Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

philconGreat weekend! I spend most of it at PhilCon — the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference. Actually held in Cherry Hill, N.J. But I guess PhilCon is too august a name to change lightly. This event has been going on in one form or another since 1936.

In the near future, I’m sure I’ll be blogging about different elements of it in greater detail. Geez, I got enough material there for a year’s worth of blog entries. And I got the contact info for a lot of people I intend to be interviewing here — after reviewing their works, in a lot of cases. So stay tuned.

Anyway, I was very impressed. Up to now, I haven’t really been big on conventions. As I’ve mentioned here many, many times, I love science fiction, horror and fantasy. And I certainly don’t want to put down the means by which anyone chooses to enjoy them. Hey, it’s a big tent. Glad everyone’s here.

Still, I’m just not into the obsessive parsing of specific TV shows and movies that seems to characterize a lot of fandom. And I had this image in my mind that the convention scene has a lot of that.

I was pleasantly surprised, though. PhilCon seemed to have a very pronounced emphasis on the literary side of science fiction, which I appreciated.

Hell, I walked through the door of the hotel and momentarily wondered if I was in the right place because the lobby wasn’t packed with people in outlandish costumes. The I looked to my right and saw Gardner Dozois — legendary writer and editor — hanging out at one of the hotel restaurant tables. The guy’s been one of my heroes since I was a kid. After suppressing a “SQUEEEE!” worthy of a 14-year-old girl who’s just spotted One Direction, I wandered over, told him I was a big fan, and asked if he could point me toward the convention.  Mr. Dozois, who proved to be every bit as cool as I could have hoped, did so.

So my convention experience started out good, and pretty much stayed there the entire weekend. I think I might end up attending more conventions.

Like I said, I plan to blog about it more. But I’m kind of tired and about to crash, so I’ll get to that later. Time to dream pleasant dreams stoked by the endorphin rush I’m still riding.

ZZZZZZZZ! What’s that, Mr. Dozois? You say you want to edit an anthology of my short stories with introductions by Joe R. Lansdale and Neil Gaiman? Why … I’m flattered. ZZZZZZZZZ!

 

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Hubble1This piece originally appeared in the quarterly newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which I edit. I thought it would be of benefit to the science fiction writers in our group. But I think horror writers could find plenty of material here. Bottom line — the existence of alien lifeforms in the universe is pretty much a statistical certainty. And they’re probably a lot more like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination that Gene Roddenberry’s. *Shudder* By the way, the eye-popping photos that accompany this are from the Hubble Telescope.

 

Unfathomable Distances, Unfriendly Locals

By Tom Joyce

Editor’s note: Ray Villard is news director for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope. He’s also the former associate editor of “Astronomy” magazine, an editorial contributor to Discovery Channel, and the author of numerous articles for magazines, encyclopedias and Internet blogs, and scripts for several syndicated science programs on public radio.

Ray Villard is a science fiction fan himself, so he understands why writers for page and screen sometimes do

what they do. Maybe they just need to tell an entertaining story. And it’s not like 1960s-era Star Trek had a multimillion dollar CGI budget at its disposal for rendering alien lifeforms.

Still, he can’t help but get irritated sometimes at science fiction in which the writers seem to have no familiarity whatsoever with the scientific phenomenon they’re ostensibly writing about. (more…)

McGoranHere’s an interview with author Jon McGoran, who is carving out a distinctive niche for himself with tech thrillers that incorporate cutting edge advances in biotechnology. Really cool stuff. I’ve reviewed his books “Drift” and “Deadout” on this blog previously. This interview previously ran in the quarterly newsletter for Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which I edit. The issue was geared toward science fiction writers who might be interested in incorporating some genuine science into their writing. (I’ve previously written about the increasing disconnect between science fiction and actual science here.) Jon’s a really well-informed and interesting guy. So even if you’re not a writer, I guarantee this interview is worth your time. Enjoy. And check out Jon’s Website here.

 

Looking for a subject for that gritty crime thriller you want to write? Genetic modification of plants probably isn’t going to be on your short list for potential topics. But author Jon McGoran has already authored two books featuring Philadelphia narcotics detective Doyle Carrick and his involvement in cases involving biotechnology.

We’re not talking “Day of the Triffids” style plant monsters here. McGoran’s books are firmly grounded in contemporary science, and touch on real concerns and controversies related to producing genetically modified food. That might seem a bit dry and academic for a police thriller, but both of his Doyle Carrick novels — “Drift” and “Deadout” — are taut, gripping narratives guaranteed to please any fan of action-packed crime fiction. “Publisher’s Weekly,” which gave both books starred reviews, apparently agrees.

