Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reflections on the 2000 World Fantasy Convention

With this year's World Fantasy Convention quickly approaching [alas, I won't be attending....], I began to reminisce about past WFCs -- and concluded that possibly my most memorable WFC was in 2000 in Corpus Christi, Texas, on October 26-29. The Author Guests of Honor were K. W. Jeter and John Crowley, the Artist GoH was Charles Vess (whose wonderful art graced the cover of the convention book, pictured at the left), and the Toastmaster was Joe R. Lansdale hisownself.

But regarding these memories, I'm specifically referring to positive memories; my worst convention -- ever! -- was the World Fantasy Con in Montreal the following year. Let's just say it put me off toward Canada and I have never returned, nor do I intend to. But don't get me started on that con....[though maybe I will blog about it one of these days....]

When I think of WFC 2000 in Corpus Christi, a number of names come immediately to mind, and all for specific reasons for which I will elaborate: Andy Duncan, Jeffrey Ford, John Picacio, Michael Moorcock, and Gordon Van Gelder.

Andy Duncan:

Andy's first short story collection -- and first book -- Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, was published by Golden Gryphon Press in time for the 2000 World Fantasy Con. Though at the time I was acquiring and editing for GGP, I wasn't involved with the publication of Andy's book. Nevertheless, I was intrigued with Andy's writing and made certain to attend his reading on Friday at 2:30 pm. Andy read from his story "Lincoln in Frogmore," about President Lincoln's visit to the town just after the slaves were freed, as told in 1936 by a man who remembers the event. [The story is available online courtesy of] As I listened to Andy read, I was amazed at how well he voiced a Southern drawl to portray the protagonist in the story. At the end of the reading, someone in the audience asked a question -- and when Andy responded I realized that his drawl wasn't simply for effect during the story: he really did talk that way!

By the way, at the WFC the following year, in Montreal, Andy was honored with a pair of matching bookends: a World Fantasy Award for best collection for Beluthahatchie and Other Stories, and a second award for best short fiction for "The Pottawatomie Giant." [Note: Since I did mention that the 2001 Montreal WFC was my worst con ever, I wanted to add that Andy Duncan's award wins were, in fact, one of the highlights of that convention for me.]

Jeffrey Ford:

In addition to wanting to meet Andy Duncan, I also attended this convention with the specific intent to meet Jeffrey Ford. I was already a fan of his fiction, having read "At Reparata" and "Pansolapia" online on Event Horizon, "Malthusian's Zombie" online on SCI FICTION, and "The Fantasy Writer's Assistant" in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Jeff's reading was also on Friday, though earlier in the morning, at 10:00 am. Jeff chose to read a new story, "Creation," which hadn't as yet been sold. What can I say? "Creation" -- particularly Jeff's reading of the story -- absolutely knocked me out. After listening to that story, I knew that he was a writer to watch, and I wanted to be the editor to snag his first collection. So after Jeff's reading, I introduced myself and complimented him on "Creation," and then told him straight up that I wanted to publish his first short story collection. I won't go into further details at this point other than to say that it took a few months for the collection to come together -- Jeff's New York publisher had "first look," so we had to wait for the publisher to pass on the collection.

The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories was published by Golden Gryphon Press in August 2002. FWA received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was later selected as one of PW's best SF/F books of the year. And, at the 2003 World Fantasy Convention in Washington, DC, Jeffrey Ford, like Andy Duncan, was honored with a pair of matching bookends: a World Fantasy Award for best collection for The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and Other Stories and a second award for best short fiction for -- what else? -- "Creation."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Is Anybody Out There? -- Recent Reviews

As I've posted previously, and you may have read elsewhere, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the SETI program: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And unlike movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. or Independence Day, scientists have as yet discovered no sign, good or ill, of extraterrestrial intelligence. But now that 50 years have passed with no such sign, these very same scientists are beginning to rethink their methodology.

"Alien hunters should look for artificial intelligence" is the title of an article by Jason Palmer, a science and technology reporter, for the BBC News. (via @daj42) The article includes an audio link to a 3-minute, 30-second recording by Dr. Seth Shotak on "what form 'aliens' may take." Dr. Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and he "argues that the time between aliens developing radio technology and artificial intelligence (AI) would be short....that the odds favour detecting such alien AI rather than 'biological' life."

This comment on "alien AI" brought to mind one of the stories included in my co-edited anthology Is Anybody Out There? (with Nick Gevers, from Daw Books, June 2010), which includes the story "A Waterfall of Lights" by Ian Watson. In the story, ophthalmologist Roderick Butler (who teamed up with an artist to create an experimental project at the Museum of Modern Art), says to the visitors on opening night: "...let me introduce you to the aliens in our midst, the super-intelligent evolved immortal creations of aliens from another cosmos which preceded ours! They are in your very own eyes! We don’t see the aliens in our universe because it is through those alien intelligences that we perceive!"

To paraphrase Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip, "We have met the aliens, and they are us."

Last month, Ray Vukcevich (@rayvuk), one of the contributors to the anthology, sent me a link to yet another BBC News article, which revealed the Top 10 "unanswerable" questions. The data was based on approximately 1.1 billion queries made on the Ask Jeeves search engine since its launch in 2000. Amongst questions like "What is the meaning of life?" (#1) and "Do blondes have more fun?" (#4) and "What is love?" (#7), can be found question #5: "Is there anybody out there?"

