Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Writers Doing Good, But Not Exceptional, Things

The Oct/Nov double issue of F&SF comes, as usual, packed with stuff. UN-usually, however, I don’t really see any award-winners here. This issue contains stories by good, established authors practicing the craft they are known for, but not necessarily pushing themselves into new territory.

Albert Cowdry starts off with a short story: "Inside Story." He returns to his favorite setting, New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina. Cops investigate disappearances of people living in FEMA trailers. No points for guessing that there's something unusual going on; unfortunately this unusual thing takes the hero to another dimension/realm/place, and that weakens the story. Cowdry is strongest when his stories most closely link to New Orleans itself (see "The Overseer," which I'll be nominating for a Hugo at least this year), and the ending of this story seems disappointing in proportion to the time it spends away from the city.

"Sleepless Years" gives us a nice take on Zombie-ism by Steven Utley. A gentleman died and left his body to science; they reanimated him. However, he's got no rights since he's "dead." He also can't sleep, which tortures him. The experience of a human being in a situation where they're regarded as little more than an amazing test subject is not a new one, but it's done well here.

"'The New York Times' at Special Bargain Rates" has Stephen King's heroine talking to dead people on the phone. Also not new; King himself has done this before. This time it's all fairly benign, although the woman cannot act on a vague prophecy from her dead husband and ends up feeling bad. This is a low key example of excellent craftsmanship.

The ever-prolific Robert Reed provides "The Visionaries." This ambiguous story describes a writer offered a Faustian bargain as he gets started in writing. It turns out that some of his stories may (or may not) provide a window into a real future. Various conspiracy theories regarding the Faustian organization get kicked around at sf cons. Although the nature of the deal changes over time, the author comes to believe that he may really be seeing the future. This is a tale that has both funny and unsettling bits; I'm sure the contrast is deliberate, but it feels like the story isn't sure what it wants to be. The two threads--what the author sees in the future and what he thinks is happening now--don't mesh perfectly. However, the inside-baseball bits are fun, and Reed is always a solid story-teller.

"Private Eye" looks at the ubiquitous surveillance future, less through a Big Brother lens and more through a YouTube one. The narcissism/voyeurism angle is again, nothing really new. I'm a bit surprised that Terry Bisson didn't offer something more unique here.

"Whoever" by Carol Emshwiller is an interesting story that mutates as you read it. A woman may be suffering amnesia, or be some sort of universe hopper, or perhaps a time traveller. Perhaps she takes over other bodies. In any case, she wakes up with no memories of her past life, with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and gets to reinvent herself. Her conscious process of looking at who she wants to be is great; I'm less thrilled that she immediately gets a male protector (or at least accepts the guy who wants to fill that role, she makes some noises about not burdening him but does so anyway), but that's a minor quibble.

I had already read "Evidence of Love" somewhere else, so I'll skip that one here--M. Rickert is also always worth reading. Depressing and confusing, but with awesome craft. (See Paolo Bacigalupi in F&SF, Sept.)

"Planetesimal" by Tim Sullivan is a slight story that is neither a good character portrait nor a good sf story. On a large asteroid/planetesimal, a commited-to-duty security officer has to escort a totally-geeky-introverted-whiny-dedicated-to-his-science geologist. Their craft breaks down and they have to try to outrace the sun (Red Giant) back to base. They fall into a crater (which hadn't been there before), and get sucked into some sort of time-warped mining operation. The geek wants to stay there forever and be king of his little fiefdom, the security officer wants to get him home. At no time do they rise above their stereotypes. The "mining" thing is silly, and the science is just awful. Check this out: "They had a long way to go. But with the light gravity, it was the equivalent of only a few kilometers." Really? I didn't know that low gravity warped distances--maybe high gravity relativistically, but on a small planet? Obviously it should be something like "it [would feel like] the equivalent of only a few kilometers," but these sorts of lazy mistakes are littered all through this story. Bleah.

Finally "Scarecrow's Boy" involves a mighty sophisticated AI helping out the child of a diplomat and in the process liberating itself from a useless master. It's not necessarily plausible, but in Swanwick's hands it's a solid story.

Monday, November 24, 2008

So What Should SF Be Talking About?