While his books fall more under the heading of “science thriller” than “science fiction,” I thought he might be able to provide some valuable advice for us about incorporating recent scientific developments into a narrative. Check out his Website at http://www.jonmcgoran.com.

 

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background?

A: I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and took it pretty seriously up until my late teens, when music and songwriting became more important to me. For about 10 years I wrote and performed a lot of music, but even while I wasn’t writing fiction, I still thought of myself a writer as much as a musician. After I did NOT become wildly rich and famous, I went back to school and finished my degree, started writing more as a job — copywriting, public relations, journalism. But after a few years, I realized how much I missed fiction, and how much writing and creating was at the heart of who I was. For some reason, when I returned to writing, instead of concentrating on science fiction and short stories, I was thinking only in terms of novels, and primarily in the mystery/thriller genres. Since then, I’ve started writing short fiction again, a lot of it science fiction, and my interest in science and science fiction has definitely informed my thrillers, which have strong elements of science.

 

Q: How did “Drift” and “Deadout” come about?

A: I had been working for some time as communications director at Weavers Way Co-op, a natural foods co-op in Philadelphia, and had been publishing the monthly newspaper there. We covered a lot of broader food issues, and the last few decades have been a tumultuous time in the American food system. A lot of alarming stuff has been going on: factory farming, irradiation, lots of questionable chemical inputs. I had long been thinking that a lot of what I was writing about during the day was crazier and scarier than the science fiction and crime fiction I was writing at night. But especially alarming and compelling was the way genetically modified foods or GMOs had quietly taken over the vast majority of so many sectors of our food supply, and the fact that so few people knew about it, even knew what GMOs were. The growth of the biotech industry was something I thought was grossly underreported and in need of further discussion, but it was also tailor-made as a thriller premise: Secretive multinational corporations use their financial and political clout to push untested new lifeforms into the food supply of an unsuspecting public. That’s a thriller right there! The more I dug into the topic, the more ideas I came up with for books in the series. And I won’t go into the nuts and bolts of how I came up with Doyle Carrick as a protagonist, but I will say that I love writing him. I love his voice and his world view and his sense of humor.

 

Q: What kind of response did the books get?

A: The response has been great. The reviews have been wonderful, and “Publishers Weekly” has been particularly kind — in addition to giving both books stars and glowing reviews, they interviewed me for “Drift” and spotlighted the review for “Deadout”. “The Inquirer” has also been great, and so has “Booklist,” “KYW,” “Grid” magazine, and genre outlets like “Criminal Element” and “Crimespree,” places like that, and lots of blogs, as well (including my favorite — chamberofthebizarre.com!). It’s great to get a lot of love from your hometown press, it’s great to get love from the big national outlets, and it’s great to get love from the genre press, because they’re your people. Of course, there are many outlets whose radar doesn’t seem to pick me up, and you always want more, partly to grow your profile and achieve greater commercial success… but primarily because deep down writers are all needy, pathetic and insecure.

 

Q: Is all of the science in them 100 percent verified, or did you do any speculating based on current scientific theory?

A: There is some extrapolation, to be sure, but I would say that all of the science is legitimate, and that everything in the books could be accomplished using current science, if someone put the resources into accomplishing it. I hope they don’t.

 

Q: Where and how did you do the research for the books?

A: For these books, most of the research is done initially online, and then interviewing the experts whose work I’ve read, to drill down on the specific ideas I am focusing on. Not everybody wants to talk to you about their work, but I’m constantly impressed by the generosity of the great minds out there, who frequently are not just willing to answer my sometimes ridiculous questions, but engage in these great speculative conversations, and often share ideas with me that might not even be relevant to the book I am currently working on, ideas that they find fascinating, that are fascinating, and that often times surface in another book down the line.

 

Q: What advice would you give for incorporating scientific explanations into a story, without letting them bog down the narrative?

