Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Night’s Work

Several friends have been writing about dreams and dreaming recently. So here’s this…

I rarely write about dreams, though dreams are an important part of my life.
Not that I remember them very well. Usually, I wake up knowing I’ve had one, but unless I’m diligent enough to scribble down a few of the details, it’s gone by dawn. All I remember is that I had one, but little else.
Still, dreams are important to me. Some of my earliest memories are dreams – scary, unsettling, mind-bending stuff (yes, my dreams were so weird I never quite understood the allure of hallucinogens). To this day, if I wake up from a dream, even if I remember not one detail, I can still feel the emotional stir the dream generated in my consciousness. It’s like an earthquake I didn’t witness, but all around me are the overturned chairs and tables, I see the cracks in the walls and the paintings slipped from their hooks.
So it surprised me one night a few weeks ago when I awoke from a dream, remembering a number of details, and – not only that, but staying up two and a half hours afterward, running through those few details again and again.
Two and a half hours.
I dreamed I was in a big place, several rooms, each room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – hundreds and hundreds of old books in old bindings. I could see the loose threads on the corners of some of the old covers. They were all sorts of books: big, small, oversized, paperbacks, bound magazines and journals, albums, notebooks. It looked like stuff you would find in a library or a second hand bookstore – except it was mine. I knew it was all mine. Most of it was old. I opened a few volumes and flipped through the pages. News magazines. Histories. Fashion magazines with spreads of beautiful women dressed in the top haute couture of fifty years ago.
I was there with a friend – a person I’ve known for over forty years. I haven’t seen him in ages, but we keep in touch. He was going through some of the stuff too, but he seemed more curious, intellectually intrigued, as compared to me, who looked at all these volumes, thinking, “This is mine. All this stuff! How did I manage to acquire all this stuff?”
I awoke. I didn’t sit up, but turned my head and stared at the luminous digital clock next to my bed. Three-fifteen a.m. or thereabouts. I kept thinking about the shelves and shelves of old volumes. At first, I was obsessed with the amount, and that so many of those books were things I hadn’t looked at in years – things I didn’t need in years. It was old stuff. Stuff that should be gotten rid of.
I couldn’t imagine just throwing it all away. I have a deep aversion to throwing away books. You may suffer from the same. I remember, when I was a grade-schooler, the kids next door went to a Catholic school, where they had to buy their textbooks, and at the end of every year they threw their texts into a garbage can and set them on fire. I was young, but I’d already read my World War II history, and the years that led up to it. I had read and seen pictures of the Nazis burning books at the Reichstag. I knew what book burning meant, and it has stayed with me all these days.
So I stared into the dark, thinking of ways that I might ease myself of the burden of all the old stuff I still had – not as much stuff as in the dream, but I have shelves, and boxes – lots and lots of boxes – that I no longer needed, or wanted, and should probably get rid of. Were there stores that still sold old magazines, like the places I went to in my youth? Would they take on more? ABC Magazine Service: “Four floors of magazines!” How about eBay? Could I sell this stuff on my web page? I didn’t have an up-to-date web page. Well, then I’d need to create a new website, with a page devoted to selling old stuff. Call it “The Hobo’s Dungeon” …
Three-thirty a.m.
Three-forty-five a.m.
Four-twenty-five a.m.
Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me: THE DREAM IS NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS!
Not the books themselves, but what the books represent.
What do they represent?
It wasn’t the physical “stuff” I needed to get rid of (though my old stacks of The New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t be missed anytime soon). It was the “stuff” inside me.
What stuff inside me?
Four-thirty a.m.
Before I had gone to bed, I was thinking. I was remembering how much of my early life was spent with books, and comic books, and any sort of reading matter I could find, including the proverbial matchbooks and road maps. You probably did the same thing.
Reading is a means to fill a hunger for learning – an overwhelming desire to know things. To know the world – the whole damn cosmos. But there’s another reason to read. We read to fill a hole. The hole is a great emptiness that threatens to devour our souls. The emptiness is loneliness.
We read because we are lonely.
I thought about the dream, about the rooms loaded with books. That enormous library – tiny in comparison to the ones imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, but big enough for me – was my loneliness. My emptiness – or my effort to fill that emptiness. It occurred to me that I could heave all those books into the abyss of my emptiness and they would disappear into the darkness without making a sound, so far away was the bottom of that pit.
The dream was “about” gauging the size of my loneliness, and my loneliness was too big to measure. That need to “get rid of all this” was, I suppose, my way of saying that the abyss couldn’t be filled, but it might, possibly, maybe, be left behind.
I’ll be sixty-two years old in a few months. I’ve done my share of wandering in the wilderness. I won’t bore you with autobiography. You can probably fill in the blanks with your own tales of solitude and agony.
We’re writers, yes? If you’re reading this you probably are, whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. I sure as hell am not smart enough to distinguish between cause and effect or chicken and egg, but loneliness and writers are lifetime companions. We may write for the same reason we read. Maybe we are lonely because we are writers, or we are writers because we are lonely. I don’t know.
Five a.m.
So, why? Why am I dreaming this dream now? Couldn’t I have had this dream on any night in the last sixty-one years?
I don’t know. It may be that I have reached an age where I can leave behind the wormhole of loneliness. It won’t change. It won’t disappear as if by magic. It’s not as if by some psychotherapeutic realization I can walk away from the abyss. You can’t. You can pretend to forget, but pretending just brings you back to that old bottomless pit.
You move on. You take the loneliness with you because it comes with the territory, but you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or waste more time throwing more books down into it.
You can’t fill the wormhole, but if you’re lucky, you can grow enough to contain the wormhole within yourself, with a little room to spare to get your work done. Because you’re a writer, and writers always have work to do – even when they’re dreaming.
Five-thirty a.m.
I didn’t mention this before, but there was one more thing.
A song.
All through this time, during the dream and all through the two and a half hours I ruminated over that dream, there was a song in the back of my head. An instrumental. It sounded like a pop song from the sixties as played by a surf band. Or a surf instrumental played by a pop band.
I had never heard the song before. It was just there in my head. Created in the forge of my unconscious.
That’s happened to me before. I have a reasonably good ear for tunes, so I know when my mental jukebox dredges up an old number I forgot about decades ago. I can tell the difference between a song I remember and a song I’m hearing for the first time.
This song I heard for the first time. It was coming out of me. And it wasn’t too bad. Not a chart-busting hit, but not bad.
I suppose I could have run to the living room, taken out my guitar, tuned it up to sketch out the melody and chords (I’m lousy at reading and writing music on paper), but for some reason I let it go. Stupid, maybe. I mean, who doesn’t need a new song every now and then? And when the song comes into being without invitation or coercion or provocation – when it just comes out of your unconscious fully formed, why not take it?
Alas, I did not.
Maybe I had some hope that some time, since it was in my own head, it would come out again, and the next time maybe I would catch it and drag it up into my consciousness.
For the moment, though, the song had performed its function. The song, like the dream, was telling me what I needed to know.
I need a new song.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sixty Years (and a day) Ago Today…

