Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #4

The rather loose introduction to my Alien Contact anthology, which I posted on April 25, would be a good place to start, if you haven't already done so....

"The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove

This story was originally published in the November 1985 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, which has been edited by Stanley Schmidt since December 1978. (Now that is a legacy!) The story is approximately 9,300 words in length.

When first published, "The Road Not Taken" was listed as being written by "Eric G. Iverson." According to Harry's website, his first two novels were published in 1979 by Belmont Towers, and his editor "did not think people would believe the author's real name was 'Turtledove' and suggested that he come up with something more Nordic." However, by 1986, he was publishing under his real name.

Toward the beginning of September 2008 I submitted a bit of PR to various online SF info and news sites, in which I requested that readers recommend their favorite alien contact story. As an added incentive, I turned the request into a contest: at the end of the month I selected three names at random and sent them a signed, numbered, limited edition chapbook from an earlier project in which I had been involved. One of the three winners was Steven H. Silver, whose name may be familiar to some as he is the administrator of the annual Sidewise Award for Alternate History; Steven also serves as one of the award's judges. And, it just so happened that Steven had also recommended "The Road Not Taken," for which I was quite pleased given that I have little knowledge of Analog stories, which tend to gain little recognition: they aren't typically nominated for awards or selected for year's best anthologies.

I've read quite a bit of Harry Turtledove's novel-length work, The Guns of the South being one of my favorites; I also proofed and copyedited his novel After the Downfall for Night Shade Books in 2008. So I was intrigued by this story of alien contact, from one of the premier writers of alternate history.

Each of us, at least once in our lives -- if not more often -- becomes so involved in something (or someone!), so focused -- let's call it extreme tunnel vision -- to the exclusion of all else. Now, extrapolate that to an entire culture, and then to an entire race of beings. And you have the alien Roxolani in the story "The Road Not Taken."

Captain Togram was using the chamberpot when the Indomitable broke out of hyperdrive....

...he stowed the chamberpot in its niche. The metal cover he slid over it did little to relieve the stench. After sixteen days in space, the Indomitable reeked of ordure, stale food, and staler bodies. It was no better in any other ship of the Roxolan fleet, or any other. Travel between the stars was simply like that. Stinks and darkness were part of the price the soldiers paid to make the kingdom grow.

Togram picked up a lantern and shook it to rouse the glowmites inside. They flashed silver in alarm. Some races, the captain knew, lit their ships with torches or candles, but glowmites used less air, even if they could only shine intermittently.

Ever the careful soldier, Togram checked his weapons while the light lasted. He always kept all four of his pistols loaded and ready to use; when landing operations began, one pair would go on his belt, the other in his boottops. He was more worried about his sword. The perpetually moist air aboard ship was not good for the blade. Sure enough, he found a spot of rust to scour away.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Savoring Baycon with Picacio

I briefly recounted my initial meeting with artist John Picacio in a previous blog post, in which I share some thoughts on the 2000 World Fantasy Convention.

However, if you'd like to hear that story -- and a few others -- up close and personal, come join John and me at BayCon 2011, Memorial Day weekend, at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara (next to the Santa Clara Convention Center and across the street from Great America).

I have the honor and privilege of interviewing and chatting one-on-one with Artist Guest of Honor John Picacio on Saturday, May 28, beginning at 2:30PM in the Grand Ballroom E & F. (I've never interviewed a GOH before so I'm a wee bit nervous about this, but let's not tell anyone, okay?)

John and I have worked together, as artist and editor, respectively, on nearly a dozen projects for books by Richard Bowes, Jeffrey Ford, George Alec Effinger, Bruce McAllister, and Lucius Shepard.

So if you're in the neighborhood, come join us for an artistic treat!

Full artwork for Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard
(Golden Gryphon Press, 2004)
copyright © 2003 by John Picacio

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #3

The introduction to my Alien Contact anthology, which I posted on April 25, would be a good place to start, if you haven't already done so....

"Face Value" by Karen Joy Fowler

This story originally appeared in the November 1986 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited then by Edward L. Ferman, and is approximately 5,000 words in length.

