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:

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:

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.

L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz

As I’ve been writing this column, I’ve realized that there’s points where I have to move ahead and skip authors, or, after some reflection, research and writing, that I missed someone critical. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been realizing that not covering L. Frank Baum has been a drastic oversight, and that at the next available opportunity, I need to cover him and his wonderful world of Oz.

I defy you to find someone who doesn’t know the story of The Wizard of Oz. It’s an enormously popular story, so ingrained into our popular culture world that statements such as ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’ need no reference. Oz is on par with stories from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley – we know what happens without even reading the works. As such, it’s good to go back and take a look at their place in SF’s canon, because they are very influential, and it’s easy to see why: they’re fantastic, eminently readable stories that hold up with their sense of wonder.

Recently, I attended ICFA down in Orlando Florida, where I had dinner with a couple of authors, notably Ted Chaing. We had gotten on the topic of robotics, and he mentioned that Tik Tok from Ozma of Oz could be considered one of the first robots in SF. It’s certainly an early appearance of a robot, and with that in mind, it’s interesting to see how much of Oz prefigured some of the modern SF genre.

Go read L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz over on Kirkus Reviews.

The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin, Brian Attebery. There’s an entire chapter on Oz here, and it’s got some excellent background on the nature of Oz and how it relates to the fantasy canon.
The Marvelous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum. It’s always good to go to the original source – this was helpful in picking out details about the story. Baum remains extremely readable.
Ozma of Oz, L. Frank Baum. Available on Gutenberg, this was helpful for the quotes about Tik Tok.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. I have a reprinted edition of the original, from Barnes and Noble (which I can’t wait to read to my son), which has the original forward.
Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, by Michael O. Riley. This book is an in depth, exaustive look at Baum’s Oz novels and his other works, presented in clear, chronological order with a good amount of detail.
Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875-1945, Jon Savage. Savage devotes several pages to Baum and Oz, which provides some excellent context to the impact that Oz had on readers.
When Dreams Came True, Jack Zipes. This book also has an entire chapter devoted to Oz, with story details and biographical information.

Online:

Baum, L. Frank: As usual, the SF Encyclopedia has a good entry on my subject and looks at the wider genre-context.
NY Times Review: The original review of Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

SFWA and the ‘Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ Anthologies

SFHOF

I started reading SF when I was in High School, and was supported by the school’s librarian, Sylvia Allen, who encouraged me to pick up new works. At one point, someone had donated a treasure trove of Science Fiction novels to the school, a lot of which they couldn’t catalog, due to age and space. A lot of them went up for sale, and she let me have a crack at them early. One of the books in the pile was The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1, which contained a story from an author I’d been reading, Isaac Asimov, and a number of others. I took it home, and was immediately hooked.

A couple of years later, when I worked at the Brown Public Library in Northfield, I had struck up a friendship with an older patron who (if I remember correctly) had been connected to fandom in New York City. He recounted several stories of authors such as Walter Miller Jr. and a couple of others. At one point, I mentioned the anthology that I’d been re-reading, and he told me that there were two others, and ended up bringing them in for me to have. Later, I bought the re-released version of the first volume, so as to relieve my old copy of wear and tear that it desperately didn’t need.

For years, I thought that the three books were the only ones. It wasn’t until I started seeing the title pop up in my research that I started to look deeper into the anthology, and to my surprise, found that two others had been printed in the 1980s, but which had been largely forgotten.

The anthologies have a curious history, and never would have come about but for the creation of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and some of their financial troubles. For those interested in science fiction history, the focus of the books are a nice match: the first three volumes were explicitly put together with the idea of charting the evolution of the genre. While they’re incomplete (two women in the entire book – I’m really sad that there wasn’t a Moore Northwest Smith story in there, or anything by Francis Stevens) by modern standards, it’s pretty much the entire Golden Age of SF in a single book. In and of themselves, they are a historical curiosity, and an interesting read all together – a lot of the stories still hold up nicely.

Go read SFWA and the ‘Science Fiction Hall of Fame’ Anthologies over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1, Robert Silverberg. Silverberg’s introduction has a lot of detail about how this project came about, and it’s worth a read into the work and background for this.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2A/B, Ben Bova. Bova’s introduction also provides some good details on his entry.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 3, Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s introduction here isn’t all that useful, but it does show a pivot for the anthology: a focus now on Nebula winners, rather than historical works. What I found interesting here was also that it’s the first book in the series not published by Doubleday.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 4, Terry Carr. As with Clarke’s introduction, there’s more an emphaisis on the Nebula designation rather than on the selection.

SFWA Bulletin, December 1967: I was able to get a scan of the original Bulletin that issued the call for stories.

SF Encyclopedia:

Damon Knight: Damon Knight’s biography of the Futurians doesn’t mention this, but the SFE3 entry provides some good details into this time of his life.
SFWA: This has some good backstory on SFWA’s formation.
Nebula Award: Similarly, this provides some good background information.

ISFDB Entry – Science Fiction Hall of Fame: This was particularly helpful in figuring out publication dates and publishers.

Huge thanks to Former SFWA president Michael Capobianco and Robert Silverberg for their help with this one.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons

I’ve had a passing fascination with McCaffrey’s books over the years, even as I never really dabbled in them. (I owned one book, Dragonflight, years ago.) I was always somewhat intimidated by the sheer size and scale of the series, and I was always more interested in SF than I was Fantasy (although now, I realize that that was a bit misguided.) Anne McCaffrey was always an author I was aware of: one of the female authors alongside the Asimovs, Herberts and Heinleins in my high school library.

Yet, in recent years, as I’ve been researching, I’ve become aware that McCaffrey has occupied an important role in the genre: she’s an extremely successful female author, but she also writes in such a way (and is marketed as such) that she’s an excellent gateway into the SF world for a huge range of readers.

Go read Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss has some excellent points about McCaffrey’s early works in his book, although she’s mentioned sparingly.
  • Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley provides some outstanding quotes and background into how McCaffrey got her start in the genre, and especially how she was aided by John W. Campbell Jr.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980, Mike Ashley. This book follows up with Transformations, but likewise provides some good information on McCaffrey’s work.
  • Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965, Eric Davin. This was a particularly good source, providing some interesting background information that didn’t appear anywhere else, but also helped my thinking with how McCaffrey got into writing in the first place, but how she viewed her stories.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol. 2, William Magill. There’s an excellent review and overview of Dragonflight in this volume.
  • Dragonholder: The Life and Dreams of Anne McCaffrey, Todd McCaffrey. This was a particularly helpful source, but very poorly laid out and written. It’s jumbled, and jumps from point to point, making it difficult to locate the right information.
  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. This text had some good background information.
  • ISFDB. As always, this is a particularly helpful site for figuring out when and where stories were published.