The stand-out story of the Oct/Nov Asimov’s is "'Dhuluma' No More," a short story by the up-and-comer Gord Sellar. I appreciated it for its truly international perspective. In this story a documentary film-maker goes along with a bunch of African iceberg herders. However, that's just a cover; the African guys have a radical agenda. They hijack a submarine containing a bunch of UN climate scientists. In this future, the UN has sponsored a sort of anti-global warming pollution project; they spew specific particulate matter into the sky to reflect more sunlight away from the Earth's surface. However, this has drastically changed weather patterns, benefitting some and hurting others. The Africans are pretty sure that they're (as has been true throughout history) on the short end of that stick. This passage has some qualities of wish-fulfillment:
"That's a baseless overstatement..." Follesdal said

Ngunu lifted his pistol, aiming it at the CEO's heart, and ground his teeth. Follesdal eyed the gun, and raised his hands a little. "Uh, yes, some scientists think that."

"Some?" Ngunu cleared his throat, tensing the hand holding the gun very slightly. I zoomed in carefully on Follesdal's face, to keep the gun out of the videos. "Hands down. Quit lying," Ngunu said, moving the gun closer to Follesdal's chest.

I almost smiled then. After all those years, looking for a way to make businessmen quit lying and admit the truth--and here it was, really so very simple. I almost wished I'd thought of it before.

This story hits a lot of Big Issues, and Makes You Think. Obviously there's the idea that whatever we come up with in the West to mitigate climate change will have a real effect on real people; they may come looking for us someday. This often gets left to the side in writing like Kim Stanley Robinson's Capitol Trilogy or Ben Bova's climate engineering columns in Analog. There's also the dilemma of the passive observer: the filmmaker is forced to make a decision to stay uninvolved or to actually help the Africans in their violent action. He can't hide behind his cameras anymore and he has to take a side. This is something of a call to action to all of us who read the news but think that news is what happens to other people. I'd like to see more of this sort of story, and I'll be thinking of this one when I look at the Hugo ballot this spring. This is a short story, but with enough weight that it feels longer. In this case, that's a good thing.

Another story I particularly enjoyed is Nancy Kress' "The Erdmann Nexus." On first blush it's a weird little story: in a nursing home for the elderly, people start to have weird mental experiences, and apparently they start to affect reality. The eponymous Erdmann is a physics professor emeritus, and he's trying to figure out what's really going on. There's a much larger cast of characters than is normal for a novella: Erdmann's favorite nursing home assistant is a young woman with an abusive husband; he's a cop so restraining orders have been hard to enforce. There's a neurological researcher studying something completely unrelated but he gets drawn into the mystery. Then there's the population of the nursing home: the insatiable gossip, a retired famous ballerina and a man with a crush on her, a new-agey woman, and assorted others. At times it all threatens to spiral out of control, and it seems that Kress sometimes allows it to ramble, just to give us a feel for humanity in all its messiness. In the end however, it all adds up to Something Transcendent, and all the people involved get to make consequential choices. I've had trouble with Kress' stories in the past for some reason, but this one finally overcame the resistance I'd had to her style.

My other favorite was Robert Reed’s novella on "Truth." The elevator pitch would be "Government operatives try to extract intelligence from a member of a group of time-traveling terrorists." It's a psychological story, very claustrophobic. I think it's a bit too long, but the twist is pretty awesome. It also makes a strong case for the fact that when we over-react to terrorist threats, we do far more harm to ourselves than the terrorists ever could. Preaching to the choir there! But that's a timely debate, and stories like this one, written by an author who is unfailingly entertaining, add a valuable dimension to the discussion.

Amongst the other stories: Brandon Sanderson, the poor man assigned to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time saga, provides an action-adventure story in “Defending Elysium,” a novelette. It felt longer than that, which I'm not sure is a good thing. It was fun to read, but not much more.

"Prayers for an Egg" deals with strict class barriers in an alien species. It's a bit of Uncle Tom's Cabin set far, far away. It rang true, but I'm not sure that we need these sorts of stories now. In general, stories like this either appear to be about causes long since won, or they're too over-the-top to address the more subtle concerns we have today. Today we need less parables about how slavery is wrong (and that when you put your future generations in the hands of an oppressed people, those kids may be at risk) and instead perhaps we need tales about the dangers of more subtle forms of class oppression. I'm trying to think of some examples and none are jumping to mind: economics like Bruce Sterling's “Kiosk?” Charlie Stross' economic wars? Bacigalupi's future dystopias? Stories like Reed’s “Truth” speak more to 2008 than this one. However, I’m willing to entertain counter-arguments on this assertion; I may be on shaky ground here.