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Howard Jacobson on Comic Novels

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question -- a comedy about anti-Semitism -- won the $79,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction today in London. Today's Washington Post has a lengthy article on Jacobson and his award-winning comedy and the Man Booker Prize. And thanks to Christopher Barzak's post on Facebook, I learned about an interview with Jacobson in The Guardian in which he speaks on "taking comic novels seriously." This is another instance where a quote was so poignant, so awe inspiring, that I just had to post it here. I'll leave the entire Jacobson interview for you to read if/when you choose, but for now there is this:

"Trawl through the world of blogs and tweets and you will find readers complaining when they stumble upon a word they don't recognise, an attitude that doesn't accord with their own, a passage of thought they find hard work, a joke they don't get or of which they don't approve. Anyone would think that the whole art and pleasure of reading consisted in getting helter-skelter through a novel, unscathed, unchallenged, and without encountering anyone but oneself. Once we wrestled with the angel when we read; now we ask only to slumber in his arms.

But the greatest novels won't let us. The novelist, at his swelling comic best -- a Dickens or a Dostoevsky, a Cervantes or a Kafka, a Joseph Roth or a Henry Miller -- goes where Hamlet dares the skull of Yorick to go, straight to my painted lady's chamber, rattling his bones and making her laugh at the terrible fate that awaits her. His comedy spares nothing and spares no one. And in the process asserts the stubbornness of life. Why would we want to read anything less?"

― Howard Jacobson

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

September Links & Things

My wrap-up of September's Links & Things is tardy, as usual. If you have been checking in here awaiting said post, I thank you for your patience. With my nine days in Southern Cal last month to look in on the mom, and some lengthy line/copyediting projects -- plus catching the start of a number of the fall TV shows -- well, this blog hasn't received the attention it rightly deserves. And, unfortunately, the remainder of October doesn't look to be any less busy -- for which I am grateful, in the overall scheme of things (because "busy" pays the bills).

Consequently, there are not many links this month given my schedule; you can receive these links in real time by following me on Twitter: @martyhalpern -- but here, in addition to the links themselves, I include more detail and occasional comments. Though I do want to add that not all of my tweeted links make it into the month-end post.
  • In last month's Links & Things I encouraged you all to read Kathleen Bartholomew's blog Kathleen, Kage and the Company. To reiterate, Kathleen is Kage Baker's sister, and in between her fiction writing -- she is currently working on the sequel to Kage's The Women of Nell Gwynne's -- Kathleen tells many wonderful stories of growing up with Kage, the two of them living together in various locales, their travels, their hobbies, the food they loved, and more. Kathleen has tons of Kage's notes, and years and years of long discussions with Kage about her stories and characters. And some of the tales that Kathleen tells are simply wonderful to read, especially if you are a fan of Kage's Company stories in particular.
  • Lit agent Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) posted this tweet on Wednesday, September 29: "Which book would prompt you to strike up a conversation with a stranger you saw reading it?" And it reminded me of an occurrence quite a number of years ago. In my recent blog post on Philip K. Dick and Rudy Rucker, I mentioned attending my first Armadillocon in Austin, Texas -- Armadillocon 10 in October 1988 -- in which K. W. Jeter was the Author Guest of Honor, and both Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock were on the guest list as well. I flew American Airlines from San Jose to Austin, with a plane change in Dallas-Fort Worth. I boarded the plane in DFW for the last leg of the flight; as I was walking down the aisle to my seat in the rear of the plane (I always sit toward the back of planes), I noticed a woman in a seat to my left reading a copy of K. W. Jeter's Infernal Devices (St. Martin's Press, 1987). [Note: Jeter is credited with coining the term "steampunk" to describe the types of fiction he and fellow authors Powers and Blaylock were writing at the time.] I stopped in the aisle and asked her if she was going to Armadillocon, to which she responded "yes" -- and I could see from the look on her face that she just might be wondering how I would know that, so I commented on her reading Jeter's book. We later saw one another at the convention, chatted a bit and exchanged names -- hers being Spike Parsons -- and since then, for more than 20 years, we regularly see one another at Bay Area and national conventions.
  • In my mini blog post on September 30, I quoted Christopher Mims from his article "The Death of the Book Has Been Greatly Exaggerated" in MIT's Technology Review. In the article, Mims states that "Tech pundits recently moved up the date for the death of the book to sometime around 2015, inspired largely by the rapid adoption of the iPad and the success of Amazon's Kindle e-reader." He goes on to say that this prognostication is "the peak of inflated expectations" and that we need to "Get ready for the next phase of the hype cycle: the trough of disillusionment." Mims goes on to refute a lot of the book is dead hype, stating: "Finally, and most importantly, as a delivery mechanism, Ebooks are nothing like music or even movies and television, and the transitions seen in those media simply don't apply to the transition to electronic books." Excellent article with more than 25 Comments.
  • Colleen Lindsay (@ColleenLindsay), former genre literary agent and now a member of the business development team at Penguin Group (USA), has a blog post "On word counts and novel length" in which she presents a "comprehensive list of suggested word counts by genre and sub-genre." Colleen writes: "Somewhere out there a myth developed -- especially amongst science fiction and fantasy writers -- that a higher word count was better. Writers see big fat fantasies on the shelf and think that they have to write a book just as hefty to get published....And the fact of the matter is, most of those 'big fat fantasy' books you see on the shelf actually only have a word count of about 100k to 120k." Word counts are provided for middle grade and YA fiction, and all types of genre fiction. And if you doubt the importance of this blog post, check out the more than 70 Comments.
  • Science fiction author Paul McAuley, whose blog Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds, has a recent post entitled "Plumbing": "the cardinal rule of world-building: details are useful only if they have some kind of interaction or intersection with the protagonist, which is to say, something to do with the narrative....It's plumbing. You know it's there, but unless it goes wrong you don't need to worry about it." A fairly brief, but no less important piece on world-building. (via @daj42)