Living in a Science Fiction World #1

    The Internet is truly amazing, but I’m not sure if Millennials who never knew a world without the Internet know that. I thought I’d pass on some old fart stories about how social networking among science fiction fans used to work. They aren’t as bad as the stories my father told me about walking miles to school in the snow in Nebraska, and as some jokester once quipped, uphill both ways. Actually, when I lived in New Jersey in the late 1950s there were times my little sister and I did walk miles to school in the snow. It was a blast. Life then was still very much like that movie A Christmas Story. No computers, cell phones, GPSes, video games, high definition TV, or iPods. Cars didn’t talk to you either.

    When I discovered science fiction in the early sixties I didn’t even know there was a separate genre of books and movies called Science Fiction. Well, it certainly wasn’t something they’d teach in school or your parents would tell you about. Before the Internet information was scarce. Back then the philosophy of adults were kids should be seen and not heard. It’s not like now where parents are your pals and they do everything for and with you. Kids lived in Kidworld and information passed from kid to kid. And if you worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, kidnet was completely unreliable. Theories about where babies and Santa came from were as varied as the religions of the world. Parents like to pretend their kids knew nothing, and would even smack a kid upside his head for saying something smart, so it was better just to pretend to be stupid. So how did I find out about science fiction?

    I knew I loved monster movies that would come on TV on Saturdays and sometimes they were about trips to Mars and Venus where four earth guys would find a whole civilization of pointy-bra wearing women. What more could a kid ask for in life? How could I find more movies like this? I liked reading, but mostly read non-fiction books about NASA, dinosaurs and war. In the sixth grade a teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to us after lunch and I wanted more books like that. In the seventh grade I stumbled onto When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, and then Jules Verne and H. G. Wells after seeing movies based on their books. It wasn’t until 1964 when my eighth grade teacher produced a list of approved science fiction writers I could read that I learned the magic words were “Science Fiction.” I then got systematic about finding SF books. A major discovery was some libraries even had SF sections, like at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. Now that I had discovered this wonderful genre I wanted to meet other fans.

    My point of that long story is to explain that ideas passed by word of mouth. Networking used to be called friendship. Nobody talked about computers or owned one, they were mysterious giant machines mostly referred to in cartoons, and normal people couldn’t comprehend them except in humor. Not only did kids not have cell phones, but grown-ups frowned on the idea of kids using the family phone. People joke about TV being a vast wasteland with 200 channels and nothing on, but back when I was a kid there were just three channels and the Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched wasn’t very informative about the real world. Kids today just don’t realize how rich they are in information.

    I got to thinking about this when I was reading my RSS feed for SFSignal and it made me realize just how easy it is to locate people interested in the same subject I am. In 1965 I read science fiction pretty much in isolation. I had no friends that read science fiction and whenever I’d meet someone that did we’d strike up an excited conversation. In other words, meeting people with similar interests was random. The science fiction book section wasn’t at a mega-bookstore but was half a twirling wire rack of paperbacks at the drug store.

    Social networking meant joining a club of likeminded individuals and meeting face-to-face during monthly or weekly meetings. Before I could drive I felt like I belong to a group by joining The Science Fiction Book Club or subscribing to Galaxy and Analog magazines that had fan letter columns.

    Before computers it seemed like science fiction fans were few and far between. Communication with SF fans was through letters in the magazines or fanzines. At first I lurked, like lurkers on a BBS (a bulletin board system, an early attempt a social networking via computers). I just watched and learned. In 1970, just after I moved to Memphis, I noticed a letter in Ted White’s
Amazing from a Memphis guy and I called him up. He told me about the Memphis Science Fiction Association. That’s where I met Dr. Darrell C. Richardson and Claude Saxon, two old time collectors of science fiction and pulps, and Greg Bridges, a guy my age who wanted to produce a club fanzine.

    Before there was email, IM and text messaging, there was something called a letter. Most people wrote letters by hand using a pen and forming their personally invented typeface by scratching ink marks on pieces of paper. Individual fonts were hard to decipher because size and shape varied widely. Fans, as we science fiction fans would call ourselves, used a typewriter to create letters to send to one another. Letters worked like emails in that they went anywhere in the world with the correct email mailing address, but they were slow, usually taking weeks to make a two way exchange.

    Typewriters are like the keyboard of your computer, but they had a mechanism for handling paper – imagine a printer built into your keyboard – with a typeface installed on a piano key type arrangement that struck an inked ribbon above the paper and left a mark. Typewriting was sort of like using Microsoft Word but infinitely aggravating. You couldn’t edit or correct without a lot of trouble, so the easiest thing to do was strike over words with mistakes. Yet it was a giant step in technology over handwritten letters. The technology originated during Mark Twain’s lifetime, so think steampunk. If you wanted to save a copy of your email message, it required inserting two pieces of paper sandwiching a piece of carbon paper into the printing mechanism – very messy. It was more work than walking miles to school in the snow.