(Notes toward something bigger – if I get the chance to write it)

Sixty years and one day ago (March 8, 1957), Robert Bloch delivered a paper at the University College of the University of Chicago. He was one of four authors asked to make presentations on the subject of science fiction and social criticism. The other three were Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth and Alfred Bester.
Among such luminaries, you would think, perhaps, Bloch would take a back seat, but it is Bloch’s essay which spoke most clearly to me when I read it again just recently.
The best way to appreciate it, of course, is to find a copy of The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959, Advent:Chicago, Third Edition 1969). You’ll avoid any impressions gathered more from my selections and interpretations.
Every now and then, I stick my nose in a book and find something interesting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; no plan. I grab a book off the shelf because I hear it calling to me. Many books call to me, and they do it all the time. But some call louder than others.
I’ll look at a book and it looks back at me. You have a few dozen other things to read, but you pull it off the shelf because it looks back at you in that certain way. I’m sure it’s happened to you as well.
With this book – well, the series occurred in the 1950s, when science fiction (at least in the short form), was a bastion of social criticism. Literary trends were moving away from the gritty realism of the pre-war years. And U. of C. was a natural place to have this kind of confab, because the faculty and students (if not the administration) always leaned pretty strongly to the left (except in the Economics department, even pre-Milton Friedman). U. of C. also had one of the first science fiction clubs in the area. The stars were aligned.
Heinlein’s speech reads like a speech from Robert Heinlein. The funny thing about Heinlein is that, whether you find him entertaining or infuriating (or both), he writes like a man who has worked out his story and is damn well going to stick to it. It reads like either an “official statement,” a cover story, or an alibi. You can chain him to a rack, apply red-hot pokers to any part of him, but he won’t break his story, so don’t even try.
Kornbluth starts out stating that there’s no social criticism in science fiction, then he goes into a very effective close reading of 1984. What he accomplishes, mostly, is demonstrating that he maintains high literary standards, knows the territory of any able literary critic of the time, and concludes that most contemporary science fiction, with notable exceptions, doesn’t quite make the grade.
Bester, in his sly way, tries to dissuade his audience from looking to science fiction for social criticism. He values science fiction as a necessary diversion. He’s not writing off science fiction, because that diversion, he believes, is important to intellectual growth. It’s as if he’s trying to say, if you’ll excuse my summarizing, that science fiction works better when it doesn’t deliberately try to address important topics, but rather, unconsciously, touches the sympathetic vibrations of the human experience.
Bloch, however, is forever casting a leering eye at the entire process. He jokes and puns, as if he wishes to impress you that he is the least serious of this volume’s contributors, but almost from the outset he delivers the most serious message of them all.
After making a few initial jokes and puns, he very briefly outlines a number of American novels that may be considered social criticism. He then presents a long list of science fiction novels and places them into three categories: Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man.
Throughout his speech he mentions exceptions, but he finds the majority of science fiction novels that engage in what can be considered social criticism somewhat simplistic

 And just how does this wide assortment of writers view the world of the present and the extrapolated society of the future? Ignoring the extra-terrestrial invaders, ignoring the gadgetry, ignoring the universal disaster background, one encounters a fundamental dramatic premise known to all eminent critics who are six years old or older. The world is plainly divided into ‘cops and robbers,’ ‘cowboys and Indians’ or ‘good guys and bad guys.’
There’s a reason, of course. People who have come to revere science almost as a religion place great faith in the ability of technologists to safeguard our future.”

The criticism, as it were, in many “socially critical” science fiction novels, is that the bad guys are not paying enough attention – or too much attention, in the wrong way – to science.
Bloch lists and annotates a number of common elements he finds in these novels. All the words in caps come from Bloch, so excuse me if I don’t put them all in quotes. 1.) There’s a TOTALITARIAN STATE; 2.) there’s an UNDERGROUND bent on toppling said state; 3.) the use by one side or the other of FORCIBLE PSYCHOTHERAPUTIC TECHNIQUES; 4.) the assumption that SCIENCE WILL GO ALONG WITH THE GAG – especially when it involves brainwashing; 5.) ECONOMIC INCENTIVE – the motivation on either side of the battle is to make a buck (Milton Friedman would be proud); 6.) A VARIATION OF PRESENT DAY ‘ANGLO-SAXON’ CULTURE WILL CONTINUE TO RULE THE WORLD; 7.) when it comes to space exploration WE WILL COLONIZE AND RULE THE NATIVES; 8.) THE FUTURE HOLDS LITTLE  BASIC CHANGE in human nature; 9.) INDIVIDUALISM IS DEAD.

