The Flavor of the Past

Every time you read a book, or a story, or even a newspaper article, you are time-traveling. You are going backward, to the point where the author wrote the book/story/article. Anything that happened after the piece was written, no matter how relevant it is to that story, was unknown to the author at the time of writing. It’s part of the perceived problem with newspapers–they’re old news by definition, even if it’s only a few hours old. Today’s reader’s want today’s news.

Well, guess what? They ain’t gonna get it. Even tweets are dated by the time it hits your stream. It can’t be helped: You know how the stars you see at night are only light that’s thousands of years old? Even what you see in person is only a picture of something that happened micro-seconds ago. You may judge it on what you know now, but it’s a product of then.

It’s gotten to be popular to judge past people by current mores. In our field, the World Fantasy Award is being changed from a bust of H.P. Lovecraft to something to be determined, because Lovecraft was a blatant racist. (I leave it to anyone who is interested to decide whether his racism was normal for the era, and whether he should be judged by contemporary standards.) This has lead to calls for others to be so judged, a slippery slope because most fiction written more than a couple of decades ago is racist/anti-feminist/anti-something by today’s standards. (Heaven help us who will be judged by tomorrow’s standards. We don’t know what they will be.) Some writers back in the day, of course, held views ahead of their time, and some simply addressed issues obliquely, if at all. Everyone needs to be his own judge and read what he feels comfortable with.

The question I have yet to see raised, however, is how we contemporary authors handle writing fiction which is set back in the day. The past has a flavor, and sometimes it doesn’t taste so good. Obviously, we can try frame our narratives in a way that is sensitive to cultural/racial issues, and it’s easy to avoid some of the crass stereotypes (the black man whose eyes roll up in his head when he sees a ghost, for example, or a woman whose only role is to wait around and be rescued). But while we may be creatures of the present (supposedly enlightened) day, our characters are not.

For example, I have written books where the hero is a WWI army officer, or lives in the 1930s. However progressively I want to portray these people, there are limits. If I make them too modern, I lose the historical feel. On the other hand, if one of my heroes refers to a black man as “boy,” because that’s how people spoke, I could lose my reader in a flash. (Nor would I be comfortable writing that–but it would be true to the period.) Now if I’m writing a villain, that’s one thing; you’re not supposed to like him anyway. But heroes? Maybe I could avoid the problem by avoiding black characters, but that’s a cheat, at best–and what about women? How can I portray the casual sexism of the era and preserve my hero’s likeability?

It’s a fine line, and so far (I think) I’ve managed to walk it because of the circumstances of those particular books, but if I persist in writing in those universes, it’s going to become a problem. The answer, for me, will be to be as true to the story as I can without being so insensitive that I can’t stand myself. In the end, I  believe it’s all any of us can do. If anyone has a better answer, I’d love to hear it.


Midday Confessions

I talked a bit ago about “classics,” and how some believe if you haven’t read them, you’re not properly a part of fandom, or some such silliness. As I pointed out then, there’s too much going on now to keep up with, let alone all the books and stories by people who have gone before.

But it’s not really a “fandom” issue, as in one affecting only readers; it affects writers, too. And for us, it really is an issue, because if you haven’t read with some breadth in the field, you will find yourself simply repeating what’s been done before. (Unless, ahem, of course, that’s what you meant to do.) And since this is (ostensibly) a forward-looking field, rehashing past glories isn’t the smartest way to go. (Please, do as I say, not as I do.)

Still, I’ve found recently that even writers haven’t necessarily read as widely in their own field as you’d think. A surprising number of my peers (based, granted, on a very small sampling) have not read some of the “great books” and “classic authors.” Even more haven’t seen many of the best-known entertainments, including Star Trek and its descendants, Battlestar Galactica (the second; the first is totally excusable), and the Alien movies.

It is certainly not my intent (nor my place) to out any of my fellows, but I can out myself, solely as a catalyst for conversation. In this increasingly judgmental world, with everyone and his brother being demonized for any “incorrect” speech and your reading choices labeling you a “sad puppy” or a “non-fan,” I want to stand up for being yourself. If there’s something you’ve never read or seen, or you didn’t like some classic story, or even if you like something that you’re afraid other people will think silly, say so in the comments after you read my confessions. I won’t judge. As you will see, I’m in no position to do so. So let’s begin…

  • I’ve never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. I have seen the movies.
  • I’ve not, on the other hand, seen any Alien movies.
  • I didn’t read Frankenstein until it was assigned in college.
  • I have a large collection of 1930s and 1940s pulp reprints, and I love them to death.
  • I was a big fan of Lost in Space.
  • I’ve missed the last two seasons of Doctor Who. Ironically, it’s because I haven’t had the time.
  • I hated Rocky Horror. Although I do love Rocky the Flying Squirrel.

