literature

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

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Reading vs. Writing: A Reflection

A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think.  This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.

First, some background.  As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous.  From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice.  It’s probably the book I love most in the world.

Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through.  It can very often be dark and grim.  Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.

I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous.  In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme.  And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.

Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist.  In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics.  Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre.  Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.

Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

First, the book.  It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it).  My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.

It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition.  And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).

But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly.  Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:

  • It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre).  Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
  • It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
  • It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
  • It’s strongest character is a woman.

I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course.  I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from  the sea, hence the island’s name.  If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.

But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly.  They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message.  I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently.  I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.

But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel?  This review is what happens.

Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review.  But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book.  Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).

Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present.  After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work.  The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?”  Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.”  To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made.  A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero.  Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.

And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.

Life is a funny old thing.

 

*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work.  Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.

**they can’t, I’m the boss.  Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.

Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.

 

The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

Book Recommendation – Siege by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here!

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Siege is a far-future SF piece in which humanity is fighting for its very survival.  From the book description at the publisher’s page, we get the following:

Threatened on all sides by enemies they can’t fight and often can’t even comprehend, the human race has taken refuge in an inhospitable corner of the galaxy. A tiny pocket of habitable space concealed by black holes and dust clouds, hiding a cluster of colonies where the last humans in the galaxy reside, preparing themselves for a war of annihilation against all comers.
Crystallia is a hidden military base that guards the access route to the colonies. The main mission of the soldiers there is to remain undetected for as long as possible, to spot any incursions from the outside and to hit them with everything in humanity’s arsenal.

No one is quite convinced that this strategy will be enough to save the colonies or even to create enough of a delay for some of the colonists to escape. The best bet for the human race is to remain concealed.

Unfortunately, something has found them.

Siege can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

If you do happen to read it, drop us a line and let us know what you thought.  You might make an editor’s day!

 

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

The Bard, Our Take

It’s pretty tough to justify a name like “Classically Educated” after writing only tangentially about Shakespeare over the course of the past couple of years.  Being completely impervious to criticism (what’s the use of living in an ivory tower if you can’t occasionally drop some boiling oil on critics?) we’ve ignored the hue and cry, pointing at our excellent track record of reviewing old films and discussing everyone from Homer to Umberto Eco every once in a while.

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The Tempest – William Shakespeare

The main problem with Shakespeare isn’t the Elizabethan English or the sonnets (although the sonnets, admittedly can get pretty ugly when you realize that he was writing a bunch of them for patron’s children, and not for love of anything other than money – this comes through loud and clear when you read them in succession.  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  was written for a male youth, probably the son of a patron.).

But that isn’t the problem.   The problem is that, to get some insight on Shakespeare, you really have to got through and read all the plays in succession… yes, even the Winter’s Tale.  So, that is exactly what we did.  Armed with an inexpensive leather-bound edition of the Oxford text, the most universally accepted version which is roughly divided into four sections: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and everything else, I set out to see whether we could make some sense of this Shakespeare thing.

Now, first things first: a lot of Shakespeare scholars attempt to make a name for themselves doing textual analysis on the plays and attempting to attributing the plays to random other figures.  Everyone from Shakespeare’s wife to his cook and other playwrights of the time gets a look in.  We won’t be playing at that, just looking at the plays on their own merits.

But first, we must eliminate the rest…  There’s a reason Shakespeare was revered in the theatre more than as a poet, and that is because most of his poetry isn’t at the same level as his plays.  The longer ones, sadly, are just long, while the shorter ones have some good lines in them (that summer’s day one comes to mind), but don’t have quite the impact of the theatrical work.

So, onto the plays…

To modern audiences, the comedies are a bit predictable.  You know it’s going to come out well in the end, and you can usually tell how it’s going to be fixed as soon as the tableau is set, except for Merchant of Venice, which it is no longer politically correct to discuss.  Fortunately, Falstaff makes some appearances (he is probably Shakespeare’s most interesting character), and gets clobbered by the Merry Wives.  I’ll agree with Hollywood on this one: Much Ado About Nothing is likely the best.   The weird ones (Tempest, Midsummer’s Night) would probably be a nice primer for anyone attempting to track the evolution of the Fantasy genre in the English language.

Had Shakespeare only written comedies, time would likely have preserved some, and they would be part of the canon, but the bard himself would be of much lesser stature.  The tragedies are where he made his name, and rightfully so.  These are better than the comedies in general, and the Scottish Play in particular is nearly perfect.

The rereading of Hamlet was interesting, as I’d forgotten how convoluted it actually is, while Lear, as always, is brilliantly insane.  But none comes close to Macbeth for utter depth of the despair it produces in the reader.  This one, much more than Timon of Athens, brings the sensibility of the Greek epics to a renaissance audience.

Romeo and Juliet, of course, is nearly unreadable.  I had to force myself through the thing while attempting to avoid tossing the rather large volume out of high windows.

