Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘World Science Fiction Convention

Changing the future

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Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is now scheduled to be released on October 23, 2018. It was originally slated for August 14, but my publisher recently raised the possibility of pushing it back, and we agreed on the new date earlier this week. Why the change? Well, it’s a good thing. This is a big book—by one estimate, we’re looking at close to five hundred pages, including endnotes, back matter, and index—and it needs time to be edited, typeset, and put into production. We could also use the extra nine weeks to get it into bookstores and into the hands of reviewers, and rescheduling it for the fall puts us in a better position. The one downside, at least from my point of view, is that now we’ll be coming out in a corridor that is always packed with major releases, and it’s going to be challenging for us to stand out. (It’s also just two weeks before the midterm elections, and I’m worried about how much bandwidth readers will have to think about anything else.) But everybody involved seems to think that we can handle it, and I have no reason to doubt their enthusiasm or expertise.

In short, if you’ve been looking forward to reading Astounding, you’ll have to wait two months longer. (Apart from an upcoming round of minor edits, by the way, the book is basically finished.) In the meantime, at the end of this month, I’m attending the academic conference “Grappling With the Futures” at Harvard and Boston University, where I’ll be delivering a presentation on the evolution of psychohistory alongside the scholar Emmanuelle Burton. The July/August issue of Analog will feature “The Campbell Machine,” a modified excerpt from the book, including a lot of material that won’t appear anywhere else, about one of the most significant incidents in John W. Campbell’s life—the tragic death of his stepson, which encouraged his interest in psionics and culminated in his support of the Hieronymus Machine. And I’m hopeful that a piece about Campbell’s role in the development of dianetics will appear elsewhere in the fall. I’ve also confirmed that I’ll be a program participant at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, which runs from August 16 to 20. At one point, I’d planned to have the book in stores by then, which isn’t quite how it worked out. But if you run into me there, ask me for a copy. If I have one handy, it’s yours.

Handbook for morals

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Yesterday, the pop culture site Pajiba broke the strange story behind the novel Handbook for Mortals, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for Young Adult Fiction, despite not being available at most of the big chains or on Amazon. It soon became clear that somebody was gaming the system, calling stores, asking if they were among the retailers who reported sales data to the Times, and then placing bulk orders of the book. (Whoever did this was smart enough to keep all purchases below the threshold that would flag it as a corporate sale, which is usually around thirty copies.) But why bother doing this in the first place? An update on the site sheds some light on the subject:

Pajiba received details from two separate anonymous sources who got in touch, each claiming that author Lani Sarem herself admitted plans in multiple meetings with potential business partners and investors to push the book onto the New York Times bestseller list by fudging the numbers. Both sources also noted that the author and publisher’s primary concerns were to get a film deal, with the movie having been promised funding if it became a bestseller, hence a bulk-buying strategy with a focus on reaching the convention circuit.

In other words, the book, which has since been pulled from the Times list, didn’t have any value in itself, but as an obligatory stepping stone on the way to a movie deal—an important point that I’ll discuss later. For now, I’ll content myself with observing that the plan, if anything, succeeded too well. If the book had debuted a few notches further down, it might have raised eyebrows, but not to the extent that it did by clumsily clawing its way to the top. As Ace Rothstein notes wearily of a con artist in Casino: “If he wasn’t so fuckin’ greedy, he’d have been tougher to spot.”

The coverage on Pajiba is excellent, but it doesn’t mention the most famous precedent for this kind of self-defeating strategy. On April 15, 1990, the San Diego Union published an article by Mike McIntyre headlined “Hubbard Hot-Author Status Called Illusion,” which remains the best piece ever written on the tactics used by the Church of Scientology to get its founder on the bestseller lists. It begins:

In 1981, St. Martin’s Press was offered a sure thing. L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp writer turned religious leader, had written his first science-fiction novel in more than thirty years. If St. Martin’s published it, Hubbard aides promised the firm, subsidiary organizations of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology would buy at least fifteen thousand copies…”Five, six, seven people at a time would come in, with cash in hand, buying [Battlefield Earth],” said Dave Dutton, of Dutton’s Books, a group of four stores in the Los Angeles area. “They’d blindly ask for the book. They would buy two or three copies at a time with fifty-dollar bills. I had the suspicion that there was something not quite right about it.”

