Tag Archives: science fiction

Story Bundles

3 Apr Aurora 004

Aurora 004Winning or even being nominated for an award is a great thrill. I’ve now been nominated for the Prix Aurora Award (Canada’s fan-voted speculative fiction prize) 11 times and I’ve won three – most recently for the anthology Blood and Water, which I edited in 2012.

But the very best thing about awards is the company you get to keep. Virtually every significant writer of SF in Canada has either been nominated for or won an Aurora Award. I’m lucky enough to be able to count many of them as friends as well as colleagues.

Which was why I was happy to have Blood and Water included in a bundle of Aurora winning and nominated books now on sale at StoryBundle.com. It’s a great list of writers and books covering the gamut from fantasy to science fiction and includes novels, short stories and my anthology of Canadian writers.

The whole thing was put together by Douglas Smith who has been nominated for the prized trophy even more than I have. Doug and I do way back – to before we even met. We both sold our first story to Tesseracts 6, edited by Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink. We didn’t meet until I moved to Ontario and started to attend Ad Astra, the Toronto SF convention. Since then we’ve maintained a mostly digital (though occasionally face-to-face) relationship. And I still recall the great dinner I had with Doug and his family when we were both nominated for Canada’s juried SF Award, the Sunburst Award. Neither of us won – but just like the story bundle, we were in great company. Doug’s book was a collection of short stories, Chimerascope, which was also nominated for the Aurora Award that year and is a key part of the bundle. Doug is a fabulous short story writer and his stories have been translated and published in over 25 countries.

Chimerascope Review

Robert J. Sawyer and I go back even farther; he likes to call me his writing student (which is true) but I was the one who hired him for his first teaching gig, out in Calgary. We’ve been great friends ever since (he was a guest at my wedding in 2003) and he’s one of my favorite writers. I have all of his books – most of them autographed – and I even appear as a minor character in his latest. Quantum Night. So, I’m obviously happy to be keeping him company in the Story Bundle. Starplex is a great hard SF story but it’s also a mystery which puts it right up my alley. It not only won the Aurora Award but was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula as well. Rob has been called the Dean of Canadian SF and rightly so; he has won 14 Auroras and been nominated another 30 times. I was fortunate enough to award him his lifetime achievement Aurora a few years ago – a nice trophy to go alongside his Hugo, Nebula and John Campbell Awards.

Starplex Review

In the coming days, I’ll highlight a couple of other old friends, as well as some newer ones – and two writers I only know through their work. In the meantime, why don’t you head over to StoryBundle.com and pick up your summer reading?

 

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations – Gender, Race and Difference in SF

2 Feb

I am a white straight male of past middle age and above middle income. That has been and remains a position of privilege, not just in Canada but around the world.

I didn’t earn this privilege; it is almost entirely an accident of history. I didn’t choose my race, gender or sexual orientation; my age is nothing but the inevitable passing of time. My income (which is hardly the stuff of legend) may be, in part, a consequence of my choices but results as much from luck as anything else — a chance combination of genes that made me both intelligent and healthy and the so-far fortunate avoidance of personal accident or natural disaster. Any bad thing in my life has happened to occur at a time when they would do me the least harm; most good ones when I was best able to take advantage of them.

I am well aware that not everyone’s life has run as smooth. For some, they had bad luck or they made bad choices but, for many, their lives are less than they could be because of the systematic barriers they face because of race, gender or disability. These barriers are not accidents of history. They have been constructed over time, put in place by people who look like me (or, by people who look quite different in other societies or other times) so they and theirs can keep what they have and those ‘others’ can keep in their place. Money, power, status, privilege — these are all mine and you can have none of it.

