Edward Everett Hale’s Brick Moon

The Brick Moon - FC I’ve got a bit of a bonus installment for my column on SF History. I’ve got a limited amount of space that I’ve got to work with for Kirkus, and as such, I’ve had to blow past a couple of things. Fortunately, with Jurassic London’s new release of The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale, I’ve had the opportunity to circle back and write about this particular novel.

The Brick Moon is the first science fiction story that uses the idea of an artificial satellite, and it’s an excellent example of what science fiction is: extrapolation into the near future. In this instance the need for a navigational beacon in the skies. It’s a cool premise, and in one fell swoop, Hale comes up with the idea for a satellite, communications satellite and space station. (Yes, Clarke came up with the idea as well. His invention is notable because it wasn’t in SF, but a non-fiction speculation).

 

Read Edward Everett Hale’s Brick Moon over on Pornokitsch. Here’s the sources which I used:

  • Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it, by Mike Ashley. Ashley has a nice chunk of text devoted to this book, and it provides some helpful context.
  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. There’s a single mention in this book, but it’s a juicy one that places it in a bit of context with similar works from around the same time in Arthur B. Evan’s piece, ‘Ninteenth-Century SF.)
  • To A Distant Day, Chris Gainor. It’s not often that I get to break out books on space history. This book is about the dawn of the rocket age, from the fantastic People’s History of Spaceflight series. Hale gets a good mention here.
  • Alternate Worlds, James Gunn. Gunn has a mention of The Brick Moon, with a little background.
  • The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. This new edition from Jurassic London has an incredible historical essay on The Brick Moon, which helped provide some vital details to this piece from Richard Dunn and Marek Kukula.
  • Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz is someone I’m reluctant to use, and I’m realizing that much of the perception of SF and its history is really framed by him. There’s an entire essay about Hale, and it provides some good information, but nothing hugely specific.
  • The High Frontier, Gerard K. O’Neill. There’s a single mention of Hale in this book, about habitats in space.
  • Edward Everett Hale, Harvard Square Library. This is an excellent short biography that provides some good detail on Hale’s early life.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t put something in that Jurassic London’s edition is now available.

Short Story Publication: Fragmented

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Galaxy’s Edge Magazine #8 launches today, and with it, my short story ‘Fragmented’! I’m excited: this is my first professional short story publication, and I’m pretty happy that this story found a home. Other authors this issue include Tina Gower, Robert Silverberg, Tom Gerencer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Brin, Eric Leif Davin, Robin Reed, Nancy Kress and Alex Shvartsman. ‘Fragmented’ is military science fiction, dealing with power armor and wartime trauma.

This one came about in a curious way: I was driving somewhere in Burlington, when this came on the radio. I found myself thinking about how one would decontaminate a set of power armor, and out of that, came the question of what people carry out of combat with them.

This one’s fairly personal in a couple of ways. I attended a military college (as a civilian), and a number of friends of mine found their way overseas to Afghanistan and Iraq. Some have come back with a range of post-tramatic issues, some haven’t. But, warfare affects everyone it touches. It’s good to see that it’s an issue that’s demanding attention – far more effort needs to be made for people to realize that the war doesn’t end with the last shots.

‘Fragmented’ can be read online at Galaxy’s Edge for the next couple of months. You can also purchase a very spiffy print edition ($6.99) from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. You can also buy a digital copy in a variety of formats, either as a single issue or as a subscription. Head to the magazine’ website for all of the options.

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.

The New SyFy Channel

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SyFy is headed to space, and it seems as though they’re serious. Last week, they announced a 10-episode pickup of The Expanse, a series that will adapt (presumably) the first book from James S.A. Corey, . In the wake of the announcement, I’ve seen a lot of complaints from fans, noting SyFy’s general track record with shows. Despite the last five years of distancing themselves from harder SF stories, this falls in line with the direction the channel is trying to lurch itself towards, shaking off their reputation for something better. It’s about time, too.

The Expanse is a good move for SyFy and the announcement that they’ve picked up the TV show fills me with quite a bit of optimism for the direction of the channel’s future. Over the last couple of years, the channel has been talking quite a bit about returning to space, with news over the last couple of years of shows such as adaptations of Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld and Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and shows such as Ascension and Defiance. So far, only Defiance (after a really long development period) has aired, and then, to tepid reviews and ratings. But, it’s a start, and shows that the channel is starting to think about bigger, more serious projects.

