“Julie is Three” wins the Anlab!

Just returned from the annual SFWA meeting, AKA “the nebs.”  I was delighted to receive the Anlab award for short story for my “Julie is Three.”  Here’s the crew of 2012 Anlab winners:

  • Best Novella:  “With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (11/11)
  • Best Novelette, tie:  “Jak and the Beanstalk,” by Richard A. Lovett (7-8/11), “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms,” John G. Hemry
  • Best Short Story:  “Julie is Three,” Craig DeLancey (3/11)
  • Best Fact Article: “Smart SETI,” Gregory and James Benford
  • Best Cover: December 2011 (for “Ray of Light”) by Bob Eggleton

All I can think is:  I won an award that Clifford Simak and David Brin won!

I took a tour of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum led by astronaut Mike Fincke, a true Ubermensch, who answered all those questions writers want to ask, like, are the gloves stiff on those suits?  (Not in the American ones.)  Is it noisy in the shuttle while you’re going up? (It was a smooth ride after the solid rocket boosters were ejected.)  Do you get nausea in microgravity?  (Everyone does, but for different folks it lasts more or less time.)  And I learned lots of details I didn’t even think to ask about: the yanks breathe pure oxygen in their suits, and that it gives you a wicked dry throat.  And so on.

Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet legends (Stan Schmidt!  Gregory Benford!) and lots of soon to be legends.

Roadside Picnic

End of semester rush.  Trying to finish philosophy book on consciousness.  All is compressed.  But:  did find time to discover and buy and read a new edition of “Roadside Picnic,” which is out on Chicago Review Press in a very nice paperback, with an introduction by Le Guin and a fine afterword by Boris Strugatsky and — most importantly — a new translation in between.  If you’ve not read — nor even heard — of “Roadside Picnic,” you must go read this edition.  It’s a milestone of SF.

Just think: Dune could have come out this year!

Is this a trend?  A few minutes at Duotrope will show you how many magazines have response times of 180, 270, 360 days.  Many of those magazines actually “require” a no-simultaneous submissions policy.  The story is worse for presses.  Most don’t take unagented submissions, of course, but those that do take 6 or 12 or 18 months to reply.

I don’t blame these folks much.  I assume that editors, agents, and others who manage the channel are drowning in unsuitable submissions.

But how does the math work?  Dune, Harry Potter, The Forever War, nearly any decent book you can think of took 15 or 20 or more submissions before being picked up.  If those were serial submissions under a no-simultaneous submissions policy, that would mean about 15 or 20 or more years, plus 2 years for production, until those books appeared on shelves.

Generally presses don’t have a no simsubs policy.  But mags do.  And I’ve had stories that were well reviewed after they appeared, but that took three or four or five submissions before they were accepted.  So must such works now take 3-5 years to find a home?


Afterthought.  A friend just told me “The Dark Forward” had a formatting error (big chunks of text appeared centered) that didn’t show up on my Kindle but showed up on his Kindle Fire.  Arg.  Good news is that it’s fixed now.

The Polis of Positive Criticism? For you, I mean.

A kerfuffle in fiction!  Christopher Priest declares the Clarke Award short list dreadful.  Priest is a very admirable writer.  So are the people he criticizes.  Favorite of criticisms is calling Charlie Stross an internet puppy.  I like the internet, and I love my puppy,

and so this aligns with my liking Stross.  Similar praise could be offered by me about Mieville.

But I confess I appreciate the provocation.  It’s interesting to watch the prods of a critic, if she or he is thoughtful.  It makes you consider about the craft a bit more carefully.  And, published criticism of any kind of my own work is sometimes helpful to me.

But here’s the rub: most critics are presumably writing not for the producers but rather for the consumers (or, if you prefer, the ingesters) of art.  And I suspect, as a consumer of art, a negative criticism has never done me any good.

It helps me not at all to to be told a book is terrible or a film is inane or a play is a wreck.  I would not have read the book or seen the movie or play anyway.  Our problem as consumers of art is not to filter out the bad, as if there were so few options we could benefit from excluding one or two.  It is not the case that we have so few options that shaking out a few will leave us with only good works as remnants.  Our problem is to find the good in a forest of options.  We don’t need filters.  We need pointers.

If you ask a guide for directions and she points one way or another and says, “don’t go that way,” she has done you no good.  She’s wasted your time.  There are boundless directions you can take.  Ruling out one is nearly worthless.  If instead your guide points the way to some specific and beneficent location, she has done you a service.