The hero rebels, yes – but not superimpose his own notions upon society; merely to restore the ‘normal’ culture and value-standards of the mass-minds of the twentieth century. You won’t find him fighting in defense of incest, homosexuality, free love, nihilism, the Single Tax, abolition of individual property-rights, euthanasia or the castration of the tonsils of Elvis Presley. Stripped right down to the bare essentials, our hero just wants to kick the rascals out and put in a sound business administration …
When we review these premises, we discover that most social criticism in science fiction novels is not directed against present-day society at all … Our authors, by and large, seem to believe wholly in the profit-incentive; in the trend to superimpose obedience and conformity by means of forcible conditioning; in the enduring liaison between the government, the military and scientists and technologists; in Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy, if not necessarily outright ‘white supremacy’; in the sexual, aesthetic and religious mores of the day. Their criticism of the totalitarian states they envision is merely a matter of degree. They attempt to show the apparent dangers of allowing one group to ‘go a little too far’; actually, reduced to its essence, they merely echo Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Hence the necessity of rebellion in the form of some sort of Underground movement. But this is always assumed to be just a temporary measure; ruthless because one must ‘fight fire with fire’ and the ends justify the means. The implication is that once Law and order are restored, everything will settle down to a general approximation of life as it is lived today – if not in actuality, at least in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.

Science fiction, as it were, rebels against the status quo when it is not the currently-recognized status quo.
When it comes to scientific and technological progress, the science fiction of his day is brilliantly inventive. But whether it occurs fifty, one hundred, or a thousand years in the future, the basic social structure remains the same – or an effort is made to restore it.

But when it comes to a question of personal ethics, when it comes to a question of social justice – again and again we run right smack into our old friend Mike Hammer [Mickey Spillane was referenced earlier] in disguise.
How, in this marvelous world of the future, does one go about settling an argument?
With the same old punch in the jaw … the same old kick in the guts … the same old bullet in the same old belly.

The suggestion throughout his talk is that if the world can change in such striking ways technologically, why would it not change human behavior as well? And why doesn’t the current (for his time) science fiction novel address this possibility?

The science fiction field has often been likened to a literary world in miniature. But one searches in vain through that world for a Jesus Christ … a Sydney carton… or even a George Babbitt or a Leopold Bloom.
The common man is seldom the hero; if so, he doesn’t remain so very long, but becomes a Key Figure …
Isaac Asimov recently pointed out that science fiction heroes are permitted to be intelligent. This is admirable. And yet, emotionally, most of them are primitive and immature.
Where is the science fiction novel with the ordinary family man as hero … or the teacher … or the creative artist … or the philosopher? Where is the science fiction novel that contents itself with showing us the everyday world of the future, devoid of Master Spies and Master Technicians and Master Psychologists and Master Criminals?

He hastens to mention the exceptions. He also hastens to exclude short fiction from his admitted generalizations. And he states a possible reason for the shortcoming of science fiction novels (as opposed to short fiction): publishers won’t allow much more than this sheltering of the status quo in its content; readers won’t buy such highfalutin (and radical) books.
And here I am, in 2017, sixty years into Robert Bloch’s future, fascinated that Bloch is the only author among the four concerned that in the decades proceeding from 1957 a few differences may arise in the social order and that science fiction might address those differences.
Bloch himself, on the subject, seems rather sanguine.

But is science fiction, therefore, failing in its function of social criticism?
Quite the contrary.
When a literature of imaginative speculation steadfastly adheres to the conventional outlook of the community regarding heroes and standards of values, it is indeed offering the most important kind of social criticism – unconscious social criticism.
With its totalitarian societies, its repudiation of individual activity in every role save that of the self-appointed leader and avenger, science fiction dramatizes the dilemma which torments modern man. It provides a very accurate mirror of our own problems, and of our own beliefs which fail to solve these problems.
Gazing into that mirror, we might find it profitable to indulge in a bit of that reflection.

Of course, much in this essay puts me in mind of the recent battles within the science fiction community: the calls by some to return the field to its 1950s “heyday,” or perhaps to “make science fiction great again.” What does that really mean?
I wouldn’t speculate as to whether Bloch would be gratified to see a move to greater representation of diversity in the field, but I wonder if the generalizations he made in 1957 would be true in 2017. Maybe not in the media, which still seems tied to the conventions of the previous century, but at least in its literature. Wouldn’t it?
And what about now? What generalizations could we make about science fiction and social criticism today?
And, presuming that we have made some progress, how does the future look from here? It may still prove profitable to regard that mirror reflection.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Not Easily Conquered

Last Saturday, I listened to FDR’s Fireside Chat number 20 on Steve Darnall’s Those Were the Days radio program on WDCB, a local college station. It’s an Old Time Radio (OTR) extravaganza, and for thirty-nine years they have declared February “Jack Benny Month.” Jack Benny is too good to miss, so I snuck away from the sf convention I was attending, sat in my car, listening to the radio.
This year, Darnall has also been observing the seventy-fifth anniversary of our entrance into the Second World War, therefore the playing of the Fireside Chat, broadcast February 22 – seventy-five years and a day from today.
 The news wasn’t all that bright. We were having our butts kicked in the Pacific. Rumors abounded about our unpreparedness for this struggle. The isolationists had quieted down, but some of the most adamant were still suggesting some sort of negotiated settlement that didn’t sound much better than capitulation or appeasement.
FDR, interestingly, didn’t sugar-coat the circumstances. The situation was dire, but he tried his best to present the facts and dispel the rumors as “honestly” as could be expected in those days. I put “honestly” in quotes because the U.S., after all, was in a war. Nevertheless, it was intriguing to hear how forthcoming he was. He asked American newspapers to print a map of the world in their Sunday editions so that listeners could follow along as he described the battlegrounds and strategic locations where the U.S. and its allies were engaged.
FDR was not an entirely exemplary figure. He made a number of decisions we have lived to regret, not least of which was the internment of most of our Nisei population. And yet, compare his approach to that of the executive who currently resides (at least weekdays) in the White House.
What most impressed me was the way he ended his chat.
He quoted Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls,” then said, “Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much.”
General George Washington, FDR tells us, had this quote from Paine read to his troops (who had been suffering defeat after defeat): “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the sacrifice, the more glorious the triumph.”
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”
Plenty of us need to remember that now.
Any struggle against any tyrant at any time is never easy. Any struggle against any injustice is never short. It can, in fact, be the work of a lifetime.
When we forget that, we risk the loss of all we’ve gained so far. We risk it now, as we have so many times in our history.
Tomorrow can be better, but not by trying to bring back yesterday, especially when it’s a yesterday that never was. Tomorrow can be better, but every advance needs to defended.
FDR ended the chat: “So spoke Americans in the year 1776.
“So speak Americans today!”