Michael Denneny, a senior editor at St. Martin’s, confirmed the arrangement, saying that Author Services—the affiliate of the church devoted to Hubbard’s literary work—promised to purchase between fifteen and twenty thousand copies, but ultimately went even further: “The Author Services people were very rambunctious. They wanted to make it a New York Times best seller. They were obsessed by that.” And in another article from the Los Angeles Times, a former sales manager for the church’s Bridge Publications revealed: “My orders for the week were to find the New York Times’ reporting stores anywhere in the east so they could send people into the stores to buy [Hubbard’s] books.”

If this sounds a lot like Handbook for Mortals, it wouldn’t be the first time that the church’s tactics have been imitated by others. After Hubbard’s death in 1986, the same bulk-buying techniques were applied to all ten volumes of the Mission Earth “dekalogy,” with the added goal of securing a Hugo Award nomination—which turned out to be substantially easier. The writer Charles Platt had become annoyed by a loophole in the nominating process, in which anyone could nominate a book who paid a small fee to become a supporting member of the World Science Fiction Convention. Platt wasn’t a Scientologist, but he wrote to the church suggesting that they exploit this technicality, hoping that it would draw attention to the problem. A few years later, the Church of Scientology apparently took his advice, buying memberships to vote in droves for Black Genesis, the second volume in the series. As the fan Paul Kincaid noted:

At least fifty percent of the nominations for Black Genesis came from people taking out supporting membership with their nominations. A large number of these came from people in Britain whom I’ve never heard of in any sort of fannish context, either before or since the convention. A lot of the nominations from people in Britain came on photocopied ballots with [Scientologist] Robert Springall’s name written on the bottom. It is within the rules to photocopy ballots and circulate them, providing that the person who has done the photocopying puts his or her name on the bottom…I didn’t make any record of this, but my impression was that a large number of people who took out supporting memberships to nominate Hubbard’s book didn’t actually vote in the final ballot.

In the end, Black Genesis came in dead last, behind “No Award,” but the structural weakness in the Hugos remained. Two decades later, the groups known collectively as the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies took advantage of it in similar fashion, encouraging followers to purchase supporting memberships and vote for their recommended slates. And the outcome was much the same.

It’s striking, of course, that methods pioneered by Scientology have been appropriated by other parties, either for personal gain or to make a political point. But it isn’t surprising. What the author of Handbook for Mortals, the Church of Scientology, and the Puppies all have in common is a shared disregard for the act of reading. Their actions can only be justified if bestsellerdom or an award nomination is taken as a means to an end, rather than as a reflection of success among actual readers. Sarem wanted a movie deal, the Puppies wanted to cause trouble, and the Scientologists wanted “to establish an identity for Hubbard other than as the founder of a controversial religious movement…to recruit new members into the Church of Scientology.” And the real irony here is that Hubbard himself wouldn’t have approved. The Union article notes of his novel’s publication history:

Harvey Haber, a former Scientologist who served as Hubbard’s literary aide, was dispatched to New York to sell the manuscript [of Battlefield Earth]. Hubbard demanded that the book be represented by a major literary agency and placed with one of the ten largest publishers. The church and Bridge Publications were to play no role. “He wanted to prove to everyone and all that he still had it,” Haber said. “That he was the best in the world.”

But fifty-eight New York literary agencies thought otherwise, Haber said. “Not one of them would touch it.” In Haber’s opinion, “The book was a piece of shit.” Church officials didn’t dare tell Hubbard his book was unmarketable, said Haber. “You would’ve been handed your head.” Thus, he said, was hatched the plan to offer guaranteed sales in return for publication.

Hubbard never learned that the church was buying his books in bulk, and he might have been furious if he had found out. Instead, he died believing that he had reached the bestseller list on his own merits. Whatever his other flaws, he genuinely wanted to be read. And this might be one of the few cases on record in which his integrity was greater than that of his followers.