    My first proto-computer like high tech gadget was a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. After I joined Memphis Science Fiction Association I was brave enough to join an APA – amateur press association. APAs go way back to the 1930s I think, and I joined SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Association), an informal network of 25-35 people who communicate via publishing zines. Think listserv. You printed 35 copies of your zine, usually mimeographed, and sent them to the central editor, who collated them with the zines of all the other members, and then snail mailed the bundles quarterly back to all the members. Again, picture mailing list, but instead of a computer program doing the work, an actual person had to do all the work. Like letters, this listserv took months for a two way communication.

    Very few people, mainly hard core science fiction fans and other nuts took the trouble to be in an APA. 99.999% of people just communicated by talking. There were probably less than two dozen lists APAs in the world. The hunger to know likeminded people and form worldwide communication was limited to those crazy Buck Rodgers fans and similar sub-cultures. At a higher level fans tried to create their own magazines, also called zines, but genzines, rather than apazines (you see we had our own jargon). These had circulations from 20 to 800. They were like frozen web pages or blogs, made out of thick colored paper, again mimeographed and stapled together.

    The mimeograph machine was a printer, but very primitive. Affordable models were hand cranked. You’d buy stencils, long sheets of waxy paper that you would type on. Striking a typewriter key on a stencil cleared away the wax leaving a thin area ink would ooze through. Fanzine producers would always get the best typists in the club to type up the stencils, because any mistakes made a mess to be corrected with corflu – you figure that one. Stencils were attached to the mimeograph drum that bled ink through the typed letters on the stencil thus printing on the paper rolling under the drum one sheet at a time. Printing with mimeograph machines was as messy as changing oil in a car, but then Gen Y and Millennials wouldn’t know about that either.

    In other words, you had to really want to communicate badly to spend your personal money and time to go through such a dirty process. Producing a zine, like I said, was like creating a web page or blog, but you had to convince someone to read it. There was no Google. Usually you traded your zine for someone else’s zine. Again, another primitive network. Instead of having DNS servers, some people would be zine reviewers, because you could subscribe to their zine and have a Google like listing of current zines to mail your zine to – a type of push technology.

    Think of a zine as a web page that could only be read if you held it in your hands and the URL was identical to the creator’s home mailing address. Some would take weeks to load receive. Getting a zine in the mailbox was major excitement and I got them from as far as Australia and England. It was a world wide web, just made of paper and very slow.

    It used to be so thrilling to get a SAPS mailing. Think of a mailing list that takes months to get a reply. My zine, The Blue Bomber, named after my first car contained blog like natter about what I was reading, and then a long list of comments about the other zines in the previous bundle. For my first issue of The Blue Bomber, I had to drive from Memphis to Tupelo to use my cousin’s husband’s church mimeograph. He was the pastor. So my next high tech gadget lust was for a Gestetner mimeograph which I bought with Greg Bridges and another fan in a cooperative printing venture.

    Fans lived and died by the typer. This was long before word processing. Kids just don’t know how easy life is if you haven’t tried using a typewriter. In 1977 I got a job as an IBM MT/ST machine operator, which was a primitive word processor using two tape drives to edit and save files connected to an electric typewriter. Boy, I thought I was living in the future using that machine. As soon as I heard about personal computers I wanted one, but it was 1978 before I could afford one, then a lowly Atari 400, which wasn’t good enough for the task. I then got a TI 99/4A which also proved useless as a word processor. It was when I got a Commodore 64 that I first had all the components for word processing – CPU, disk drive and printer. By then I discovered bulletin boards and networks like Genie and CompuServe with my 300bps modem.

    This put communication with other science fiction fans in real time and that was a major breakthrough. All of a sudden I found thousands of people who loved to talk about science fiction books. Eventually I created my own 2-line BBS with my second 286 PC clone (our current chips should be a 886 by now). At first monitors were green screen and all text. Then I remember spending a small fortune for a VGA monitor with 256 colors. This was the 1980s.

    Luckily I worked at a university where we had access to BITNET and other networks including the wonderful NNTP (network news) for group communications. By then I was finding science fiction fans from around the world to talk to by quick messaging called emails, but not the flashy emails of today’s Outlook. By then graphical operation systems were showing up and we could send photos, if you know what I mean, and share cool things like Linux.  Finally Mosaic showed up and computer networks blasted into orbit.