A: That’s a great question, and to some extent, it depends on the book and the reader. Some readers revel in descriptions of different kinds. Just as some readers bask in pages of detailed naturalistic descriptions, other readers feel the same about science and technology, especially in more far-out stories where world-building is a major component of the book. Many readers though — and I’m one of them — don’t like world-building or complex ideas to get in the way of lean prose and a minimum of clunky exposition. As with so many elements of exposition, one of the most important things to keep in mind is the difference between the level of detail and understanding necessary for you, the writer, to write comfortably, knowingly and compellingly about a topic, and the level of detail necessary for the reader to enjoy it. Just as there may be many elements of characters that help the writer understand them and depict them realistically and compellingly, but which never make it onto the page, the same is true of scientific ideas. You need a deep understanding of the ideas (real or fictional) behind the work, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need quite so much. The trick is in deciding what’s necessary and what’s not. There are also nuts and bolts ways of making facts more interesting — characters can discover things instead of just relating them. Facts can reveal themselves through action or physical description instead of just lecturing. And while you should be judicious in the use of exposition via dialogue, there are ways to make it more palatable and entertaining. Imbue the exchanges with conflict or revelations of character and it feels a lot less expository. (e.g., instead of “As you know, Bob, the X-12 is a brand new technology… ” something like, “I was surprised Bob even knew about the X-12…” or “I couldn’t imagine an idiot like Bob having a clue about the X-12…” or, “Bob rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing new about the X-12. It’s the same crap they’ve been calling new for the last ten years.” Or, Bob smirked. “Nice X-12 you got there. You should see my new X-13.” ) The point is, if you make it feel like it’s about character or conflict or the fact that Bob is a bit of a dick, the reader will just kind of absorb the fact that the X-12 is newer technology, without feeling like they’ve been informed.

 

Q: Did you feel like you were under any pressure to get things right, in light of the fact that people familiar with the science would likely be reading the books?

A: Yes, but I would feel that pressure anyway. You really don’t ever want to get it wrong, ever. Not just on the science, but anything. Any time a reader thinks you got something wrong, even in very subtle or minor ways, you lose them a little bit, you put a distance between them and the book. And if you screw up something small, they are going to be that much less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on the bigger things.

 

Q: Any advice in general for science fiction writers who want to incorporate some genuine science into their stories?

A: The first thing, obviously, is to get it right. Some science fiction or science thrillers are about the science itself, and some are about the effects of the science. Some readers want to revel in the details, and some want to trust that the details ring true and get on with the story. So, whether the background of your story is how the time machine works, or simply the fact that it does, you need to be comfortable and confident in the level of detail that’s appropriate for your story, and then make sure you get those details right — real or fictional. And, of course, whatever universe it is you’re defining — almost like ours or outrageously out-there — internal consistency is key.

 

samatarphotoNote: The following material ran in a recent issue of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers quarterly newsletter, which I edit. Here’s the fourth part of the piece, along with my original introduction. I’ll be running contributions from the other writers who participated in the days ahead.

Several things inspired me to put this project together. But mainly, it’s because I still frequently encounter the tiresome “nerdy boys club” stereotype regarding speculative fiction writers and readers. The widespread perception that our branch of literature is the domain of emotionally and socially stunted man-children who don’t want icky girls in their club unless they happen to be wearing skimpy cosplay outfits at conventions.

I think it’s important that we speculative fiction writers do everything in our power to help dispel that stereotype, and make it clear that women are a major, vital and respected part of our community. So I reached out to a number of prominent woman science fiction, fantasy and horror authors and editors, and invited them to share their perspectives.
Tom Joyce

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel “A Stranger in Olondria,” the Hugo and Nebula nominated short story “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” and other works. She is the winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, and the British Fantasy Award. Sofia is a co-editor for “Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts,” and teaches literature and writing at California State University Channel Islands.

I don’t know whether things are worse for women in speculative fiction than they are for women in mainstream or literary fiction. What I do know is what everybody knows, if they pay attention: that the publishing industry, in both of these genres, is male dominated. It is also white dominated, and privileges heterosexist and ableist narratives. These inequalities create the atmosphere in which we work. To speak as a woman in speculative fiction specifically, the inequality creates a situation in which you know certain things in advance. Even if you’ve never been harassed at a con, you know it happens, and that knowledge shapes your interactions with other professionals. You know that you’re statistically less likely to rise to prominence than a male writer, to draw attention, to make people listen.

All of this explains why the past year stands out. This was the year Ann Leckie swept everything — award after award, it was amazing! All the Nebula award winners were women. This is also the year the folks at “Lightspeed Magazine” made ten times their goal amount with the “Women Destroy Science Fiction” Kickstarter, enabling them to do “Women Destroy Fantasy” and “Women Destroy Horror” as well. Now, that whole series started in response to the sexist notion, which some people actually hold, that women are destroying these genres. But the immense interest in the series, and the energy around it, shows that there’s a significant number of people who believe the opposite.

It might just be a coincidence. This could be the year we all look back at like “Hey, remember that year a bunch of women got attention?” But I really don’t think so. I think that transformation comes in waves, each one bigger than the last, and that this is a particularly big one. It will probably recede, but things won’t go back to the way they were. Every woman writing science fiction now is looking at Ann Leckie. Each change makes the next change possible. That’s why, all things considered, this is a pretty great time to be a woman in speculative fiction.

