Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Allegra Fuller Snyder (1927-2021)

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I was saddened to learn that Allegra Fuller Snyder passed away last Sunday at the age of 93. Allegra was a remarkable person in her own right—she was a professor emerita at UCLA and a pioneer in the field of dance ethnology—but I got to know her through the life and work of her father, Buckminster Fuller, whose biography I’ve been writing for the last three years. She navigated the challenges of that unusual legacy with intelligence and compassion, and I owe a great deal to her kindness and support. My thoughts are with her loved ones and friends.

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July 19, 2021 at 7:23 am

Talking with Barry Malzberg

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In the course of researching my book Astounding, I got to know the author Barry N. Malzberg, who by any estimation has had one of the most singular careers in all of science fiction. Over the course of three sessions in July 2019, I interviewed Barry about his life and work in a conversation that ended up lasting close to two hours, which I’ve finally put online. We spoke about his influences and early career; his time at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency; the rise and fall of the softcore erotica market; his friendships with Dean Koontz and Bill Pronzini; his brief stint as editor of Amazing Stories magazine; his encounter with the editor John W. Campbell; and the origins, legacy, and “bad karma” of his novel Beyond Apollo. I think there’s some good stuff there, so enjoy! (If you get the chance, you might also want to check out my recent interview with the science fiction podcaster Mikel J. Wisler, in which we discuss a similarly broad range of topics, including my New York Times review of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.)

The gigantic problem

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I don’t really have other interests. My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book—which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren’t solved, they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.

Philip Roth, quoted in Risky Business by Al Alvarez

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April 11, 2021 at 8:37 pm

Ben Bova (1932-2020)

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Earlier this month, the legendary author and editor Ben Bova passed away in Florida. Bova famously took over Analog after the death of John W. Campbell, and he was the crucial figure in a transition that managed to honor the magazine’s tradition of hard science fiction while pushing into stranger, less predictable territory. By publishing stories like “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” by Frederik Pohl, “Hero” by Joe Haldeman, and “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, as well as important work by such authors as George R.R. Martin and Vonda N. McIntyre, Bova did more than anyone else to usher the Campbellian mode into the new era, and the result still embodies the genre’s possibilities for countless fans. I never met Bova in person, and I only had the chance to interview him once over the phone, but I was pleased to help out very slightly with his obituary in the New York Times. It’s a tribute that he richly deserved, and I hope that his example will endure well into the next generation of editors and writers.

Quote of the Day

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When the system doesn’t respond, when it doesn’t accept what you’re doing—and most of the time it won’t—you have a chance to become self-reliant and create your own system. There will always be periods of solitude and loneliness, but you must have the courage to follow your own path. Cleverness on the terrain is the most important trait of a filmmaker.

Always take the initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliché. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There is never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don’t preach on deaf ears. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Don’t be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone and in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you. Form clandestine rogue cells everywhere.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed

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November 3, 2020 at 8:40 am

The Singularity is Near

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My latest science fiction story, “Singularity Day,” is currently featured on Curious Fictions, an online publishing platform that allows authors to share their work directly with readers. It was originally written as a submission to the “Op-Eds From the Future” series at the New York Times, which was sadly discontinued earlier this year, but I liked how it turned out—it’s one of my few successful attempts at a short short story—and I decided to release it in this format as a little experiment. It’s a very quick read, and it’s free, so I hope you’ll take a look!

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October 18, 2020 at 12:02 pm

The Return of “Retention”

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Back in 2017, the audio anthology series The Outer Reach released an episode based on my dystopian two-person play “Retention,” which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. It’s one of my personal favorites of all my work—I talk about its origins here—and I’ve been delighted to see it come back over the last few months in no fewer than three different forms. The original recording, which was behind a paywall for years, is now available to stream for free through the network Maximum Fun. A wonderful new rendition narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho is included in my audio short story collection Syndromes. Perhaps best of all, the print adaptation appears in the July/August 2020 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact, which is on sale now. Because I’m hard at work on my current book project, this will probably be my last story in Analog for a while, and I can’t think of a better way to close out my recent run than with “Retention.” I’m very proud of all three versions, which interpret the same underlying text with intriguingly varied results, and I hope you’ll check at least one of them out.