The graying lensmen

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The Hugo Losers Party

There were thousands of fans in attendance at last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, but I swear that I kept seeing the same fifty faces. With the exception of a reading that I did with a few writers from Analog, all of my events revolved around the history of science fiction, which an emphasis on stories and authors from the golden age. Not surprisingly, the audience at these panels tended to skew older, and many attendees had clearly been coming to Worldcon for decades. I was almost always the youngest panelist at the head table, and I can’t be sure that I wasn’t also the youngest person in the room on more than one occasion. Whenever we discussed the genre, the same handful of names kept popping up, and many of them would have inspired blank stares from a younger crowd: John W. Campbell himself, of course, but also writers like E.E. Smith, author of Gray Lensman, and A.E. van Vogt. (At one point, at a discussion titled “Classics in the Corner,” I said: “I’m not sure how many people read E.E. Smith these days.” A lot of hands shot up, which led another panelist to observe: “This is probably the wrong room to ask that question.”) And although I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at most similar gatherings, and it seems to get older every year, it felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd gathers to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community is beginning to forget.

And these fears are far from groundless. A high point of the weekend, at least for me, was a roundtable discussion held by the academic conference about Campbell and the golden age. The tone of the panel was reverent, if not toward Campbell personally then toward his impact on the field, and the only discordant note was struck by a panelist who noted that his writing students aren’t especially interested in Campbell these days—if they’re even aware of who he was. In response, Robert Silverberg said: “You can’t see oxygen, either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the dissenting voice had a point. For a lot of younger writers, Campbell is a tertiary influence, at best, and he certainly isn’t the living presence that he was for the fans and authors of an earlier generation. His place has largely been taken by more recent artists whose struggles and victories seem more urgent than those of writers whose best work was published before World War II. When you look more closely, of course, you find that their concerns are far closer to the present than they might first appear, and you can draw agonizingly important lessons from their example. But this takes time and energy that a lot of younger writers have rightly devoted to other matters. It was Campbell himself, I think, who observed that readers are essentially hiring writers to perform a service: to think more deeply about a subject than they can for themselves. And my hope is that the book I’m writing will do some of the necessary legwork, allowing writers and readers my age or younger to plunder Campbell, Heinlein, and all the rest for what they have to offer.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

This only reflects my own journey, which has more in common, in many respects, with the young writers who aren’t aware of Campbell than with the older fans and authors whom I’ve encountered along the way. I came into the genre as randomly as most of us do, assembling my picture of it from an assortment of heterogenous materials: a single issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, now lost, which I got for Christmas when I was twelve and replaced a few days ago with a copy I bought at the dealer’s room at the convention; novels by writers like Madeline L’Engle, Jane Yolen, and Orson Scott Card; and the nearly simultaneous discovery of Jorge Luis Borges and The X-Files. None of it was systematic, or even conscious, and my exposures to older influences weren’t exactly in the best possible order. (When I mentioned at a panel that the first Heinlein novel I ever read was The Number of the Beast, there was an audible gasp.) I’d been writing science fiction seriously for almost ten years before I realized that I was harking back, without knowing it, to stories like “Who Goes There?” and Sinister Barrier. It wasn’t until I began thinking about this book that I sought out authors like Smith or van Vogt, and I’m constantly confronted by areas that I have yet to explore. Part of me wishes that I’d been more deliberate about it much earlier, but that isn’t how fans evolve. And in trying to go back and build myself into the kind of reader who is capable of tackling Campbell and the others on their own terms, I’ve become more conscious both of what the different generations of fans have in common and of the ways in which they continue to diverge.