Note: The following material ran in a recent issue of the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers quarterly newsletter, which I edit. Here’s the first part of the piece, along with my original introduction. I’ll be running contributions from the other writers who participated in the days ahead.

Several things inspired me to put this project together. But mainly, it’s because I still frequently encounter the tiresome “nerdy boys club” stereotype regarding speculative fiction writers and readers. The widespread perception that our branch of literature is the domain of emotionally and socially stunted man-children who don’t want icky girls in their club unless they happen to be wearing skimpy cosplay outfits at conventions.
I think it’s important that we speculative fiction writers do everything in our power to help dispel that stereotype, and make it clear that women are a major, vital and respected part of our community. So I reached out to a number of prominent woman science fiction, fantasy and horror authors and editors, and invited them to share their perspectives.
Tom Joyce

MARY SANGIOVANNI

SangiovanniMary SanGiovanni is the author of 10 horror and thriller books, one of which was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, as well as numerous short stories. She has a Masters degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, Pittsburgh and teaches English classes at her local college. She is currently a member of The Authors Guild, The International Thriller Writers, and Penn Writers.

I think writers of my generation are in a unique position to have been able to observe first-hand how the industry has changed regarding the prominence of women in the horror field. In movies, we have seen women go from shrieking, fleeing victims to capable and quick-thinking heroines on screen; we have seen more women writing, directing, producing, and filming quality horror. We have seen a broader range of topics explored in horror, taking into account the psychology of fear from both male and female perspectives. And of course, in publishing, there are increasing numbers of women writers offering lasting and canonic works to the body of classic horror literature. These women, in the tradition of great horror writers before them, are stretching and breaking boundaries in the exploration of fear; they are finding new and terrifying ways to look at the world around them. Further, they are writing their work in their own way, not necessarily prone to be imitative of the historically male-dominated approach to horror. I believe it’s an over-simplification to state that works are intrinsically written in a masculine or feminine point of view; I think so much more goes into the crafting of a finely textured, deeply layered story than just a psychology or perspective based on sex or gender. However, I’d venture to say that women and men are often raised to fear different things, and further, to react and respond differently to those fears. This creates a variety of possible ways to present subject matter in a horror story that can be accessed by either men or women. The awareness of this, especially in modern horror fiction, has led to the creation of sophisticated works by both men and women which truly engage a wider audience. Horror is not about the mask that is worn, but the face beneath that mask; the root of fear an audience can understand and identify with is what drives a horror story, not the monster in which that fear is embodied, be it a boogeyman associated with the nightmares of man, or those of women. I believe that women have incorporated this notion into their work in order to overcome the stereotype that women’s horror is “soft” or “not scary.” Their work serves to prove that their own unique perspective of things can be absolutely scary, whether that is in spite of or because that perspective has been generated in a female mind.
My generation has largely been influenced by male horror writers (Stephen King, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Dean Koontz, etc.) because men dominated the field for decades. I think it’s gratifying to see many new women horror writers listing both men AND women as influences in their own writing. I think that is as validating as anything else, because we, as writers, start out as fans of the genre. We simply want to contribute to the body of literature that inspired and shaped so much of our thoughts and feelings. It’s a powerful thing to know that readers and fans of the genre are reading more widely, taking chances on what in the past would have been dismissed, perhaps, as “fluff,” and finding in women writers’ works some truly frightening and memorable stories. It solidifies the idea that women are, in fact, taking part in continuing the literary tradition that they have so very much enjoyed.
We’ve come a long way from naked nubiles being carried off by buff and scaly monsters or swarmed by lascivious cultists. These stories have their place in the history of horror, as do any stories that speak specifically to a kind of horrific event, but it’s nice to see a broadening of ideas that can be interpreted as “horror” in our field. There is no shortage of emotion or action, deviant or otherwise, for writers to delve into.
I think it’s important to note, when discussing the topic of women horror writers, that true equality comes when writers are judged based solely on the merit of their work — when the time comes that horror writers are not identified first by gender and then by genre, but simply as writers in their field. I think the horror genre benefits from a rich diversity of voices and perspectives, not a narrowing of them. And I am proud and pleased to see that this seems to be the direction in which the horror genre is heading.

Time MachineI got the idea for writing this post after accepting that Facebook challenge going around, to name 10 books that have stuck with you over the years. Man! That was a tough challenge — restricting the list to 10. And like a list of my favorite songs or favorite movies, a list of my favorite books would change on an hourly basis anyway.

One of the books I chose was “The Time  Machine.” I was about 10 when I got that out of the school library, and it blew my mind. It was a big influence on me for several reasons. First of all, it sparked a life-long love of speculative fiction. I like to think it even led to me becoming a speculative fiction writer myself.

