Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Patrick Kelly

The stocking stuffer

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The Proving Ground

When you’re young, your life is unavoidably shaped by factors that are out of your control, and this is true even of the lives that come to seem the most inevitable. Consider the case of Isaac Asimov. He’s one of the most prolific authors who ever lived, a pillar of science fiction, and perhaps its only true mainstream celebrity. Decades after his death, he might still be the first writer in the genre whom the majority of Americans could name. But his life could easily have moved along a different track, and the shape it finally took was the result of three distinct strokes of luck. The first was that his father owned a candy store in Brooklyn that gave him a chance to read pulp magazines, particularly Astounding, that he couldn’t have afforded to buy otherwise. The second was that after his sophomore year in college in 1937, the store was doing well enough that he didn’t need to get a summer job, which allowed him to spend time on his first stab at a story, “Cosmic Corkscrew,” instead. The third was that he lived only a short subway ride away from the offices of the publisher Street & Smith, which prompted him to deliver the manuscript in person to the editor John W. Campbell, who took an interest in him. If Asimov had lived even as far away as Staten Island, it never would have occurred to him to make the trip—and if he hadn’t met Campbell when he did, it’s unlikely that he would have become a writer at all.

Every writer’s life seems to include such moments of serendipity, which is reason enough to wonder about the careers that have been lost because those lucky breaks didn’t occur. They often depend on the presence of the right reading material at the right time, and my own life is no exception. I didn’t grow up surrounded by the pulps, like Asimov, but I’ll never forget the two copies of the fiction digests that happened to fall into my hands. One was the November 1988 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, of which I can remember almost nothing except the cover and a few isolated sentences. The other, appropriately enough, was the June 1992 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, which I remember very well—so much so that I was prompted to purchase a new copy when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention earlier this year in Kansas City. Leafing through it, I found that I vividly recalled most of the stories, which seemed to reach both forward and backward in time. The lead novelette was “The Big Splash,” one of the last stories that L. Sprague de Camp ever wrote. Asimov’s editorial, “Speed,” was also among his last, and it includes the heartbreaking line:

I have always said that I wanted to die in harness with my face down on my keyboard and my nose stuck between two keys. However, that is not to be and I am unhappy about it.

And it’s only as I look now at the issue, which must have appeared on newsstands around May of that year, that I realize that it came out the month after Asimov died.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

And there were hints of things to come, too. I don’t remember much about “The Big Splash,” but there were other stories in that issue that I’ve never forgotten, including “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly, “Die Rache” by Steven Utley, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod,” and “Breakfast Cereal Killers” by R. Garcia y Robertson. I kept the issue for a long time, and it might well still be in a box somewhere in my parents’ garage. Even as I moved onto other things, the memory remained, and its effects were mutated a little by the passage of time. It never seems to have occurred to me to write for Alfred Hitchcock or Ellery Queen, although given the novels I’ve published, it would have made plenty of sense, and I might give it a shot someday. When I finally tried my hand at science fiction, it was Analog, not Asimov’s, to which I sent my first story. I don’t really remember why, although it may have been simply due to the fact that Analog had the highest circulation and paid the best rates, two points that have been important to its writers since the beginning. Luckily for me, Stanley Schmidt took that first submission—although he later turned down quite a few—and thereby ensured that I’d keep writing. One of my later stories, “The Boneless One,” was even illustrated by the artist Laurie Harden, who had done two of the illustrations in my precious issue of Asimov’s from two decades earlier. And it all somehow led me to this peculiar point in my life, in which I can say, echoing Martin Amis: “I knew more about Isaac Asimov than I knew about anyone else alive. What could there be left to add?”