But I’ve also come to realize that older and younger fans are snapshots of a single continuum. The Futurians, as I’ve noted before, were incredibly young when the fan community began—most of them were still living with their parents—and the patterns that they inaugurated are still being played out online. We think of these guys as men with white beards, but that’s only because what they alternately created and rebelled against has endured to the time of their grandchildren. (When Slan won the Retro Hugo award for Best Novel on Thursday, A.E. van Vogt’s granddaughter was there to accept it, and she got the most rapturous round of applause that I heard all weekend.) On the last night of the convention, I found myself at the Hugo Losers Party, which began decades ago as an informal gathering in George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s hotel room and has been transformed since into a lavish event with hundreds of guests. It felt like a real moment of catharsis, after a weekend that had been charged with powerful emotions and occasional tensions, and it threw a random sampling of attendees onto the same dance floor and shook them all up. Looking around the Midland Theatre, I saw emerging writers and aging legends standing side by side, or crowding into the same elevator, and it was more clear to me than ever how one ripens into the other. Virtually everyone enters the fandom at a young age, and even if the years have started to show for some, it only puts me in mind of what James Caan reminds us in The Way of the Gun: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” And I should only be so lucky to survive as long.

Written by nevalalee

August 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

The past through tomorrow

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Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Precedent is merely the assumption that somebody else, in the past with less information, nevertheless knows better than the man on the spot…Tradition is something very different. To follow a tradition means to do things in the same grand style as your predecessors; it does not mean to do the same things.

Robert A. Heinlein, Space Cadet

On Thursday, I took part in a panel at the World Science Fiction Convention titled “Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts.” Now that the event is safely behind me, I might as well confess that I’m not sure why I was included: I’ve written one radio play, still unaired, and I’m married to a professional podcaster, but I doubt that the organizers knew this, and nothing else in my résumé stamps me as an authority on the topic. But I’ll happily talk about anything, so I went back to review the handful of blog posts I’ve written about radio and worked up a few additional thoughts in advance. As it turned out, the panel was my fourth event in five hours, including a draining solo presentation on John W. Campbell’s work during World War II, so my energy level was pretty low. For the most part, I was content to sit back and allow the other speakers to do most of the heavy lifting, chiming in whenever I felt I had something to contribute. The one big point I wanted to make is that contemporary podcasts aren’t the same thing as classic radio dramas—if you’re writing for audio these days, you’ve got to prepare for the possibility that your listeners are giving you maybe a quarter of their complete attention. Two of my fellow panelists disagreed, saying that writers and producers had to encourage their audiences to embrace an old-fashioned “theater of the mind.” Personally, I think that this is a nice sentiment, but not particularly realistic. Still, it was all very cordial. Afterward, one of the other participants shook my hand, saying that he thought that I did a good job, and essentially apologized for taking over the discussion. “I don’t usually talk much,” he told me, “but when I’m on a panel like this, I just can’t stop myself.”

And this turned out to be a prophetic remark. The next day, the very same participant was expelled from the convention for hijacking another panel that he was moderating, using his position to indulge in a ten-minute speech on how political correctness was destroying science fiction and fantasy. I wasn’t there, but I later spoke to another member of that panel, who noted dryly that it was the first time she had ever found herself on the most controversial event of the weekend. Based on other accounts of the incident, the speaker—who, again, had been nothing but polite to me the day before—said that the fear of giving offense had made it hard for writers to write the same kinds of innovative, challenging stories that they had in the past. Inevitably, there are those who believe that his expulsion simply proved his point, and that he was cast out by the convention’s thought police for expressing an unpopular opinion. But that isn’t really what happened. As another blogger correctly observes, the participant wasn’t expelled for his words, but for his actions: he deliberately derailed a panel that he was supposed to moderate, recorded it without the consent of the other panelists, and planned the whole thing in advance, complete with props and a prepared statement. He came into the event with the intention of disrupting any real conversation, rather than facilitating it, and the result was an act of massive discourtesy. For a supposed champion of free speech, he didn’t seem very interested in encouraging it. As a result, he was clearly in violation of the convention’s code of conduct, and his removal was justified.

The Futurians

Either way, though, he got exactly what he wanted. If he had been allowed to stay, he would have taken it as a tacit endorsement of his approach; now, by being expelled, he gets to use this perceived injustice to whip up his sympathizers, and we’re already seeing the results online. But this kind of tactic is as old as fandom itself. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the famous incident in which the Futurians were excluded from the first Worldcon in New York. In The Immortal Storm, the historian Sam Moskowitz—who was the one who forced them to leave—says of the episode:

Looking at the circumstances in the most pessimistic light, we can see that the Futurians had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If allowed to enter, they could have disrupted proceedings, and thus proved their prior claim that New Fandom was incompetent to run a successful convention; if not allowed to enter, they could point to another prior claim of New Fandom’s being essentially dictatorial as proved. Indeed, Futurian strategy may have been devised with these possibilities foremost in mind. Whether it was or not, the Futurians stood to gain public sympathy as a result of the convention if they played their cards properly no matter what stand New Fandom took.

