Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Worldcon

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.

In times to come

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It’s been a quiet few months on the book front, but I wanted to quickly bring everything up to date as I enter the home stretch. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction—and yes, as far as I know, that’s the final title—is now officially scheduled to be released on August 14, 2018. Not coincidentally, that’s just two days before the seventy-sixth World Science Fiction Convention begins in San Jose, California. I plan to be there, and I hope to see some of you who are reading this now. (At the very least, I intend to appear on a few panels, possibly do a talk, and attend as many other events as I can.)

I’m also delighted to share the cover design, which represents the remarkable work of artist Tavis Coburn and art director Ploy Siripant. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is frighteningly close to the dust jacket of my dreams—it evokes the spirit of the pulp era without being too campy or garish, and it draws inspiration from perhaps the most elegant and timeless incarnation of the original magazine. I’ve spent what feels like hours looking at this cover, and my goal at the moment is to deliver a draft that lives up to it. The manuscript is due on December 4, which, when I first announced this project a year and a half ago, seemed impossibly far away. Now I’ve got just four weeks. But the future always comes sooner than you expect.

Written by nevalalee

November 10, 2017 at 7:55 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

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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

Nebulas and other news

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The Nebula Awards

I’ll be spending most of today and tomorrow at the Nebula Conference here in Chicago, which I’m delighted to be attending for the first time. After postponing it for years for no particular reason, I recently became a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I’m looking forward to taking a more active role in the community, starting right now. In particular, I’m moderating a discussion this afternoon on the legacy of John W. Campbell with a fantastic slate of panelists: Stanley Schmidt of Analog, Sheila Williams of Asimov’s, and Joe Haldeman, the legendary author of The Forever War. I’m also participating in a panel tomorrow titled “Western Narratives,” along with Jennifer Cross, Mikki Kendall, and Michi Trota. And I couldn’t be more excited to attend the Nebula Banquet and Award Ceremony—hosted by toastmaster John Hodgman—later that night. I hope to see a few readers of this blog there, and I’ll be posting about my experiences at the conference on Monday.

This also seems like a good time to round up a few other brief announcements and news items, since the next few months are going to be especially eventful. My short story “Ernesto” is being reprinted in an upcoming issue of Lightspeed Magazine, and I’ve just received the excellent news that my climate change novella “The Proving Ground,” the first story I’ve ever attempted at that length, has been picked up by Analog. I’ve also written a radio play for an episode of the new science fiction podcast The Outer Reach, which will debut this summer as part of the Howl podcasting network, and I hope to have more information about this soon. Best of all, I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II this August in Kansas City, where I’m scheduled to deliver a presentation on John W. Campbell and his work during World War II in the academic track at the Campbell Conference. It’s going to be quite a year, and we aren’t even halfway done with it yet—so please stay tuned for more.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

An astounding announcement

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Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

I’m very pleased to announce that Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has agreed to publish my nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This project has been in the works for a long time, and if I haven’t mentioned it here before, it was mostly out of a superstitious aversion to talking about it before I knew for sure that it was going to happen—but now it looks like it is. We’re still hashing out a few details, including the timeline for delivery and publication, although I suspect that it won’t be in stores until around the first half of 2018. And everything from the title to the release date is subject to change. What isn’t in doubt, thankfully, is that I’ll finally have the chance to write the book that I’ve been mulling over for most of the last year: the definitive account, I hope, of how modern science fiction, along with so much else, emerged from the personalities and lives of four flawed but remarkable writers whose careers intersected in unbelievable ways. It’s a jaw-dropping story that I expect to discuss at length on this blog in the months and years to come. And I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to bring it to a wider readership.

This isn’t the place to talk about the book in depth, but I should probably say something about its origins. As longtime readers will know, I’ve been fortunate enough to place stories on a regular basis in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Analog, once known as Astounding, is the oldest continuously published science fiction magazine in the world—it recently celebrated its thousandth issue—and it’s impossible to write for it for long without reflecting on its history. My thoughts came to focus on Campbell, who is one of the most important, and enigmatic, figures in the popular culture of the twentieth century. Campbell wrote the classic novella “Who Goes There?,” which has been adapted three times as The Thing; he gave up writing at the age of twenty-seven to take the helm of Astounding, where he discovered or developed Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and countless other major writers, laying down most of the rules for modern science fiction along the way; he collaborated closely with L. Ron Hubbard on the therapy that became known as dianetics, and was its greatest promoter and champion before falling out with the future founder of Scientology; he edited the first version of Dune; and despite his massive influence, by the end of his life, his political, social, and scientific views had estranged him from many of his former fans. The Three Laws of Robotics and Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health both came from the same place. And the real question is why.