Engraving of the Conclusion of the Treaty of Troye, from Shakespeare's Henry V

William Shakespeare – Henry V

Last, I’ll discuss the histories.  To my shame, other than having watched the aforementioned film version of Henry V, I’d really not paid much attention to these.  So when, one after another, they turned out to be much more interesting than both the comedies and the tragedies, I sat up and took notice.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed them less had I remembered the history of British monarchs, which I’d long since forgotten.  But possibly not, since Julius Caesar was good despite knowing exactly what would occur.

So, strangely, I have found that the most neglected part of old William’s oeuvre is probably the best for modern readers.  One never really knows what’s going to happen unless one remembers his British history (it’s safe to say that most people emphatically don’t).  It was a pleasant surprise, and made the huge reading/rereading project worthwhile.

So, if you’re yearning for some Shakespeare, might I suggest forgoing the obvious and grabbing the Histories?  You’ll probably find them much, much more rewarding!

The Synchronicity of Birds

It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way.  Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.

Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.

du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca.  Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff.  It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.

Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.

It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.

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The Birds Film Still

The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.

That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales:  The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!).  Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.

It’s their loss.

Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.

It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance.  While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.

It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks.  Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further.  Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course).  The prose is that good.

And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).

Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).

All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else.  It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction – Part 1

Today, we begin what we hope will become a popular, long-running and Nobel-Prize-Winning* series on Science Fiction.  It will likely have a focus on literature, at least initially, but will be perfectly willing to include movies, comics and any other interesting subjects.

It will also be open to Fantasy and certain types of Horror, as much of the audience for the three genres overlaps.

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1969 Worlds Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

A couple of weeks ago we reviewed and analyzed one of the many Year’s Best collections that the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre: the Wollhein 1989 Year’s best SF.  Suddenly, it dawned on us that that review of a book that has proven to be a minor volume in genre history is actually an excellent starting point for comparing eras.  So let’s call that post the honorary “Part Zero” of this series.

A logical place to start was with a couple of collections that could be compared directly to that ’89 book.  We chose the 1969 and 1972 Wollheim Year’s Best collections, but not without some trepidation, as we will explain a little further below.  But misgivings aside, these fit the bill perfectly – by choosing the same editor, we avoid questions of wildly differing taste and bias, and by going back nearly two decades, we get enough of a gap that contrasts are notable.

The first thing one notices about these two titles is how much more recognizable the names of the authors are than on the 1989 edition of the same collection.  Genre fans will all recognize Sheckley, Anderson, Silverberg, Aldiss, Knight, Delaney, Lafferty, Foster, Sturgeon and Lieber from the older books.  And everyone, even non-genre readers will perk up at seeing the names Vonnegut, Clarke and Ellison – three writers whose names appear on the tables of contents of the 69 and 72 books whose stature simply isn’t matched on the 89.

Why were so many important names present?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  The first is that during the late sixties and early seventies, the writers that made the genre important were still active and close to their primes.  The amazing Golden Age of Science Fiction has, to date, never been equalled, and the writers active in the 30s and 40s were still around.  Just look at that list again.

1972 Wollheim Years best SF

1972 Year’e Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

The second reason is that SF briefly became chic in the sixties due to a combination of experimental writing in the genre and, quite possibly, an excess of recreational drug use by editors of journals such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who allowed their hallowed pages to be sullied by this basest of genres.  Also, in order to be able to say that one read Playboy for the articles, one needed to be able to discuss the articles – and there was some SF there as well.  This mainstream exposure is still why casual readers recognize names like Bradbury or the aforementioned Clarke, Vonnegut and Ellison.

The second thing one notices is just how much difference the editor makes in one of these collections.  We’d had some trepidation in selecting the era because of an intimate knowledge of Judith Merril’s anthologies of the same era.  Possibly fueled by the same drugs as the editors of the journals, she seemed to have a knack for selecting kaleidoscopic  jumbles of words which, though possibly beautiful, were not ideal places to extract meaning.  It was like reading a modern artist or looking for the truth in the patterns generated by a lava lamp. Perhaps you had to be fully immersed – in every aspect – in sixties culture to appreciate the stories.  Like they say: If you remember the sixties, you weren’t actually there.

Wollheim’s selections were not aimed at making a statement about pop culture, but rather are core SF tales that explore ideas about how the world will be like some years in the future.  That is what SF used to be about, and is still what good SF is about today, whether the changes be technical, social, ecological or political.  It can reflect and comment about the present, of course, but if it isn’t done obliquely, it becomes preachy and unreadable – and a lot of the (thankfully now forgotten) SF of the sixties fell into that trap.

It defeats the purpose of this analysis to do a story-by-story rundown, but suffice to say that even the Vonnegut tale is almost completely devoid of impossible dreaming – although it is admittedly weird.

So, compared to their peers, these two books hold up reasonably well, but how do they stack up against the 1989?