Fianlly, Ian MacLeod provides an alternate history in which various events lead to India conquering and occupying England instead of vice-versa. When "The English Mutiny" it is both more violent and less successful than Ghandi's movement, let’s just say that. This is an interesting story, looking at class differences that MacLeod feels would be preserved even in the face of occupation by a foreign power. I think it could have packed more of a punch had it been a bit shorter. Sometimes the narrator starts wandering around to show us more of the landscape, and the story loses focus.

Friday, November 21, 2008

International Links

Time for some Linkage! Plus, it's International Linkage, which makes it more delicious:

  • Science Fiction in India. Does what it says on the tin. Posts of note so far include answers to a questionaire about the cultural significance of sf--Arvid's answers are interestingly different from those on, say, Nethspace. Thanks to Cheryl Morgan for the link.
  • Niall Harrison reviews short fiction, including some short fiction from China published by the Guardian.
  • The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler. An online short fiction anthology, in English, by Philippine writers. I've only just started reading this, and will eventually review it, but I wanted to make sure news spreads about this. Thanks to SFSignal for the link.
  • Via just about everywhere, Book View Cafe is a new online short fiction venue. It is publishing at least a story a day by women authors, including Ursula K. Le Guin, Jennifer Stevenson and Vonda McIntyre. Although I'm inundated by short fiction these days, this will probably be a good spot for people looking for something new every day.
  • Over at, Brian Slattery reviews a new anthology: Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain. Exactly the sort of thing we need to see more of. Thanks to Duncan Lawie!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Interzone #217: Better Late than Never?

First off, I want to note that there have been some problems with my Interzone subscription on Fictionwise. For some reason the upload to the Fictionwise site (and hence distribution to me) is lagging a looooong way behind their print distribution. I finally got issue #217 in October, and #218 is nowhere to be found. I've heard other people talk about it, so I know it's out there. This is a big contrast to my other subscriptions which are always delivered well ahead of the cover date (I have the January issues of Analog and Asimov's, and the December issue of F&SF as of today). I'm sure there are logistical challenges of which I'm unaware, but it does make me reconsider where my subscription money should be going.

Banalities aside, how was this issue? It certainly had some good stuff in it. "Africa" by Karen Fishler is an interesting future story: aliens kick all the humans off Earth because we've done too much damage. The main characters are the only humans left in orbit; their continuing mission to prevent any human from ever returning. However, over the generations their population has been reduced to a father and a cloned son, and they know that their time is ending. A human ship pulls up with a woman and her dying father; they're apparently all that's left of the portion of humanity that went outward. The whole living-on-ships thing turned out to be unsustainable. The woman has one predictable last request, and the clone-son has rather predictable qualms about turning her away. You have to swallow a lot to buy this story: the aliens leave humans to guard Earth? Isn't that rather like having the fox guard the hen-house? Also, why would the woman, many generations removed from the Earth, be so obsessed with it? Etc. However the emotional portraits of the son and the woman are moving and well-done.

Jason Sanford's "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain" is likewise implausible but with characters that feel true. The humans of a small town live on what appears to be a literal mudball. Ships come from far away and rain down organic material on them, and our main character's job is to keep watch for the ships so everyone can get inside. These drops replenish the soil, but also cause local flooding and devastation. Sometimes a child of the village is smart and ambitious enough to get taken up by the ships; at least that's what people think when they disappear. There is also a fairy-tale-like taboo about not digging around underground. Eventually the taboo is broken and answers are found. This is an archetypal story about thwarted dreams and the hope of realizing them. The old woman is a great viewpoint character and Sanford does a good job of bringing her alive.

Paul McAuley's "Little Lost Robot" is just about the Exact Opposite of the Asimov story he references in the title. Asimov's lost robot was simply a man-sized robot trying to get away with something, trying to escape. McAuley's is a planet-sized solar-system-killing war machine... that finds itself with not much left to kill. It finds its way to a solar system and has a conversation with what may be a remnant of humanity. McAuley has done an interesting thing in giving the "robot" four distinct functional avatars: Librarian, Philosopher, Navigator and Tactician. However, the Philosopher got damaged somewhere along the way, and that lack gives and extra frisson of tension to the story.