And maybe, if we're lucky, today as well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A "Bomp" May be in Your Future

And so, another saur story comes into the world.
I’m very glad and relieved to say that “The Man Who Put the Bomp” will be in the March/April 2017 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
What took me so long?
Well might you ask.
You may recall that “Orfy” came out in 2010. That’s a long span between stories, isn’t it?
Life always gets in the way of a good story, at least for me.
Many people like these stories, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Another group of people are not so fond of them. Well, you can’t please everyone. Those folks usually talk about them being maudlin or sentimental, and I wonder what it is in my work that comes off that way. I’m not particularly maudlin, not very sentimental – not really. If anything, I would think folks would object to my stories because they’re just crazy. Bioengineered dinosaurs! DIY robots! Dinosaurs sending messages to “Space Guys”! Misanthropic stegosaurs! Tyrannosaurs writing novels under pseudonyms! Sauropods in cardboard castles and shoebox labs!
What insanity is this?
Honestly, I don’t know. I paint what I see.
I see creatures trying to recover from a bad experience with humanity. I happen to know a lot of folks who can empathize with that situation. Humanity is an experience from which many of us need to recover. Every time it looks like we’ve found the right path to a sort of Arthur C. Clarke-ian transcendence, we scoot down a blind alley of ignorance and despair. It’s like we can’t help ourselves.
A number of people insist my saur stories aren’t science fiction, but fantasy. Call them what you like, but I write science fiction. It’s just that the science may not be in the places you expect to find it, but it’s there.
A lot of readers who like the stories like Axel. A lot of people who don’t like the stories don’t like them because they don’t like Axel. A lot of readers on both sides mistake me for Axel. Would that I were. Maybe then it wouldn’t take me so long to write a saur story.
When we write, we incorporate many parts of ourselves to fill in the places we need for our characters. At times I can be Axel. At times I am Agnes. I would like to be Doc more often, and would like to be Tibor as little as possible, though too often I find myself humming the Tiborean National Anthem.
I have never been Geraldine – well, maybe once or twice.
Science fiction, like any other literary form, is a way to exercise our need to tell a story. A story can be simple and straightforward. It can even be superficial. But, as E. M. Forster pointed out many years ago, you’ve got to have one. A story is a construction. A story is artifice. A story is a tool. A story is a structure. But it can be more than all these things combined, if you’re lucky, if you’re doing it right, if you’re willing to risk looking like a complete fool when you’re done with the thing. And science fiction, at least for me, is the form that is most flexible – that can take any shape, imitate old shapes or create new ones.
You have to keep looking for the story until the story finds you. Once it has found you, the best thing you can do is follow it, trust it – trust it with all your heart, craft, skill and anything you have that passes for talent. Trust it enough that you’ll abandon all those gifts to keep the story on its trajectory.
Whether I’ve managed to do that with this novella, I can’t imagine. The great Chicago poet Paul Carroll used to say, “Our poems are wiser than we are.” I would respectfully add that our stories are also wiser than we ... even when they’re stupid.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