I first read "Face Value" in Karen Joy Fowler's short story collection Artificial Things (Bantam Spectra, 1986), which is, sadly, out of print, but can easily be purchased from the secondary market. I believe that Artificial Things was also Karen's first book -- a rarity in publishing, to have a genre collection as a first book, particularly from a New York publisher. Genre collections as first books are quite common among small/independent publishers -- e.g authors Paul Di Filippo, Andy Duncan, M. Rickert, to name but three -- but, again, not so with NY publishers. This obviously speaks to the quality of Karen's short fiction.

I recall my writing class in college... The instructor was discussing humor in fiction, and how difficult it was to write a truly serious humorous story, if that makes sense -- i.e. not slapstick, not zany, not "doh!" humor, but serious humor. And, of course, our assignment was to write such a story ourselves. At the next class session I brought in a copy of Karen Joy Fowler's story "The Faithful Companion at Forty" (a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards), handed it to the instructor at the end of class, asked her to please take it home and read it, and then let me know next week what she thought of the story. The instructor was so impressed with the story that the following week she read it out loud to the entire class. You have to understand, too, that the instructor was not a fan of science fiction/fantasy, and was rather vexed to learn that that was my interest when I introduced myself during the first day of class. Again, the instructor reading this SF story to the class is simply a testament to the quality of Karen's writing. I felt absolved in the class from that point, through to the end of the semester. [Thanks, Karen!]

Though I had been a reader and fan of Karen's work for many (many) years, my first professional encounter with her occurred in 1999: she wrote the introduction to the very first book I acquired and edited -- Richard Paul Russo's collection Terminal Visions (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000). Richard and Karen went way back in their writing careers, and he had requested that she write the introduction to his first collection.

Given all that, I was determined to include a Karen Joy Fowler story in this anthology. I chose this particular story because of the intersection of art and communication, a theme you will find in at least one other story in the anthology. With regards to art and communication, Karen has this to share about the story:

"Face Value" is a story I wrote shortly after my stories began to sell and I began to imagine that I might actually have a career as a writer. It's probably no coincidence then that it deals so directly with issues of art and of privacy and of the difficulties of trying to communicate anything with mere words. I have written a lot about how hard it is for men and women to talk to one another. My current novel-under-construction is about that childhood dream, never achieved, of talking to (non-human) animals. With that as context, to think we might someday understand and be understood by anyone with whom we share no DNA and no history is as great a leap as any a science fiction writer could take. My story is about what happens when we meet members of an alien species who share every thought perfectly and effortlessly. As we try to talk with them, which will matter more -- will it be their abilities or will it be our limitations?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #2

As noted in the introduction, which I posted on April 25, I plan to blog about the contents of my forthcoming anthology Alien Contact -- one story each week, in order of appearance; my first post was last week and I will continue through the next 24 weeks. Assuming all goes well, I hope to complete this project by the end of October, just in time for the anthology's publication in November from Night Shade Books. Here is the second story in the anthology:

"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman

This story was originally published in 2006 in Neil's collection Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, from publisher HarperCollins/Morrow, and is approximately 5,100 words in length.

"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" was a "gift," so to speak, from Neil Gaiman to his readers and fans -- a time-honored authorial tradition of including an original story in a short story collection or with a previously published novel.1 Sort of like the bonus track on a CD, or a DVD extra.

I first read this story in the year it was published, two years before I had even proposed the Alien Contact anthology; but it was one of those stories that stuck with me, so -- two years later, when I was brainstorming stories for the anthology, I immediately recalled "How to Talk to Girls at Parties." I had worked very briefly with Neil Gaiman a few years earlier, when he wrote an introduction for me to George Alec Effinger's story "Seven Nights in Slumberland," which was included in George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth -- which I acquired and edited for Golden Gryphon Press.2 And I was hopeful that Neil would grant me permission to use this story.

So why did this story resonate with me? I spent three years at UCLA, before transferring to the University Without Walls program at UMass in Amherst, where I finally graduated a year and a half later. While at UCLA, when I wasn't in class or attending a musical performance (I'm sure I spent more time at rock clubs and concerts than I did in class -- and, during my freshman year, I also did the 10pm-2am radio show Friday and Saturday nights at the campus radio station, KLA), I was usually out partying, or at least looking for a party. Oh, and I did a bit of studying, too.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Flannery O'Connor Quote

"Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."
-- Flannery O'Connor, American novelist,
    March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964

I don't know when O'Connor spoke these words, though obviously before her passing on August 3, 1964. Regardless, these words are as pertinent then as they are now, nearly 50 years later -- especially when I see so much drivel make it to the bestseller list. I keep asking myself: "Who reads this crap?"

