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.

Bram: Year 1

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A year ago today, I held my son in my arms for the first time. Bram’s birth was one of those moments that struck me hard: I remember gasping and crying in joy when I first saw him: after months of a conceptual baby, there he was, in the flesh. It’s easy, looking back at just how pivotal that moment is: one moment, I’m just this guy. The next, I’m a father. With that moment, everything changes.

Becoming a father has been an extraordinary experience. Megan has mentioned, more than once, that we’ve lucked out and had a good baby. Bram is an astonishing little boy. The degree to which he’s unpacked and unfolded his mind from his fragile, 7.3 lbs body to the, durable, walking 25lb child that he’s become never ceases to blow my mind a little each time I think about it. He went from staring to smiling to squeaking to shrieking to cooing to babbling to talking. The twisting turned into rolling over, then to pulling himself across the floor, to the army crawl, to proper crawling and pulling himself up to stand. That turned from tentative first steps to full out waddle-running across the room.

Throughout it all, there’s a burning curiosity and the beginnings of a fierce independence. He looks and examines things, imitates our actions and slowly, is learning how the world around him works. It’s impossible to remember a time when I learned so much so quickly, and I’m surprised at just how fast it happens: often just days from seeing or trying something before he masters it. Doors hold a particular fascinationfor him, as does Merlin, although he learned that cats have claws and don’t like to be cornered. The cat has also learned that the male human is fiercely protective of the tiny human.

I find myself thinking about things in ways that I’d never have considered before. I look into the future to try and think about what type of world Bram will inherit, sometimes terrified at what I see, sometimes optimistic.

The last year has brought so many changes. It’s exhausting, trying to keep up with Bram, or to wake up early in the morning or late at night. My heart absolutely breaks when he’s sad or in pain, while it soars when he laughs without restraint. He’s a strange child, and it’s interesting to see how he’s developing his own ways of doing things.

He’s barely 12 months old and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Interview with Robert Silverberg about the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology

Yesterday, my latest column on SFWA and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame was published on Kirkus Reviews (read it here). One of my main sources was Grand Master Robert Silverberg, who kindly agreed to be interviewed for this piece. Here’s our exchange below:

Q: Where did this project (the anthology) originate and what was the particular impulse to look back at that point in time? 

Robert Silverberg: Science Fiction Writers of America was founded in 1965 by Damon Knight.  There were about 70 charter members (I was one) and by the time I became president, succeeding Knight, in 1967, there were some 300 members.  But Knight had set the dues at $1 per year, so the organization’s total income was $300 a year, maybe $4000 in modern purchasing power but still not enough to cover our expenses, which included two publications (the Forum and the Bulletin) and ongoing office expense.  Knight set up the Nebula Awards in 1966 and persuaded Doubleday to publish an annual anthology of the award-winning stories, but SFWA’s share of the advance on the anthology just barely covered the money we lost on the annual awards dinner, so that when I became president I found myself in charge of an organization that had hardly anything in its treasury.  I went to Larry Ashmead, the science-fiction editor at Doubleday, told him about our financial problems, and persuaded him to do a second SFWA anthology, a Hall of Fame book that would select the best short stories up until the inception of the Nebula awards.  (The first award-winning stories had originally been published in 1965. so the cutoff date for this book was 1964.)  Ashmead came through with a $3000 advance, a substantial amount at that time.  We split this the way the advance for the annual anthology was being split: 50% to the writers of the stories used, 25% to the SFWA treasury, 25% to the editor.  Since our financial crisis was extreme and I wanted to get the book published fast (half the advance was due on publication) I simply appointed myself as editor rather than get involved in a prolonged selection process.  With that out of the way, I was able to begin the process of choosing the stories immediately after signing the Doubleday contract.

Q: How was the publisher, Avon, selected, and what were their thoughts on publishing such an anthology?

Robert Silverberg: Avon wasn’t the original publisher.  Doubleday was.  After hardcover publication, Doubleday sold reprint rights to Avon, and Avon kept the book in print for several decades.  Eventually the original contracts lapsed and we were able to re-sell the book to Tor, the current publisher.

Q: The Anthology covers stories from 1929 through 1964: why the long range of time, and why 1929 as a starting point? 

Robert Silverberg: The oldest story nominated for inclusion in the book by the membership was D.D. Sharp’s “The Eternal Man,” first published in 1929.  It didn’t make the final cut, but, since the range of stories voted upon had covered the span from 1929 to 1964, I used those years in the subtitle for the book.  H.G. Wells was writing brilliant s-f stories back at the turn of the century, and I’m not sure why his work wasn’t chosen for the book, since my original call for nominations had said not set any limitations on nationality of authors or date of first publication.  But the voters completely passed Wells over in the nominating process.

Q: Is there a relation between the start up of the Nebula Awards in 1966 and a need to collect similar notable work that preceded it? 

Robert Silverberg: As I said, the book was generated by financial need.  The Nebulas would honor the best stories of the year from 1965 on, and when I needed an idea for a second anthology I decided that that book would honor the pre-Nebula stories.

 

Q: The stories were voted upon by SFWA members: how did the voting process work?