And I Thought I Had a Bad Year …

We are sitting here, with the end of 2016 in sight. I haven’t had the best of years, but who am I to complain? The planet has had a really miserable year.
This in itself should be something of a lesson: I am not alone.
And you, I hasten to add, can take comfort from it as well: You are not alone, either.
We have each other.
For better or worse.
If you’re reading this, I presume you are not dead. Not everyone who experienced 2016 can make that claim. Not only did many people of note expire sometime between January 1 and now; many people whose obituary would not make the major news media, but people near and dear, either to myself or to friends and family, haven’t made it to raise a glass as this year passes into the rearview landscape. Many of them died in dreadful, painful, unnecessary ways. We are poorer for their absence.
And many of our fellow humans who occupy this planet apparently have mistaken the rearview for the windshield. Reactionary forces are hard at work across the globe, on a mission to make one part of it or another “great,” and add “again” to that, because the rearview mirror is a rose-colored glass, alas.
Those who oppose the reactionaries are not without fault. Many of them followed the notion that whatever didn’t agree with their consensus was irrelevant. They believed this even with significant evidence to the contrary.
So here we are. What do we do now?
I’m not making a list. What I do suggest is that we don’t screw up as much as we did in 2016.
Did we screw up?
Take a look around.
And make no mistake, it is our screw-up. Collectively. We didn’t all screw up in the same way. Each in our own unique way, we screwed up to the point that it profits us not to look for any particular group (or even groups) upon whom to fix blame.
A bunch of suckers got conned.
A bunch of grifters worked the marks, and worked them good.
A bunch of folks who were smart enough not to get conned looked the other way or pretended that a significant number of their fellow humans would not fall for the con. Or worse: that the suckers didn’t really matter.
A bunch of folks raised on “good guys and bad guys” scenarios, figured out who the villains were and pointed their fingers at them because that’s what you’re supposed to do just before you say “Bang! You’re dead.” Except the villains didn’t always fall down.
There’s enough blame to go around.
When the suckers fall for the con, we all pay the bill. And it looks like we’ll be paying this bill off for some time. Thank goodness for installment plans and credit.
What I’ll be doing, I hope, is to redeem myself a little from my own screw ups. I want to do more of what I have been doing, with maybe a little more success. I work in that field of the arts that prides itself, rightfully or wrongfully, in looking at the world clearly and honestly, reporting back the good news, the bad news and what hasn’t been deemed news yet, if ever. We may take sides, but we do so ready to critique ignorance, hypocrisy, magical thinking and outright delusional beliefs wherever we find them, even among those on our own side.
I want to count myself among the artists with an eye on tomorrow as well as today, and one who is ready whenever the opportunity presents itself to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way! We can do better.”
I live in a nation that has never respected education. Not really. We’ve given it lip service. We confuse it with “training.” We confuse it with measurements.
We also pride ourselves in “independent thinking,” but for many of us, when we think, we’re doing so with anything but independence; and when we’re independent, we’re being so without thinking.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have not been a fan of the film Easy Rider. The story always seemed to me, even back in the day, when it was immensely popular, a mere excuse to go out and do some beautiful location cinematography. A product of the intensely wishful thinking of a segment of an oversized generation – an effort at creating a romantic mythology. We like doing that a lot. When reality gets pretty ugly we go looking for myths and pretend they’re realities.
But hey, a number of Roger Corman vets worked on it. It’s not so much the document of an era as a document of a state of mind. It’s not that I think it’s a bad film so much as it is a film that never really spoke to me. I was looking for another myth.
However, this year, this 2016, made me think of the film’s penultimate scene. Billy, the character played by Dennis Hopper, tells Wyatt, the character played by Peter Fonda (also known in the story as Captain America), that they had “made it.”
Wyatt stares away thoughtfully and shakes his head. “We blew it, Billy.” It’s a line I always heard as what Pauline Kael labeled “fashionably bleak.” It was hipster existentialism, a set-up for the romanticized nihilism of the ending – our heroes blown away by rednecks. A phony, forced, convenient, stacked deck of an ending.
I hear the line differently now. I hear it speaking to us in 2016, soon to be 2017. The two protagonists have been pursuing a dream of freedom by separating themselves from the rest of the world. They divorced themselves from society, even while engaging with it. They sought what another cultural antihero of the era (Gnossos, in Richard Fariña’s novel Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) called “exemption.”
In our ways, we’ve all been on a similar journey, pursuing dreams, often without regard to the realities that surround them. We’re big on dreams in this culture. We brand them – “The American Dream” – not that we ever agree on what that dream is.
If we then become angry and dissatisfied with our fellow humans for taking their pursuit of dreams past realities, into illusions, and then straight to out-and-out delusions, we have only ourselves to blame.
In pursuit of making a dream into a reality, we sometimes find ourselves “reversing polarities,” as we say in the trade, turning reality into a dream.
Wyatt is right. We blew it. They didn’t blow it. We all put our knives in Caesar’s back.
We all, as the Three Stooges noted, in a somewhat different situation, put the yeast in.
That’s a reality we can face and move on. We blew it. We’ve blown it before. We will surely blow it again along the way. We’re capable of learning from our mistakes, at least in theory. In a reality that is already so filled with deceptions and illusions, we can at least make an effort not to deceive ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Blast From the Past

It’s been four years almost to the day since the event that inspired this piece I originally wrote for the SFWA Bulletin, back in the day, occurred. It was already old news when I finished writing it. Since then, the conversation, if we can call it that, has moved on to various squabbles, riots, brawls, puppies, ponies and dragons, as to who’s doing what in sf, who’s doing what to sf, and why this is bad and this is good and why the other folks are not only wrong, but detestable people with bad hygiene.

The one thing in this piece that may still feel current is the opening and closing metaphor: we’re on a bridge and the folks coming the other way are shouting, “Turn back! Turn back!” Perhaps it has always been this way. Perhaps, as well, it seems much more desperate because this time we’re really on the verge of a critical juncture in the way we think of science fiction, and how the rest of the world thinks of it.

I’m fond of telling my students that science fiction is more like a public park, where all are free to play, and not a private club where you have to fill out an application, or are recommended by a member in good standing, or qualify by having a minimum income, or education, or a golden ticket extruded from the wrapping of a candy bar. Perhaps I have been naïve in thinking our public park can regulate itself; that bullies and cliques would not try to exclude those they deem unworthy or unnecessary. That doesn’t bother me. I have no trouble being wrong, no trouble being naïve. I’ve been both many times and so far, I’ve survived. I believe, if I can’t say I know, that the public park is the direction we’re going, and nothing can stop it. Fight it, complain, resist, hold your breath – you can’t stop it.

Science fiction is something greater than all its constituent factions, and we can’t “take it” to one place or another we think it should go. It takes us, and the thing which is at once glorious and terrifying about science fiction is that we don’t know where it’s going next.

The Invasion of the MFAs

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say at the outset: I am not now nor have I ever been an MFA. I do, however, teach in a program that awards MFAs (among other degrees), and that some of my students (mercy upon them) will receive graduate degrees in the writing of fiction.
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There is a scene that opens Andrzej Wajda’s deeply tragic 2007 World War II film, Katyn. It’s 1939. Polish refugees fleeing the Nazi advance from the west arrive at a bridge. On the bridge already are a multitude of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet advance from the west. Both groups meet in the middle and shout to each other, “Turn back! Turn back! They’re coming!”

Yes. It can feel like that at times.

What can feel like “that”?

Well, if you’re reading this publication, you’re probably aware of the uncertainty and tension which has become part of the science fiction world: for writers, readers, “publishing professionals” – the “community.” To push understatement to a new level of absurdity, let’s say many people in said community are not in agreement with one another – including who’s in the community and who isn’t.

Science fiction has never been a stranger to controversy. The difference between “then” (wherever you want to place that marker) and “now” (meaning, well, right this minute) is how quickly, and widely, our electronic media can disseminate those controversies – and how public they become. Not to mention how volatile.

In such an atmosphere, one would think discretion would be the favored course. And one would be wrong.

Oh, so wrong.


Let me give you a “for instance.” It happened back in 2012, at Chicon 7, the World Science Fiction Convention held in Chicago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and one might assume I’d just let it go, but new stories in the media keep reminding me of this instance, so I can’t. Not completely.

I was asked to appear on a panel called “Teaching and Science Fiction,” which, along with me, consisted of teachers and “educational professionals.” 