The great service, and I suspect the only service, critics have done me, as a consumer of art, is to point out something good that I otherwise would have missed.  When someone directs me to a body of work I did not know and which I come to love, they have added value.  I’m greatly indebted.  What a great gift to have first been pointed to Tarkovsky, the Strugatsky brothers, Conor McPherson, Anselm Keifer….  The best criticism in the world would be a list of good things I’ve not discovered.  But when the critic tells me something is not good, she is just howling in the noise — indeed, she is just adding to the noise.  She has wasted my time (again, I mean my time as a consumer, as an appreciator, of art).

This is why criticism can seem self-indulgent.  Who are those snide comments meant to help?  Are they really just self-assertion?  One wonders if they compete with art — if these critical works all say, don’t look at that, don’t read that, look at me, read me.

In his book Real Presences, George Steiner imagines a polity without criticism, where the artwork is experienced always directly.  He recognizes that — at least in the Twentieth Century — criticism (he may mean academic criticism) had become the envy-driven enemy of art.  He concludes, however, by recognizing that the polity without criticism is an ideal we shall never have.  Fair enough, but why not strive for a polity of positive criticism?

Still, as a writer, I appreciate the negative criticisms.  Even if, as I said, I doubt they are meant for the likes of me.

Spec Fic’s Designer

I got mail from the Met today, which reminded me that last time I went there, I saw the show on Alexander McQueen.  You could barely move because of the crowd.

I confess to feeling McQueen is our designer.  He had a speculative fiction sensibility that did not see SF as an excuse for a costume.

The videos of his final show look like someone succeeded in filming the love children of Neuromancer and “Call of Cthulhu.”  Unembeddable but available:





I have three original Jack Kirby pages that hang over me while I write.  Kirby is a great inspiration to me.  I find in his aesthetic a celebration of technological possibility that is without cynicism, that is totally joyful, without being imperial.

From Sandman 1

One of my pages is from Sandman 1, another is from one of his late independent projects, and one page is from Omac 5. The Sandman is interesting in part because it reveals how completely Gaiman transformed the comic when he revised it.

A Panel from Omac

Omac is one of the comics Kirby did for DC, and like most of the brilliant work he did then it was quickly killed, presumably by some suit — or else by Kirby running off to another project.  Omac is not deliriously exuberant, like New Gods or Demon, but then in terms of plot it is downright bizarre.  It comes off as a kind of invertedly-Kafkaesque science fiction, in which a pleasant but perhaps clinical world is defended by literally faceless U.N. police.  The disarming thing about it is that Kirby does not criticize the seemingly dystopian elements of his story, so that the faceless police and their ominious panoptic artificial intelligence (“Brother Eye”) are treated as normal, if not proper.  A nearly-psychedelic SF experience.


The Howling

It is sometimes disturbing to read reviews on Amazon.  Sometimes books I consider masterpieces receive the most vicious criticism.  I wanted to send a friend a copy of John Gardner’s Grendel, which I consider a superb novel.  I re-read it often, and have always considered it a model of prose and pacing and characterization.  I believe it is one of our greatest modern fantasies.

My eye was drawn to the bright yellow stars, and then I saw that some people gave the book 1 star.  Unable to look away, I clicked on the disaster, and found comments like:

So due to this piece, I disregarded John Gardner as a complete idiot. A moron. An inept hack. The worst kind of author. One who has gained notoriety through some kind of fluke. John Gardner became a swear word within my group of friends, something only to be braught up so one could watch me rage against, “That idiot who probably didn’t even read the source material!”

It’s hard not to marvel at something like that.  (Also: it’s curious that some people act so personally hostile.  Why insult John Gardner?  Does he think Gardner isn’t a human being?  Does he think Gardner didn’t try his best?  Not to mention, of course, that this person would not have had the courage — nor, one hopes, the bad manners — to insult Gardner like this to his face, were Gardner still with us.  Why does print make it acceptable?)

But there is also something liberating about seeing these critical vomits.  They remind us that every book — every work of art — has to find its audience, and the people outside that audience might be not just uninterested, but even actively hostile.  Even hostile to a vile degree.

For a writer, it’s always painful when people write dismissive or mean things about your work, and always someone does.  But seeing that any work, even great works like Grendel, will earn some dismissive and mean criticisms reminds us that everything is hated by someone.  Indeed, everything is hated by someone eager to shout personal attacks on Amazon.