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July 5, 2020 at 10:47 am

Listening to Syndromes

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I’m pleased beyond words to announce that my audio short fiction collection Syndromes, which includes all thirteen of my stories from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has just been released by Recorded Books. (It was originally scheduled to drop in June, but in light of recent developments, it became one of a handful of titles to come out before everything shut down on that end. I’m glad that it managed to appear just under the wire, and I’m especially delighted by the dazzling cover art by Will Lee.) The wonderful narrators Jonathan Todd Ross and Catherine Ho trade reading duties on “Ernesto,” “The Spires,” “The Whale God,” “The Last Resort,” “Kawataro,” “Cryptids,” “The Boneless One,” “Inversus,” “Stonebrood,” “The Voices,” “The Proving Ground,” and “At the Fall,” before joining forces at the end for a new version of my audio play “Retention,” which strikes me as the standout track. Every story has been revised to fit into a single interconnected timeline, which stretches from 1937 through the near future, and even if you’ve read some of them before, you’ll discover a few new surprises. You can purchase it at Amazon or stream it through Audible or Libro.fm, so I hope that some of you will check it out—and let me know what you think!

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April 14, 2020 at 9:18 pm

The books and the wall

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Yesterday, I published an essay titled “Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall” on the website Public Books, in which I discuss Isaac Asimov’s history of groping and engaging in other forms of unwanted touching with women at conventions, in the workplace, and in private over the course of many decades. It’s a piece that I’ve had in mind for a long time, and I’ve come to think of it as a lost chapter of Astounding, which I might well have included in the book if I had delivered the final draft a few months later than I actually did. (I’m also very glad that the article includes the image reproduced above, which I found after going through thousands of photos in the Jay Kay Klein archive.) The response online so far has been overwhelming, including numerous firsthand accounts of his behavior, and I hope it leads to more stories about Asimov, as well as others. There’s a lot that I deliberately didn’t cover here, and it deserves to be taken further in the right hands.

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January 8, 2020 at 7:30 am

Shoji Sadao (1926-2019)

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The architect Shoji Sadao—who worked closely with Buckminster Fuller and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi—passed away earlier this month in Tokyo. I’m briefly quoted in Sadao’s obituary in the New York Times, which draws attention to his largely unsung role in the careers of these two brilliant but demanding men. My contact with Sadao was limited to a few emails and one short phone conversation intended to set up an interview that I’m sorry will never happen, but I’ll be discussing his legacy at length in my upcoming biography of Fuller, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about him here.

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November 13, 2019 at 7:15 pm

Onward and upward

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Next week, I’ll be attending the 77th World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, which promises to be a lot of fun. Here’s my schedule as it currently stands:

  • Thursday August 15, 3pm—”Current Politics Reflected in SFF”—Dr. Harvey O’Brien (M), Susan Connolly, Dr Douglas Van Belle, Alec Nevala-Lee—”SFF is probably the genre that best mirrors present day society. If we examine SFF in both visual media and books, what can we learn about current politics playing out? What might future generations surmise about us?”
  • Friday August 16, 11:30am—”Continuing Relevance of Older SF”—Sue Burke (M), Alec Nevala-Lee, Aliza Ben Moha, Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman—”We are in a new millennium, a literal Brave New World. Surely much of the fiction of the 20th century no longer holds relevance? The panel will discuss the fiction of the past and how it can still be relevant in the 21st century. What lessons from older authors – such as Orwell, Asimov, Butler, Delany, Kafka, and Atwood – can we apply to our app-loaded, social media-driven age?”
  • Friday August 16, 2019, 5pm—”Comparable Futurist Movements”—Alec Nevala-Lee (M), Gillian Polack, Jeanine Tullos Hennig, Shweta Taneja—”How influenced by Afrofuturism are other world futurist movements such as Sinofuturism, Nippofuturism and Gulf futurism? Do they consider themselves a part of the same futurist tradition, or separate? The panel will discuss visions of the future from world cultures, how they are influenced by the root cultures they draw from, and how (if at all) they relate to Afrofuturism.”
  • Saturday August 17, 2019, 2pm—Autographing
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 10am—Kaffeeklatsch
  • Monday August 19, 2019, 12:30pm—Reading

I might as well also mention that Astounding is up for the Hugo Award for Best Related Work—although the rest of the ballot is extremely formidable—and that it recently came out in paperback. (This new edition is virtually identical to the hardcover, but I took the opportunity to make a few small fixes and tweaks, and as far as I’m concerned, this is the definitive version.) And if you haven’t done so already, please check out the first three episodes of the wonderful Washington Post podcast Moonrise, which heavily draws on material from the book. Hope to see some of you soon!