It seemed (excepting of me) a panel fairly determined to agree on at least one major point: from their perspective, the main purpose of science fiction was to interest children in science and technology; once inspired, students, therefore, would continue their love of learning by majoring in scientific and technological fields.

The differences on the panel were more tactical than strategic. With one notable exception (which I’ll bring in later), you could easily come away with the impression that the primary (if not sole) vocation of a science fiction writer is to be a propagandist for the sciences.

Science fiction as an engine of indoctrination.

The science fiction writer as word-painter of “Rosie the Riveter” posters for bioengineering and astrophysics.

It’s not a bad thing to be. Especially when we have so many gatherers of statistics telling us through the media that we in “the States” are falling behind in science education. A lot of presumptions are there: that nations are in competition to educate; that “education” may have peculiar and particular goals that have to be met, like points on a checklist or hurdles on a track; and, less explicitly, this education is to be gained in order to achieve some sort of extra-educational rewards, like space travel, artificial intelligence, bigger (or smaller) TVs; cures for all known diseases (don’t forget the Immortality Pills); new sources of cheap energy; sustainable methods of food production . . .

These are all admirable things that I would in no way impugn or cajole.

And if we were to include that science fiction might play a role instilling within students an interest in the social sciences, and economics, and even – dare I say? – politics, I am even more inspired to make my Rosie the Gene Sequencer even rosier.

But – no.

It’s not a bad thing to be – just not the only thing.

The sole other concern voiced about what science fiction might accomplish in the classroom was that it might lure non-readers into the world of books. Again, this is a laudable goal. In no way would I ever dispute it.

I was afraid, though, the implication here was that once young readers were lured in by science fiction, these educators would quickly hand them a technical manual – that a love of reading – a love of science fiction – in and of itself wasn’t enough.


I confess, I stumbled through my responses to the other panelists and the questions from the audience (and a good-sized audience it was). I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t want to sound like I was at war with them. I’m not. We all love science fiction. We all think science fiction should be in schools. We all think science fiction has a very important role to play in the education of all people, with as wide a definition of “people” as you can imagine.

My point, in a nutshell, however poorly expressed, was, “Why stop there?”

I bumbled my way through an explanation of what I meant, wanting to say that, as okay as it is for science fiction to inspire students to become great scientists, it isn’t wrong or counter-productive to also inspire kids to simply love science fiction.

Or to become science fiction writers – hell, to become writers.

And thinkers.

And informed do-ers who, in any occupation, can look at the world the way science fiction writers do: taking a long, critical gaze at our reality and saying, “This isn’t the only way it can be.”

No limitations.

Granted, in some ways I’m coming from the other side of the equation: I teach science fiction writing. They’re teaching English, or reading, or “communications,” or maybe social studies, or even “literature.” They deal with the product after it’s been processed and packaged. I’m teaching students how to make the product.

Put another way, I knew the hamburger when it was still a cow.
As such, I try not to direct my students to any particular goal beyond the creation of interesting, compelling, real stories. It’s their job to figure out the direction of science fiction. They’re who the future belongs to.

Science fiction started out as one thing, then comes Hugo Gernsback. It became something else after John W. Campbell, Jr. enters the scene. Then a Theodore Sturgeon comes along, or a Robert Sheckley, or a Hal Clement, or an Ursula K. Le Guin, or an Octavia Butler, or a Ted Chiang, and so on. Once they have arrived, science fiction isn’t what it was before. It may contain what it was, but it’s also something more.

And this, apparently, is where we get into trouble.


Someone on the panel, in regard to finding new books that would inspire students to invent jet-packs and Immortality Pills, bemoaned the current state of science fiction and insisted that the “sense of wonder” was gone. Where were the books that would do for the current generation what the books of her generation did for them?

Science fiction was all “negative” and “depressing,” she said. Why can’t science fiction writers do something more “positive” and “uplifting”?

Okay – you all know the quick answer to that one: because science fiction writers, like any artists, have to work with the world they inhabit. You may have noticed a dearth of “positive” or “uplifting” news – not an absence, but a definite shortage. Insisting on optimistic science fiction is an admirable goal, but in the current circumstances it’s somewhat like asking the inheritor of a dungheap not only to clean up the mess, but to smile while doing so.

So, in response to this teacher’s appeal, I tried to describe a story I have my students read: Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six.” It’s about the breakdown of things (primarily the water pumps supplying the greater Manhattan area), about living in a polluted world, where BHP endocrine disruptors are wreaking havoc on human growth and development. The protagonist is Travis Alvarez, who could be the inheritor of Campbell’s or Heinlein’s “capable man” status. He’s a high school dropout, but he knows how things work and he can learn swiftly and effectively. Unfortunately, the world is breaking down at a rate perhaps much swifter than he can learn to save it. Permit me to be a “spoiler” and tell you the last image of the story is of Travis, sitting in his kitchen, with a stack of pumping system maintenance manuals, not knowing where to begin with such an enormous problem, and the devastating consequences should he fail – he opens one of the manuals and turns to a page.

A bleak universe? Certainly. An “impossible” problem? By all means. Depressing? Negative?


Travis is heroic. He is doing what heroes have always done. Will he succeed? Who knows? Travis is facing the problem squarely and won’t be thwarted.

The response from the teacher: “See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Why is all this new science fiction so depressing?”

It gets better.


“You know what it is?” she adds. “It’s the invasion of the MFAs.”

Okay, I don’t remember verbatim her elaboration of what she meant. To my ears it sounded like this: writers from MFA programs were coming in and spoiling the science fiction she grew up with. MFAs, with all their literary pretensions and sensibilities were making a mess of things.

That alone took me aback. What made it even more disarming was that no one in that room really challenged the assertion.

My first response was dismissive. My second response was to wonder if I was missing something. From where could such a perception arise? Was there any truth to it?

I judge my effectiveness as a teacher not by what I know but by what I readily admit I don’t know (which is a hell of a lot), so that I can pursue an answer.

