online sources:

 

Many thanks as well to Cherryh herself, who kindly answered some of my questions. I’ll post that up at some point.