The times are a’changing of course — slowly but inexorably. The ‘infallible laws of history’ ensure, if they ensure nothing else, that change is inevitable, even if progress is always hard won and never certain. Western society (the only one I can really speak to) has been in a revolutionary mode since the Enlightenment. It began when questions arose about the certainty of the status quo — of God in his Heaven and Kings on their Thrones — and barrelled forward with closely-bunched revolutions in America, France, Mexico, Haiti. These were transformative events based on transformative ideas. That all men (and inevitably, persons) were created equal. That Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality were the highest moral values. That a people had a right to self-determination. That one man could not own another.

Some people today view the fight for equal rights for women and gays, the ending of racial discrimination, the fight against income inequality as a betrayal. They would, I guess, take us back to the sixteenth century before the great flame of freedom was lit, when everyone stayed in their place and the privileged only feared each other. I, for one, ain’t going back. The expansion of personhood — and that ultimately is what discrimination entails, the denial of personhood to the other — is human progress and it continues to progress through time. There are set-backs and rear-guard actions by the entrenched and lithified structures of law, church and economy, but the world is a better place ‘in struggle’ then it ever was when ‘people knew their place.’

When I was young, I thought the world of science fiction was better than the real world. It was not only optimistic about the future in technical and scientific terms but in social and political ones. This was the sixties and seventies, after all. Star Trek presented people of different races and ethnicities working together, if not exactly as equals, certainly more equally than anything else in popular culture. Writers like Leguin, Delaney, and Farmer to mention a few were presenting alternative visions (and let’s not forget, Dangerous Visions) of the world. It was hardly earth-shaking, but it was a start. So right from the beginning of my own personal journey through speculative fiction, I never thought it was the bastion of straight white males.

Apparently, according to some — increasingly marginalized — people in the field I was wrong. Could it be true the Women are Destroying Science Fiction? Or that people of colour (POCs) are intruding where they don’t belong and subverting the moral structure (read ‘supremacy’) of real (read ‘white’) science fiction? 

What utter and complete nonsense! In fact, when I sat down to write this blog, I thought for a minute: why am I even bothering to refute such patent and pointless drivel. Some of it is undeniably, if unintentionally and illogically, hilarious but you can look for it yourself. Surely, it will all blow over. Surely, as more and more readers realize that more and more diverse voices make science fiction better, these last bastions of white male privilege will crumble away. Isn’t it obvious to everyone that a genre that embraces the future, that seeks out the alien, that explores the limits of human possibility must also embrace a multitude of gender perspectives, cultural understandings and personal narratives? Including, of course, the white straight male middle aged middle class narrative as one among many — and may the best narrative win.

Well, while it seems obvious to me, it still bears saying over and over again. Revolutions never end. Reactionaries never quite go away.

I’m no Rosa Parks but I’d be happy to give her my seat on the bus.

I’m Not Dead Yet

8 Sep

WorldCon is over for another year. Some people are happy – Hugo winners for example ; some are not. Madelaine Ashby questions whether WorldCon and the people who go there have missed the demographic boat, noting quite accurately that WorldCon seems older and more white and male than other fan-based events, such as DragonCon. We’ll skip over for a minute that DragonCon and FanExpo and ComicCon are not fan-based but commercial operations directed towards corporate profits. It is true that WorldCon is not as diverse as, say, the average downtown neighbourhood. Some people say that WorldCon – and cons in general – are bastions of misogyny, homo- and transphobia, racism. Others, such as Cherryl Morgan, who would know better than me, (an aging white straight male), disagree.

I might be more appalled if I hadn’t heard this before. I went to my first WorldCon in 1983. One of the best attended panels was one called “The Graying of Fandom.” At the time my hair was still dark but I knew grey hair was on the horizon. I listened as people bemoaned the fact that ‘young people’ were no longer interested and engaged in science fiction. The solutions: more diverse programming such as movie previews and discussions, expanded costuming (cosplay anyone?) and music. Comic books weren’t high on the list but “graphic novels” were making an impact. Anime and Manga were nothing but rumours and really only began to impinge on North American audiences in the last 15 years (yes, I know there are always early adopters but that’s not my point).  There was no question that non-white writers (and fans) were few and far between. Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler were the exceptions that made the rule.

