Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Life with Star Wars (or What have I been doing these past thirty years?)

(Another SF-related repost from my crime blog, written on 25 May 2007.)

May 25, 1977. I have no clue what I was doing that day but it was not standing in line to watch “Star Wars.” Actually, I can’t remember how long it was before I saw the movie. But I eventually did—at the Palm Theater in Sugarland, TX—and, like almost everyone else, it changed my childhood.

Oh, I expect my childhood would have still been wonderful but Star Wars just made everything appear in a sort of Technicolor. Suddenly, upon one viewing (and another and another and…), whole chunks of my imagination woke up. At one moment, space was something you got to by rocket ship, the next, you had TIE fighters, X-Wings, space freighters, and giant ships the shapes of flattened pyramids. And you had the Death Star. You had swords that were lasers and guns that shot laser bolts. You had robots galore. And the aliens. Wow, the aliens! And, for a boy like me, instant heroes that were more thrilling than the ones on the football field.

Star Wars changed everything for me. Just tonight, I watched the original version (not SE) with my son. It was fun, too, because I still have my toys and action figures so we watched the movie with the action figures and the Falcon and the X-Wing close by. And tonight, 30 years later, this movie still gets me. My heart still beats faster as Luke “set[s] up for his attack run.” I still get goosebumps when the Death Star explodes. I still love it that Han shot first. It still gets me and I think it always will.

Now, the biggest criticism I have with Star Wars is the stuff Lucas cut out. Having read the novel a few times and listened to the radio drama, Luke’s relationship with Biggs is an integral part of his maturation process. I would have liked for Lucas to have kept the Tatoonie sequence in (where Luke sees the battle in space and then tells Biggs good-bye) and, especially, the scenes just before the Battle of Yavin where he meets Biggs again. Integral parts, to me.

And, in the years since the SE came out, I love the added material (especially the Jabba/Han scene) and the expanded Mos Eisley sequence. You add in the Biggs scenes and keep Han shooting first and you’d have a movie that would surpass TESB. Now, as an adult, TESB is a better film but Star Wars is still my favorite.

I’ve told this to my friends more than once. Of all the thirty years living with Star Wars, my favorite time is still the years between the first two films, after those chunks of imagination had been opened. There was no father-son issue, there was no sister-brother issue, there was no Emperor (although he was mentioned in the novelization). There was just Luke, Han, Leia, and the others against Vader. That was it. And the Star Wars universe was limitless.

I remember ogling Marvel Comics issue #7, the first story that was not in the movie. It involved Han and Chewie and their band of space pirates. I remember devouring Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. I devoured Brian Daley’s Han Solo at Star’s End. I devoured everything in print. There is something fun about having to rely on magazines, comics, and trading cards and not having an Internet with the world’s knowledge at one’s fingertips. It was like searching for treasure in every new issue of Starlog just to see if they had some new photo of Star Wars. It was getting those first action figures (mine was Kenobi because Han and Luke were sold out; it was also at a drugstore, go figure) and playing with them. It was the cool Sears Mos Eisley cantina play set with the special Snaggletooth. I even dug (at the time) the Christmas special that I had to see on a black and white TV in a hospital as we were visiting a sick relative. Sigh. It was everything.

Star Wars turned me on to instrumental music. I wore out my first copy of the soundtrack and had to buy it again. I also wore out my The Story of Star Wars record (the one with the movie dialogue) and that allowed me to be able to remember mundane facts like the trash compactor number (*remember it? Answer at the end.). Now, thirty years later, I can merely listen to the soundtrack and ‘see’ the movie.

But there is nothing that quite compares to seeing these movies on the screen. Sure, it’s been ten years since I last saw these films on the big screen (the SEs came out in 1997) but it’s still magical even on the small screen.

The older I get and the more folks I meet, I find that Star Wars is a common point of reference. When I meet fellow fathers, Star Wars somehow comes up. Once that point of contact is made, it’s like an unknown fraternity brother has been located. It’s just that way. And I think it always shall be.

Nothing will compare to Star Wars in my opinion. The only thing that comes close (and it does come close, mind you) is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those films are almost a quintessential piece of filmmaking. But, then, so is Star Wars.

