Q&A with John Scalzi

I have a new long read up on The Verge. Back in February, I flew down to New York City, where I got to check out our new offices, get some face time with some of my co-workers, and got to sit down with science fiction author John Scalzi.

I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, and interviewed him one other time for The Verge. This was a formalish interview that lasted for quite a while, and ended up with a nice, in-depth profile of him. It was a fun chat, one that hangs on the fact that his new novel, The Collapsing Empire, just hit bookstores. It’s a fun read (the interview and the book), and I recommend checking it out.

The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper

I’ve got a new column up on Kirkus Reviews this morning. This week, I’m looking at the career of H. Beam Piper, a science fiction writer who was active between the 1940s and 1960s, famously known for a book called Little Fuzzy.

I first came across Little Fuzzy because of John Scalzi’s reboot, Fuzzy Nation. (My review is here  — given that I wrote it six years ago, I’m a little afraid of how terrible my writing was) Before Scalzi’s novel came out, I picked up Piper’s, (it’s in the public domain, so it’s a free ebook) and found it to be an interesting read. Scalzi takes the story in a different direction, but both are well worth picking up and reading.

Go read The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Mike Ashley. Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 – 1980. Ashley’s book, as always, is an exhaustive, interesting read into the history of the genre, and provides some good background on the time that Piper was writing.
  • John Carr. H. Beam Piper: A Biography. This is an exhaustive resource on Piper and his work. Carr goes in detail, often day by day, talks to friends and family, examines letters, and so forth.
  • Paul Carter. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. Carter’s book provides some good background and a couple of interesting points on Piper’s career.
  • Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Roberts provides some good background on where Piper fit into the larger history of SF.

Don’t ignore the flyover Hugo categories

It’s that time of the year: fans from around science fiction fandom are submitting their nominations (deadline is the 17th of March, I think) for this year’s Hugo Awards. While I’m filling mine out, I’m reminded of a critical thing: don’t ignore the ‘flyover’ categories.

The Hugos, if  you’re not aware, are one of the genre’s biggest awards: the Academy Awards of science fiction / fantasy fandom, except that regular readers who attend (or pay for a supporting membership), can vote in them. The biggest share of the votes goes to the best novel and shorter fiction categories, but there’s sections for film, television, fan writers and related works.

The past couple of years have seen some controversy over who’s being nominated: a handful of factions of conservative to very conservative readers (read: Alt-Right) successfully gamed the system by bloc voting their own nominees and managed to cause an uproar from shocked liberalish fans who were asleep at the wheel. They were really only able to do this for the same reason that the US political primaries attract terrible candidates: nobody cares about the nominations process, and don’t show up. When they do, they tend to ignore a whole swath of categories, like Fan Writer, Fanzine, Best Related Work, and so forth. These are pretty specific categories: your typical, casual bookstore patron won’t know, if they know about the Hugos in the first place.

It’s a shame, because these are areas where there’s a lot of interesting things going on: internal genre commentary, fan work, or looks at genre history and production.

Best Related Work is one area that I particularly watch, because I tend to produce it. I write a column on genre history for Kirkus Reviews, write reviews and general commentary for places like Lightspeed Magazine and The Verge. There’s a lot of good work out there. Last year alone, there were fantastic biographies for George Lucas, Bram Stoker, Octavia Butler, and Shirley Jackson, really intriguing histories on the book and the word processor’s impact on writing, paper, and commentaries on women in the genre. That’s all just by looking at my bookshelf next to my desk. There’s numerous other works on blogs and fanzines as well. “Safe Space as Rape Room”, SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, and Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth are just a couple of examples: Alt-Right authors with an ax to grind about the world who think that getting an award will validate their shitty view of the world.

It’s frustrating, because there’s plenty of solid books and works out there that *almost* made the ballot (and not necessarily liberal works, either). I’m thinking of books like Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century by William Patterson Jr., Masters of Modern Science Fiction: Greg Egan, by Karen Burnham (or any of the other books in that series!), or the numerous articles or essays that critically dissect the genre.

The real problem here is that not a lot of people tend to read the things in these categories. Who goes out of their way to read a novella? I think the fiction categories are beginning to change a bit with what places like Tor.com and others are publishing, which is a positive step. It’s also an easy thing to fix: look around at the various categories that are out there and see what you’re missing. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that’s well worth the time and energy to pick up.

As you’re taking the time to fill out a ballot, don’t skip those categories. Look around at what people have been producing, and take the time to read that novella that someone recommended, or that biography of that author.