    A lot has happened in the last 43 years. If I could take my current computer with its hi-rez 20″ widescreen LCD to the past and show my 1965 self he would have thought it more wonderful than anything science fiction had ever imagined. If I could show him how people shared interests with blogs and social networking software it would have blown his little mind. In 1965 I dreamed that by 2008 I would be living on Mars, but living on Earth in 2008 with the Internet is far more science fictional and far out.

    Hell, science fiction never predicted the iPod, but don’t get me talking about how much trouble collecting music was when it was stored on vinyl discs.

JWH

The Science Fiction Event Horizon

Science fiction has always been about speculation, and some old SF writers even called it speculative fiction. Humans have always speculated about what’s possible, with what if scenarios, so even though the word science had not been invented, I believe there were science fiction “writers” since the dawn of time. We know the ancient Greeks speculated on the existence of other worlds and life on them. Gods, god, immortality, sin, justice, and so on, are all theories invented by speculation. Our brains have had a mechanism for speculation for a very long time.

Regarding science fiction I believe that three things happen to speculative ideas. First, they can come true like submarines imagined by Jules Verne. Second, they will be discounted as impossible, like H. G. Wells idea of time travel or E. E. (Doc) Smith’s theory of faster-than-light travel. Third, believers can be trapped inside of the SF Event Horizon always living with the speculation that their idea is true, like true believers of the first speculative theories, religion.

For science fiction to remain vital it must stay above the event horizon or be pulled down into the gravitation hole of fantasy. Unfortunately, most science fiction ends up being fantasy, and believers end up stuck inside the SF Event Horizon. Take for instance the Star Wars series of movies, much loved by a generation of SF fans, and even non SF fans. Star Wars is essentially recycled SF from the 1930s and 1940s, the space opera of Edmund Hamilton, the aliens and mysticism of the Lensmen series, and the historical politics of the Asimov’s Foundation series. As speculative ideas, these were all born within the event horizon – anyone with a good education could have shot them down back in the 1930s, but few people had that education and they were exciting ideas that made legions of converts. Outside of the SF Event Horizon, writers in the 1950s and 1960s took SF in new directions leaving galactic empires behind, even though the general public didn’t discover galactic empires until the 1970s with Star Wars.

Science fiction of the 19th and early 20th century helped promote the reality planetary exploration, rocketry and manned space travel. Above the SF Event Horizon, we know a lot about space travel, a whole lot. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope for a year and study the articles and you’ll see our knowledge of astronomy is going through a renaissance of epic proportions. What we know about physics and astronomy puts nearly all speculative fiction about space travel inside the SF Event Horizon. If you are a true believer in Star Wars, then you are trapped inside and can’t see out. Is it any wonder that the generation after the Star Wars generation embraced Tolkien mythology and Harry Potter?

Science fiction as true speculative fiction is going through a morbid period right now. Has science thrown most of science fiction or speculative fiction into the gravity well of fantasy? How many stories are written about slower-than-light travel to the stars, and how many people do they inspire? Life extension is still valid speculation. So is artificial intelligence, robots, nanotechnology, the singularity, genetic modifications, and so on. We have lots of room for real speculation, but are we seeing it in science fiction stories? I don’t know, but I’m going to go look for it. I know I don’t see it on television or at the movies. Movies have always lagged far behind the speculative fiction of written science fiction. When will we see media fiction based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? Most kids today live in a world of SF video games that are stuck in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds speculation from the 1890s.

If your idea of hard SF is military FTL epics then you are trapped inside the SF Event Horizon with Edmund Hamilton and Hobbits. Go read Charlie Stross’ The High Frontier, Redux which just scratches the surface of reality. If all you want is entertainment, then live inside of the SF Event Horizon and be happy. No problem, at all. I have no intention of attacking entertainment, but I would prefer to call what most people call science fiction as fantasy.

A long time ago, back in the Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell eras, science fiction was promoted as serious speculation about what we might discover in this universe. Even then it was 99.99% entertainment and .01% speculative fiction, but they sold the science and speculation angle hard. I know what’s called science fiction today is really just entertainment. The Science Fiction section in bookstores should really be called Fantasy Books, because science essentially disappeared from science fiction a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean that speculative fiction is dead, just mostly forgotten. Go watch Wired Science, a science news show on PBS. Its part modern Mr. Wizard show and part on the scene news with cutting edge science dudes doing far out work. Science and scientists have taken speculative fiction and run with it. If you flick around on your digital cable TV you’ll find a lot of science and technology shows. The real world makes Astounding Stories look dull and faded. When are we going to get a science fiction magazine that uses now for its fuel for speculative fiction, rather than living on stories that depend on variations of ideas long trapped in the SF Event Horizon?

