Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The best of youth

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At some point, as I was preparing for last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, I realized that there was a good chance that I would run out of books. This wasn’t a problem that I ever expected to have. Astounding isn’t due to come out for another two months, and the hardcovers aren’t available yet, but in the meantime, my publisher printed up a bunch of advance copies, or galleys, which we’ve been sending to reviewers, media outlets, and everyone else we might want to reach. The number of galleys is relatively large, but not unlimited, and about a month ago, I began to hear rumblings that we were coming up short. (One issue is that we sent a hundred copies to Comic-Con, which sounds awesome in theory, although I wish that we’d saved them for Worldcon, which is much closer to this book’s target audience.) After scrambling to get copies from various departments, I ended up with two dozen galleys that could be spared for San Jose, which I supplemented with a stack from my stash at home. Some of these ended up being handed out at a booth run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, while I set aside ten others for attendees at my roundtable and for a few special recipients. As a result, I was left with just six copies to give away at my reading, which drew a sizable turnout. Since I couldn’t give a copy to everyone, I had to think of ways to distribute the ones that I had, and it occurred to me to give a book to the youngest person in the room. Toward the end, I looked out at the audience and said, “Raise your hand if you’re under thirty.” And in a crowd of over one hundred people, exactly two hands shot up.

I had much the same experience at my other events, at which I saw perhaps half a dozen people who were under thirty years old. In nearly every case, I was among the youngest people in the room. (As far as I know, I attracted just one audience member across the entire week who was under twenty. He showed up to my second event, and I didn’t get his name, but if he’s reading this now, I’d like to hear from him. I think he deserves a copy, too.) Two years ago, after MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, I wrote a blog post noting that I kept seeing the same fifty faces at my panels. I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at similar gatherings, but it still felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd was gathering to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community was beginning to forget. Now that more time has passed, it feels even more true today. Fandom is inexorably growing older. We’ve recently lost important personalities, such as Gardner Dozois and Harlan Ellison, who had embodied much of its institutional memory. And it isn’t clear whether new voices are emerging to replace the old ones. While I was in San Jose, I made time to meet up with a few younger writers whom I happen to know, and I saw a few familiar faces in the hallways, but for the most part, I spent the week at a slight remove from the authors and fans who looked like me, or who come from approximately the same generation. And as I’ve noted before, I occasionally have trouble making the case that they should take an interest in a book about these four writers.

But I’m not going to talk about that problem here, or lament the generational divide, if one even exists, within science fiction. Instead, I wanted to raise two points that I’ve only gradually been able to admit to myself, but which seem relevant to talking about this book and how it happened to emerge. The first is that I’m naturally more comfortable among older writers than I am among those my own age. I could explain this by saying that my interests tend to skew older anyway, which is true enough, but that isn’t the real reason. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s a defense mechanism—I feel so competitive around other writers my age that I can never fully relax around them, particularly if we’re at a similar point in our careers. It’s an aspect of my personality that I don’t love, and I’ve tried to get past it, but in the meantime, I tend to have a better time with writers who are at a different stage than I am, even if they’ve accomplished more than I ever will. The other key point is that I like being among the younger people in the room, and there’s a part of me that wants to extend that feeling for as long as possible. My choice of subject wasn’t consciously motivated by this, but I can’t rule it out. I’m often asked why someone my age would take an interest in this period, and I never get tired of the question, because the number of fields at which I can come across as a wunderkind is rapidly diminishing. If I were publishing my first novel, any interviews or profiles would make a point of describing me as a late bloomer, and if I were trying to break into screenwriting, I might actively lie about my age. I’m not even particularly young when it comes to literary nonfiction. But the golden age of science fiction offers a kind of optical illusion that makes me seem like more of a prodigy than I really am.

My point, I guess, is that a writer’s choice of subject is necessarily motivated by personal ambition, even by vanity, as well as by what the market will bear. (When people ask why I wrote a book about John W. Campbell, I respond, honestly enough, that he fascinates me—but I was also ambitious enough to grab a huge unexplored subject as soon as I saw that it might be possible for me to lay claim to it.) I may look out of place at these events, but that’s how I like it. Like many writers, I’m an outsider who longs in secret to be an insider, while still proclaiming my own difference, and I happened to stumble into a subject where this was still possible. Fortunately, I think that it also resulted in a good book, and one that nobody else could have written in quite the same way. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t hurt that I look slightly different from its four central subjects, and the fact that I came at it from the outside allowed me to approach in ways that wouldn’t be possible for a lifelong fan. I’m obviously far from an unbiased critic of the result, but I do believe that this book benefited from being written from a place of detachment. Yet it was also born of my desire to find a big topic to tackle, as well as to earn a place in that room. Scratch the surface of any book, or a creative project of any kind, and you’ll find similar motivations. I might not have conceived of this project at all if I were the kind of writer who could feel at home anywhere else, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. But if there’s one thing that I took away from Worldcon this year, it’s that the room where I seemed most out of place is also the only one in which I wanted to belong.