Robert Silverberg: In the summer of 1967 I announced the new anthology in the SFWA Bulletin and called for nominations, the stories to be no longer than 15,000 words.  (I noted that a second anthology containing longer stories would be published later.)  The deadline for nominations was December 31, 1968.   The stories to be nominated were to have been published no later than 1964.   There were no qualifications set for date of publication other than that, nor was country of origin a consideration, other than that the stories had to have been published in the English language.  Nominations came in sporadically all through 1967 and 1968, until finally I had a list of perhaps 75 stories.  (I don’t have a copy of the list any more.)  From this I devised a ballot that was mailed to the membership early in 1969, with a strict deadline set for voting.  The plan was to include the top fifteen vote-getters in the book plus as many of the second fifteen as would fit within the size of the volume that Doubleday was expecting.

When I had completed the master tally, I could see, in general, which the top fifteen stories were going to be — the voting wasn’t ambiguous — but certain problems arose.  Ray Bradbury, for example, had had four short stories nominated, the most of any writer, two from THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and two from THE ILLUSTRATED MAN.  As a result, the Bradbury vote was split just about equally among the four, and no one of them landed in the top twenty vote-getters, though his aggregate vote placed him well up toward the leaders.  It seemed absurd to me not to include a Bradbury story in the book, thus penalizing him for prolific high-quality production, and I arbitrarily made room for him in the final list.  I asked him which of the four he preferred to represent him and he chose “Mars is Heaven.”  A second Bradbury problem then arose, because my $1500 budget for reprinted stories allowed only a little more than $50 per story, and Bradbury’s agent required a $500 reprint fee, obviously impossible for us to meet.  Once again I turned to Bradbury, pointing out that the honorarium offered was just that, an honorarium for high accomplishment, everybody being paid the same amount, and that I would have to omit him from the book if his agent did not yield.  Bradbury prevailed and we were allowed to have the story.  (Over the succeeding decades, of course, his royalties on the story amounted to many times the original fee.)

Another problem cropped up in the case of Clifford D. Simak.  Two of the seven stories making up his book CITY finished in the second fifteen, one vote apart, but the story that had the higher vote total was not the one that Simak himself preferred to see used in the book.  With his permission I chose to look upon the one-vote differential as statistically insignificant and reversed the order of finish so that “Huddling Place” was the one reprinted.

A third problem involved William Tenn’s “Child’s Play,” which finished well up in the voting, but for which I was unable to get reprint permission because Tenn’s agent at the time (whom I will not name, because he is still active professionally) believed that SFWA was some kind of personal plaything of Damon Knight’s, whom he disliked, and refused to let the story be included in the book.  I appealed personally to William Tenn (actually, Philip Klass), but Klass rarely answered his mail and did not reply by my deadline time, so, reluctantly, I had to leave the story out of the book.

The fourth problem was created by the same agent, who also represented Roger Zelazny.  I regarded the Zelazny story, the most recently written of the nominees, as essential to the book, since it brilliantly demonstrated the evolution of s-f since the Gernsback and Campbell eras.  Here some fancy footwork saved the day.  The Zelazny story had been published by Ace Books in a collection of four of his stories, and, as I suspected, Ace had retained contractual control of anthology rights to the individual stories.  The agent had never had the right to grant permission anyway.  So I bought the reprint rights from Ace, which took 50 percent of Zelazny’s very considerable royalties over the years for the story.  The obstructive agent got nothing.

 

Q: What were some of the stories that just missed the cutoff? Is there a complete list of nominees anywhere?

Robert Silverberg: I no longer seem to have the complete list of nominees.  In any case, I would not want to make public the names of the stories that missed the cut, in case any of the writers are still alive.

 

Q: How did you come to be the editor of this book? 

Robert Silverberg: As described above — I thought the book up and, as president of SFWA, named myself editor.

 

Q: What level of editing did you do for these stories? 

Robert Silverberg: None. I reprinted them exactly as originally published.

 

Q: What can you tell me about the reception of the book when it was first released? How were its sales? 

Robert Silverberg: The sales were excellent, and when Doubleday’s own hardcover edition went out of print, the Avon reprint edition went through twenty or thirty printings over the years.  It is still selling well under the aegis of Tor.

 

Q: There’s several additional volumes of this: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two, Vol. 3 and Vol 4. Did you have any involvement in those books?

Robert Silverberg: Discussed below.

 

Q: Was there any sort of handoff to Ben Bova while he edited those volumes? 

Robert Silverberg: I don’t think so.  Ben would have seen the nominating process for the first book while it was happening and would have known what to do.

 

Q: Vol. 3 collects the Nebula winners from 1965 and 1969, while Vol 4 collects nebula winners from ’70 to ’74: can you tell me anything about the production of those books?

Robert Silverberg: I did not take part in the production of these two books.  As I recall, the first two volumes were so successful that Avon, by now the publisher of the series, wanted to add a volume or two to the set, and, with the best of the pre-Nebula stories already used, the only thing to do was to start collecting the best of the Nebula winners.

 

Q: Why did the SFHOF series end after volume 4? 

Robert SilverbergI don’t know.  Avon underwent major changes, eventually disappearing into HarperCollins, and perhaps there was no longer any desire to continue the series.  The rights to the earlier books reverted to SFWA and were eventually sold to Tor, and no new volumes have appeared, but I don’t know why.

 

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.

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

the-expanse-series

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.