"The Two Headed Girl" (Paul G. Tremblay) is much odder. A young girl has two heads, but the second one keeps switching between different historical figures. The main thrust of the story is her search for her estranged father, as she's been raised by her single mother. She also has to deal with ostracism and other emotional perils of young adulthood. It is a really weird story, and I felt like it didn't cohere. I didn't see the connection between the two-headed-ness of the kid and her need for her father. So it just ended up being weird. In contrast, Suzanne Palmer’s "Concession Girl" is a typical working-class heroine saves-the-day on an alien planet story, much fun.

"Comas of Central Park" is almost a story about the bitch-socialite character from "Stand on Zanzibar" who threw parties at which her goal was to humiliate her guests in creative fashions. In this story, one of the guests finds an incarnation of the god Pan in Central Park and brings him to the party--he's like a cross between a genie and a traveling orgy. In amidst all the sex, he helps the protagonist and the socialite learn important things about themselves. I can't say I liked it, especially because the characters seem largely stereotyped; but eventually the author does dig down underneath the stereotypes to get to some interesting bits. Here's a spoilery point: Pan reveals to the main character that she's really got suppressed lesbian desires for the socialite. She freaks out. I would assume she would freak out over being attracted to such a loathsome specimen of humanity, but instead she's freaked out at the thought of being gay. Huh? For that type of jet-set crowd? That struck an unbelievable note to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bacigalupi Kicks You in the Stomach, But in a Good Way

The obvious stand-out in the September issue of F&SF is "Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi. You may recognize the title: it's also the title story in his short fiction collection (out this year) Pump Six and Other Stories. As titles go this one may not leap off shelves and into readers' hands, but it's a heck of a story. It shares the same outlook on the future as most of Bacigalupi's other stories: incredibly bleak. Let's look over his oeuvre, shall we? "People of Sand and Slag," is one of my all-time favorite sf stories. In the future humans can survive on 100% synthetic substances; anything can be made into food. The biosphere is almost completely wiped out, but one group of soldiers finds a dog. They try to care for it and succeed for a while, but finally get bored with it. "Calorie Man" (another one of my favorite Bacigalupi stories; I read it when I was just getting back in to sf/f short fiction): in the near future oil, gas, and coal are pretty much totally gone. Manpower powers everything; food powers people. That's great except that all the crops are under patent by megacorporations who make it illegal for anyone but themselves to grow any food. Ta-da: ultimate monopoly. Whoa. "Pop Squad:" In a world with effective immortality, over-population is such a concern that having unlicensed children is illegal. The protagonist of this story hunts down single mothers and turns them in--they're depicted as no better than drug addicts. It's totally soul-deadening, even for the hero.

Now in "Pump Six," you have a future where pollution has made people progressively more stupid. The hero is smarter than most; he at least knows not to use a lighter to check for a gas leak. He's trying to keep the sewage pumps for New York running, but they're finally starting to wear out and the last people who truly understood them are long dead. He treks over to Columbia University to try to see if their engineers can help; it turns out the university hasn't actually held classes for years. All the "students" are lounging around on the grass like contented apes. It's implied that actual devolution is being caused by the pollution, and existence as happy, mellow, stupid (and short-lived) primates is what's in store for humanity. As usual with Bacigalupi, it's a story that hits you right in the gut; it makes you feel the hopelessness on a visceral level. The only other writer that consistently hits that note for me is Alfred Bester (especially his story in Adventures in Time and Space, “Adam and No Eve”). Bacigalupi is brilliant at coming up with these scenarios, making them seem scarily plausible, then smacking you around with them. For a writer as consistently dark and depressing as Bacigalupi the thing that keeps you reading his stories is his incredible skill, and he's got that in spades.

"Arkfall" by Carolyn Ives Gilman is not a bad story by any means, but coming after a story like "Pump Six" it ends up seeming as light and fluffy as a cloud. It's basically a story of opposite people finding a third way, and it depends on a very contrived scenario to do it. On an alien planet, most people live in organic bubbles surrounding a sea-floor vent. They live in close proximity and have adopted mostly Asian-style social customs to deal with it: family comes first, individualism is out, no one argues directly with each other. A tourist to this world is a brash Westerner, some sort of former space jock. Inevitably he and a woman from the native culture get trapped in a bubble for an extended period. She eventually learns to be more assertive and take control of her fate; he eventually learns to get over himself and sometimes just let the world work. It's a very yin/yang sort of story. It's nicely done, but again it feels like cotton-candy dosed with opiates compared to Bacigalupi.