And although I don’t think the Futurians were organized enough to consciously act with this end in mind, it worked more or less as Moskowitz says. For while, public sympathy tipped in their favor, and while this victory was short-lived, the fact remains that what we hyperbolically call the Great Exclusion Act is just about the only thing that anybody remembers about the first Worldcon.

I doubt that the kerfuffle from this weekend will resonate for nearly as long, and I suspect that we’re more likely to remember the convention for the landmark victories by women and writers of color at the following evening’s Hugo Awards. If the stunt had taken place in the early days of fandom, it might have merited a paragraph in The Immortal Storm. (Or as Borges puts it in “Three Versions of Judas”: “His name would have helped swell the catalogs of minor heresiarchs.”) As it stands, it’s going to be little more than a footnote. But I have a hunch that it was motivated, at least on a subconscious level, by a nostalgia for the controversies that have animated fandom in the past, despite the fact that the community that we have now is larger, more diverse, and more interesting. Donald A. Wollheim, who was a better troll than anyone living today, once said of the fan William Sykora: “You got the impression that for him, it was still 1937.” You could say much the same thing about the current crop of reactionaries, both in the positions that they take and the means that they use to express them. Just as contemporary podcasters have to adjust to the realities of the medium, rather than pining for a golden age of radio that no longer exists, writers these days have to operate within a set of standards that weren’t even on the table when a lot of classic science fiction was written. And that’s just how it should be. As I’ve noted before, increasing the diversity of voices within the genre can only lead to greater innovation, and the science fiction of an earlier era didn’t succeed because of its indifference to these concerns, but in spite of it. It’s good to have a debate, but any side that remains stuck in the past—especially in science fiction—is bound to lose. And if it can’t adapt, maybe it deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2016 at 8:52 am

Days of Futurians Past

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The Futurians

On July 2, 1939, the First World Science Fiction Convention was held in New York. It was a landmark weekend for many reasons, but it was almost immediately overshadowed by an event that took place before it was even called to order. The preparations had been marked by a conflict between two rival convention committees, with a group called New Fandom, which the fan Sam Moskowitz had cobbled together solely for the purpose of taking over the planning process, ultimately prevailing. On the other side were the Futurians, who were less a formal club than an assortment of aspiring writers who had collected around the brilliant, infuriating Donald A. Wollheim. As the convention was about to begin, Wollheim and a handful of Futurians—including Frederik Pohl and Robert A.W. Lowndes—emerged from the elevator and headed toward the hall. What happened next has long been a matter of disagreement. According to Moskowitz, he was initially willing to let them in, but then he saw the stack of pamphlets that the group was planning to hand out, including one that called the convention committee “a dictatorship.” Thinking that they had come only to cause trouble, he asked each of them to promise to behave, and those who refused, in his words, “chose to remain without.” Wollheim later gave a very different account, claiming that the decision to exclude the Futurians, later known hyperbolically as “The Great Exclusion Act,” had been made months in advance. In any event, Wollheim and his friends left, and although there were some rumblings from the other attendees, the rest of the convention was a notable success.