When are we going to get a 21st Century Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E. E. Smith or Robert A. Heinlein? They don’t have to invent speculative ideas that will end up being real and true, just new ones, based on ideas that haven’t already been proven false. It’s better to be a Jules Verne and nail a few with your imagination, but hitting one out of the park by inventing a concept like time travel is worthy too. My worry is most of humanity and its imagination is trapped within the SF Event Horizon. I worry that most people feel if they can’t cruise around the galaxy like Hans Solo or Captain Picard, then they’d rather live on fantasy inside the SF Event Horizon than to explore the dirty grim reality of an airless, lifeless rocky Mars.

Final note. If you want to read a beautiful speculative fiction story that is a metaphor for what I’ve written above, read The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Depending on which ending you believe is true, it will tell you whether or not you are living within the SF Event Horizon.

JWH

SuperBookworms

I feel a certain amount of pride in the number of books I read and take a certain pleasure in thinking of myself as a bookworm, but I’m a total slacker when I compare myself to some people I found on the net while searching for Best Books of 2007. Take a look at Jason Lunberg’s 2007 books read blog entry. He lists 90 books. I have a mere 39 on my log for 2007, down from 53 in 2006. My lame excuse, I got bogged down trying to listen to the Bible and while concurrently studying it at the same time, and I still haven’t finished the Old Testament or any of the supplemental books I bought to help explain it.

This got me to thinking. How many books can a person read in a year? I next found “Anglers Rest” with a partial list that ends at 109. After that I found lots of people listing 40-60 books, like “So Many Books” or “Orpheus Sings the Electric” that I tend to think that around a book a week is the range of the serious bookworm. Looking at the titles, these bookworms also seem to be very diverse readers, reading a mixture of classics, genres, literary and non-fiction, memoirs and biographies. It certainly would be fun to get a party of these people together and get them arguing over best books and writers.

Then I found Eva’s “A Striped Armchair” with 200 titles listed – but only through October 25th and I am in awe! Now she is a SuperBookworm! I’d call anyone reading more than 100 books a year a SuperBookworm. Of course, she is a twenty-one year old nanny taking time off after college before getting real, so that explains some things. When I took “some time off from college” or as my family refers to that time as “Jim’s unpaid vacation as a worthless bum,” I read 478 books in eighteen months. To be honest, I read to avoid growing up and to keep my mind off the question about what to do with my life. I have to wonder if Eva isn’t doing that too.

I kept going through my Google returns but I didn’t find anyone to top Eva. I then found a site that focuses on doing what I was doing with Google. Over at ~Listology~ they take this idea seriously. They generate lists of lists that take the idea to the extreme.

Still, reading over 200 books in one year boggles my mind. Is Eva the top bookworm of the year? I don’t know. If I was a SuperProgrammer, I’d write a program to crawl the net, gather up all the “Books Read 2007” lists from my Google search and compile a database and cross tabulate it to see what were the most read books and who read the most books. If you assume hardcore Bookworms and SuperBookworms have reached the stage of being jaded over bad books and also assume they would naturally seek out the best books, this system might tell me what the best books are to read.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a SuperBookworm and read one hundred books in a year again. When I was a kid in junior high and high school there were long periods where I could read a book a day, but those were crappy science fiction novels, and SF novels back then were often less than 200 pages long. I don’t want to read worthless crap books any more, and the types of books I like to read now take about a week to finish. I’ll be content with this pace if I read the best of best books and I’ll die knowing I did a good bookwormly job.

The motto I would like to live up to is: Why read any book when you can read a great book!” That’s not an easy motto to follow if you have an undisciplined mind that likes to pursue odd ends and thoughts. I could, but it would probably be silly knowing my true self, to make a resolution for 2008 to only read great books.

I want to read the best books, but I don’t want to stick to just the same old famous classics. That’s why I like to read these Books Read 2007 lists. However, I wish there were other ways to validate good reading ideas.

There are other methods to find lists of great books, such as the one at New York Magazine, “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read,” where they had sixty-one critics recommending their favorite underrated books from the last ten years and producing a year’s worth of reading for the average bookworm. I had read only one of these titles, The Accidental by Ali Smith, and shamefully, I had not even heard of most of the others. New York Magazine even tries to recommend authors who will be taught in school in 50 years in their article, “The Future Canon.” Again, I’m stymied by my lack of knowledge.

Not only am I not a SuperBookworm, but I’m just a normal bookworm with less than good taste. I suppose I need to go get Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and get busy. I’m not a total illiterate, because a quick glance showed I read 4 of the first 20 on this list of his titles at listology. Assuming I followed this list, it would take me twenty years to finish it, and that doesn’t count for any fantastic books written after the list was written, or cover all the Harvard Classics type books that aren’t on this list.