Another wonderful, if contrived, story comes from Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn. It's in the form of correspondence between an author and a certain company. Michael, the Chief Creative Officer of "Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia" promises to relieve Eileen of the guilt that comes from being a writer and not writing; she is heartily skeptical. They go back and forth on different philosophies of life, the appropriateness (and the mechanics) of what he's proposing, before finally coming to a (to me) unexpected but satisfactory arrangement. While this too is somewhat fluffy and definitely silly, it also digs a little deeper into what it means to be a writer, examining what motivates these crazy people.

The other stories in this issue fall into the RUMIR category. "Search Continues for Elderly Man" is another "he's probably dead but it may be VR" story, with some very nasty bits thrown in. I couldn't quite get at the point of it, if there was one. "Picnic on Pentecost" has a sort of hive-mind alien crash-landing on a planet. Only one part survives and cannot die; she has to fulfill the planet's plans for her. "Salad for Two" by Robert Reed keeps you turning pages. A young woman benefits from an early patron and builds a good life for herself. The future comes and she lives through it, profiting and moving out into the solar system; eventually she realizes that her life may not be what she thought it was. It's a nice twist ending, but it almost feels like Reed trivializes the neat world- and character-building he's done in the story by hanging it all on the "twist." "Run! Run!" by Jim Aikin has mean ol' fundamentalist Christians hunting down Unicorns; one farm girl tries to stand in their way. OK, I get the symbolism—Unicorns as wild sexuality and religious nuts who think all sex should be suppressed. However, while I'm no fan of the Religious Right, this story felt bludgeoning to me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sam Moskowitz Wants You to Know It's All Don Wollheim's Fault

As far as I can tell, The Immortal Storm is Sam Moskowitz’s book-length justification for what happened at the first World Science Fiction Convention, held in 1939 in New York. Along the way he goes back to the earliest days of fandom and takes his story right up to the beginning of WWII, but in the end this is all about him telling his side of a fan feud. The material that makes up the book was originally serialized between 1945 and 1952 in the fanzine Fantasy Commentator. That in and of itself is a tremendous feat; not many have the energy and/or obsession needed to keep a fan history project going for seven years. However, it is exactly in the matter of energy and obsession that Moskowitz distinguishes himself in this book.

Moskowitz briefly takes us back to the earliest days of science fiction, the fantastic, and fandom. He traces a line to modern sf from the great classics of the world such as the Odyssey and Beowulf. Along the way he is not afraid to use hyperbolic flattery:
The only difference between the science fiction fan of today and the Homer of yesteryear is that the fan of today knows there is a sufficiently large kernel of truth in his dreams to make them possible of realization—that the fantastic fiction of today may well become the fact of tomorrow.
Really? The only difference? Kewl.

However he quickly gets back to more recent history, particularly the magazines. I found it interesting to see how fantastic content preceded Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories—for instance Weird Tales had been around for almost a decade at that point. Back then “fantasy” generally meant supernatural horror of the Lovecraft variety, another point I hadn’t realized before.

Next comes the important point: Amazing Tales has a letter column, and fandom is born. Fans write letters, argue with each other, and start forming clubs and publishing fanzines. A few years after that, they start gathering at conventions small and large. This remarkable pattern of activity, which has now persisted for about eighty years, followed immediately upon the publication of sf-specific magazines. There is obviously a segment of humanity that needed an outlet of just this nature, and jumped at it the instant it was available. It really makes you wonder: what did fans do before fandom? That’s one of the few questions Moskowitz doesn’t have an answer for.

He’s more interested in the magazines and fanzines; in many ways his approach is that of the collector. In chronicling the rise and fall of seemingly innumerable fanzines he points out which ones are good and bad; which ones are rare and common and why. One gains a lot of respect for these guys—in the depths of the Great Depression they come up with hektographs, mimeographs and actual printing presses to make fanzines and send them all over the country. Given that the entry cost for my generation is a computer and an internet account to get yourself a blog, I think we must doff our caps to the pioneers of old. And not hold it against them too much that most fanzines only lasted a few issues before fading away. (However, it also gives me a sense of historical continuity: people who revere First Fandom cannot criticize the blogger fans for merely being unedited and poor of grammar; however bad we are, they were worse.)