Wayne Barlowe’s Illustrated Aliens

When I was a kid, I remember a classmate bringing this book into class one day: it was a fascinating book to page through. It’s also a strange one: illustrations of aliens from books and movies. It’s the sort of thing that only the science fiction community could support and produce.

I recently picked up a new copy after all these years, and spent some time paging through it again – it brings back a flood of memories, but it’s also really intriguing to read now understanding what stories he drew from.

Go read Wayne Barlowe’s Illustrated Aliens over on Kirkus Reviews.

The source this time? Wayne Barlowe himself – he kindly answered a bunch of my questions for this piece.

Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest

One of the books that I picked up over the holidays as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, which I’ve been reading in drips and drabs this month. It’s a really stunning work of fiction, and it’s a book that feels all the more relevant with what the Trump administration is shaping up for when it comes to policy, particularly around environmental areas.

Go read Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources cited:

  • Harlan Ellison, Again, Dangerous Visions. I have all three of these anthologies, and Le Guin has a short afterword to the story in my edition.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night. This is a collection of essays from Le Guin, and it includes her forward to the novella.
  • Larry McCaffrey, Across the Wounded Galaxies. Collection of interviews with authors, including Le Guin.
  • Frank Magill, Survey of Science Fiction vol 5. This collection of critical essays is pretty essential. There’s a review of this story in it by Gary K. Wolfe.

I’ve been lax about posting up updates for this column. Here’s a couple I missed:

RIP Fionna

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The last of my childhood dogs passed away last night. Fionna had been sick for a while, but she’s lasted far longer than I think anyone had expected. Even as she grew thinner, she never seemed to lose her upbeat and perky nature.

Fionna was always my sister Keelia’s dog. She was a gift of sorts: we had one dog, but she had been asking for one. My mother put down a stipulation: any new dog that we get can’t be a long-haired, loud black dog. (Fionna’s predecessor Tilly was all of these things, and mom didn’t like the shedding). What we ended up with was … all of those things.

She was an anxious, shepherd-type dog, and gave our other dog, Buck (who died back in 2008) a bit of a new lease on life. She was energetic, clingy, and exceedingly attached to Keelia. She was playful, often tangling and chasing other dogs who came to visit – one memorable moment was when she snuck up behind Buck, grabbed a back leg and ran. We always imagined her with a high-pitched, somewhat squeaky voice.

She slowed down and greyed significantly in the last couple of years, and there was a health scare over a year ago with some sort of ear infection that left her with a tilted head (and the new nickname Lopsided Dog). But, each time we’ve gone to visit my parents, she’s been an ever-present shadow wagging her tail in greeting.

We didn’t have to put her down, although Mom and Dad were getting to that point. Up until a couple of days ago, she followed him down the driveway and back, even running a bit. We buried her in the front field of my parents’ house, next to where we buried Buck and Tilly all those years ago.

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She was a good dog, and I’m going to miss her terribly.

Sing, or a good example of studio interference

So, I go to more kids movies than I used to: my son is three and a half, and we’ve taken him to see a bunch of films in the movie theater. He sits (for the most part), and looks utterly adorable crunching a small bag of popcorn. There’s been some solid kids movies that we’ve gone to  – Moana and Zootopia, which are a good reminder of how kids movies can be smart and entertaining. We just went to see Sing, and while it was fun, it’s a good example of what not to do.

The premise of the film from the trailers: a koala named Buster Moon owns a theater that’s struggling, and to try and get things back on track, he decides to hold a singing competition. A typo on the flier shows off a $100,000 prize, and a ton of animals from around the city go out to audition and take part in the competition.

This is sort of where the film goes off the rails. For a film called Sing, there’s remarkably little of that. What’s there is good, and funny, but the film is loaded down with a whole bunch of side plots:

  • Buster is trying to get money to finance his prize, and to save his theater.
  • Johnny (a Gorilla) likes to sing, but his criminal father thinks its a waste of time.
  • Rosita (A pig housewife) enters because she feels unsatisfied being a housewife, and ignored by her husband.
  • Meena is a shy elephant who’s prodded into competing by her friends and family.
  • Ash, a porcupine, is the lesser half of a singing relationship.
  • Mike, a mouse, is arrogant and believes the prize is his, and gets into trouble with some Russian bears.
  • There’s a whole bunch of time spent on characters that don’t actually do anything: one is beaned on the head and leaves early in the film, while a couple of others leave.
  • Meanwhile, there’s some random hijinks as Buster is trying to get the competition on its way.