I should join the others and list my Books Read 2007, but glancing down my log I gladly notice a reasonable number of good books, and some even interesting books, but I also embarrassingly note I read a lot of crap, so I think I’ll curl my tail between my legs and walk away cowered by the SuperBookworms.

JWH

Battles of the Sexes in Juno

If you haven’t seen Juno, do not read beyond the first paragraph because I haven’t learned how to write a movie review that doesn’t give things away. I’m more interested in dissecting films. Subliminal philosophy and politics in pop culture inspires me to write more than helping people decide how to spend their money and time. Although, only a misanthrope would hate this charming movie about sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff’s struggle to find a good home for her unborn baby. Juno, played by Ellen Page, reminds me a lot of Tom Henderson (a.k.a. Chi-mo) in Frank Portman’s novel King Dork because of the music Juno and Tom both love. Juno the movie, lacks an edge except for Juno’s the character’s wonderful dialog, which zings due to the writer Diablo Cody. Cody, the author of Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, provides the one clue to one of my major questions about the film: Is the dialog and attitude of the young girls in this picture in any way representative of youthful females of today?

Juno is the realistic polar opposite of the unrealistic movie Knocked Up, a film I dissected in “Morality in Knocked Up Places.” Both films are about unplanned pregnancies resulting from smart women making stupid mistakes when it comes to having sex. You’d think with all the official and unofficial sex education that goes on in schools and pop culture that these basic skills would be ingrained in the current generation of young people exploring biological urges. But then comedy is often about exceptional mistakes.

In Knocked Up we had a career-successful female beauty mating unrealistically with a career-lacking loser of questionable physical charms, Juno realistically pairs a girl geek with a boy geek. Unlike Knocked Up, Juno spends more time exploring the abortion issue but both movies reject it. Cliché Hollywood is supposed to be about liberalism, but it’s my belief that both films promote common conservative ideals. Back in the 1960s and 1970s this subject matter would highlight the generation gap, but in Juno, Juno’s parents are savvy and supportive from the first moment this issue comes up. Juno isn’t abandoned by her parents, kicked out of school, shunned by her friends or required to move away for nine months and hide her shame. Hell, Juno isn’t even shown as being ashamed for being a dumbass and not having her boyfriend wear a condom.

In fact, this is a pretty guilt free movie, even though there are a lot of regrets expressed by the characters, and emotional suffering. The story and characters show a kind of Eastern philosophical acceptance about what goes on in life. Like I said before, this is not an edgy film full of intense overblown drama. There are two events in the film I would like to examine, and like I warned above, talking about them will spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it.

My first question about this film: Is Mark Loring, the potential Dad for Juno’s baby played by Jason Bateman, portrayed as a bad-guy in Juno? At the last moment he decides to leave his wife, ruining her plans for motherhood, and messes up Juno’s dream of giving her baby a better place in life than her life. At first viewing, Mark appears to be the poster male for the often stated remark of angry females that men are assholes. Vanessa Loring, played by Jennifer Garner, is at first shattered by the news but quickly accepts his decision?

Mark decides to do what the men of Knocked Up only dream about. He abandons marriage and child for personal interests and hobbies. Oddly in Juno, written by a female writer, this is accepted, but in Knocked Up written by a male writer it is not. I have to ask is it male guilt that maintains the monogamous status quo? Juno picks Mark and Vanessa living in their picture-perfect McMansion as the obvious place to let her baby nest and grow up even though it’s clear to both her and the audience that Mark and Vanessa have nothing in common. They are as different as the couples in Knocked Up, yet they hadn’t married because of pregnancy.

Juno MacGuff desperately wants marriage to be about living happy-ever-after forever, something her parents failed to do. Mac MacGuff has to advice Juno is to find the person that gets her and hope for the best. As Peeping Toms staring into the two worlds of Juno and Knocked Up – we the audience sees that most of the couples do not follow this advice. The philosophy expressed by Judd Apatow is men should abandon their personal desires and bite the bullet for children and family. Diablo Cody on the other hand expresses that friendship is more powerful than families.

Mark Loring is leaving Vanessa because he wants friends of his own kind, and in this movie that is accepted. The second piece of implied movie philosophy that I question though: Why shouldn’t the baby go to Juno and Paulie? Am I the only person to wonder why Juno and Paulie shouldn’t keep the baby once they discover how important their friendship is to each other? What is Diablo Cody and Hollywood telling us in this instance? Is the right thing for irresponsible sixteen-year-olds is to give up their babies? Yes, our society abhors teenage pregnancies, but does it also hate teenage marriages? Is Apatow taking a better moral stance than Diablo Cody? Sure Vanessa deserves to have a baby too, but doesn’t a baby deserve to have its genetic parents, especially when they love each other?