But more than that, it was the book that first taught me how a story can convey a message without sacrificing any of the elements that make it cool and engaging.

I’m not going to pretend that I was capable of comprehending all the social commentary in “The Time Machine” at the age of 10. But I went back and read it as a teenager, and was surprised to discover nuances that escaped me the first time.

In my Facebook post about the book, I included this commentary: “One of these days, somebody’s going to make a film version that doesn’t TOTALLY MISS THE FREAKIN POINT!” I really hope that’s the case.

I caught the 1960 version on TV when I was a kid. Not bad, but kinda missed the point. I saw another made-for-TV version that aired in 1978, also when I was a kid. Missed the point and royally sucked. Then I saw the 2002 version starring Guy Pearce. “Sucked” barely covers it. God Almighty, did that movie bite the big one! And not incidentally, it missed the point too.

Spoiler alerts are coming up, in case you’ve never read the book.

But here’s the basic plot. The unnamed Time Traveler who relates most of the story journeys to a distant future. There, he discovers an apparent paradise of child-like humans called “Eloi” living an idyllic and trouble-free existence. He befriends one, a woman named Weena.

He’s puzzled by the logistics of this world, though. The simple-minded Eloi seem to lack any means of sustaining themselves. Then he discovers the existence of brutish creatures living underground called the “Morlocks.” He pieces together that humanity has evolved into two branches — the Eloi from the upper classes, and the Morlocks from the lower classes. Now the Morlocks are maintaining the Eloi as livestock.

The story progresses from there. Through a chain of circumstances, the Time Traveler comes into conflict with the Morlocks. He also tries to defend Weena, because of their personal connection.

But here’s what the movie versions always get wrong. With varying degrees, it always comes down to the Eloi being the good guys, and the Morlocks being the bad guys. Beautiful people = good. Ugly monsters = bad. That’s a grossly simplistic interpretation of the book, and the total opposite of what Wells was going for.

Wells, a socialist, was appalled at the stark class divisions at the tail end of the 19th Century, when he wrote the book. “The Time Machine” was intended as a commentary on those divisions.

Wells defines the Eloi’s character in the episode where the Time Traveler meets Weena by saving her from drowning. The other Eloi make no effort to save her — reflecting the indifference to others’ suffering that disgusted Wells about the upper classes. By the future era in which The Time Machine takes place, that indifference is so ingrained in their descendents that it’s become a defining trait of the subspecies into which they’ve evolved.

The Morlocks aren’t the good guys. They’ve become so degraded by the lower status into which their ancestors were forced that they’ve turned into monsters. But the Eloi aren’t the good guys either. By their status as food animals, they’re paying a kind of karmic penance for the decadence and complacency of their forebears.

It’s an eviscerating take on the class system, and on humanity in general.

I guess that’s another important early lesson that “The Time Machine” taught me when I was a kid. If a movie version of a book you like is coming out, prepare to be disappointed.

(Though that’s not always true, as I discuss here.)

Space girlTechnically, I guess I’m a science fiction writer. I mean, I’ve written exactly one science fiction story, and that was a parody. But what the heck, I wrote it and it’s going to be published in a forthcoming anthology.

As a writer, I identify more with the rubric “speculative fiction” — a blanket term encompassing science fiction, fantasy and horror. Still, I’m a lifelong science fiction fan. Maybe “lifelong” isn’t strictly accurate. Let’s just say since I was old enough to read.

Hands down, the best part of actually becoming a published author has been the chance to meet and interact with other writers, including some science fiction writers I admired as a kid. I’m old enough (47, for the record) to remember a time when science fiction was considered the purview of a small subculture of weirdos. Say what you will about the genre, but that certainly isn’t the case anymore. I’d be hard-pressed to think of an aspect of popular culture that hasn’t been directly or indirectly influenced by science fiction.

And as it’s become more mainstream, I’d like to think that the popular image of science fiction creators and fans has changed as well. Hey, guess what? We’re not all a bunch of sexually and socially stunted dorks.

As I said, I’d LIKE to think that’s what’s happened. Then I see something like this. And it makes me wonder if the science fiction community is truly free of that image. Or if it even deserves to be.

“Girls wanna join our club! Eeewwwww! Yucky!” Seriously guys. Grow the fuck up.

For the record, I can’t see any of the science fiction writers with whom I’ve interacted saying anything like that. Indeed, I’d make a point of NOT interacting with them if I ever heard them say something to that effect.

Still … call me a traitor to my kind, but this makes me suspect that maybe some guys urgently need to be shoved into a gym locker for old time’s sake.