I wonder if it can ever be duplicated. I think not. It is too special. It is one of a kind.

What are your thoughts on what Star Wars has meant to you?

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where are the short SF/F books?

(Note: this is a republish from a topic on my original blog--now dubbed "the crime fiction blog," posted on 10 March 2008. I'm planning on reposting some of my old SF topics from that blog over here now that I have a forum that is SF-specific.)
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Over at SF Signal, there was a discussion last week framed around this question: Q: Are science fiction book series a barrier to gaining new readership? Here is the extended version of the question: If you take a look around your local bookstore's SF section, you can't help but notice the preponderance of book series on the shelves, especially in the fantasy arena, which seems to specialize in doorstopper series. Inevitably, the store won't have all published books in the series, leaving the customer out of luck if they decide to buy right then. There's a great discussion including some answers from folks in the field. Go check it out.

I posted this response:

In this discussion, folks have focused on THE BIG BOOK. That is, a tome that is the size of a small brick, that a reader would have to wade through just to see if he likes it. Personally, I have not even started Jordan's Wheel of Time series for the mere fact that I'd be reading nothing else for months on end. And the more I look at bookstore shelves of SF/F, the more I see huge books.

So here's my question: what ever happened to the smaller book? The 200pp-300pp book? Is it the market that has driven smaller books away, what with $8.99+ cover prices for a paperback and north of $27.00 for a hardback?

Over in the mystery field, there's a line of books under the Hard Case Crime imprint. Those guys want to bring back old-school pulp fiction, complete with new cover art in the old style. All the books are $6.99. Almost all of them are 200-230pp long. All can be consumed quickly and carried around in my back pocket. And, for me, reading an old, formerly out-of-print book by an author like Lawrence Block or Ed McBain caused me to seek out other books by these authors.

Is there a SF/F version of this out there? I'd like to think so. And I'd like to write for and read books from an imprint like that.

Any Ideas?
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2009 Update:

As mentioned in my post from yesterday, Theodore Judson's The Martian General's Daughter is a short SF book. I haven't read it yet but the book is only 250 pages long. From what I've heard, Judson establishes his future history between the lines, where things are mentioned but not explained in detail.

Are there more out there?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

SF/F Reading List for the 2000s

Now that I'm 'back in the genre,' I decided to ask a question from someone I respect. Lou Anders is the Editorial Director at Pyr books, an imprint of Prometheus Books. I have followed Anders' interviews throughout the SF/F blogosphere in places such as his own blog, the Pyr blog, and the brilliant but, sadly, discontinued Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast.

A couple of weekends back, I contacted Mr. Anders via his blog. Here was my question.
I read SF/F growing up but, somewhere along the line, stopped reading it, instead focusing on crime fiction. I’m now working on a book with fun SF elements in it and I realized I’m woefully under-read when it comes to modern SF/F. I’ve started to rectify that deficiency (reading/about to read Martian General’s Daughter; City Without End; Brasyl; Blood of Ambrose) but I know I’m just scratching the surface. My library has both Fast Forward anthologies and I’ll probably get to them later this summer. Thus, my question: what are some of the must-read titles out in this decade that someone like me should read to get back up-to-speed with modern SF/F? I ask as a reader but also as a writer: I don’t want to copy something unknowingly in my new book that’s already been done.
Here, reprinted with permission from Mr. Anders, is his response.
As to a reading list, it would be only partially disenginuous to say "well, everything Pyr publishes." But I'll try to be broader minded than that. I'd say in SF right now, you haven't read contemporary science fiction if you've not read both John Scalzi and Charles Stross. Two very different writers, but they are the two to have made the biggest splash in the past decade. For Scalzi, you read Old Man's War. For Stross, anything really but maybe Acclerando and/or Halting State. I see you have Brasyl in the list, and I think, immodestly, that McDonald "owns" the global-SF space. He's less well-known than Scalzi or Stross, though he enjoys greater critical success than either outside the field (Time magazine, etc...), and is coming to be known as the most literary of all our contemporary writers (great honor to publish him). So I think that should definitely be in the mix. I'm biased, too, but I'd recommend John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence of Paradox, Context and Resolution. The Times called him "the first important SF writer of the 21st century" and Stross himself proclaimed Meaney, "the crowning jewel of the new British space opera." I have never read Peter F Hamilton but as someone who can move X number of books in hardcover, he's worth checking out certainly. And S M Stirling's new alt history series in which the Edgar Rice Burrough's view of the universe (Venus and Mars inhabited but during a Cold War era) is something I'd love to be reading if I had time to read outside my list. For short fiction, you can't beat Michael Swanwick, so I'd pick up a collection or two of his. And I would highly recommend David Louis Edelman's trilogy of Infoquake, MultiReal and the forthcoming Geosynchron for some of the best world-building you'll ever see. If you read all these, plus the books you mentioned (You realize City Without End is book 3 right? You need Bright of the Sky and A World Too Near first), you would certainly have a good picture of contemporary SF.