In the mid-2000s, the show was indisputably one of the better outlets for speculative fiction on the small screen: long-running shows such as Stargate SG-1 and its spinoff, Stargate: Atlantis collectively ran for fifteen seasons, while Farscape and Battlestar Galactica, two very ambitious space dramas, had fairly good runs before being cancelled. With the cancellation of Ronald D. Moore’s Galactica in 2009, the channel seemed to get nervous about shows set in space. Galactica‘s ratings had nosed down over the last two seasons (most likely due to some of the narrative stunts they took), and its follow-up successor, Caprica, set decades before, never found its voice or ratings, and was cancelled a year later. A third follow-up, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, died a slow death as SyFy executives waddled on the decision to release it to the web or to television. Ultimately, it was burned off on YouTube, effectively ending the franchise for the channel. A third Stargate entry, Stargate: Universe, a grown up, broody and excellent entry never quite captured the same attraction as its predecessors, and ended with a frustrating cliffhanger at the end of Season 2.

SyFy pivoted, perhaps seeing the successes rival networks enjoyed with shows such as True Blood, and went in an urban fantasy and Sci-Fi lite direction. It’s not really any surprise: the darker stuff hadn’t really succeeded, and shows such as Eureka had done really well. Alphas, Warehouse 13, Lost Girl, Bitten and Being Human have all been developed, and dominated the network’s offerings since 2009, alternatively earning praise from fans who enjoyed that type of story, and derided by those who missed the shows set in space.

All the while, SyFy expanded their offerings into reality TV, as well as the frequently-derided WWE on Wednesday nights. Often, their placement on the schedule has been explained as money makers for the channel (or, laughably, that it’s a type of fantasy in and of itself), which in turn support the programming of the other scripted shows. I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who’s actually watched WWE on the channel.

Meanwhile, a revolution in scripted television erupted from various premium and network channels. TNT’s Falling Skies, Fox’s Fringe, CBS’s Person of Interest, AMC’s The Walking Dead, and HBO’s Game of Thrones all came out, as well as show such as Awake, Under the Dome, Terra Nova, Revolution, Agents of SHIELD, Almost Human, Arrow, Orphan Black and Outcasts, to name a couple, while in non-Science fiction offerings, there’s Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, American Horror Story, Vampire Diaries, and others. Science Fiction TV, once largely limited to the SyFy channel, found new homes. While not all have been successful, it shows that there’s a new appetite for speculative works on the small screen, and that such shows can not only do well, but do really well. SyFy, while it’s had some success with their current offerings, hasn’t had any hits on the same scale. They easily could have, with the right mindset.

Major projects such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones aren’t easy projects to bring to television: they’re big, elaborate, and cover subject material that’s far from the material that SyFy was putting out between 2003-2008. They’re ambitious (and I’ll throw Person of Interest in there, too, as an example of what network channels *can* also do.) and have received a disproportionate amount of praise from critics and fans alike, all the while seeing their ratings go up as viewers keep watching.

It’s clearly a balancing act: Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead take on popular properties and subject matter, all the while they’re fairly well written and scripted. Others miss out: Awake, while fantastic, never caught on. Terra Nova was silly and stupidly expensive. Fringe lasted on critical glee, but wanted for viewers. Others just do really well with the right combination of characters and story, building year after year: Supernatural is well into its tenth year, and has a spin off in the works, while Arrow doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but up (and also has a spinoff in the works).

SyFy’s clearly got the vision for ambitious projects, but they’re held back; from themselves. It’s a business, and accordingly, the material they’re turning out needs to be successful. However, it’s always seemed as though this very risk-adverse mindset percolates down into what’s being picked up. They say that you never make the shot that you don’t take, and the channel has been on a course where they’re only taking shots where the basket is five feet off the floor. Until Defiance, it’s seemed that there’s no sense of risk to the shows that they’ve tried, but rather gone back to the well time and time again for material that is proven to run with a certain audience.

In many ways, SyFy pivoted one way, anticipating an audience that they wanted to grasp, only to end up missing an audience that’s since moved beyond the SyFy walls. Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Orphan Black and Doctor Who have become the destination shows that would make a dynamite portfolio for a dedicated genre-channel. Even the ambitious Defiance feels like it’s a compromise, existing only due to the momentum that a $100 million show causes. They’ve got a season 2, but the show won’t take off until the show becomes something a bit more interesting. Shows such as Helix have demonstrated that they’re ready to bring back some serious scripted drama.