So why should we care about a petty squabble that took place nearly eighty years ago, the oldest players in which were barely out of their teens? (One of the few Futurians who made it inside, incidentally, was Isaac Asimov, who wandered nervously into the convention hall, where he received an encouraging shove forward from John W. Campbell.) For me, it’s fascinating primarily because of what happened next. New Fandom won the dispute, leaving it in an undisputed position of power within the fan community. The Futurians retreated to lick their wounds. Yet the names of New Fandom’s leaders—Moskowitz, Will Sykora, and James V. Taurasi—are unlikely to ring any bells, except for those who are already steeped in the history of fandom itself. All of them remained active in fan circles, but only Moskowitz made a greater impression on the field, and that was as a critic and historian. The Futurians, by contrast, included some of the most influential figures in the entire genre. Asimov, the most famous of them all, was a Futurian, although admittedly not a particularly active one. Wollheim and Pohl made enormous contributions as writers and editors. Other names on the roster included Cyril Kornbluth, Judith Merril, James Blish, and Damon Knight, all of whom went on to have important careers. The Great Exclusion Act, in other words, was a turning point, but not the sort that anyone involved would have been able to predict at the time. The Futurians were on their way up, while the heads of New Fandom, while not exactly headed downhill, would stay stuck in the same stratum. They were at the apex of the fan pyramid, but there was yet another level to which they would never quite ascend. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a discussion at the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, which in itself is a monument to the house that New Fandom built. But the panel is called “The Futurians.”

New Fandom

And it’s important to understand why. As the loose offspring of several earlier organizations, New Fandom lacked the sheer closeness of the Futurians, who were joined by mutual affection, rivalry, and a shared awe of Wollheim. Many of them lived together in the Ivory Tower, which was a kind of combination dorm, writer’s colony, and flophouse. They were united by the qualities that turned them into outsiders: many had been sickly children, estranging them from their peers, and they were all wretchedly poor. (In Damon Knight’s The Futurians, Virginia Kidd, who was married to James Blish, describes how the two of them survived for months on a single bag of rice.) More than a few, notably Wollheim and John Michel, were sympathetic to communism, while others took leftist positions mostly because they liked a good fight. And of course, they were all trying—and mostly failing—to make a living by writing science fiction. As Knight shrewdly notes:

This Futurian pattern of mutual help and criticism was part of a counterculture, opposed to the dominant culture of professional science fiction writers centering around John Campbell…The Futurians would have been happy to be part of the Campbell circle, but they couldn’t sell to him; their motto, in effect, was “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”

Like all countercultures, the Futurian lifestyle was a pragmatic solution to the problem of how to live. None of them was an overnight success. But by banding together, living on the cheap, and pitting themselves against the rest of the world, they were able to muddle along until opportunity knocked.

The difference between New Fandom and the Futurians, then, boils down to this: New Fandom was so good at being a fan organization that its members were content to be nothing but fans. The Futurians weren’t all that good at much of anything, either as fans or writers, so they regrouped and hung on until they got better. (As a result, when a genuine opening appeared, they were in a position to capitalize on it. When Pohl unexpectedly found himself the editor of Astonishing Stories at the age of nineteen, for instance, he could only fill the magazine by stocking it with stories by his Futurian friends, since nobody else was willing to write for half a cent per word.) New Fandom and its successors were machines for producing conventions, while the Futurians just quietly kept generating writers. And their success arose from the very same factors—their poverty, their physical shortcomings, their unfashionable political views, their belligerence—that had estranged them from the mainstream fan community in the first place. It didn’t last long: Wollheim, in typical fashion, blew up his own circle of friends in 1945 by suing the others for libel. But the seeds had been planted, and they would continue to grow for decades. The ones who found it hard to move on after The Great Exclusion Act were the winners. As Wollheim said to Knight:

Years later, about 1953, I got a phone call from William Sykora; he wanted to come over and talk to me…And he said what he wanted to do was get together with Michel and me, and the three of us would reorganize fandom, reorganize the clubs, and go out there and control fandom…And about ten years after that, he turned up at a Lunacon meeting, out of nowhere, with exactly the same plan. And again you had the impression that for him, it was still 1937.

MidAmeriCon Episode II: The Sequel

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Mark Hamill at MidAmeriCon

When the World Science Fiction Convention was last held in Kansas City, Missouri, the guest of honor was Robert A. Heinlein, the Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and producer Gary Kurtz and actor Mark Hamill were on hand to promote an upcoming movie that was still billed by many sources as The Star Wars. In August, when the convention returns to Kansas City for the first time in thirty years, I’ll be there. To be fair, Haldeman and Kurtz will also be back, along with the likes of George R.R. Martin, and the fact that I get to attend this particular year seems like an auspicious sign. It’s Heinlein’s hometown, for one thing, and because it’s so close to the University of Kansas, it means that the annual Campbell Conference—an academic gathering named after you know who—will occur at the same time.