For fantasy, if you are a fan of Scott Lynch, then definitely read the James Enge, as well as Joe Abercrombie and Greg Keyes (the Kingdom of Thorn and Bone series, my litmus test for fantasy before I acquired Abercrombie). Personally, I am a fan of the "new, gritty, politically-aware, morally ambiguous" fantasy, which is what "Pyr fantasy" is coming to define itself as, so I'd point you towards our Tom Lloyd and forthcoming Joel Shepherd books as well. I've not read George RR Martin, but he's the 800 lb gorilla in the room of new fantasy. And of course China Mieville, who is a genius, but also, I think one of a kind and not someone to try to emulate.

And by all means read FF1 & 2, as those will be rapid introductions to the state of contemporary short fiction. And short fiction is still the best way to get attention/break in to the science fiction field. I assume you are familiar with Locus magazine, but you should have a subscription if you don't already, and study the "books sold" column every week.

And I recommend tracking down Michael Swanwick's The Post-modern Archipelago, a capbook published by Tachyon press that is actually two very insightful essays, one on SF and one on Fantasy that I found very informative in defining my own tastes/opinions a decade ago (hope it holds up, haven't gone back to it).

But I wouldn't worry too much about treading on others toes. What is the saying, "It's not who you take from, it's where you take it to." A better way of putting it, perhaps, is that - moreso than any other genre - science fiction is a dialogue between the practicioners. An idea is offered to the community, then other writers react to it, either in opposition or building on it. Vernor Vinge concieved of the "Singularity" and wrote the first Singularity SF, but Charles Stross popularized it (to the point of killing it?). After you read Brasyl, read Chris Roberson's End of the Century. Both are tri-fold stories, both involve swords that are honed to a molecule thickness, both have multiple realities and strange goings on at the end of time. And both are utterly different books. They were writing them both at the same time, in ignorance of each other, and I, their editor, was amazed at the commonalities. Just the zeitgeist at the time, I guess. So, read absolutely. Read everything and learn, but then go and do what you are lead to do and don't worry so much about reinventing the wheel.
Well, there you have it. I thank Mr. Anders for taking the time to answer my question in detail.

Which, of course, leads to a question for you: What are some of the books I should add to my reading list?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reading with the "Fairy of Forgetfulness"

Over at SF Signal, there is an interesting topic: Books You'd Like To Read Again, For The First Time. I've copied my response here. Head on over and join the discussion.

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I'm one of those folks who've only read Hyperion This Year. It is probably the single biggest factor to my renewed interest in literary SF/F. But, I'm still within its afterglow, I'll exclude it.

I find Brainshades' list very interesting as three of his books--Anubis Gates, Locke Lamora, and First Law Trilogy--are on my immediate reading list.

But back to the question at hand. The first two are repeats. The third is not.

Rendezvous with Rama - Best thing about the original book--and not the climax of the sequel trilogy--is that we humans didn't know who built/sent Rama. It just is and we're left to ponder our place in the universe. I remember just being flabberghasted at the first book as my brain started expanding in my skull.