So, no sooner did fandom start than fan fights arose. By page 10 one of the first sf (or stf, back then, for Gernsback’s unpronounceable term “scientifiction”) clubs, the Scienceers, is feuding internally and with Hugo Gernsback. Apparently in the beginning there was a lot of tension between people who were primarily fans of the fiction and people who were primarily fans of the science. So fan clubs would schism between those interested in pursuing amateur science experiments such as rocketry, and those primarily interested in discussing and collecting the stories. We know which side won out (see the subject material of this blog, for instance), and Moskowitz’s sympathies are also perfectly clear on this matter. What did fans want ultimately? More reading, less blowing stuff up.

Of course, there were still many metaphorical blow ups to be had. As Moskowitz relates all this “objective” history, it becomes clear that he is a “historian” of strong opinions. He obviously isn’t particularly fond of Forest J. Ackerman (at the time of this writing, one of the only survivors of the cast of this book, although currently ailing) but on the other hand Hugo Gernsback can do no wrong. He starts out fairly hostile to Bob Tucker, but quite sympathetic to William Sykora as events unfold. At all times and in all ways, Donald A. Wollheim is portrayed as a jerk. Then, when Moskowitz himself enters the story, we find out the cause of his retroactive opinions.

Moskowitz attempts to maintain objectivity by referring to himself always in the third person—it doesn’t work. In fact, it’s pretty giggle-worthy. Here’s a passage chosen more or less at random:
Moskowitz refused to remit him [Ackerman] further consideration, maintaining that Ackerman’s original letter suggesting the agreement would remain in his files as evidence that his interpretation had been reasonable; that the contribution had been unsolicited; and that, even without Ackerman’s contributions, the extra convention journals would have found ready buyers. He returned to Ackerman, after some delay, a copy of the first issue of Imagination, which had not been sold at the auction. (Ackerman had intimated that Moskowitz intended to keep and eventually sell this item for a small fortune.) This exchange was the foundation of the anti-Moskowitz attitude held by Ackerman thenceforth.
How would this anti-Moskowitz attitude manifest itself? Well, it all comes down to the first World Science Fiction Convention. In 1937, a group eventually called the Futurians, whose members consisted of (amongst others) Don Wollheim, Fred Pohl and John Michel, had formed a committee to organize a WorldCon to coincide with the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Between 1937 and 1938, the committee hadn’t really done much. Also around this time, Moskowitz and Wollheim became bitter enemies for various reasons of fan club and fanzine wars. So in 1938, Moskowitz founds “New Fandom” with the express purpose of bootstrapping a large fan organization with enough cred to organize the WorldCon. In this he succeeds. Fast forward to the con; the Futurians show up. After talking back and forth the New Fandom organizers (which along with Moskowitz are John Tausari and William Sykora) demand that the Futurians pledge their good conduct. Several do so (such as a young Isaac Asimov and others), but a core of six of them (including of course Fred Pohl and Don Wollheim) refuse to promise to behave themselves, and so are not granted entry. As far as I can tell, this event is “The Immortal Storm” (unless he means the constant, or “eternal” fan bickering that has characterized fandom since its earliest days; he never quite specifies).

So the con goes on and it’s a great success. But there’s a cloud cast over it by the Futurians, and after the con battle lines are drawn in the fan magazines. Ackerman, returning home to California, influences the Los Angeles Science Fiction League to write up “The Expulsion Act!” in its newsletter, thus engendering Moskowitz’s eternal enmity. Factional disputes continue, but Moskowitz finally decides to wrap up his story just before Pearl Harbor, thus leaving the enduring impression that in his mind, WWII is an anti-climax compared to the fan feuds that went before. Here’s the final paragraph:
As a back-drop loomed the threat of another World War as Germany began a systematic annexation of nearby countries and provinces in Europe and France and England came to grips with her. The culmination came on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Things would never again be quite the same in science fiction or science fiction fandom.
Reading the book, one has to realize that everything Moskowitz writes is skewed very purposefully, and that he has a poor reputation concerning printing fully truthful things. James Blish (who features only marginally in Immortal Storm) has this to say about Moskowitz as a scholar in More Issues at Hand (1970):
The most astonishing of these ‘inside’ volumes is Sam Moskowitz’ The Immortal Storm, a history of the publications and internal politics of a small segment of science-fiction fandom, centered upon Mr. Moskowitz himself and written in what appears to be Middle High Neolithic.