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2018 at 8:56 am

Quote of the Day

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I may be obsessed, or suffering from anthropocentric illusions, but I cannot escape the feeling that the human mind and human curiosity are significant in this world—even perhaps in the cosmos of geological time and intergalactic space.

Harlow Shapley, in an address reprinted in The American Scholar

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Way from San Jose

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I just got home from the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, which was an exhausting, enlightening, and mostly wonderful experience. My primary objective, not surprisingly, was to get out the word about my book Astounding, which was originally scheduled to come out last Tuesday, or the day before the convention began. At the last minute, my publisher—for perfectly valid reasons—pushed back its release date by two months, so instead of flying in with boxes of finished hardcovers for sale, I had to do what I could with a few advance copies, some promotional swag, and myself. And I wasn’t sure how it would go. Half an hour before my first event, at which I would be talking about the book on my own for fifty minutes, I told myself that if twenty audience members showed up, I’d be happy. (I was even ready with a funny remark in case only four or five of my friends appeared, which has happened at readings I’ve done in the past.) When I finally arrived at my assigned room, there were already attendees waiting outside the entrance to get in. Every seat was filled. There were people standing at the edges of the room and seated on the floor. I was blown away, and the event went great. It was only afterward that I reflected that if there’s one time and place in the world where I should be able to draw a crowd for a book like this, it was last Thursday at the San Jose Convention Center. It’s still the center of science fiction fandom, especially for an older generation, and it’s where this project was born. Looking back, I see now that if I hadn’t been able to fill the room, or if only half the chairs had been occupied, it would have been a very bad sign. And the fact that it went well is at best a neutral indicator for how it will fare in the world beyond Worldcon.

But I can’t deny that I was gratified and moved by the response. In the days that followed, I held a casual roundtable with readers and moderated a panel on John W. Campbell featuring Robert Silverberg, Greg and Astrid Bear, Joe Haldeman, and Stanley Schmidt, which also drew a sizable crowd—although I wasn’t really worried about that one. I also had a good time tracking down people in the lobby and at parties, and I heard a lot of kind words from attendees who were looking forward to the book. (My five-year-old daughter, pictured above, also had fun. She spent most of the trip with my parents and my very understanding wife while I ran around to various events, but I brought her by the convention center a few times. One of the high points of my life was when she met Silverberg, which I hope will someday feel like a historical moment in itself.) But it also left me with a host of unanswered questions about this project, its subjects, and its future. I interacted with hundreds of enthusiastic fans about this book, but only a handful were under thirty. At my first event, I took questions for half an hour, and the majority weren’t about Campbell, Asimov, or Heinlein, but Hubbard, which points to an untapped interest in his career as a science fiction writer that I hadn’t entirely anticipated. For most of the last two years, I’ve been thinking about how the unpleasant aspects of a writer’s personal life can affect how we read the work, and the convention turned into something of a trial run to see how these problems play out in public, with mixed results. I’m still trying to sort out my own thoughts, but over the next few days, I’ll do what I can to work through some of the issues that I took away from San Jose.

Written by nevalalee

August 20, 2018 at 9:45 am

Quote of the Day

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I do not believe that the old mother approves of the forcing process; and if she ever winks at it, she soon has her revenge; and so it is with the arts. You cannot commingle them and cry out that you have created a new art. If you can find in nature a new material, one which has never yet been used by man to give form to his thoughts, then you can say that you are on the high road towards creating a new art. For you have found that by which you can create it. It then only remains to begin.

Edward Gordon Craig, “The Actor and the Über-Marionette”

Written by nevalalee

August 20, 2018 at 7:30 am

Walking with your eyes open

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I walked a great deal for exercise, for amusement, for acquisition, and above all I always walked home at the evening’s end, when the evening had been spent elsewhere, as happened more often than not; and as to do this was to receive many impressions, so the impressions worked and sought an issue…One walked of course with one’s eyes greatly open, and I hasten to declare that such a practice, carried on for a long time and over a considerable space, positively provokes, all round, a mystic solicitation, the urgent appeal, on the part of everything, to be interpreted and, so far as may be, reproduced. “Subjects” and situations, character and history, the tragedy and comedy of life, are things of which the common air, in such conditions, seems pungently to taste…Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it indeed he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings.

Henry James, The Art of the Novel

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

The mug’s game

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Every poet would like, I fancy, to be able to think that he had some direct social utility. By this…I do not mean that he should meddle with the tasks of the theologian, the preacher, the economist, the sociologist, or anybody else; that he should do anything but write poetry, write poetry not defined in terms of something else. He would like to be something of a popular entertainer, and be able to think his own thoughts behind a tragic or a comic mask. He would like to convey the pleasures of poetry, not only to a larger audience, but to larger groups of people collectively; and the theatre is the best place in which to do it. There might, one fancies, be some fulfillment in exciting this communal pleasure, to give an immediate compensation for the pains of turning blood into ink. As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism

Written by nevalalee

August 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

Bester of both worlds

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Note: To celebrate the World Science Fiction Convention this week in San Jose, I’m republishing a few of my favorite pieces on various aspects of the genre. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 11, 2017.