This quote is courtesy of Derek Austin Johnson's Facebook page. And on Twitter: @daj42. So thanks, Derek!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #1

As noted in the introduction, which I posted on April 25, I plan to blog about the contents of my forthcoming anthology Alien Contact -- one story each week, in order of appearance, beginning this week and for the next 25 weeks. Assuming all goes well, I hope to complete this project by the end of October, just in time for the anthology's publication in November from Night Shade Books. Here is the first story in the anthology:

"The Thought War" by Paul McAuley

This story originally appeared in Postscripts1 magazine (Summer 2008, Number 15) and is approximately 2,900 words in length. Indeed, a short story. I first read "The Thought War" when I copyedited The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Three for anthology editor Jonathan Strahan and publisher Night Shade Books. I finished working on the anthology page proofs on December 18, 2008 -- a week before Christmas.

As I noted previously, in August I had met with Jeremy Lassen, Editor-in-Chief at Night Shade Books, at which time I proposed my "alien contact" anthology -- so I was actively seeking stories at the time I was working on this copyediting project.

When reading a story for my own pleasure, I typically buzz right through any editorial introduction to that story. If the introduction (and/or afterword) is written by the author her/himself, then I consider that an essential part of the story and will read it accordingly; not so with editorial introductions, as I said. But, since I was copyediting the page proofs, and I edit linearly, I tackled the introduction first, and then approached the story.

And I was struck by the very first word of this story. In fact, the first word is its own sentence, its own paragraph:

That's it -- a one-word beginning: "Listen:" -- How could I not be intrigued?

And then the colon following the word "Listen" immediately pulled me into the very next sentence/line:
Don't try to speak. Don't try to move. Listen to me. Listen to my story.

If you haven't read this story by Paul McAuley previously, then I hope I've intrigued you as well, enough to seek out this story in the anthology. About "The Thought War," Paul writes: "Where do writers get their ideas? In the case of this little alien invasion story, it was from the pages of New Scientist -- an article about a theory that posits an extreme solution to the case of the well-established effect that observers have on collapsing super-imposed states of quantum particles, and my discovery of an old, history-steeped cemetery in a corner of North London."

A cemetery? Just what kind of aliens are these? And don't let that bit about "collapsing super-imposed states of quantum particles" scare you away: this is not what I would consider a "hard SF" story. On the contrary, in less than 2,900 words Paul has written a little marvel -- a tense, first-person account of how he -- the story's protagonist, that is -- and the world around him, evolved to the present circumstances, with a bit of speculation thrown in for good measure. Though it is a one-way conversation [Listen:], he is, at the same time, testing the individual to whom he is speaking. What we discover, as readers, is how the present has affected the speaker's perception of reality, which, in turn, has altered his memories of the past, leaving us to question just what is real. And possibly even who should be testing whom.

Oh, and there's a nifty bit in the story on Bolzmann brains, too. From Wikipedia: "a hypothesized self-aware entity which arises due to random fluctuations out of a state of chaos." Boltzmann brains, cemeteries.... Are you catching the drift of this story yet?

Paul has also created a neologism in the story that may be more familiar to U.K. readers than those of us here in the States; the word is "menezesing." So with the author's permission, I'll provide the context in which the word is used:

Soldiers everywhere on the streets. Security checks and sirens and a constant low-level dread. Lynch mobs. Public hangings and burnings. Ten or twenty menezesings in London alone, each and every day.

and then share Paul's alternate sentence for us U.S. readers:

Soldiers everywhere on the streets. Security checks and sirens and a constant low-level dread. Lynch mobs. Public hangings and burnings. Ten or twenty people accidentally shot by police in London alone, each and every day.

The word "menezesing" is derived from Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot on the London Underground by the Metropolitan police, in a case of mistaken identity, in July 2005. At the time, the police were hunting suspects in a failed terrorist bombing. Further details on Menezes and the shooting can be found, once again, on Wikipedia.

