John Wyndham and the Global Expansion of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

The Very Amusing Douglas Adams

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

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

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


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

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.


  • 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.

Jack Williamson’s Space Operas

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

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


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

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.


  • 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.


The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling

My latest column on Kirkus Reviews combines a couple of things that I’ve been looking to talk about for a while now: how did major changes in the bookselling industry change how books were being written and sold to publishers?

There was a bit of a convergence of topics here. Last week, I looked at the rise of paperback publishing and how that impacted the SF world. This week was a bit of an extension of that, looking at the effects of a paperback boom on authors. At the same time, there were a number of other things happening in the bookselling world: bookstores were rapidly changing as major chain stores rose out of suburban shopping malls, while the paperback boom ended, killing a lot of careers.

Some of this has some particular interest for me, because I used to work at a Waldenbooks in college, and ended up getting laid off when Borders went under.

Paradoxically, we see some of the genre’s best known authors doing exceptionally well for themselves as the 1980s progressed: authors such as Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke each made millions on their new books, due in part to the way books were sold in the new stores.

Go read The Trickle-Down Effect of Genre Bookselling over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • I, Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov. Asimov recounts how Foundation’s Edge came about, with an encouragement from his publisher to write a new novel in the series.
  • The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of a Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey talks a little about the late 1970s here, which was helpful for this piece.
  • Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert. Brian Herbert recounts how his father was talked into writing more Dune novels.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, Neil McAleer. McAleer talks about how Clarke was talked into writing a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, Laura J. Miller. Miller’s book is a very interesting look at the history of publishing, and has a chapter that was very helpful here.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about how Heinlein’s books sold in high numbers during this period, but also specifically how they sold in chain stores.
  • Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, by John B. Thompson. This book contains a lot of information on the nature of the bookselling business, particularly towards the rise of chain stores.

Thanks are due as well once again to Betsy Wollheim and David Hartwell, who answered several of my questions.

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.


  • 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.


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

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars

Throughout my years of stalking the science fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, there’s been a trilogy of books that’s always caught my eyes, but which I never quite picked up to read. They were Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, with its distinctive covers which matched the titles of the books. I had attempted to get into Red Mars over the years, but never got very far.

A couple of years ago, I picked up 2312 and found myself engrossed in Robinson’s world and vision of the future. At some point after that, I actually met him when he attended a conference in Massachusetts, where he kindly signed a couple of his books for me. Since then, I’ve started re-reading Red Mars, and actually getting into it a bit more.

Robinson’s works fly in the face of what a lot of science fiction seems to revel in: it’s optimistic, and isn’t extrapolatory; that is, taking a darker version of the present day and transplanting it into the future. He’s built fantastic worlds that feel all the more plausible and relevant today than that of most of his colleagues.

Go read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a short section on Robinson’s works, particularly related to the Mars trilogy.
  • The Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, edited by Guy Haley. Haley has a page devoted to the Mars trilogy in this book.
  • Science Fiction Writers, Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. There is a fantastic critical examination of Robinson’s life and works in this book.


Additionally, many thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson himself for agreeing to answer my questions. We had an excellent discussion, which I’ll post up later. I can attest that he’s probably the nicest guy in the solar system.


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.