I can’t help but wonder if you got Judd Apatow and Diablo Cody together if they wouldn’t hammer out some kind of policy that up to a certain age people should be free of responsibility. Cody evidently believes if there are no children you can always opt out. In all of this I’m wondering if Hollywood isn’t slowly working out a philosophical position on modern morality, but one that probably trails the actual activities of the current generation.

Juno has a happy romantic ending with Juno and Paulie playing guitars together. We know the results of Juno’s agonizing decision making when we see her scrawled note to Vanessa framed on the wall, but we do not know the process of how she reached that decision. Juno never consulted Paulie, the biological dad, or her best friend Leah, or her parents, so her thoughts are never revealed to us. But I like Juno so much as a character that I believe she would be a wonderful mother and Paulie would be a good father. I feel sorry for the kids growing up with the Knocked Up parents because they were too much like my parents, married and staying married for the wrong reasons.

I’m quite sure most people will think I’m seeing too much in movies. However, I don’t believe writers write just to entertain, although that might be 99.99% in some cases. I think serious writers, even writers of comedy, want to say something about their generation and the world. As a baby boomer, I was bombarded by the fictional morality of the generation before me. I know the baby boomers demanded and expected the whole wide world to watch them. So, is it too much to expect that later generations might have reactionary messages hidden away in their stories? King Dork was a hilarious missive from Gen-X to the Catcher-in-the-Rye crowd.

JWH

Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester

    “Fondly Fahrenheit” is a classic science fiction short story written by Alfred Bester who wrote two mega-masterpieces of science fiction, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. The Demolished Man shared the #1 spot on my Classics of Science Fiction list with Dune by Frank Herbert and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Stars My Destination was #13. Alfred Bester was a writer’s writer among science fiction authors. Bester only visited the science fiction field in his long career, just long enough to write a couple classic novels and a handful of equally good short stories before moving on – so he’s not well known to young SF readers of today.

    Wonder Audio hopes to change that by publishing a fine audio presentation of “Fondly Fahrenheit” for the iTunes and Audible.com generation, along with a handful of other classic SF short stories by Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vane, Poul Anderson and Jerome Bixby.

    Alfred Bester wrote weirdly flamboyant styled stories in a field noted for dull writing and far out ideas, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” stands out with its multiple viewpoint POVs. This story, first published in August 1954 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been heavily anthologized ever since, including The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1. Robert Silverberg even used “Fondly Fahrenheit” as an example story to deconstruct in his book about writing science fiction called Science Fiction 101 or Worlds of Wonder. (Don’t you just hate it when they rename a book?)

    Alfred Bester wrote science fiction in the 1950s, during a time when social and psychological issues were just as important as space opera and time travel, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” features a Sweeney Todd deranged android that sharply contrasts with the clean and wholesome Asimov robots. This is a strangely adult story marketed in a genre mainly targeting the adolescent, and in a strange way can be considered disturbing, both in subject matter, but also to the field of science fiction of its day. Like I’ve implied, I considered Bester weird, stranger than A. E. Van Vogt, but not as far out as Philip K. Dick whose career came after Bester’s. “Fondly Fahrenheit” is an android story and pairs well with Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel the brilliant Sci-Fi film Blade Runner was based on.

    I don’t believe in retelling plot elements when recommending a story so you’ll have to go read it, or better yet, snag the audio copy. Pat Bottino does a good job of making the multiple-aptitude android sound crazed, and his reading gives the story a good creepy feeling. Listening really helps accentuate the dual first-person POV, the shifting first-person POVs and the third-person story telling. The story does everything a MFA writing teacher tells you not to do.

    Let’s hope Wonder Audio succeeds and produces a long list of classic short SF on audio. I’m curious how marketing single short stories will work out. Infinivox is also working the same market of audio short SF&F, but with more recent stories, including some longer novella work like “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress. Both are companies that sell on Audible.com, but I didn’t see Infinivox on iTunes.

    I would think short SF&F would be great for the iPod age, but I worry about the pricing. Audio book pricing is strange and inconsistent to begin with. Do you price digital downloads the same way you price cassette and CD collections? Is the three hour “Beggars in Spain” worth $8.81 or 1 credit at Audible.com when the full eleven hour novel Ender’s Game is also one credit, and $19.58, but often on sale for $9.95? Of course Audible insanely charges 1 credit for some audio books that just last a few minutes.

    James Patrick Kelly sells his short stories on Audible.com by the story and by the StoryPod of 13 stories bundled together. I often buy short story collections on Audible.com and I look at the total time to judge how to spend my credit. If a collection is over 8 hours I consider it a bargain. Wonder Audio and Infinivox may need to bundle their stories into theme collections on Audible.com and see how they sell for a single credit compared to selling the stories separately.