Looking at it now, I can see my greatest failings have been outside the genre, doubtless because I spent too much time in the genre. Although I was an English major, for example, I never read To Kill a Mockingbird until this year. And I’ve never seen The Godfather.

Please, someone make some even more appalling confessions. Not that I’ll be judging you, of course.

Taos Toolbox 2016

Got an email today from Walter Jon Williams, founder of the Taos Toolbox “master class” seminar for writers held annually near Taos, New Mexico.

“I’m pleased to announce that Taos Toolbox 2016 will take place July 17-30, 2016, in our new venue at Angel Fire, NM, 25 miles from Taos. (Roughly the same distance from Taos as Taos Ski Valley.) Angel Fire is still in the Carson National Forest, and as surrounded by natural wonder as our old location.

Faculty includes Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams, along with special lecturers James S.A. Corey and indiepub guru Emily Mah Tippetts.

Please tell your friends and colleagues that applications will begin December 1, 2015. Nag and harass them if you have to! They’ll thank you for it in the end.”

The Toolbox isn’t for everyone; it assumes you have mastered the basic arts involved in putting words down on paper, and the basic science of submitting. In other words, it’s for writers who have a couple of sales under their belts. But for those who qualify, I recommend it very highly. It’s not only a good learning experience with excellent instructors, but the people you will meet there are your peers (and often more advanced than you). Those friendships will serve you well as you move up the ladder and expand your sphere of influence.

I went to Taos in 2008 and it’s likely the best thing I’ve done for my writing since learning to type.

Consider yourselves nagged.

I was at a football game yesterday, which my team lost. Part of it was due to my team’s mistakes, part of it due to the other team’s persistent effort, and part of it due to the absolutely atrocious officiating. (Yes, I know the losers always blame the referees, but this time it wasn’t simply hometown bias. They really sucked. It wouldn’t surprise me if official notice is taken of their incompetence.)

But I’m getting over it (slowly), largely, I think, because there is nothing I could have done about it. Nothing about my team’s performance, nor the other team’s, and certainly nothing about the officiating. In fact, no one could do anything about that. And there’s a lesson there, which I will now elucidate in a round-about way.

I’ve gotten to the point in my career where, thanks largely to the Internet, I am acquainted with quite a few writers. Most of them, I’m pretty sure, are younger than I am. And a good many, it seems, have had or are having, more success than I. And you know what?

Like the officiating at yesterday’s game, there’s not a damn thing I can do about that. (Actually, there’s nothing I can do about either their ages or their accomplishments.) Other writers are going to have successes that eclipse mine. Occasionally, I will have a success that some other writer wishes he had, and there will be nothing he can do about that, either.

So a large part of writing (a very large part) is accepting that there are things about one’s career that one cannot control. Other writers’ success, editorial preferences, the timing of submission windows, the timing of submissions that would have been sales except that someone else got to that editor with a similar story last week.*

It’s really tough when you know the person who’s being more successful than you. It’s kind of a survivor’s guilt in reverse; you want to be happy for her, but her accomplishment makes you sad. And maybe jealous. But probably it depresses you and you are unhappy about being unhappy.

It’s all very human, and it might make a good story if anyone other than a writer wanted to pay money to read it. But likely no one does. And you know what?

There’s nothing you can do about that, either. Except learn to live with it. And remember that no matter how jealous you are of someone else’s successes, there are people out there who are jealous of yours–and the first in line is You, five years ago.

*This has happened to me more than once. One time, however, the editor reconsidered and changed the magazine’s policy of one fiction piece per issue so she could buy mine. That has happened only once.

There seems to be a small storm gathering in SF in the past several days, shocking, yes, I know. The question arises about classics of the genre–not does anyone read them, but are they the best entry into science fiction? In other words, have Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke become more like books that are assigned in high school–read by many but enjoyed by few, because they are considered “mandatory” somehow like reading Romeo and Juliet or The Old Man and the Sea?

Some think if you don’t read the classics, you can’t understand the field. Some are saying that the old stuff is, well, old, and doesn’t reflect what today’s readers know, so you can’t expect them to get into it. And some advocate a third alternative, which is just to let people read what they want to read. SFF is too wide these days to cover all of what is currently being written, let alone delve far into the past.

It’s been pointed out that we are only now coming into this problem in SFF because the genre is relatively young. While SF stories have been around for almost 200 years (and fantasy has been in vogue since we sat around campfires and waited for daylight so we could see the sabertooths (saberteeth?)), it wasn’t until the last century that it truly came into its own. The first Worldcon was only held in 1939.

We simply haven’t had to deal with the phenomenon of dueling “classics” until now. (We will avoid the hideous discussion of how you define a “classic.” Let’s just treat it as we would pornography and move on.*) But even with the greatest of writers, their stories eventually pass away. Even Shakespeare will fall into obscurity someday. We simply have to get used to the fact that it is happening with science fiction.