Last week, I received a draft schedule of my events, and it looks fantastic. I’m especially pleased by the presentation I’m set to deliver as part of the academic track on Thursday, August 18, at 4pm. Here’s the abstract of “Deadline: John W. Campbell in World War II”:

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, turned down the chance to enlist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov. Instead, he forwarded defense ideas from his authors to Murray Leinster at the Office of War Information; ran the writing factory that cranked out classified sonar manuals at the Empire State Building; brainstormed responses to the kamikaze threat with Theodore Sturgeon and L. Ron Hubbard; and was investigated by the military for publishing a description of an atomic bomb over a year before Hiroshima changed science fiction—and the world—forever.

It’s a dry run for much of the material that I hope to cover in my book, and I couldn’t be more excited to present it. My other events include:

Writers of the Past: Retro Hugos in Perspective. Wednesday, August 17 at 4pm. Seeing the nominees for this year’s Retro Hugo awards brings a flood of recognition and familiarity for some, and a blank look from others. Join us and find out about the professional authors of the period, and the context for the year 1941. Who was just starting out? Who were the Grandmasters of the day? Which giants in the field were still journeymen in those days? Why are they still important? Moderator: Bradford Lyau. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Shahid Mahmud.

Remembering the Futurians. Thursday, August 18 at 1pm. Jack Robins, who died last year, was a founding member of the Futurians. The Futurians were instrumental in not only laying the groundwork for many fannish traditions, but also included the authors of many of the seminal works in the field from Asimov to Pohl, Kidd, and others. Let’s take a look back at their influence during a magical era when the future of science fiction and fandom was taking off. Moderator: Mark L. Olson. Panelists: Alec Nevala-Lee, Pete Balestrieri, Scott Edelman.

Robert A. Heinlein at MidAmeriCon

Do Heinlein Juveniles Stand Up? Thursday, August 18 at 2pm. Robert A. Heinlein published 12 books between 1947 and 1958 that were aimed at young adults, predominantly in the male SF market. Although many older fans have a tremendous regard and nostalgic glow for Heinlein’s juveniles, can children today enjoy them or do they seem hopelessly dated? Let’s take a dive into these books and cast an appreciative yet critical eye over them. Moderator: Dr. Janice M. Bogstad. Panelists: Brendan DuBois, Dr. Marie Guthrie, Dr. Michael Levy, Alec Nevala-Lee.

Old Time Radio and New Tales in the Age of Podcasts. Thursday, August 18 at 5pm. The classic era of radio saw science fiction shows X Minus One, Stroke of Fate, Dimension X, and others. Podcasts often use classic storytelling since many other tales from the era of Weird Fiction are out of copyright; however, there are other, newer stories that lend themselves extremely well to podcast readings. The panel discuss old and new ways of using podcasting to tell classic stories well, and bring new stories to life. Moderator: Julia Rios. Panelists: Jim Freund, David Truesdale, Alec Nevala-Lee, Tamora Pierce.

Classics in the Corner. Friday, August 19 at 11am. So much new fiction is being published, both traditionally and self-published, that nobody can read it all. But is anyone still reading the classics from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s or are they just filling up space on the shelf? Why should or shouldn’t we continue to read them, especially when they make us wince with sexist and racist language? Has the move toward diversity and inclusion reduced our tolerance for different eras, even when reading with a critical eye? Moderator: Don Sakers. Panelists: John Hertz, James Minz, Betsy Mitchell, Alec Nevala-Lee.

Techno-Thrillers. Saturday, August 20 at 5pm. Techno-thrillers can be an exciting blend of literary genres that combine science fiction, crime drama, spy stories, thrillers, etc. They can be set in outter space or take place here on Earth in the not-so-distant future. What makes them special? What sets them apart? And are they dressed up space operas? Moderator: Toni L.P. Kelner. Panelists: Greg Bear, Edward M. Lerner, P.J. Manney, Alec Nevala-Lee.