    On the other hand, I’ve always wished that short stories would become as popular on the Internet as MP3 songs, so kids would collect them for their iPods and trade them. This doesn’t work with DRM systems, such as those used on iTunes and Audible.com. We’ll have to see if Amazon.com doesn’t develop a market for short story MP3s like they have for music. Publishers need to accept and market to the natural instinct of people wanting to share their favorite songs and stories.

    If audio short stories were sold for $2 in MP3 formats would they become popular enough to make them a commercial success? You can’t charge too much for them – songs go for 99 cents and TV shows for $2, so I doubt kids would value short stories more than an episode of Lost. The classic printed short story is a dying art form. I’ve always wondered if audio short stories could be marketed to appeal to the young and bring back their popularity. With the rise of the MP3 player this makes this idea possible but it’s a chicken and egg problem to solve. Kids don’t know about short stories, so they won’t try them on their iPods.

    People pass around songs, jokes, short films, crazy photos and such in email attachments. I wonder if flash fiction stories can be squeezed into the same number of megabytes as a song or short film and sent as an email attachment which could help seed the idea. Give these away with the encouragement to pass them on but put notices at the end, for longer stories visit our website at such and such. Comedy shorts like David Sedaris would be a good start. It’s just an idea, but I wish some publishers would give it a try.

JWH

Science Fiction Short Stories State of the Union

Before the Internet if you wanted to read new science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) short stories your main venue was the newsstand. As sales of pulp magazines declined new sources of stories appeared in paperback and hard cover with original anthologies and book series like the classic Orbit edited by Damon Knight. For those of you who can’t keep up with the monthly magazines and webzines there are many SF&F annual best-of anthologies to let you sample the high points of the year. For more than two decades Gardner Dozois has been producing the giant The Year’s Best Science Fiction tome and he has a number of competitors. His most recent volume, the twenty-fourth annual collection, came out last July. Along with his exhaustive Summation report and vast collection of stories, it’s the absolute best single volume to stay in touch with the SF short story market.

Now in the far future year of 2008, we can still find SF&F stories in magazines and books, but also online, as podcasts, audio books and even ebooks. It’s pretty damn science fictional to read SF&F on a Kindle or listen to it whispered into your ears via an iPod. I used to be a regular subscriber to all the major monthly magazines but I’ve gotten out of touch in recent years. My fellow Clarion West 2002 classmates who have gone on to publishing stories keep finding amazing new markets and I’ve been meaning to try them out. (I still dream of writing science fiction and sadly, I am among the laggards of my class who haven’t published anything so far.)

To get a picture of what’s out there and hopefully inspire me to write fiction again, I thought I’d take a quick look at all the SF&F markets. I do miss regularly reading SF short stories because it’s the short fiction that really defines the science fiction genre in my mind. I don’t have time to keep up with SF novels, and to be honest, they seldom offer the punch as they did when I was a teenager. The short story is different, it still has sense of wonder value and presents far out visions from writers who are working with the rule that the sky is no limit.

My favorite method of “reading” science fiction short stories is with audio editions. Escape Pod is a good free introduction to the concept. Escape Pod offers a great selection of stories so it’s an obvious place to start. The readings vary in quality, but aren’t up to the best work of professional narrators. To understand what I mean requires going to Audible.com and buying a general collection or old issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or the single best-of collections of Analog or Asimov’s. Or going to Amazon.com and buying Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006 audio edition, edited by Rich Horton. It’s a ten CD collection of SF audio short stories. I’d pay a lot for the annual Dozois collection if it was done as unabridged audio.

I can’t emphasize how much I love audio SF&F short stories. I even got on Amazon/ABEbooks.com and ran various searches to track down and ordered used copies of all the old cassette editions of SF&F short stories I could find. There’s not that many but I found a lot of gems.

This past year James Patrick Kelly has been selling his short stories on Audible.com in batches of 13 that are released one a week. They are called StoryPod 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. I wish more SF&F authors would do this. Overall I was very impressed with his writing and ideas. His stories are a good introduction to audio SF.

What I really wish is for a regular audio collection, like a Reader’s Digest, but of genre and literary short stories to be sold by Audible.com. Good audio readings absolutely showcase short stories. I’m currently listening to Stories of the South 2004 and each story is like a potent distilled novel, very intense.

Audio productions magnify story telling skills – so bad stories are glaringly bad, but good ones are just damn vivid. If you want to be a writer listen to audio short stories, it’s a way to study how stories work and succeed.

Fictionwise.com now offers F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog and Interzone magazines as ebooks, as well as Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazines. Each magazine is available in a variety of computer formats including for the new Kindle reader. If you register your Kindle with Fictionwise, all your purchased books will have an “Email to Kindle” button beside the title. Just press it and go to your Kindle and start reading. Anything they offer in MultiFormat works with the Kindle and Sony readers, as well as a long list of older readers.