There were, even then, worries about the lack of female fans – though less so about the lack of female writers (5 of the previous Best Novel Hugos had gone to women writers). There wasn’t a lot of talk about ‘sexual harassment’ or worse though everyone knew there were certain well-known male writers young women should be careful not to be alone with. You have to remember that these were the days when universities had just stopped turning a blind eye to professors sleeping with their students. The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings were nearly a decade in the future.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then – both as a society and as fans of science fiction. Despite that, there are still reports of ‘people behaving badly.’ People take offence – even when it’s not offered.  That happens and will continue to happen, because people aren’t perfect. Put them in a crowd with a drink in their hands and their imperfections come to the fore. This is no excuse. If you behave like an idiot in certain situations – like when you drink – then it is incumbent on you to avoid those situations. If you just generally behave like an idiot – or, in fact, a criminal (unwanted sexual touching is a crime folks) – then expect to be treated like one. Conventions can’t stop bad behavior – but they can put in place mechanisms to limit it and deal with it appropriately – in a fair and transparent manner – when it happens. No cover-ups; no kangaroo courts.

Anyway, that’s not what I started out talking about.

Is WorldCon a thing of the past? Will it, must it change? Should it do more to attract a younger, more diverse crowd? Should it go away? Who cares what you (or I) think anyway?

WorldCon exists (has existed for more than 70 years) because people are devoted to organizing it and people are keen to go to it. As long as that is true, nothing anyone says will stop it from happening. It may be that the demographic is narrower (or just different) than that which goes to ComicCon but so what? The demographic of people that go to live theatre is different (and narrower) than those who go to movies. Should we close the theatres? WorldCon focuses on books and writers; it therefore appeals to different people than those interested in movies and movie stars or comics and cosplay, for that matter. There is cross-over – people who like it all – but maybe not as much as we might think or hope. But the lines are not drawn on gender, race, sexual orientation, cultural background, or nationality but INTEREST.

Maybe we should have a YA Hugo to show we care more what young people read. In Canada, we have a Best YA novel award in the Auroras (our national version of the Hugo). I’m not sure it has increased youth interest in SF. In fact, I voted against creating the category – though now that it’s here, I’m happy to point out that Dissolve by Neil Godbout, published by Bundoran Press is a nominee this year. In 2001, a Harry Potter novel won the Hugo; in 2009, Cory Doctorow’s YA book, Little Brother, was a finalist. Somehow I think that shows more respect for YA writers than putting them in their own category – like a children’s table at an adult dinner party.

And what about all those old writers? Why aren’t younger ones getting more (or all of the attention)? I recall what my friend, two time Governor General Award winner for drama, Sharon Pollock, growled when the Canada Council announced special grants for young writers: “What are old ones supposed to do? Die?” By the way, the Canada Council defined young writers as those under 40. Not surprising since the average for selling a first novel seems likely to be somewhere around 36. So for those novelists in their twenties who are complaining about all those old guys – maybe you’re just old before your time. In any case, in 20 or 30 years, I’m sure you’ll have an answer for the next generation of geniuses clamouring for you to get out of the way.

As for seeking a broader audience for SF, it’s a great idea but it’s not as simple as one might think. The collective creative wisdom of writers and readers (and, I trust, editors and publishers) will solve the problem. The arrival on the scene of such fabulous writers as N.K Jemisin and Saladin Ahmed – along with many other ‘not old white guys’ writing short stories – will expand the base. It won’t attract all those kids who go to Fan Expo to catch a glimpse of an aging film star – but it will attract people who like books who never considered that SFF had anything to say to them. After all, how many black teenagers considered golf as a sport before Tiger Woods burst on the scene? Their successes – like his – will make a whole new range of readers see science fiction, and science fiction conventions, as a place they want to be.