[Continue to Story #2]


1. Postscripts was first published in 2004 by editor and publisher Peter Crowther of PS Publishing in the U.K. The publication recently changed from a quarterly periodical to a twice-yearly anthology, co-edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

April Links & Things

This is my monthly wrap-up of April's Links & Things. You can receive these links in real time by following me on Twitter: @martyhalpern. Note, however, that not all of my tweeted links make it into these month-end posts. Hopefully, you will find some value in what follows; if you are new to this blog, and wish to catch up on my previous month-end posts: just look for the "Links and Things" tag in the right column of this blog; there are 29 previous blog posts.

  • On April 29, renowned feminist SF author and critic Joanna Russ -- best known for her novel The Female Man -- passed away, following a series of strokes. PW's Rose Fox shares some personal thoughts on Joanna Russ on the Genreville blog, which includes a link to Ms. Russ's still-powerful, Nebula Award-winning story, "When It Changed," originally published in 1972 in Again, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison®.
  • Short story collection George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth, which I originally acquired and edited for Golden Gryphon Press in 2005, has now been released in eBook format courtesy of E-Reads. This collection was a joy to compile: I contacted George's friends and former editors, including Michael Bishop, Bradley Denton, Gardner Dozois, Neil Gaiman, and Howard Waldrop, to name but a few, and asked them to select their fave Effinger story -- and once they did, I then asked each of them to write an introduction to the story for this collection. A wonderful tribute, indeed, to Effinger's unique work.
  • (@sfsignal) reports the return of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds Magazine. The website is slated to go live in June/July, with the first issue scheduled to appear this September/October. The magazine is currently open to submissions from authors and artists.
  • You gotta love this title for a blog post: "Premature Plot Ejaculation" -- written by Benjamin Tate on the Apex Publications blog. Tate writes: "I have just recently finished up the first book in a new series and I experienced something toward the end that *ahem* authors don't like to talk about. It's a little... embarrassing. We all experience it, but it's... awkward to talk about, and we'd rather our fans think we're perfect, that 'accidents' don't happen.... But 'accidents' do happen. To the best of us. And it's time someone talked about it. Yes, yes, I'm talking about premature plot ejaculation. There, I said it! It's out there! Now let's deal with it." (via Danny O’Dare's Facebook page)
  • I would recommend this next blog even more so if it weren't for the nag "Follow Us" link that's glued to the left side of the window, constantly covering the text so that I must scroll, and scroll, and scroll to maintain the text at eye-level, yet move it from under the nag link. So be forewarned unless, that is, you enjoy being nagged. The blog is courtesy of the Novel Publishing Group, LLC (@novelpublicity), and the blogger, Emlyn, shares with us "The Importance of Editing: 6 Tips to Help Make the Most of Your Manuscript": 1) Write through your first draft; 2) Learn to pinpoint your most common mistakes; 3) Your beta reader is your new best friend; 4) Never underestimate the usefulness of Ctrl+F; 5) Don’t box yourself in by insisting upon a precise number of drafts; and 6) When you think you're finished, you're probably not.
  • Another by-the-numbers blog post that should intrigue you, especially if you are a serious reader and wish to support your favorite authors -- this one by Keith Brooke (@keithbrooke) entitled "Seven things you can do to help an author": 1) Play tag; 2) Customer reviews; 3) Other reviews; 4) Like us; 5) Follow us; 6) Engage; and 7) Word of mouth. Some of these bullet points aren't directly intuitive, like "Play tag" so you'll need to check out the blog post for the details.
  • If your book is published by a typical New York publisher, you most likely have little, if any, say in the cover art. Some independent publishers will allow the author to provide feedback on the cover art (although there is no guarantee the publisher will do anything with that feedback); a few indie publishers will even work directly with the author. But what if you are self-publishing your book? Author Steve Thomas provides us with a 3-part in-depth discussion on his cover art experience. In Part 1, Steve chooses a cover artist; Part 2 follows the progress from description to final cover; and in Part 3, we get to hear from the artist himself. Extremely well-done series, especially if you are planning on self-publishing -- and don't think that real cover art matters. The link above takes you to part 3, but the first paragraph contains links to parts 1 and 2. (via @indiebookblogge)
  • You've written your novel, you've got the cover art, and now you are ready to publish. What do you do? Joanna Penn (@thecreativepenn), on her blog The Creative Penn, provides us with a detailed breakdown of her book launch for her novel Pentecost. From book trailers to guest blogging to launch day competitions, Joanna tells all, including the costs. She then does a postmortem, looking at what she did well, and what could have been done better. Excellent.