Amazon also sells many of the back volumes of the Dozois and Hartwell annual best-of collections in Kindle format, as well as many theme short story collections, and strangely enough, reprints of ancient pulp era science fiction. You could stuff your Kindle with thousands of short stories.

Audio / Podcasts

Magazines

Webzines

Short Fiction Reviews

Annual Anthologies

JWH

Update 12/28/07:  I just discovered that The New Yorker offers a monthly podcast, available through iTunes or at the New Yorker website, that hosts a visiting author who reads a short story he or she admires.  I know this isn’t science fiction related, but if you are used to podcasts, its a fantastic way to bring audio short stories into your life.  I wished the New Yorker would hire professional readers and offered their weekly fiction this way.  Their short stories are the best literary fiction in the world which is validated yearly in the annual Best American Short Fiction anthologies.

Portraits of Reality or Fantasy?

On the Friday before Christmas I was practicing with my Nikon D50 camera at work learning how to use the RAW mode, a technique to maximize details. I’ve become the unofficial photographer even though I have limited photographic skills. This allows me to justify spending a bit of work time learning photography. Coincidentally that day, a lady at work wanted a new photo for our web page and I decided to use her for my tests using RAW mode. I soon learned that the goals of RAW filming conflicted with female psychology and I had to learn to use the Blur Tool instead. Thus photography becomes a lesson in reality versus fantasy.

One goal I have for taking pictures is to capture reality as accurately as possible. Mastering photography should train me see light and detail the same way Monet did for his painting. That might sound like a Zen koan conflict though, since Impressionist paintings seem far from accurate. Monet saw his landscapes with greater detail than any camera sensor and he understood what he saw – he just heavily compressed his final output, creating the essential paint pixels to give the impression of what he wanted us to see.

Monet could give the impression of a pretty girl with just a few strokes of his brush. What the lady at work wanted for her web portrait was just enough pixels to give a good impression of her image. She wanted enough detail so people could recognize her.

It is human nature to want to look good, but philosophically I’m fascinated by the RAW mode of reality, and I’m downright intrigued by our society’s rather neurotic compulsion to change how things look. We want High Definition TV for nature shows, but we want Photoshop photos of people, especially women.

I’m not a good looking guy, and my rosacea makes taking appealing photographs of me very hard. However, everyone I know has to look at me and they see far more detail than any photograph. So why should I pretend to look different and use the clone tool to even out my skin tone? It’s pretty obvious that we don’t look at ourselves, and when women look in the mirror they start dabbing make-up on their faces and when they see photographs they don’t mind at all if the photographer uses some Photoshop make-up on their images.

This is not an ethical conundrum but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not a psychological problem. On the web people often like to be anonymous, and prefer avatars or photos of anything but themselves to stand in for their likeness. Yet, try to imagine a world were women’s magazines only used RAW mode untouched photos and movie and television actors and actresses looked real rather than made-up?

Many years ago, in my late forties, I saw a Playboy Magazine for the first time in a very long time. I was shocked by the photos of the naked girls because they looked like faked photos of Barbie dolls being passed off as real flesh and blood women. And it was more than a visual shock, but a below-the-belt scare that made me feel like I had ED. The instant magic I felt as a teenager looking at Playboy was definitely not there. We knew the girls were airbrushed back in the 1960s, but there was enough impressionistic detail to make the centerfolds trick our brains into thinking we were seeing real girls. Obviously I’m older and my testosterone decline has caused the magic of paper women to fail.

Aesthetically though, at least for me, heavily Photoshopped images of women are no longer beautiful female humans but Jessica Rabbit clones. Not only that, but those cartoon images are what women, and maybe younger men, want to see plastered on the faces of women in reality. What’s Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers terrifying is an ad I saw in a photography magazine for a program that does this same kind of cartooning magic to kids. Talk about pod people!

The desire to make women look good in photos and the mirror is really a deep down desire to look young. So I have to ask isn’t it insane to change the look of actual youth? We’re moving into some weird territory here. We no longer want to pretend to look young, but animated. Is this a rejection of being human? I think we need to get both real and human. Maybe we should even use sexuality as a yardstick. In the real world a good looking women with wrinkles produces wood for me whereas women who follow in Tammy Faye Baker’s footsteps do not.

I think the beauty pendulum needs to swing back towards what’s real. I’m not saying that because I’m homely and want to promote my kind, but because psychologically I think we need to stay closer to reality. Fantasy is fun for Harry Potter books, but acting like magic exists is unhealthy. If everyone grows up seeing non-human fantasy characters in the movies, on television and in the magazines, what is reality going to be like in their mind’s eye?

JWH