I Have Nothing to Say

30 Jun

It’s true. I’ve tried to start this blog three times already. I started trying to address the latest round of harassment controversies in the SF world. Too fraught, especially for someone who can never see things in black and white. When people are upset – rightfully so – they don’t want to hear a nuanced analysis of why some people seem to need to bully and sexually harass others. And there are nuances – of culture and upbringing and mental health and age and matter of appropriate responses.  So I decided to try something less fraught: my experiences in the last week dealing with the exportation and distribution of books.  Too damn boring.

So that brought me back to this whole issue of harassment. Ugh.

It’s tough for a guy my age. I am literally on a cusp.  The majority of men I know who are older than me actually don’t get it; the majority of men younger than me, do.  There are exceptions on both sides of the line.

When what we are talking about is old men making stupid remarks about gender, I’m inclined to shrug, but maybe that’s just me.  People who are stupid about gender are really no different than people who are stupid about other things. It stems from ignorance, or a nostalgic (and sepia-toned) remembrance of things past or a willful wish-fulfillment. All one can say is: get over it.  The world has changed.  If it ever was the way you describe, it has changed.  Get with the program or get used to being laughed at. Should they be told to shut up and go away? I don’t think so. Should their past accomplishments be denigrated in a wave of revisionist history? Definitely not. Should they be expelled from the community? Wow, that is a really ugly road to go down.

The joke used to go: If you put two Trotskyites in a room you wind up with three political parties. Doctrinal purity is a satisfying but lonely place.

When people say stupid things, refute them, rebut them, in some cases, walk away and ignore them. If they say hateful things, point out what is hateful about those things, as politely as possible (though sometimes ‘as possible’ means not very politely at all). I’m not a big fan of rage-fueled profanity laced rants (I seldom get to the end of one in a blog) but I understand why they are sometimes necessary.

When people do stupid things, it’s a whole other ballgame. Recently, Jim Frenkel, a senior editor at TOR, has been accused of sexually harassing a female writer. I have great admiration for the woman who made a formal complaint against him – both to his employer and a convention. It takes a lot of courage to report someone, especially if that person has, or is perceived to have power over you.  I don’t know Mr. Frenkel but according to one source, he has done this before. Some outrage has been expressed that nothing was done earlier. Nothing was done because no-one formally complained. That’s how it works. Formal processes do two things if designed well – they equalize the power imbalance between harasser and victim and they provide due process to establish whether an alleged perpetrator is innocent or guilty.

Naming names is important; prosecuting (for want of a better term) them through due process is essential. Anything less reduces the world to a Star Chamber, where a mere accusation is sufficient to establish guilt. McCarthyism cuts both right and left. So I’m not a big fan of those who think it is enough to give broad hints as to who might be guilty. It not only deprives the accused of a right to defend themselves, it risks drawing innocents – since hints never quite narrow it down – into undeserved ill-repute.  Frankly, if you are not prepared to name names and make formal complaints, perhaps silence is better than gutter gossip.

The equalization of power is the key thing here. I get that entirely. As a white middle-class male, I have a pretty privileged position. Harassment and bullying have not been a daily or even more than occasional part of my life. It is extraordinarily tough to change a culture that somehow ‘entitles’ people with power to use that power to harass, abuse, diminish, objectify, hurt, assault, crush people who, because of gender, class, race, age or inexperience, have less power. I spent two years as a union local president and many of the grievances I fought (and almost always won) came from managers who bullied their employees. Towards the end, I could actually say: look all this trouble is being caused by the same couple of supervisors; why don’t you do something about them? Senior management was remarkably reluctant to act.

This discussion has been going on for a very long time. Why doesn’t it change?  Well, it has changed.  Thirty years ago, during my union days, no one ever brought forward a sexual harassment complaint – not because it didn’t happen but because everyone knew that unless you actually had witnesses to a serious criminal act, there was no point.  Even workplace bullying wasn’t called that. Now bullying and harassment is one of the most common grievances in the public service – not because there is more of it but because, the world has changed and people actually have an expectation that something will be done about it.  Sadly, they are sometimes disappointed. It still takes courage to make a complaint and perseverance to see it through. If the harasser or bully is a woman, it becomes remarkably complex.

