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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke


Ninety years old today and still going strong. But more on this in a few minutes...

STUPEFYING STORIES update: Okay, we've finally got the last, cross-fingers, knock on wood, technical problems solved, and the thing is actually on the presses and in production. The official launch date is August 30, as that's when we're supposed to have finished printed copies ready to ship, although I won't really believe that until I actually have them in-hand. Stay tuned for more details.

Having now gone through the whole process of creating and producing a self-published book from beginning to (almost) the end, I don't see how anyone but a masochist or a total nutcase does it more than once. Of course, that's what my wife says about childbirth.

On a related note: while browsing through a used-book store the other day, I came across a copy of the Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show anthology that Tor put out a few years ago. To tell the truth, I felt kind of humbled, because the OSCIGM book was so... fat. Now that is the kind of book I could be putting out if I had major corporate backing, a serious budget, and an editor to do all the actual work, so that I could get back to doing what I actually want to be doing, which is writing new fiction.

Questions for the ensemble: does anyone here have any experience with the IGM? Have any new writers that you're aware of emerged from that workshop? What is the IGM doing that we should be doing, and what are they doing that we should stay the heck away from? If you've tried both, why are you here instead of there, or conversely, if you've taken your time and talent over there but still stop back here from time to time, why? Most importantly, is the Friday Challenge actually doing something usefully different from the IGM, or are we just a smaller, cheaper, and slightly later copy, and would we be better off ending our campaign now and telling everyone to go vote Orson Scott Card?

What I'm reading: because some people for some reason seem to think this is interesting.

R.U.R., by Karel Capek. Just about finished with it. I can see why this play is more talked about than actually read or performed.

Project Orion: The True Story of The Atomic Spaceship, by George Dyson—yes, Freeman Dyson's son, who remarkably is not an atomic mutant. A 4,000-ton spaceship propelled by exploding atomic bombs? And they actually got as far as a scaled-down working test model? Ah, for the good old days, when ARPA and the Pentagon were willing to fund truly mad science!

Generation Kill, by Evan Wright. I've long argued that most military sci-fi writers were mostly interested in refighting WWII with cooler weapons, except for those writers of my generation who are mostly interested in refighting the Vietnam war with cooler weapons and more cynical politics. If you have a desire to write military sci-fi, I strongly recommend that you look into this book, as it will open your eyes to a whole 'nother way of thinking—and should at least give you one or two chills along the way. Granted, these are U.S. Marines we're talking about, and not merely U.S. Marines, but Marines of the First Recon Battalion. But when they shoot their way out of an ambush, in the process nearly leveling an Iraqi town, and afterward one of the Marines is really pumped because it was just like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, only with real guns and real explosions...

These are not your daddy's or your granddaddy's U.S. Marines.

Finally, I don't know the name of the book or the author, but I have to slip in a moment of paternal pride here. The Kid was reading a new SF novel that he'd just bought and wasn't more than a quarter of the way into it when he stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad? This book is just Black Hawk Down rewritten as science fiction." Then he went on to tick off the checklist of substitutions: another planet for Mogadishu, aliens for Somalis, the Imperial Space Marines or some such thing instead of Army Rangers, cooler weapons (always a requisite in military SF), etc., etc., concluding with, "I was really looking forward to reading this book, but now I'm really disappointed by this author."

Keep that in mind when you cook up the plot and all the baroque details for your big hard clanking military SF splat-'em-up. If a 15-year-old kid can spot the bits you lift, you probably can't get away with it.