Ender's Game - It holds the distinction of being the only book that, upon finishing the last page, I turned the book over and started again. It was that good and I didn't see the ending coming. I don't usually like to predict what the author might do. I just want to go with the storyteller.

Star Wars novelization - Remember the summer of 1977 and seeing that movie for the first time? It was eye opening for an entire culture. As good as the movie was, I enjoyed the novel a bit more. You see, all the extra scenes were in ther, the ones Lucas edited out. But, than that, I got the sense that the events of Star Wars was smack in the middle of something larger. There was so much to know and learn. There wasn't any whiff of what we got ("No, Luke, I am your father."). What we got was a pure adventure story about a boy, a girl, and a galaxy. It was everything I ever wanted.

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BTW, I reviewed the Star Wars novelization a few weeks ago at my crime fiction blog.

How Charles Dickens and a Cowboy Inspired a Fantasy

When you boil it down to its core, a cowboy and Charles Dickens inspired a new fantasy/science fictional story. Here is the long and winding road to a new work.

I am a prodigal son when it comes to science fiction and fantasy in the written format. As a child, I read SF almost exclusively (Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators were the exceptions). Somewhere along the line, I dropped almost all SF except Star Wars and Star Trek books and dropped fantasy altogether. After awhile, even Star Wars and Star Trek books ceased to capture my attention. Thus, two formative genres I grew up with vanished from my To Be Read pile.

It was an interesting trip back on the path. Harry Potter certainly helped. In the spring of 2007, I ‘caught up’ and read the first six books in a row. Thus, I, like the entire world, breathlessly read the seventh and final volume together. Great story, but, still, I wasn’t really on the literary SF/F path. I was in the underbrush. I could see it but I didn’t really have a desire to claw my way back to the path. I was on another pathway (crime fiction) and it was all-consuming. That’s all I read and that’s all I wrote. Nothing else mattered.

Still…

It wasn’t until the spring of 2009 when I firmly planted my feet back on the genre pathway I grew up with. The reasons are threefold. One, I read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (here's my review). We talk about sense of wonder and there was a recent blog post asking the question if sense of wonder is really code for the returning to childhood. Some of it is undoubtedly true. However, as an adult, I read Hyperion and that sense of wonder returned in a huge rush to my brain. I think it actually expanded a bit. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read SF/F anyway?

The second factor is Charles Dickens. Ever since I reviewed a book about his writing of A Christmas Carol, Dickens has been present somewhere all the time. There was Dan Simmons’ newest novel, Drood, where he evoked the mysterious last five years of Dickens’ life through the eyes of his fellow writer, Wilkie Collins. (My review here.) Next, PBS presented the fantastic BBC production of “Little Dorrit.” (My initial takes here and here and here) I began to study now Dickens created his stories, their interlocking plotlines, and he inspired me as he’s done countless other authors. I wanted to write a Dickens-type story.

The final piece of the puzzle was my first published short story, “You Don’t Get Three Mistakes,” available online at the awesome ezine Beat to a Pulp. Of all the genres I’ve mentioned here, you'll notice that "western" isn’t one of them. “You Don’t Get Three Mistakes” is a western. What's up with that? I'll explain more about "You Don't Get Three Mistakes" later.

So, how did a western, Charles Dickens, and Hyperion inspire a renewed interest in science fiction and fantasy? Well, it came about because of the main character in the short story. You see, Calvin Carter is hunting down the man who killed his father. Calvin thinks his father was collateral damage in a train robbery. With the twisty logic of a Dickens novel swirling in my head, I asked one question: What if the killer told Calvin that his father was the real target of the train robbery. That, naturally, led me to asking a second “why” question: what was the killer after? One thing led to another and a science fiction story was born. It's now spawned a fantasy story.

And it’s so much fun. The possibilities, the wonder, the new dangers… It’s intoxicating. And I now have the genesis of a new story. I’m looking forward to see where it goes.

A note to any readers out there who read “You Don’t Get Three Mistakes” and liked it. Calvin Carter is not going to be a part of this story. He is the inspiration, yes, but I want him to stay firmly in the real world as I spin new yarns for him to follow.