So, as unpleasant as it is for those who have to take the lead in making formal complaints, perhaps they can take comfort in the truth that they are the forerunners of change. Men (and women) who are simply ignorant or ill-socialized can be educated; even sociopaths can be trained to behave.  Beyond that we can continue to make strides in recognizing that all people have a right to respect, recognition, safety. 

And we can put in place the mechanisms that will make it easier for victims to complain while assuring the accused the right to a fair hearing in the open, rather than character assassination behind closed doors.

Maybe I should have stuck with saying nothing – but sometimes you just can’t.

Nature is Right Outside Your Window

23 Jun

Most North Americans live in cities; 2/3 of Canadians live in cities of 100,000 people or more.  As of 3 years ago, more people in the world live in urban than in rural areas.  There is no indication that this trend will change.  All population growth over the next 40 years is expected to take place in urban areas – especially in the developing world.  It’s hard to even say what the largest city in the world is: Tokyo is most often cited with population figures quoted between 32 and 37 million but when total urban areas are counted which include the vast shanty towns that abut the official suburbs, there are a number of cities in China, Africa and South America that come close.  That’s considerably more than many countries in the world, including Canada (in fact only 39 countries have a population larger than the minimum size of Tokyo).

This is not all bad – despite popular views of city life. People in cities are generally more prosperous, better educated, contribute less to population growth (most urban growth these days is from immigration from rural areas), use less energy and water per capita and produce fewer greenhouse gasses.  They are also centers of innovation where the vast majority of scientific, technological and cultural breakthroughs occur. Here’s a surprising stat: cities are less violent than rural areas.  Toronto has a lower per capita murder rate than rural Saskatchewan.  Toronto may have more total murders than Saskatchewan in any given year but that’s because it has 5 times as many people.  The same is true the world over – cities may seem dangerous but its the country side where the really bad things happen. But anyone who ever read Stephen King knew that.

There is one thing cities do that may not be all that good for us; they disconnect us from nature.  An urban park no matter how large and untamed is nothing compared to the boreal forest, the jungle, the untamed savannah or the tundra. Anyone who has spent any time in real wilderness recognizes that nature – good old Mother Nature – is red in tooth and claw.  I’m not simply talking about grizzly bears or mountain lions but wind and water and temperature extremes.  In the wilderness, nature doesn’t give a crap about your comfort, safety or survival.

And as the city of Calgary just learned, it doesn’t care about urban boundaries, city streets, electrical power grids, dry basements or your well-being. Fortunately, we have our neighbours and even relative strangers who do.  Like the ice storm that hit the east 15 years ago, the Alberta floods of 2013 will cost billions and take years to recover from.  It will tax our governments and our patience. Yet, we have already seen tremendous outpourings of generosity and support – none more so than from Albertans themselves.  Living together creates a bond that transcends everything else.

Still, folks can use a helping hand – so here is a list of places you can make a contribution to the recovery.  And here’s another.

What does this have to do with science fiction?  Well, as we like to say here at Bundoran Press: Science fiction is our conversation with the future. Urbanization and our relationship to nature are rich fields to grow science fictional ideas and a great place to build stories (though stay away from the flood plain).  The world – and especially the climate – is going to change at an accelerating pace – we’ll need all the thought experiments we can muster.

From Past to Future

12 May

What is the difference between ‘historical fiction’ and ‘science fiction?’  A world of difference, say the critics and professors (and grant administrators and prize juries).  Historical fiction is about real things that actually happened, people who actually lived.  It is based in truth; science fiction is made up.  Actually, most of those people aren’t that unsophisticated.  Who really believes that Hilary Mantel knows the unexpressed insights of Thomas Cromwell or the unrecorded conversations or details of life in Henry’s court?  Who imagines Richard Harris can express the very thoughts of one of Cicero’s slaves? 