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August 10, 2019 at 8:07 am

Burrowing into The Tunnel

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Last fall, it occurred to me that someone should write an essay on the parallels between the novel The Tunnel by William H. Gass, which was published in 1995, and the contemporary situation in America. Since nobody else seemed to be doing it, I figured that it might as well be me, although it was a daunting project even to contemplate—Gass’s novel is over six hundred pages long and famously impenetrable, and I knew that doing it justice would take at least three weeks of work. Yet it seemed like something that had to exist, so I wrote it up at the end of last year. For various reasons, it took a long time to see print, but it’s finally out now in the New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of thing that I normally do, but it felt like a necessary piece, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. And if the intervening seven months don’t seem to have dated it at all, it only puts me in mind of what the radio host on The Simpsons once said about the DJ 3000 computer: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”

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July 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Notes from all over

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It’s been a while since I last posted, so I thought I’d quickly run through a few upcoming items. On Saturday June 15, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will be showing Arwen Curry’s acclaimed new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. After the screening, I’ll be taking part in a discussion panel with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Madhu Dubey to discuss the legacy of Le Guin, whose work increasingly seems to me like the culmination of the main line of science fiction in the United States, even if she doesn’t figure prominently in Astounding. (Which, by the way, is up for a Locus Award, the results of which will be announced at the end of this month.) The next day, on June 16, I’ll be hosting a session of my writing workshop, “Writing Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne’s Maram Makerspace in Oak Park. People seem to like the class, which runs from 10:00-11:45 am, and it would be great to see some of you there!

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June 10, 2019 at 9:35 am

“At the Fall” and Beyond

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The May/June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact includes my new novelette “At the Fall,” a big excerpt of which you can read now on the magazine’s official site. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written, and I’m especially pleased by the interior illustration by Eldar Zakirov, pictured above, which you can see in greater detail here. I don’t think I’ll have the chance to write up the kind of extended account of this story’s conception that I’ve provided for other works in the past, but if you’re curious about its origins, Analog has posted a fun conversation on its blog in which I talk about it with Frank Wu, the author of “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” which appeared in the magazine a few years ago. (Our stories have a number of interesting parallels that only came to light after I wrote and submitted mine, and I think that the result is a nice case study of what happens when two writers end up independently pursuing a similar idea.) There’s also a thoughtful editorial by former Analog editor Stanley Schmidt about his relationship with John W. Campbell, inspired by a panel that we held at last year’s World Science Fiction Convention. Enjoy!

Love and Rockets

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I’m delighted to share the news that Astounding is a 2019 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Related Work, along with a slate of highly deserving nominees. (The other finalists include Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works; the documentary The Hobbit Duology by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan; An Informal History of the Hugos by Jo Walton; The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 by Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, and John Picacio; and Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon. It’s a strong ballot, and I’m honored to be counted in such good company.) It feels like the high point of a journey that began with an announcement on this blog more than three years ago, and it isn’t over yet—I’m definitely going to be attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, which runs from August 15 to 19, and while I don’t know what the final outcome will be, I’m grateful to have made it even this far. The Hugos are an important part of the history that this book explores, and I’m thankful for the chance to be even a tiny piece of that story.

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April 2, 2019 at 9:01 am

Outside the Wall

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On Thursday, I’m heading out to the fortieth annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida, where I’ll be participating in two events. One will be a reading at 8:30am featuring Jeanne Beckwith, James Patrick Kelly, Rachel Swirsky, and myself, moderated by Marco Palmieri. (I’m really looking forward to meeting Jim Kelly, who had an unforgettable story, “Monsters,” in the issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction that changed my life.) The other will be the panel “The Changing Canon of SF” at 4:15pm, moderated by James Patrick Kelly, at which Mary Anne Mohanraj, Rich Larson, and Erin Roberts will also be appearing.

In other news, I’m scheduled to speak next month at the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention in Lombard, Illinois, where I’ll be giving a talk on Friday April 12 at 7pm. (Hugo nominations close soon, by the way, and if you’re planning to fill out a ballot, I’d be grateful if you’d consider nominating Astounding for Best Related Work.) And if you haven’t already seen it, please check out my recent review in the New York Times of John Lanchester’s dystopian novel The Wall. I should have a few more announcements here soon—please stay tuned for more!