The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

Campbell, in short, is more than worthy of a book on his own, and the fact that there has never been a full-length biography devoted to his life astonished me, as it still does now. (As I shopped around the proposal, I kept thinking of what Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” And a Campbell biography abundantly qualifies.) When I began this project, my goal was to give Campbell the book that he deserved, and it still is, although its scope has widened considerably from what I originally conceived. Campbell remains at the center, but when you expand that circle slightly outward, the first three names that fall within its circumference are Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, whose lives he touched in profound ways. Unlike Campbell, these three writers have already been the subjects of exhaustive memoirs or biographies. But focusing on the points where their lives collided—particularly over the fifteen-year period that starts with Campbell assuming the editorship of Astounding in 1937, runs through World War II, and concludes with the publication of Dianetics—reveals fascinating patterns and parallels. Each man, for instance, was deeply changed by the atomic bomb and the Cold War, and each underwent a traumatic divorce and remarriage at a hinge point in his career. And their wives, whose roles in the history of science fiction have often been overlooked, will play a crucial part in this story.

In any event, I hope to continue covering as wide a range of topics on this blog as always, but you shouldn’t be surprised if the emphasis shifts ever so slightly toward science fiction, particularly as I prepare to discuss the subject more often in public. (I’m currently scheduled to talk about Campbell at the Nebula Conference in Chicago in May, and I hope to do the same at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August.) And I wouldn’t have tackled this project in the first place if I didn’t believe that it would seize the imaginations of readers who have never cracked a science fiction magazine. Campbell and his writers shaped our inner lives in ways that can be hard to appreciate today, when science fiction seems so inevitable. In fact, it was the result of many specific choices, often made by Campbell himself, and such conventions as the central role of manned space exploration are less a prediction about the future than a narrative strategy that arose from a particular place and time. And Campbell’s fingerprints are visible on everything from Star Trek to the recent controversy over the Hugo Awards. Teasing out those connections and relating them to the ongoing debates within the genre—which is a canary in the mineshaft for the larger culture—is going to be the pivot around which my life revolves for the next two years. I’ll have more updates soon. And I couldn’t be happier that I can share it with you here first, or more astounded that I get to do it at all.

Are you a gardener or an architect?

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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

Goodbye, Worldcon; Goodbye, Stanley

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What can you say about something like Worldcon? It’s only been over for a day or two, and I already miss it. For much of the past weekend, I’ve felt like I was practically living at the Hyatt Regency, even though I still went back home to Oak Park every night—which makes me feel as though I only got half the experience, since so much of the life of the convention clearly takes place sometime between midnight and four in the morning. And after telling myself that this was likely to be my first and last convention, I’m already starting to wonder when I can come back. (San Antonio next year probably isn’t in the cards, but London in 2014 is awfully tempting.) I went in looking forward mostly to my own panels, but emerged having learned a great deal more than I managed to convey to anyone else, not just about writing, but about speculative fiction, fandom, and the ties that bind them together.

I’ll have a chance to talk more about my panels on this blog in the future, and it was a real pleasure to meet writers like Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan, Russell Davis, and so many others. The real fun, however, came in attending other events, sometimes almost by accident. My favorite was the panel “Media Tie-In Novels: Art or Commerce,” in which such authors as David Gerrold and Peter David traded war stories, both good and bad, about the curious and often undervalued work of writing movie, television, and gaming tie-ins. (Game designer Tom Dowd had kind words for Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelization of Wrath of Khan, which I picked up later that day in the Dealers Room.) And of course the Hugo Awards were great fun: I got to chat with Locus reviewer Rich Horton and root for my favorite nominees, and while Community didn’t win, I was especially glad to see Kij Johnson win Best Novella for her wonderful “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.”

Yet the most significant moment of this year’s Worldcon was highly personal. Much earlier, I’d received an invitation for a special event sponsored by Analog, which I wanted to attend in any case, but it wasn’t until Friday that I learned the real reason behind it: the retirement, after thirty-four years, of editor Stanley Schmidt, with the highly capable managing editor Trevor Quachri taking the helm of the most legendary magazine in science fiction. At the event, Stan received heartfelt tributes from Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s, and writers whose names I’ve seen in print countless times, all gathered in the same crowded room. I hadn’t seen Stan in person in almost four years—we had lunch, oddly enough, on the day of Obama’s inauguration—and I’m grateful I had the chance to thank him myself and meet his charming wife Joyce. I had to run home soon thereafter, but I heard that the party ran past two in the morning.

And it isn’t surprising: we all owe Stan a lot. He was the first editor to ever buy a story I’d written—my novelette “Inversus,” which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Analog—and that first sale, which came out of the blue, was one of the great turning points of my life: it was my first concrete evidence that I might actually become a professional writer one day, and I’m sure there were many other authors there that night who could say the same thing. Since then, I’ve sold Stan a number of other stories, not all of which he accepted the first time around, and it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be at Worldcon at all if he hadn’t picked up “The Boneless One.” His support has been important to me in ways I can’t even begin to express, which is why I was so glad to see him get a standing ovation at the Hugos on Sunday—the biggest reception of the night. He deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

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