Moskowitz is also responsible, however, for one of science fiction’s five authentic books of criticism, Explorers of the Infinite (World, 1963). (It will be noted that Mr. Moskowitz, like many of his fellow enthusiasts, has a weakness for grandiose titles.)… Though Moskowitz is the nearest thing to a scholar that science fiction has yet produced, his research—as P. Schuyler Miller and others have pointed out—is not always trustworthy; and in the past he has shown an irritating tendency to wax polemical in defense of his errors, in preference to correcting them. (1)
I had heard the same thing from other sources, so I approached this as one man’s account of fannish history and would be very hesitant to cite any facts from it without checking them. So it ends up being a fun game of “follow the bias,” figuring out what various people did to piss off Moskowitz such that he portrays them negatively even when describing things they did before he was an active fan.

The most amazing thing about Immortal Storm is that Moskowitz never wavers in his determination that this stuff matters. It is just as important to him in 1952 as it was when it was happening in 1938-9. He feels it intensely, and his over-blown language conveys a lot of that passion. Another example:
But again stark drama was preparing her lines for recitation, and what was to follow, coupled with the coincidence of simultaneous events, was to deal catastrophe to fandom as a whole. Ragnarok had caught the entire fan world napping!
This has to be contrasted with another fan history, The Futurians by Damon Knight, published in 1977. I read this book almost two years ago, but never reviewed it. It seemed like a disorganized, almost lackadaisical collection of anecdotes—valuable to the historian as a source, but not terribly illuminating. It is an important book; compared to Moskowitz’s “New Fandom,” the Futurians and their members were crucial in shaping the field through its Golden Age: Wollheim as an editor, Fred Pohl and Judith Merril as a writers and editors, Asimov as a writer (as well as Cyril Kornbluth and Harry Dockweiler/Dirk Wylie), Virginia Kidd as an editor and Damon Knight as a writer and critic. The Futurians grew up and moved out into the ranks of the professionals, while after New Fandom faded away, its fans apparently mostly stayed fans. So it makes sense that Knight would want to collect something like an oral history to make sure some of their story is preserved for the future. However, he doesn’t care with the same fiery passion as Moskowitz; he’s done other things of import and his time with the Futurians is just one interesting bit among others. Futurians covers the events of Immortal Storm, by the way. It takes a little less than a chapter. Knight admits that Wollheim was quite an asshole in his fan days (“In August, tired of destroying other people’s clubs, Wollheim and his friends decided to create one of their own. They called it the Futurian Science Literary Society. Its first open meeting was held on September 18, 1938.”) But it’s just not that consequential. This lack makes Knight’s book lackluster compared to Moskowitz’s, even though the former is certainly more useful for any serious historian.

Immortal Storm holds a reader’s interest for a variety of reasons. I learned quite a bit about fannish history and the inside story of how fanzines used to work. I was astonished at how recognizable the fandom of yore is to fandom today. Even though I’m not hooked in to hardcore fandom, I’ve heard the charges of “not fannish enough,” which were also leveled back then. The way that some fans are dedicated to making their voices heard about the fiction itself [cough, cough “Guilty!”], whereas for other fans, fandom itself becomes their obsession, also rings true. By 1932 Moskowitz already describes fanzines that are dedicated to documenting fandom itself, without any reference to the fiction they’re all supposedly fans of. This phenomenon surprised me when I first started going to Cons (about 10 years ago now), but now I’ve gotten used to it. So, as long as you are not using this book as a primary source of unchallenged veracity, there is a lot here for the contemporary reader. You get a good feel for the shape of the field as it was in the 1920s and 30s, and Moskowitz’s burning intensity keeps you turning the pages. There are worse faults to have in a book of history.