Some notes on the business: had a depressing conversation with a writer-friend the other day, mostly centering on how rapidly the industry is contracting.
Sorry, interruption. There was a hummingbird in the nasturiums and I had to stop writing for a few minutes to watch it. I don't know why I'm so delighted when hummingbirds show up, but I am. The finches and chickadees are beginning to feel slighted.
Anyway, it was the usual litany of woe, not for this writer, but for other writers she knows. The hardcover originals market remains relatively strong, but the paperback originals market is vanishing overnight. Contracts are being canceled, book releases delayed, publishers are cutting back their lines or even folding completely (most "publishers" these days actually being wholly owned subsidiaries or imprints of multinational entertainment oligopolies, which can be erased from existence at a whim during a corporate re-org); advances for next books are being drastically reduced while publishers' demands for author participation in promotional work are escalating dramatically, and nobody seems to have a handle on the ebook download market. "The thing to be right now," she said, "is a dead writer. Nobody expects Heinlein or V. C. Andrews to do webcasts, book tours, maintain a blog and a Facebook page, and Twitter all day long."

While I feel for those previously successful novelists who are suddenly discovering that they need to do something else for a living, having long since watched my own writing career wither and die I can afford to be a bit more philosophical. Historically, being able to make your living purely by writing fiction has been a very rare thing. Sir Walter Scott was probably the first "modern" writer to do so, and the list of 19th century writers who did nothing but write fiction—and did not also have a teaching post, or an undemanding government job, or a substantial inheritance, or a well-funded spouse—is vanishingly small: James Fennimore Cooper, Emile Zola, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens... Jules Verne was a successful novelist, but he also wrote journalism and satires, and it was the stage rights to Around the World in 80 Days that made him rich. Mark Twain apparently made most of his money on non-fiction and lecture tours. You have to get to the 20th century before you start finding a lot of writers making their livings from doing nothing but writing fiction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was probably the first American writer to get really rich by writing popular fiction, but that was primarily because he seemed to have a unique genius for creating characters and environments that adapted well to that strange new medium, the moving picture, combined with the business savvy to make certain that he and his heirs retained control of the rights. That his books have remained popular for the century since is probably largely the result of those great Frazetta covers Ace put on all his books when they reissued them in the 1970s. For example:

(Henry, Kersley: if you were wondering where that line about an age "when women still had vestigial tails" came from; this is it.)

It was not until the 1950s and the advent of the paperback originals market that it became possible for large numbers of writers to make their livings by writing only novels. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that it became possible for large numbers of science fiction and fantasy writers to make their livings writing only novels.

And now the market has shifted again. Whatever experience it is that young readers used to get from reading science fiction or fantasy, they're getting it someone else now. My suspicion is that the teenage girls have moved off into paranormal romance—although that sub-genre shows strong signs of being supersaturated already—while the teenage boys have moved into gaming.

The choice for the writer is simple. Adapt to the changing market conditions or get out. Either you are a writer, who enjoys writing and wants to write, in which case you will find other outlets for your verbal creativity, or else you're a plodding careerist who wants guaranteed income, in which case, boy, are you in the wrong field.

Anent Ray Bradbury: And once again I've gone off in six different directions simultaneously and not written that which I started out intending to write. (Actually, I intended to write this column yesterday, but then the dog ate something that did not agree with her and I spent the afternoon and evening steam-cleaning the carpets instead.)

I had—still have—a deep affection for Bradbury, going back to when I was 12 or 13 years old and first discovered The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. I'd read SF before that—a lot of SF, largely Clarke, Asimov, Norton, and especially the Heinlein juveniles that were serialized in Boys' Life—but somehow I've never held the same affection for, say, Lucky Starr and The Pirates of The Asteroids that I've always held for Bradbury. Perhaps it has something to do with Bradbury being the first writer who made me say, "Wow! I want to write like that!" (After which, throughout my teenage years, I tried to, and produced a lot of Bad Imitation Bradbury.)

I've been loathe to reread Bradbury lately, for fear of shattering my happy memories. I finally got around to reading The Halloween Tree last year, and frankly, it was weird. I've had From The Dust Returned sitting on my to-read stack ever since, but have not been able to work up the nerve to tackle it.

But today being Ray Bradbury's 90th birthday and all, here's my question for you. What is the one story you would choose to re-read today, to celebrate this man's amazing life and career? The lines are now open.

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