If that weren’t enough, I’m also going to be taking part in a group reading on Friday, August 19 at 12pm featuring authors from Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Editor Trevor Quachri will be there, along with former editor Stanley Schmidt and writers Ken Liu, James Van Pelt, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, and yours truly. (I’m hoping to read a page or two from my upcoming novella “The Proving Ground.”) All told, it promises to be a great weekend, and if you’re planning to attend, please drop me a line or keep an eye out for me when you’re there: I’m eager to meet and listen to everyone who wants to chat about the past and future of science fiction, the four writers featured in my book, or really anything at all. And if we’re lucky, MidAmeriCon II will be one of the few sequels that lives up to the hype. 

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2016 at 8:37 am

Are you a gardener or an architect?

with 4 comments

There are many different kinds of writers. I like to use the analogy of architects and gardeners. There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it…I am much more a gardener than an architect.

That’s George R.R. Martin talking, and if my experience this weekend at Worldcon is any indication, the distinction between literary gardeners and architects may be Martin’s most lasting contribution to the way we think about writing. Of the ten or so events on writing I attended, either as a viewer or a panelist, I’d say that the gardener/architect distinction came up in at least half, usually to appreciative murmurs from the audience. Either approach, the speakers were quick to say, is perfectly fine, depending on the writer’s methods and personality—which is certainly true. But I also noticed that nearly every writer who brought up the distinction identified himself as a gardener, with an implicit sense that architects are slightly inhuman technicians whose left-brained approach can deprive them of the happy accidents of character and incident that lie at the heart of writing.

Well, in case it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I’m an architect. My first blog post was called “Nails and Houses.” My favorite book on storytelling of any kind, David Mamet’s On Directing Film, abounds in architectural metaphors, and I seized every chance I could to recommend it at my panels this weekend. (I have a feeling I sold more copies of Mamet’s book than any of my own work.) I’ve used a lot of different metaphors to describe outlining, which I’ve called a stealth first draft and compared to the relationship that a screenplay bears to a finished movie, but perhaps it’s most accurate to say that the outline is a blueprint. At this point, I wouldn’t dream of starting a substantial writing project without an outline for at least the first major section, and I still believe that having an outline often makes the difference between finishing a project and ending up with a few tantalizing fragments. And while I’m aware that this approach doesn’t work for everyone, it works so well for me that I’ve discussed it at length, both on this blog and elsewhere.

What needs to be emphasized, however, is that a novel is not a house, however seductive that analogy may be. It’s easier to remodel, for one thing. And it can be planned and built in increments: I never outline an entire novel at once, but always leave a residue of plot and character problems unresolved at every stage. In some ways, the architectural approach to writing is less like building a house than like city planning: it involves many connected structures, built over time and for different reasons, each one of which subtly changes its neighbors and the surrounding landscape. Just as a healthy neighborhood consists, according to Christopher Alexander, of the coordination of patterns scaled to human needs, writing a novel is about orchestrating many self-contained pieces—beats, scenes, chapters—into a harmonious whole. And the result, if you’ve done it properly, is less a city like Brasilia, with its structure imposed from the top down, than London, which makes sense on the ground but also reveals surprising patterns when seen from above.

And what I’ve discovered about these architectural habits is that they’re very much like what Mamet says about his own methods: applied correctly, they set the imagination free. As a blueprint, an outline helps you organize materials and find places for elements that otherwise might be lost. I’m much more likely, for instance, to remember and utilize the free-floating fragments of inspiration that come at odd moments—while shaving, showering, or taking a walk—when I have a larger structure in which they can fit. This requires a certain amount of flexibility, of course, and a willingness to revise in light of new developments. Even when I’m working out a carefully structured plan on the page, I’m often surprised by unexpected plot or character turns, which emerge, not in spite of the pattern that surrounds them, but because of it. That tension between structure and serendipity is one of the great joys of writing. And fortunately, with a novel, it’s always possible to remodel, rebuild, and, when necessary, demolish.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2012 at 9:36 am

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