It isn’t even a new thing. There are a lot of authors out there who were hugely popular in the 1930s and 1940s whom almost no one knows today. I was at a writing retreat with more than a dozen accomplished writers a few years ago, and the question came up: “Who was Lester Dent?” I was the only one who knew the answer, but in the 1930s, Dent (author of the Doc Savage pulps) was enormously popular. He was a “classic” in the sense that Doc Savage was the direct inspiration for many of today’s superheroes (starting with a guy named Superman), but who reads him now? Almost no one. What are you going to do?

Every generation sees its stars, and a few of those become “classics” that people will be reading fifty or a hundred years later. Most won’t. But for a lot of readers, even those few won’t be their entry into the field. There’s too much else going on. It’s only after years of accumulated experience that you learn that even those whose stories may now be considered “quaint,” or even inappropriate for contemporary views, are worth reading.

And that’s okay. Because if you can’t stand the test of time, well, then, you aren’t a classic. That doesn’t mean no one will ever read you. Very little disappears anymore. Your work will simply wait until someone comes along who appreciates you. And then maybe they’ll make a movie out of your forgotten book, and you’ll be popular once more. Maybe you’ll become a classic the second time around.

*As in, you know it when you see it.

Odds and Ends

It’s been a while since I posted here, and there still aren’t any huge issues I need to address, but since I know that blog-withdrawal is a horrible thing, I’m stopping by to sprinkle a few crumbs to sustain you until the next big idea stumbles in.

Burning Midnight giveaway

I don’t normally do book reviews (since I have so little time to read), and I can’t very well review this book because it isn’t out yet, but Hugo-winner and multi-award nominee Will McIntosh’s new book, Burning Midnight, is being featured with a giveaway through Goodreads. If you’re on Goodreads, you should check it out. Although a YA book, I can assure you that I read the original short story several years ago, and it’s still one of the finest short stories in memory. I have been waiting (and militating) for Burning Midnight for years, and it’s here at last. (Disclosure: Will is a friend of mine. Don’t let that scare you.)

The Invisible World update

Because people have asked, my own opus, called (at least this week) The Invisible World, sequel to The Invisible City,  nears completion. After a flurry of writing completely unrelated to NaNoWriMo, I expect the first draft to be finished before the end of the month.

Awards season is almost upon us

Seems we just escaped last year’s Hugo debacle and here we are again. The Nebula balloting will begin this month, and nominations for the Hugos open in January. I know the Sad Puppies are up for another fight, and this year’s Worldcon Guests of Honor include Patrick and Theresa Neilsen-Hayden (which will give the Puppies indigestion), but I hope that cooler heads will prevail this time around. Arguing about the Hugos is fun, but let’s try to keep it about the Hugos.

And that’s all for now. I have a book to write…

So now Fox News is defending supervillains. Fox and Friends recently defended the Supreme Serpent against Captain America (who is now apparently not living up to his name), because preying on immigrants only meant that he was concerned with illegal immigration. Yeah, well, other than the fact that Fox is now taking its talking points from a comic book, and the bad guy at that, who could have a problem with this…?

In fact, I think Fox has dropped the ball–and so have comics. For years we’ve been beaten up, kidnapped, threatened, terrorized, and even killed by supervillains who didn’t grow up here. If the government were doing its job, none of these guys would be a problem, and Cap, Batman, Spider-Man…those guys could concentrate of real, home-grown American crooks. As a public service, then, this site is going to call out some of those non-native invasive species who should be deported post-haste.

Doctor Doom. Let’s cover the big guy first. Sure, he’s got diplomatic immunity as dictator of Latveria, but can’t we revoke his diplomatic status or something? I mean, who’s more important, Doc Doom or the New York-born Fantastic Four?

The Red Skull. I know we let in a lot of Nazi rocket scientists after the war, but he wasn’t one of them. So how does he get here to fight Captain America all the time?

Batroc the Leaper. French. Again, Captain America (contrary to Fox) is the only hero living up to his name.

Ra’s Al-Ghul. I mean, the guy’s the head of the oldest criminal gang in the world. And Batman is the only one who wants to send his sorry behind home?

Pretty much everybody Iron Man’s fought in the movies. Whiplash? Russian. The Mandarin? Supposedly Asian, probably English, but certainly not American. And while we’re on the English, haven’t there been about a thousand English bad guys in movies in the last thirty years? We’re way behind the curve here!

Loki. Now there’s somebody we can agree doesn’t belong here. Good thing we’ve got Thor. Wait, what? He just plopped down without a visa? Good gravy, we’re going to need some heavy hitter to boot him out. How about Wonder Woman? Seriously? Okay, Superman. He’ll take them all–no. No way. Superman? Really? I thought he was from Kansas!

I guess he’s not from Kansas anymore…


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