Recently, SyFy seems to have realized something was up, and has been shaking off like a wet dog. VP Mark Stern, who oversaw the Battlestar-Defiance years at SyFy, and who’s been replaced by Bill McGoldrick. McGoldrick shift earlier this year has come with a lot of talk about bringing SyFy back. In an interview with Adweek, he noted that they’ve realized that scripted drama is what the channel’s reputation lives and dies by. The current reputation? Wounded from reality TV and crappy films. But, with the rise of shows such as Game of Thrones, they’re starting to see serious offers for new shows, one of which was apparently The Expanse.

If there’s a show that’ll demonstrate that the channel is serious about bringing back ‘proper’ science fiction, it’s Leviathan Wakes. The show has just about everything: spacecraft, epic world-building, military science fiction, conspiracies, and a huge cast of interesting and diverse characters. It’s large, hits all of the right notes, and it comes with a built in audience of readers who’ve made the books hits. The first novel was nominated for the Hugo Award, and along with a bunch of shorter entries in the series, an additional three novels were ordered after the first three. The fourth book in the series, Cibola Burn, hits this summer, this time as a more expensive hardcover novel (as opposed to trade paperback, like its preceding three books.)

Moreover, SyFy seems to realize that story’s paramount. Rather than putting together a pilot and worrying about ordering a full, 22-episode season, they’ve committed to a run of ten episodes – enough time to tell the story, but not so much that they’ll have to really stretch their special effects budget. In addition to The Expanse, SyFy has recently announced a limited 12 Monkeys series and Ascension, a limited series about a group of colonists, all the while cutting back on the B films.

Most of the complaints genre fans have had about SyFy are true. The channel’s shifted direction and gone the safe route, and accordingly, they’ve really missed out on both the opportunity to do great things, but also hitched themselves to the wrong horse, one that’s slowly running down. The Expanse has the potential to be an innovating move that can get the channel restarted with good stories, and can bring back an audience that they really want to attract. Already, shows such as Alphas, Being Human and Warehouse 13 have been wound down and ended, while SyFy is keeping shows like Lost Girl and Haven (which picked up a 2-season, 26 episode order) to have a balanced set of offerings for the foreseeable future. If you’re going to shake off a reputation, you’ve got to start somewhere.

There’s also a level of caution here. I don’t think fans should expect a return to the same SciFi channel that existed in the early 2000s. The landscape has changed, and accordingly, so has viewer tastes and viewing habits. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a new channel that takes both storytelling and genre seriously, recognizing exactly what makes a good show that’ll not only do well season to season, but help the channel’s reputation and build on its audience year to year, which will mean more excellent projects will be attempted. More importantly, SyFy needs to learn to take risks. Even for projects that aren’t necessarily successful, the effort not only counts, but helps all involved figure out what to do next, in theory making things better in the future.

The Expanse is far from certain: it’s an ambitious project to run, and likely expensive. But, I’m optimistic. It’s got just about everything that science fiction fans have been asking for, and in an adaptation model that’s worked in the past. Let’s hope that the show-runners will do the books justice, but more importantly, tell a great story.

The Transformation of George R.R. Martin

I’ve been a fan of Game of Thrones since I first caught it a couple of years ago, and I’ve been impressed with the HBO series as I’ve continued to watch. When Season 1 hit, I pulled out my copies of A Song of Ice and Fire and started the first book, alternatively reading and watching the show. I’ve found the books to be a trial to get through, but I’ve ultimately enjoyed them.

I’ve found Martin’s rise to real fame in the last couple of years to be an interesting thing to watch, and it’s equally as interesting to look back and remember that he was a fairly prominent SF author throughout the 70s and 80s, and with this past weekend’s release of Season 4, it’s a good time to look back on his roots.