Along with being a SFWAn, I’m a member of the Modern Language Association. I’m also a member of the National Council of Teachers of English. More relevantly, I belong to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – where the MFA and Creative Programs dwell. I read their journals. I attend their conferences. If the world of creative writing is raising martial banners and rolling out siege engines to invade science fiction and take it over, they are doing so behind my back – or plotting somewhere in deep cellars (or secret faculty lounges).

Or maybe they’ve already staked out the field, like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe we’re being turned into MFAs as we sleep.

I decided to check it out (the motto of the late Chicago City News Bureau: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out”).


I took out a bunch of “Best of the Year” anthologies, edited by Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell. I looked through the contents of Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, edited by Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. I looked through the recommended reading lists of Locus magazine. I threw in a few extra names of some writers who may not be young and starting out but are far from Grandmaster status.

The list isn’t up to scientific/demographic standards, but it isn’t selectively cherry-picked either. I just tried to pick out about fifty-plus names (fifty-five, to be exact) of writers whose work has been significantly cited for its quality, and see how many of them are “invaders.”

What the hell. Why not?

Vandana Singh – an Assistant Professor of Physics.
Aliette de Bodard – software engineer.
Ken Liu – Practicing attorney and software developer.
Aliette de Bodard – software engineer.
Ken Liu – Practicing attorney and software developer.
Hannu Rajaniemi – From Finland. His Ph.D. is in String Theory. Co-founder of ThinkTank Maths, applied mathematics consultants.
Madeline Ashby – A “foresight consultant.”
Tony Ballantyne – Went to school to study math; has taught Math and Internet Technology.
Pat MacEwen – Physical Anthropologist.
Yoon Ha Lee – Master’s degree in secondary math education.
Deborah Walker – Museum curator and science journalist.
Catherine H. Shaffer – Writes for BioWorld Today and freelances science journalism in various places, including Analog.
Nikki J. North – Degree in Computer and Information Science and works as a web programmer.
Mercurio D. Rivera – Former Manhattan litigator.
Ann Leckie – Music degree. Also a Clarion grad.
Benjamin Crowell – Ph.D. in Physics from Yale. Teaches Physics at Fullerton College.
Charles Stross – Degrees in Pharmacy and Computer Science.
Paolo Bacigalupi – Journalist and webmaster. Degree in East Asian Studies.
Neal Asher – Machinist, machine programmer and gardener.
David Levine – IT professional and Clarion West grad.
Oliver Morton – Science writer and editor.
Marissa Lingen – Trained in physics and mathematics; worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.
Karl Schroeder – Consultant on the future of technology.
James L. Cambias – Has worked in the role-playing game industry. He has a degree in the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine from the University of Chicago.
Peter Watts – A marine mammal biologist.
Cory Doctorow – Is Cory Doctorow. Next question.
Karen Traviss – Clarion graduate. And, citing Wikipedia: “She worked as both a journalist and defense correspondent before turning her attention to writing fiction, and has also served in both the Territorial Army and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service.”
Alistair Reynolds studied Physics and Astronomy at Newcastle. University, received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews University and worked as a research astronomer for the European Space Agency.
Brenda Cooper – Collaborated with Larry Niven, which, I believe, is the equivalent of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card to the anti-MFA crowd.
Liz Williams – Card reader on Brighton Pier; educational administrator in Kazakhstan.
Ted Kosmatka – Has held many jobs in northwest Indiana (and yes, that includes working in a steel mill); currently working in the gaming industry. His resume is conspicuously free of any lurking MFAs.
Elizabeth Bear – Graduated from the University of Connecticut; has taught at many workshops. Many jobs in many disciplines. No evidence of MFA hidden in closet.
Mary Robinette Kowal – Puppeteer of great repute. Held two SFWA offices, including Vice President.
Tobias Buckell – Clarion graduate. Once stated in an interview that he started taking writing seriously in college but with the added observation that this interest arose in spite of rather than in pursuit of his studies.
Catherynne M. Valente – BA in Classics; and since she is known mostly a fantasy writer, maybe she’s clear to carry as many MFAs as she desires.
Alaya Dawn Johnson – Studied East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia University; worked as a journalist and in book publishing.
Kage Baker – the late author worked in theater and in the insurance industry. I found little about her post-secondary education, but I have a hunch that if MFAs weren’t given out in Elizabethan studies, she figured she could do without one.
M. Rickert – Has worked many jobs and has attended many workshops, including John Kessel’s at Sycamore Hill, but no MFA as far as I can detect.
John Scalzi – Of the many things he may accused of, one rap you can’t pin on Mr. Scalzi is that he’s an MFA. But for those who must know, though he studied with Saul Bellow when he was a student at the University of Chicago (uh-oh), he never received his intended degree with that writing program (according to his Wikipedia bio). He was editor of the Chicago Maroon for a while and worked as a movie critic for the Fresno Bee.
Cat Sparks – No background on her degrees, but she’s an active SFWAn, attended the inaugural Clarion South workshop in Australia, has won a passel of Ditmar and Aurealis awards.
Paul Cornell – Got his start in writing doing Dr. Who tie-in work.
David Moles – Sturgeon Award winner. Has degrees from UC Santa Cruz and Oxford but can’t find what they’re in. Closet MFA? Oxford, as far as I can discover, does not award MFAs in Creative Writing.
Adam Roberts – A Senior Reader in English at London University. Not an MFA, but he has an office right down the corridor from them. Are English degrees to be in logged in with MFAs? You might try, but the English profs will fight you.
Daryl Gregory – Double major in English and Theater from the University of Illinois.
Genevieve Valentine – English degree.
Joe Pitkin – Teaches English at Clark College but “belongs to the Evolutionary Ecology Lab at Washington State University, Vancouver,” according to David Hartwell.
Carrie Vaughn – Has a Master’s Degree in English Literature and also is a grad of Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Karen Heuler – Has written across a number of genres, including “literary,” so there may be an MFA back there we don’t know about.
Nnedi Okorafor – Professor of Creative Writing, first at Chicago State University. Now Associate Professor of English at SUNY – Buffalo. MFA? Hah! No – a Ph.D.! How do we count that one?
Charlie Jane Anders – Has run the Writers with Drinks series and was an editor/contributor at io9 – too cool to even measure.
Brit Mandelo – has worked as a senior fiction editor for Strange Horizons.
Rachel Swirsky – Hey! We caught one! She went to the Iowa Writers Workshop (as did Joe Haldeman), but she also attended Clarion West.
Cat Rambo – (form her website) “I came through the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, where I studied with Octavia Butler, Andy Duncan, L. Timmel DuChamp, Connie Willis, Gordon Van Gelder, and Michael Swanwick. I’ve also got an MA in Writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where I studied with John Barth and Stephen Dixon.”
Indrapramit Das – Yes, an MFA. He is also a graduate of Clarion West and a recipient of the Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship.
Lavie Tidhar – A recipient of the 2003 Clarke-Bradbury Prize given out by the European Space Agency. He is widely traveled, but I haven’t found out much of his educational background, so the book ain’t closed on his MFAnitude.
Ian Creasey – From his website: “I began writing when rock and roll stardom failed to return my calls.”