Art and Arcana

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On Sunday, I got back from the Savannah Book Festival, which was a real pleasure. My event at Trinity United Methodist Church—which was the first time that I’ve ever spoken from a pulpit—went great, at least to my eyes, and I enjoyed talking to the science fiction fans who were kind enough to turn out on a rainy afternoon. (I also had the chance to meet a number of other writers, notably Mike Witwer, whose Dungeons & Dragons: Art and Arcana looks just incredible.) During my free time, I visited the Book Lady Bookstore, which I highly recommend, and the house of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, much to the delight of my daughter, who recently joined the Daises. And I’m happy to note that my talk is scheduled to air on BookTV on C-SPAN2 this Saturday at 5:35pm ET, followed by an encore presentation early the following morning. (You can watch it online here.)

In the meantime, I have a few other upcoming events that might be worth mentioning. On Saturday February 23, I’ll be holding a second session of my fiction workshop, “Writing Science Fiction that Sells,” at Mary Anne Mohanraj’s makerspace in Oak Park, Illinois. The first class went better than I could have hoped, and I’d love to see some new faces there. (For the record, most of the guidelines that I plan to cover—clarity, coming up with ideas, structuring the plot as a series of objectives, managing the information that the reader receives—apply to all kinds of writing, although they present particular challenges in science fiction and fantasy.) I’m also going to be appearing with the editor and critic Gary K. Wolfe on Monday February 25 at the Blackstone branch of the Chicago Public Library, where we’ll be discussing Astounding as part of One Book, One Chicago. Please spread the word to anyone who might be interested—I hope to see some of you soon!

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February 20, 2019 at 6:16 am

Sci-Fi Strawberry in Savannah

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I’m heading out this morning to Savannah, Georgia for the Savannah Book Festival, where I’ll be appearing this Saturday at 4 pm at Trinity United Methodist Church to discuss Astounding. (As it happens, L. Ron Hubbard lived in Savannah for a period of time in the late forties while he was developing the mental health therapy that became known as dianetics, and I plan to briefly explore this local connection, as well as other aspects of the book that recently scored a big endorsement from a certain bearded fantasy writer.) I hope to see some of you there in person—perhaps at Leopold’s Ice Cream, which will be serving Sci-Fi Strawberry this weekend in honor of the book—and if you can’t make it, my event is scheduled to air eventually on BookTV on C-SPAN 2. And please keep an eye on this blog, where I expect to have a few other announcements soon. Stay tuned!

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February 14, 2019 at 7:30 am

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Writing the future in Oak Park

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I just wanted to mention that there are still a few slots available for a workshop that I’m teaching tomorrow—modestly titled “Writing Science Fiction that Sells”—at the house of my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj in Oak Park, Illinois. Here’s the full description:

Saturday January 26
332 Wisconsin Avenue, Oak Park, IL
9:00-10:30am: Writing Science Fiction that Sells

Science fiction offers a thriving audience for short stories, but it can be hard for beginners to break into professional markets, and even established writers can have trouble making consistent sales. We’ll discuss strategies for writing stories that are compelling from the very first page, based on the principles of effective characterization, plot structure, and worldbuilding, with examples drawn from a wide range of authors and publications. During the class, Alec will plot out the opening of an original SF story, based on ideas generated by participants. Members will also have the option of submitting a short story for critique.

Cost: $50. Registration Max: 15

You can register for the event here. If you use the coupon code “12345,” you can get twenty percent off the registration fee. Hope to see some of you there!

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January 25, 2019 at 10:57 am

Posted in Writing

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Visions of tomorrow

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As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my few real regrets about Astounding is that I wasn’t able to devote much room to discussing the artists who played such an important role in the evolution of science fiction. (The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that their collective impact might be even greater than that of any of the writers I discuss, at least when it comes to how the genre influenced and was received by mainstream culture.) Over the last few months, I’ve done my best to address this omission, with a series of posts on such subjects as Campbell’s efforts to improve the artwork, his deliberate destruction of the covers of Unknown, and his surprising affection for the homoerotic paintings of Alejandro Cañedo. And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here.

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January 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

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