In 1963, the editor Robert P. Mills put together an anthology titled The Worlds of Science Fiction, for which fifteen writers—including Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury—were invited to contribute one of their favorite stories. Mills also approached Alfred Bester, the author of the classic novels The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, who declined to provide a selection, explaining: “I don’t like any of [my stories]. They’re all disappointments to me. This is why I rarely reread my old manuscripts; they make me sick. And when, occasionally, I come across a touch that pleases me, I’m convinced that I never wrote it—I believe that an editor added it.” When Mills asked if he could pick a story that at least gave him pleasure in the act of writing it, Bester responded:

No. A writer is extremely schizophrenic; he is both author and critic. As an author he may have moments of happiness while he’s creating, but as a critic he is indifferent to his happiness. It cannot influence his merciless appraisal of his work. But there’s an even more important reason. The joy you derive from creating a piece of work has no relationship to the intrinsic value of the work. It’s a truism on Broadway that when an actor particularly enjoys the performance he gives, it’s usually his worst. It’s also true that the story which gives the author the most pain is often his best.

Bester finally obliged with the essay “My Private World of Science Fiction,” which Mills printed as an epilogue. Its centerpiece is a collection of two dozen ideas that Bester plucked from his commonplace book, which he describes as “the heavy leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping for twenty years.” These scraps and fragments, Bester explains, are his best works, and they inevitably disappoint him when they’re turned into stories. And the bits and pieces that he provides are often dazzling in their suggestiveness: “A circulating brain library in a Womrath’s of the future, where you can rent a brain for any purpose.” “A story about weather smugglers.” “There must be a place where you can go to remember all the things that never happened to you.” And my personal favorite:

The Lefthanded Killer: a tour de force about a murder which (we tell the reader immediately) was committed by a lefthanded killer. But we show, directly or indirectly, that every character is righthanded. The story starts with, “I am the murderer,” and then goes on to relate the mystery, never revealing who the narrator is…The final twist; killer-narrator turns out to be an unborn baby, the survivor of an original pair of twins. The lefthand member killed his righthand brother in the womb. The entire motivation for the strange events that follow is the desire to conceal the crime. The killer is a fantastic and brilliant monster who does not realize that the murder would have gone unnoticed.

Every writer has a collection of story fragments like this—mine takes up a page in a notebook of my own—but few ever publish theirs, and it’s fascinating to wonder at Bester’s motivations for making his unused ideas public. I can think of three possible reasons. The first, and perhaps the most plausible, is that he knew that many of these premises were more interesting in capsule form than when written out as full stories, and so, in acknowledgement of what I’ve called the Borges test, he simply delivered them that way. (He also notes that ideas are cheap: “The idea itself is relatively unimportant; it’s the writer who develops it that makes the big difference…It is only the amateur who worries about ‘his idea being stolen.'”) Another possibility is that he wanted to convey how stray thoughts in a journal like this can mingle and combine in surprising ways, which is one of the high points of any writer’s life:

That’s the wonder of the Commonplace Book; the curious way an incomprehensible note made in 1950 can combine with a vague entry made in 1960 to produce a story in 1970. In A Life in the Day of a Writer, perhaps the most brilliant portrait of an author in action ever painted, Tess Slesinger wrote: “He rediscovered the miracle of something on page twelve tying up with something on page seven which he had not understood when he wrote it…”

Bester concludes of his ideas: “They’ll cross-pollinate, something totally unforeseen will emerge, and then, alas, I’ll have to write the story and destroy it. This is why your best is always what you haven’t written yet.”

Yet the real explanation, I suspect, lies in that line “I’ll have to write the story,” which gets at the heart of Bester’s remarkable career. In reality, Bester is all but unique among major science fiction writers in that he never seemed to “have to write” anything. He contributed short stories to Astounding for a few heady years before World War II, then disappeared for the next decade to do notable work in comic books, radio, and television. Even after he returned, there was a sense that science fiction only occupied part of his attention. He published a mainstream novel, wrote television scripts, and worked as a travel writer and senior editor for the magazine Holiday, and the fact that he had so many ideas that he never used seems to reflect the fact that he only turned to science fiction when he really felt like it. (Bester should have been an ideal writer for John W. Campbell, who, if he could have managed it, would have loved a circle of writers that consisted solely of professional men in other fields who wrote on the side—they were more likely to take his ideas and rewrite to order than either full-time pulp authors or hardcore science fiction fans. And the story of how Campbell alienated Bester over the course of a single meeting is one of the most striking anecdotes from the whole history of the genre.) Most professional writers couldn’t afford to allow their good ideas to go to waste, but Bester was willing to let them go, both because he had other sources of income and because he knew that there was plenty more where that came from. I still think of Heinlein as the genre’s indispensable writer, but Bester might be a better role model, if only because he seemed to understand, rightly, that there were realms to explore beyond the worlds of science fiction.

Written by nevalalee

August 17, 2018 at 9:00 am

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