Go read The Transformation of George R.R. Martin over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, by Brian Aldiss: Aldiss notes Martin’s role in the late 70s in magazine fiction here, and it’s a helpful couple of pages contextually.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970-1980, by Mike Ashley. Like Aldiss above, Ashley provides some good contextual information on Martin’s writing.
  • The Heart of a Small Boy, George R.R. Martin: This is a cool autobiographical piece about Martin’s upbringing.
  • The Faces of Science Fiction: Intimate portraits of the men and women who shape the way we look at the future, by Patti Perret. This is a really cool book. It’s portraits of a ton of major SF/F authors, and a little bit about their background, in their own words.
  • Martin, George R.R., SF Encyclopedia. This is a helpful biographical sketch of Martin and his place in genre fiction.

Because of Martin’s fame, there’s been a lot of (well rehearsed) interviews about his background:

Interviews:

 

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point to two of Martin’s stories, currently online at Lightspeed Magazine:

The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gnome Press

In my day job, I work with MBA students, and in the time that I’ve been doing that (and working at my regular job), I’ve gained a certain appreciation for how businesses function. When it comes to researching the column, looking at how a business functions has a certain appeal, especially since a major, unspoken element of SF History is really a sort of business history.

An excellent case in point is the rise and fall of a small, independent publisher, Gnome Press, which existed for just over a decade in the middle of the 20th Century. They published some of the genre’s greatest authors, but ultimately failed, overtaken by their own inability to sell books and by changes in the marketplace. Gnome is an interesting business to study, because it carries with it some important lessons.

This post is quite a bit longer than the usual ones, but I had quite a bit of fun reading up on the history of this small press, and learning of the real implications it had for the genre as a whole.

Read The Meteoric Rise and Fall of Gnome Press over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources for Gnome Press

  • I, Asimov: A Memoir, by Isaac Asimov. Asimov provides a short chapter on his own frustrating interactions with Gnome Press, as well as some good detail on its publisher, Martin Greenberg.
  • The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Critical and Bibliographic History, by Jack L. Chalker and Mark Owings. This was an extremely detailed and in depth look at the history of Gnome, but also provides an excellent listing of the books which they published between 1948 and 1962.
  • Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard, The Creator of Conan by L. Sprauge de Camp, Catherine Crook de Camp and Jane Whittington Griffin. This text, while it has some problems, provides some solid details into de Camp’s interactions with Gnome Press.
  • Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. This was a whim buy at ICFA the other day, and nicely, it has a chapter on Gnome. Unfortunately, the book meanders quite a bit, and isn’t written well. It’s got a lot of very useful information on the history of Gnome and the people behind it, but it’s organized poorly.
  • A Pictorial History of Science Fiction, by David Kyle. It’s always good to get information right from the source, and in this case, Kyle briefly talks about Gnome in his book.
  • Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer. Gnome is mentioned sparingly in this biography, but the points are helpful as reference points.
  • The Way the Future Was: A Memoir, by Frederik Pohl. Pohl talks a little about Gnome in this book, chiefly noting the business opportunities that Gnome had, and squandered.
  • Robert Silverberg – I’ve been e-mailing Silverberg for another project, and he kindly answered a couple of other questions that I had with this.

ICFA Appearance

This coming week is the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, down in Orlando, Florida this coming week, and I’ll be sitting on a panel for the first time! I’ve sat in the audience for a bunch of these things at ReaderCon or Boskone, so sitting on the other side of the equation will be different.

Here’s where you can find me:

  • Thursday, March 20, 2:30-4:00 pm, Captiva B. Hybrid Publishing: How to Survive and Prosper in a Brave New Publishing World

This panel is going to be talking about publishing and how the model has been shifting with new outlets and platforms available to authors and editors. Jennifer Stevenson will be moderating David Hartwell, Ellen Datlow, Julia Rios and myself. I suspect I’ll only really be able to talk about Kickstarter and the work I’ve done with War Stories, but I suspect I’ll be able to talk a little about Lightspeed as well.

It should be a fun time. There’ll be a couple of other War Stories folks in attendance: Brett Cox, Joe Haldeman and Richard Larson. I know Brett’s going to be reading from his story from War Stories, “Where We Would End A War” in Vista A on Thursday from 8:30-10:00 am or in Vista A, on Friday from 8:30-10:00 am). Joe will have a reading in Vista A on Saturday from 4:00-5:30 pm. Rich Larson will be reading on Thursday at 2:30-4:00 pm in Vista A and at Words and Worlds in Dogwood on Thursday, 4:15-5:45 pm. I don’t know what they’ll be reading, however.

If you’re there, come by, say hello!