There’s a lot there, and it feels like a whole bunch of parts, such as Johnny’s father and Mike’s troubles, were stuck in there to put in some action and stakes. What it really does though, is take the stakes away from the focus of the film: saving the theater.

Spoilers: the theater isn’t saved about halfway through the film: it’s destroyed due to Mike’s greed, and repossessed by the bank. This happens about halfway to two thirds of the way through the film. It completely takes away any dramatic tension that the film was building to: the characters were working to win a competition that was essentially a sham. The end basically turns into a singing show for the joy of singing. That’s a fine goal, but not something that you should pivot to halfway through the film.

What this film lacks, and what a lot of stories don’t do, is focus on the end point. There’s plenty of material here for this film to work well on its own: a group of singing animals save their theater. Beginning to end, this would have been a great, heartwarming film to watch. Sing just has a ton of extra junk material injected into it. There’s good parts here: Meena’s story has a great ark, as dose Ash and Rosita. Johnny’s story could have been accomplished with a father who was essentially a blue collar worker. Mike could have been eliminated completely.

This is frustrating to see, because it feels like the solid story was there to begin with, but was chipped away by studio notes. We didn’t need a rooftop prison break chase scene here. We didn’t need a subplot with Russian mafia. It feels like these parts were added late in the game, with the assumption that it wouldn’t matter; it’s a kid’s movie. Kids like zany antics, so who cares?

Thinking about the stories that are important to me, many were ones that I consumed as a child or young adult. Many of these stories didn’t talk down to me as a child: they knew what a good story was and went with it. They weren’t necessarily chipped down to introduce characters for toys, or were designed essentially for marketing.

Compare this film to Moana, which came out earlier this winter. It’s an excellent story that really doesn’t pull punches. Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace recently wrote a good book called Creativity Inc, about Pixar’s approach to storytelling (and is a great look at how Disney has taken over Pixar’s ability to tell great stories – to the detriment of Pixar). What he writes boils down to: set up a solid story to start and make sure that it’s the best you can make it. The visuals, characters, and acting will all follow. It’s an approach that clearly works well for Moana, but it’s a lesson that Sing really missed.

It’s a shame, because the movie is cute and fun. It’s a ‘rent the movie from Redbox’ rather than ‘go out and experience it in a theater’.

Vick’s Vultures, by Scott Warren

I’m a sucker for durable space opera novels. I like crews on space ships flying around doing things in the vastness of space, and one of the books that I came across earlier this fall was Scott Warren’s new novel Vick’s Vultures.

The premise of the novel is pretty straightforward: humanity has entered a larger diaspora of galactic civilizations, and has been keeping its head down, for the most part. We realize we’re outgunned, and have been salvaging tech from other aliens to catch up. Vick’s crew on board the U.E. Condor have been doing just that, and rescue First Prince Tavram, heir to a massive empire. Another empire is after him, and they flee through space to get him home.

It’s a straightforward tale, and a nice diversion from some of the headier genre books out there. (The audio edition is also quite good). It’s fast and engaging, and it’s the type of book that falls neatly in line with the likes of John Scalzi or Marko Kloos. It’s not straight-up military science fiction, but there’s plenty of action and combat to keep you entertained.

 

Talk: J.R.R. Tolkien and World War I on October 31th!

I’ll be talking at Norwich University on Monday, October 31st at noon, about J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences during World War I and how it impacted his works. I’ll be there along with Professor Gina Logan.

Here’s the description:

Please join us October 31st at noon at the Sullivan Museum and History Center for a presentation by adjunct English faculty Gina Logan and Andrew Liptak, (M’09) as they discuss the influence of Tolkien’s service in World War I on his life and writings including the portrayal of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s description of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor as a reflection of his memories of combat. Light Lunch served, free and open to the public.
 Should be a fun time!

Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer

There was a really cool article that came out in The Atlantic a while back about a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum that raised an interesting question: who was the first author to write their novel on a personal computer?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a science fiction author: Jerry Pournelle, who’s known for some of his military SF books and his fairly right-wing politics. Science Fiction authors were early adopters, which makes sense, given the field’s origins in tech reporting and promotion.

Kirschenbaum’s book is a really fascinating one: a crunchy, niche-y history of this weird, obscure topic that touches everyone. It’s one of those things that I’d never thought about, but it’s an interesting history.

Go read Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer over on Kirkus Reviews.