I’m not trying to produce overwhelming evidence for anything pro or con, up or down, in or out. But a quick list of recent, notable writers of science fiction does not turn up much to support anyone’s belief that “literary” MFA-types are taking over science fiction.

And what if they were? Is there a belief out there that all MFAs fit a certain stereotype? How do you feel about folks in academia who stereotype science fiction writers? Is the pot calling the kettle black or is turnabout fair play?

The voices of contemporary science fiction come from a diversity of places. That should be encouraging news, not a reason to fold up the tents or raise the drawbridge.

I don’t believe any of the writers mentioned above have been cited for being “depressing” or “negative” in their work. Frankly, I haven’t seen any specific names cited at all – not from any writers who are published in the more recognized journals of the field or by major publishers of science fiction.
Well, then, who is depressing and negative?

Stories and blogs have appeared on the internet with headlines like Dear Science Fiction Writers: Stop Being So Pessimistic, Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi – It’s Making Us All Fear Technology, and Enough With Dystopias: It’s Time For Sci-Fi Writers To Start Imagining Better Futures. These headlines have appeared, respectively, under the banners of The Smithsonian, Wired and The Huffington Post: fairly respectable places.

From the tone of those headlines, one would think every science fiction writer pecking words into their devices were starting with nihilism on their very first pages and dropping the mood from there. Who are these poor souls? Perhaps we can send them some medication.

The Smithsonian article’s only cited examples are the film of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road (which makes one wonder if the author of the article knows that the novel exists) and the cable series, The Walking Dead.

The Wired article’s cited examples are two: McCarthy again, and the television series Battlestar Galactica.

The headline of the third article was repudiated by its author, Kathryn Cramer, who co-edited a number of Year’s Best SF anthologies and has written extensively about science fiction for the New York Review of Science Fiction and other journals. The examples she cites are almost entirely positive. She mentions Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six,” Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and the film adaptation of The Hunger Games as examples of dystopian science fiction, but adds that these works continue a long tradition of cautionary tales in the field and doing so admirably. The other examples she cites come from the anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. The anthology is the initial venture of Project Hieroglyph, spearheaded by Neal Stephenson to promote “technological optimism” in the field. That use of “optimism” might strike one as a critique of current science fiction indulging in the opposite, but the tone of the article, and Stephenson’s own statements on Project Hieroglyph’s website, seems to indicate not so much an admonition to stop being pessimistic as an appeal to writers in the field to redirect their interests to solving the technological challenges the world faces.

So far, the principal culprits I can perceive from these criticisms are television shows and Cormac McCarthy. Even though The Road is considered, arguably, sf, McCarthy is not thought of as a science fiction writer.

He doesn’t have an MFA, either.

So, who else?


Apparently, dystopian visions have been well represented in the Young Adult section of the publishing world, a section that continues to grow at a healthy pace. If you Google search “Dystopian Science Fiction” you’ll find a significant number of titles that come up are YAs – not MFAs. It is true, though, that Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) holds and MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts (among other degrees in Theater Arts and Theater and Telecommunications; Veronica Roth (the Divergent series) holds a degree from the writing program at Northwestern University; Amie Kaufman (The Starbound trilogy) has a graduate degree in Conflict Resolution; Beth Revis (Across the Universe) has a Master’s in English Literature; Scott Westerfeld (the Uglies series) took his degree in Philosophy. So, though MFAs have made their mark in the YA world, it’s no clean sweep there, either.

YA is a region that seems impervious to the influence of educators or to any part of the “science fiction community,” whatever that means at this stage. These books are bought by people who want to read them – dystopian or “negative” or not. To be less subtle, no one is holding a gun to the heads of readers and forcing them to buy these books. Quite the contrary.

Perhaps, then, the dissatisfied educators and bloggers should be addressing their protests not to the writers of science fiction, but to readers.

Let’s see how well that works.


I’ve spent a great deal of space and wordage over this one statement at this one admittedly minor event not because there was anything singularly outrageous about it, but because it seems part of a mosaic of doubt, questioning, admonitions, accusations, ultimatums, cris des coeur and out-and-out bloviations that have become so much a part of the discourse on science/speculative fiction. Whether the manner in which this discourse is carried on is inevitable and unavoidable is a subject for a far more comprehensive presentation than I am capable of here.

But it does return me to those refugees on that bridge in Poland in 1939. For them, the threats were real. For us, the threats may be more a matter of perception.

No one should wish to silence the voices of civil (and, to a degree, uncivil) protest, but it may be the better part of sensibility (and sensitivity) to not only listen to what’s being said, but to examine those statements carefully and make sure that in protecting our borders from the invaders we’re not also preventing the entry of our allies.

Perhaps, rather than escaping on the bridges we have, we should be building more of them – in all directions.
From the 2007 film, Katyn, directed by Andrzej Wajda.