I’ve been thinking about all this because the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, which includes my story “The Proving Ground,” is finally on newsstands. (You can read an excerpt from it here.) I’m always happy to get into the magazine at all, but this one feels especially meaningful. It’s the longest story—and the first novella—that I’ve ever published in Analog, and it’s the second, after “Cryptids,” to get a cover illustration. “The Proving Ground” is also my tenth story, which is a nice round number: I’ve published roughly a story a year there over the last decade, at a slow but steady pace. But what I like most about it is the timing, and not just because it happened to appear the day before “Retention.” It’s the issue that you’d find today if you went to one of the bookstores that still carries the magazine, and if you were looking for an easy stocking stuffer, it’s hard to think of a better one. So I’d like to believe that somebody will get this issue for Christmas. In my imagination, it’s a twelve-year-old boy. Perhaps he’ll like the cover by Kurt Huggins as much as I do and be prompted to read the story, which might even make an impression. It might not be one that can be measured right away, but maybe it will eventually lead him to check out better authors, or even to start writing himself. If it happens, it won’t be for years. But if and when it does, maybe he’ll be able to trace it all back to that first, tiny nudge. It might sound farfetched, but hell, it happened to me. I’ll probably never know either way, but I want to believe in that twelve-year-old boy. Or, even better, a twelve-year-old girl.

Asimov’s Sword, or the intelligent twelve-year-old

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For my twelfth birthday, my parents must have given me a few good presents, but the only one I still vividly remember, close to two decades later, is the June 1992 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I’m not sure what inspired them to pick it up—it’s the only time they ever got me a copy—but I read it cover to cover, and still remember many of the stories, including “The Big Splash” by L. Sprague de Camp, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod, and “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly. (The latter two novelettes, incidentally, benefited from excellent artwork, which I can still picture to this day, by Laurie Harden, who nineteen years later would go on to illustrate my story “The Boneless One.”) And I have to admit that whenever I get a story into Analog, I secretly hope that among the magazine’s declining but faithful band of readers, there’s at least one twelve-year-old boy or girl on whose imagination I’ll make a similarly lasting impression.

Because smart twelve-year-olds are the best audience in the world. Asimov himself realized this, almost fifty years ago, when he wrote his famous editorial “The Sword of Achilles” for the November 1963 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Asimov notes that it’s important to be able to identify young children who will go on to be creative scientists, in order to foster their talents from an early age, and that the best predictor for such gifts is an interest in what he calls “good science fiction.” He then lists a few authors who might qualify, such as Clarke, Pohl, and de Camp, and also the science fiction magazines “universally acknowledged to be of highest quality,” including, of course, Analog. Asimov concludes: “It is youngsters who are interested in these authors and these magazines, then, that we seek for.” And while the list itself has certainly evolved over the past fifty years, the underlying point remains true: one of the greatest functions of quality fiction lies in encouraging the imaginations of intelligent teens and preteens.

But the real takeaway here is that none of these authors was writing for children. They were writing for adults, and the kids found them anyway. This is one of the reasons why I have mixed feelings about the increasing dominance of young adult fiction. (Part of me suspects that these novels are really intended for adults who just want to read children’s books, but that’s another issue entirely.) At first glance, it seems like a positive development: teens and preteens have more books targeted at them than ever before, many of them thinly disguised versions of adult genres, and some are very good. But it isn’t enough to read books targeted at your own level: you need to read slightly above it. When I was growing up, there weren’t many options for young adults once I’d graduated past the likes of Zilpha Keatley Snyder, so I had no choice to plunge into Animal Farm and 1984, at which point there was no turning back. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of millions of teens who read Stephen King long before the appropriate age, which is exactly the right time to read him. But I’m not sure how many kids are doing this today.

As I see it, Asimov’s Sword needs to be slightly revised. If an interest in good science fiction is a predictor of scientific creativity, an early interest in good—or even bad—adult fiction is a predictor for creativity in general. Smart kids are always going to read things that are slightly inappropriate, and we need to encourage this, both actively, by giving them access to books beyond those available in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, and passively, by looking the other way when they show up with the inevitable battered paperback copy of The Stand. My own novels are meant for adults, but I’d be thrilled to see them in the hands of sixth-graders. Because as Asimov points out, these books aren’t just predictors, but active influences in their own right. “Interest in science is stimulated by the reading,” he notes, “rather than the reverse.” And that’s true of most fiction—but only when written for adults. Because the smart kids will find it on their own.

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