Historical writers do their research, exploring surviving manuscripts, architecture, art and music and then extrapolate the most likely set of events.  And if those extrapolated events don’t provide a strong enough narrative, they adjust them until they do, adding events and conflicts based on the theory ‘no one can prove they didn’t happen’ and, more importantly, ‘that’s how people behave.’

Writers who set their stories in ancient Rome or the castles of Henry VIII aren’t trying for the truth; they are trying for verisimilitude – a world that has the feeling of truth. Ultimately they are writing fiction. For people who are alive today.

Science fiction writers do much the same thing.  They do their research – in this case, examining known scientific facts and current theories, economic and social conditions and trends – then extrapolate a possible future, operating on much the same principles: ‘no one can prove it won’t turn out that way’ and ‘that’s how people behave.’  Of course, science fiction writers face the unfortunate reality of having the future then unfold in a somewhat or dramatically different way.  How embarrassing!  Historical fiction doesn’t face quite that dilemma – our understanding of history doesn’t change that suddenly and certainly not right in our faces. 

Occasionally a treasure trove of unknown documents appears – the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example – that shifts our knowledge in a substantial way but, for the most part, history, especially ancient history is somewhat immutable.  But make no mistake; it is not what really happened. Our knowledge of history is determined by two things – what people chose to record and what objects or ruins happened to survive and be found.  Take the great Sao civilization of central Africa.  Never heard of it, you say.  Not surprising – they either had no written language or recorded it on biodegradable surfaces. And they built with wood in a jungle.  We only know it existed – and existed for a substantial length of time – because of a few finds of metal artifacts and some mentions in the journals of Arab traders  who were, of course, biased in their reporting.

The real question is not whether these two genres are so different, but why are they so much alike?  After all, both are heavily engaged in world building, trying to create a sufficiently detailed environment for their characters to operate in that the reader never stops and says: That’s not right!  (And believe me – having written both, there are plenty of people out there just waiting to pounce on an error of historical fact or a flaw in your scientific reasoning.) Whether you are exploring the inner workings of the Roman legal system or the operation of a generation ship in deep space – you better get the details right and create a seamless, consistent and logical portrayal of how it really has to be.

Both historical fiction and science fiction are also critically concerned with the ‘moment of change,’ that instant when one world order or way of life transforms into another.  The life of Cicero is endlessly explored (partly, it is true, because there actually is a large body of information about that time) because it was the moment when the Roman Republic was changing into the Roman Empire.  Henry VIII stands for the Protestant Reformation – which was not only a religious movement but a political one that profoundly changed world views and laid the basis for the modern West.  Science fiction endlessly obsesses on the ‘Singularity’ when we transform from humans to trans-humans.

It is inevitable too that science fiction should adopt some of the structures of historical writing – creating entire future histories as both Asimov and Heinlein spent a good part of their careers doing.

However, the real similarity lies in the purpose of both forms of fiction.  It is odd that no-one ever asks ‘what is the value or purpose of historical fiction?’ at least not in the same way science fiction is interrogated on the matter.  Yet, the answer for both of them is the same.  History and science fiction provides a lens to examine the current world, without getting into the messy politics of right, left or centre.  Looking at the behavior of political advisers to kings may be a way of talking about the behavior of current day politicians.  Examining the treatment of people who are compelled to modify their bodies with cybernetic parts may let us look at racism and transgender prejudices and issues in today’s world.

Which, of course, the purpose of all good fiction – to provide us with a different perspective, a fresh way of looking at the world.  To allow us to have minds bigger than our heads.

As for those prize juries – they don’t have a bias in favour of history and against science fiction.  After all, Midnight’s Children won the Booker twice and if it isn’t science fiction (or at least fantasy), I don’t know what is.