Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss

If you’ve been following along with my column for Kirkus Reviews (and these blog posts), you might have seen me reference one book a lot: Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (or its updated version, Trillion Year Spree.) These two histories are incredibly important in the world of genre history, and I’ve paged through my copies many, many times. Thus, it was really unfortunate to see Aldiss pass away last month. He’s a huge figure within the community, not only as a commentator, but as an author.

He’s largely unknown to mainstream audiences, save for the fact that his short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ was adapted into a Steven Spielberg film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence – in my mind, an underrated film about a robotic boy yearning for the love of his mother.

I actually met Aldiss over a decade ago while I studied abroad in England — I attended a literary festival in Oxford, where he and fellow local author Philip Pullman discussed science fiction and fantasy. It was an interesting discussion, and I’m glad that I had the chance to meet him, if briefly.

Go read Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss over on Kirkus Reviews.

Advertisements

Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall

It’s been a while. I’ve sadly neglected my Kirkus column: work has been busy, which means that on my off-days, I’m trying to stay away from the computer and focus on other writing / reading. I’m trying to get back into it, though, and to celebrate yesterday’s eclipse, I put together a story about Isaac Asimov’s famous story, Nightfall.

This is probably the first story that I read of Asimov’s, or at least, it was an early one. It’s one of my favorites, and going back to revisit it after years and years was something. It holds up nicely, I think. I also got a chance to interview the director behind one of the adaptations, which was a delight.

Go read History in a nutshell: Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov. Asimov devotes a couple of chapters to this story, from the conception of it to the later novelization by Robert Silverberg.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Second Edition, Adam Roberts. Roberts’ book is a fantastic resource, and when I learned that there was a new edition to it, I rushed out to buy it. This one is significantly longer, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about other parts of SF history. This one has some good analysis of Asimov’s story.

I also interviewed Gwenyth Gibby, who directed the 2000 adaptation of the film. She noted that the film doesn’t hold up all that well, but she was happy with the work that she did on it. She’s no longer directing movies: She’s working on a PhD, and works at a small press, and was a delight to speak with, with some really interesting insights into not only the film, but the story.

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.

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:

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.

To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century

Star Trek is one of those franchises that I’ve only dipped into occasionally: I never watched much of the shows, and I was more of a Babylon 5Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica fan in college.

That said, Star Trek was a huge, enormous influence on every aspect of science fiction, introducing millions of non-readers to what had largely been a closed community of readers. Part of its success here was that it pulled in some of the best writers of the time to help create the show, such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. Without those influences, Star Trek might not have been the influence that it was.

Go read To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, edited by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman. This is the first of two volumes, an oral history of the entire Star Trek franchise. It’s a pretty amazing couple of volumes. The editors let every party speak for themselves, and it’s like a fantastic documentary for the history of Star Trek.
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, David Hartwell. Hartwell has some good points about how Star Trek fit in with ‘traditional’ fandom.
  • The Cambridge Companion to American Science, edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan. I recently picked this book up, and it has some great insights into the relationship between Trek and Fandom.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts makes a couple of excellent points here: namely that Star Trek was responsible for bringing more women into genre fandom.

 

The Unidentified Adventures of Raymond A. Palmer

 

One of my favorite films is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Steven Spielberg. While watching it recently, I realized something: I’ve never noticed a significant overlap between the science fiction community and the UFO community. Sure, there are science fiction stories about aliens invading Earth, and I’m sure that there are plenty of UFO fans who read science fiction, but otherwise, the two communities seem fairly separate.

The modern UFO community emerged during the 1940s and 1950s following some sensational reporting and incidents that they latched onto. A major component of this community had some roots in science fiction fandom in the form of Raymond A. Palmer. Palmer had edited Amazing Stories, and founded some of the more influential publications for that community.

Go read The Unidentified Adventures of Raymond A. Palmer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Over my Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. Palmer shows up a couple of times here, and this book is good for context for the 1930s publishing field.
  • Seekers of Tomorrow, Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz mentions Palmer a bunch of times here, and provides some good context.
  • The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis. Nadis’s biography is a solid, entertaining read, and it’s certainly worth picking up for a more in-depth look at the author.

Online:

  • SF Encyclopedia: Palmer has an entry here that largely skirts over his connections to the paranormal / UFO communities.

The Absurd Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors that I’ve continually missed over the years. For some reason, I never quite got around to reading Slaughterhouse-Five while in high school (or college), and I’ve missed his major novels as well. That said, one of the first science fiction stories that I ever read was ‘Harrison Bergeron’, which I also saw as a play when I was probably in Middle School – the Handicapper General. That story has stuck with me for years, and it’s a brilliant piece of short fiction.

My latest column for Kirkus (which is still running with me at The Verge) focuses on Vonnegut’s story, particularly how he pointed out some of the really ridiculous parts of modern life. I came across an interview where he said that he was the one person who benefitted from the Dresden bombings, a massive bombing campaign that utterly destroyed the city.

Go read The Absurd Kurt Vonnegut over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

TK

Future Histories of Poul Anderson

While researching the Kirkus column, there’s a bunch of authors who frequently appear: one such author is Poul Anderson, a hard SF author whose career really began to take off in the 1950s.

Anderson represents part of the movement in the middle of the 1960s/1970s that ran counter to the New Wave: they tended to be conservative, and typically wrote about stories in space with realistic physics and knowledge of astronomy. Anderson’s an author that I’ve never quite read much of, but his name pops up everywhere, due to the sheer number of stories that he wrote over the course of his career.

As I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been really interested in the relationship between conservative / liberal politics that has been injected, but also just how those viewpoints have manifested themselves. Conservative authors tend to write about harder, tangible parts of SF, while some of the more liberal movements reject things like space. That’s a gross oversimplification, but there’s some roots to it. My suspicion is that this comes out of the connections to the space race between the USA and USSR, and all the trappings involved there.

This isn’t to say that liberal authors can’t write the hardest of the hard SF – just look at Joe Haldeman and his book The Forever War.

Go read Future Histories of Poul Anderson over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss’s history of the genre has some good information about Anderson’s career and life.
  • Transformations: The Story of The Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley’s book has some excellent information about his work in the magazines.
  • Science Fiction Writers: Second Edition, edited by Richard Bleiler. Sandra Miesel authored the entry on Anderson here, and it’s a very good background on his career and analysis on his works.
  • The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Paul A. Carter. Good additional contextual information here.
  • Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, James Gunn. This had some useful contextual information in it.

A trio of obituaries were useful, from The Guardian, New York Times and LA Times. The SF Encyclopedia, as always, has a very useful article about him.