(1) Blish also has this to say: “People who read nothing but science fiction and fantasy—the Moskowitz syndrome—are fundamentally non-readers, just as people who read nothing but detective stories are non-readers; their gaping jaws signal not wonder, but the utter absence of any thought or sensation at all. They are easy to spot by their reactions when a fifty-year-old story-telling innovation finally reaches science fiction: They are either utterly bowled over by it and proclaim it the wave of the future, or they find it incomprehensible and demand the return of E. E. Smith, who, unfortunately, is dead.”

I Blather on About Peter Hamilton's Latest at Strange Horizon

This is just a note to point you to a review of Peter F. Hamilton's latest block- (and foot-) buster, The Temporal Void. It's the second book in a trilogy and it shows, but it's also a gee-whiz-enjoyable space opera (with some of the moral squidgy-ness that seems to accompany that genre). Anyway, my review of it is up at Strange Horizons for all to see.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Utopia by Thomas More

Science fiction has a strong historical connection with Utopian literature. People have long dreamed of a better place where everything is perfect. Plato contented himself with having Socrates derive such a place from first principles around 360 B. C. in Republic. In 1516 Thomas More relates the conversation of a traveller who has been to such a place. His eponymous Utopia is set on an isolated and defensible island (although not so isolated that it does not trade with its neighbours). In 1887, Edward Bellamy sets his in the future (as we were running out of undiscovered islands by that time) in Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Charlotte Perkins Gilman goes back to the isolated valley in Herland, a feminist utopia published in 1915. Eventually we have to set them on distant planets, as Ursula K. Le Guin does in 1974's The Dispossessed (although I hasten to add that Le Guin's work is more nuanced and less didactic than the other examples here).

More's Utopia starts out with More and some friends meeting a traveler, Raphael Hythloday, in Flanders and inviting him home for dinner. They speak of people they know in common, lavishing praise on More's mentor, Cardinal John Morton. They speak of affairs back in England, and Raphael begins to mention that things could be much different there. He compares England’s affairs to a land far away in which he spent five years. At first he mentions very specific criticisms—particularly against the monarchy and court politics. They get into a debate that starts with More suggesting that such a well-travelled man as Raphael should be a court advisor. Raphael finds the idea abhorrent and explains why, getting into a debate with another of More's friends. Finally they ask Raphael for a full accounting of this land, Utopia, and that monologue makes up the bulk of this (not very long) book.

Generally speaking, the elements highlighted in the description of a utopian society reflect the primary concerns of the author. More appears to be most concerned with eliminating court politics, hereditary monarchy, and reforming criminal justice. He believes things could be much simpler. In the course of the lecture, he occasionally harkens back to Plato: the importance of wide educations for the citizenry, women being able to fight alongside as men, the importance of having an incorruptible ruling class. In fact, as in most other utopias one can think of, More believes the money is the root of all evil. His citizens do not pay for what they need and there are always enough of the necessities for everyone. In fact, they make the chains of their slaves (criminals) and their chamber-pots out of gold, to constantly remind themselves of its worthlessness. (But they still keep it handy should they need it to pay mercenaries to fight wars for them—no pacifism here!) Religion is a Good Thing as long as no one gets too exclusive about it; the inhabitants genially listen to and adopt bits of all the religions they're exposed to. The only danger zones: believing that you've found the one true answer and trying to damn all your non-believing fellows, and atheism. Atheism is Right Out.

In general, this seminal work of utopian literature has the same problem as all its successors: it requires perfect people. Despite the gestures towards a better criminal justice system, you're left to believe that either no one there would ever commit a crime, or those that do would take their chains of gold and hop on the very next trading ship out of there. Likewise, to believe that in the absence of gold men will resist being corrupted by pure power is probably overly optimistic.

Having read some of the more recent works of utopia (particularly Looking Backwards) I'm not sure that reading this founding book added much to my knowledge. It really is just like all the others, but with little fillips that place it in its historical context. It is interesting to put it in a line tracing from Plato (with whom the introduction assures me More was familiar)—I would guess that later works draw more from Utopia than from the Republic, although all share the same impulses. Certainly its important to be aware of that thread in amongst the different strands that make up science fiction’s past—as well as Westerns, Space Opera, Detective stories, etc. I for one am grateful that utopianism has waned over the last few decades—they really are tiresome and seem to exist only for people of good sense to argue with. I probably could have stuck with second-hand knowledge that Utopia started the whole shebang, but there's some value in seeing for myself just how little drift there's been in that technique over the centuries.