The Innumerable Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

One of the stories that remains a favorite for me is Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God”, which I tore through when I received a copy of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame way back in High School. Sturgeon became an author that I’d turn to pretty quickly whenever I picked up another anthology, and I’ve generally enjoyed all of the stories I’ve read from him.

Sturgeon is someone who’s popped up a bit in the column already, and he’s been someone I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now. He left an enormous footprint within the SF/F short fiction genre, and his work really ran counter to the largely conservative-leaning authors and stories that had been published by Campbell & imitators.

“Microcosmic God” is still one of my absolute favorite stories in the genre. If you haven’t read it yet, go do so.

Go read The Innumerable Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

… are coming.

Sinking An Ally, 1940

The latest issue of Armchair General Magazine just arrived, and it includes an article of mine: Sinking An Ally, 1940. This is my fourth piece for them, and it’s a little shorter than my usual ones, but it’s no less interesting than those.

The topic this time is around the British attack on the French fleet anchored at Mers-el-Kébir. French? Weren’t they allies? I came across a reference to the battle in a roundabout way, and did a bit of a double-take. Shortly after the fall of France, Britain had grave concerns about the status of the French Navy, now nominally in Vichy French (read: German) hands. The result was a combination of mistakes, mis-communications and egos that caused some real splinters for the Allies.

The article isn’t online, but you can subscribe to the magazine here. It should be on newsstands at some point in the next month or two.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian: A Novel, has garnered a lot of buzz lately: it’s an addicting, rapid-fire book that runs along with a manic energy that makes it difficult to put down. You know how you slow down while passing an accident on the high way? I had that reaction as I blew through it, waiting to see just how Astronaut Mark Watney would survive.

The plot of the book is fairly straight forward: a low-ranking astronaut, Watney, is stranded on Mars when a storm prompts the evacuation of his expedition just six days after they arrived. When he awakens, he finds that he’s alone on the planet, with no way to call home to let NASA know he’s still alive, and more importantly, let them know that he needs a ride home. With only the mission’s remaining supplies and equipment, he needs to figure out just how to survive until the next mission is scheduled to arrive.

A lot’s been made of the fact that this is a hard science novel: there’s a lot of technical details throughout the book, from calculations of air volume to chemical reactions to physical engineering. All of this gives the book a technical, grounded feel, and you can imagine that someday, this book will come true, or at the very least, be used by NASA to plan for a Mars mission. It’s near-term outlook and reliance on strictly realistic components makes this a safe science fiction novel. It’s the sort of book that’s okay for the general public to read because it could really happen; there’s no aliens, galactic empires or expeditionary backstory that require any great leaps of faith for the reader. It seems to work well, too: the book currently sits at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover fiction, and is ranked #158 in books over on Amazon (#7 for Science Fiction).

That isn’t meant to denigrate the book: it’s easy to see why it’s so popular when it’s cracked open. Weir’s narrative plays out as Watney recounts his misfortunes in an audio log, occasionally jumping back to Earth and in between to other characters for some outside context. They, like the reader, are captivated by this slowly unfolding disaster. There are some nice touches to this: cable news puts Watney front and center for their own segment. Like Apollo 13, all eyes become focused on the skies above, waiting to see if the astronaut will return home safely. Weir’s Watney is a fun character: witty, immature, resourceful and optimistic, it’s hard to do anything but root for him to get through the crisis, and you can’t help but cheer for him as he overcomes just about everything that Mars throws at him. This is high-tech Robinson Crusoe, with a much steeper difficulty curve.

Space disaster narratives have been popular lately: last year’s big film was Gravity, which featured a similar premise: an astronaut, stranded after an accident, must find her way back home, using only what she’s got with her. These are good stories to root for, because at their core, they’re about humanity against nature.

What holds The Martian back from being a *great* book is what separates it from Gravity. Watney’s trials are technical in nature, and Weir never quite spends the time to step back and have him question his survival or do anything but blindly plow forward from task to task. Gravity presented a far more interesting character story that addressed some much larger themes: Stone’s own challenges (fall) and eventual recommitment to live life on her own terms make it a much stronger narrative that makes me come back time and time again.

But, I enjoyed the hell out of The Martian. It was an exciting read from start to finish, one that kept me up late into the evening, frantically turning pages to see what happened next. That’s what every good book should do, and this does it nicely.