 

Without taking into account individual highs and lows, such as the excellent “Peaches for Mad Molly” in the ’89 collection the older books are better overall.  I believe that is driven mainly by the fact that the level of the writers was higher, as was the purity of the genre elements.  By 1989, science fiction was in a transition between the popular but looked-down-upon work of the 40’s and the literary but boring SF of today.  Sometimes that transition produced masterpieces (Dune, or Ender’s Game are examples), but more often muddled works that attempt to be socially relevant but really only succeed in being vague, preachy or both.

The older anthos are highly recommended, with some true classics among the more pedestrian tales.

 

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*We refuse to believe that there is no Nobel Prize for blogs.  This should be reviewed.  We may need to put a clause in our manifesto making this an explicit goal of the site.

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

Of course you do.  It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something.  What a silly question.

Well…

Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not.  In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors.  It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.

It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.

So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:

Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.

This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work.  Most people would agree with this definition.

Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake.  Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel.  Don’t believe that? See for yourself).

This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive.  Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism.  Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism.  If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).

But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD.  XKCD cannot be argued with.

XKCD impostor

(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site.  Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)

But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was.  You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.

Learning to Love Romance: Crafting a Romance Anthology for Everyone

Robot Love

Here at Classically Educated, we enjoy discussing nearly all aspects of cultural life, but attentive readers will have noticed that we have a particular soft spot for literature.  For that reason, we are delighted to present today’s guest post, Written by  Elizabeth Hirst.  Elizabeth is a writer, editor and 3D animator from Hamilton, Ontario Canada. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop, Class of ’06, and a student of life.

The latest book she has published, Love, Time, Space, Magic, can be found here (print book) and here (ebook).  We hope you enjoy Elizabeth’s insight into the creation of the book as much as we did.

It was probably around May or June of last year when I first started tossing around the idea of doing an anthology with love as the central theme. My company, Pop Seagull Publishing, does a lot of conventions, street fairs and other community events, and a large share of our sales comes from hand selling and building relationships in the community. So, when my regulars tell me something that they want, I listen. And what I had been hearing, largely from my younger and middle-aged female customers was: “Do you have any Romance?” Clearly, a large portion of my target market was looking for love stories with sci-fi and fantasy elements.

It’s no surprise that my readers would be primed for these kinds of stories, considering the success of Twilight and other paranormal romance heavy-hitters in recent years. However, Pop Seagull, while being a company devoted to its readers, is still my company, and to be honest I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. My longer work is mostly action and adventure, and I grew up with movies like Indiana Jones, Mulan, and Star Wars as my favourites. I’m much more interested in a trip through ghoul infested woods with only a shotgun, a dog, and an unreliable reporter than I am in the mushy stuff, most of the time.

Another potential roadblock on the way to Romance success is my other key demographic: young men in technology fields. The company has seen a lot of sales and support from these guys, who tend to love action, and sci fi, and humor. There’s a lot of overlap interest-wise between my male and female customers, especially when it comes to strong female characters and emphasis on strong character development and relationships. However, when I was envisioning a traditional Romance title, complete with buff naked people cuddling on the cover and formulaic plots featuring soft-core sex scenes, I just didn’t really see my typical male customers getting on board. Also, to be honest, I just didn’t think that releasing that kind of title accurately reflected me, or my mission for Pop Seagull.

Still, based on the amount of demand I was hearing from readers, if I wanted to take Pop Seagull to the next level with a really great anthology, I knew Romance might be the way to go. But, if I wanted a book to appeal to our reader base, it couldn’t be a typical Romance book. After some thought, I decided to open up the idea of romance a bit. I asked for stories based on the theme of love, with no prescription for the ending (it didn’t have to be happy) or the type of romance (it didn’t have to be consummated, or at least not ‘on screen’). As befits our company philosophy, the characters could also be of any sexual orientation. With these guidelines solidified, I stepped out on a limb, and opened up submissions.

Dragon Lover

With all of my anthologies thus far, I have left some wiggle room in the secondary themes and general feel of the work, to leave space for the ideas coming in. As I read through the first round of submissions and picked out those that I enjoyed, I noticed that many of them were high-emotion pieces where love was a powerful force involved in shaping the characters’ lives. Often, in the stories I chose, love ended up pitting itself against other titanic forces. Once I had assembled the first three or four stories, I had a secondary theme, and a title: Love, Time, Space, Magic.

More submissions poured in, and despite my initial reservations about Romance, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the volume, quality and variety of the work sent to me. So many of the stories brought a tear to my eye. So many more impressed me by being truly romantic and sentimental while still upholding other themes in a very small amount of space. In the end, after having reservations about the quantity and quality of work I would attract, I found that I was forced to turn away work I would otherwise have bought, because we had reached the end of our budget and space. We closed three months early, and I began the most time-consuming phase of production: layout and design.

Most editors do not do their own book design, but I, like many Canadians of my generation, have far too many degrees and far too few places to use them. And so, as I entered production, I found myself grappling with the question of how to make the cover and interior design signal ‘Romance’ without telling male readers that the book was not meant for them. For better or for worse, men in our culture have been socialized to feel that if they see a Romance cover, the book will only appeal to women and dwell on themes that often don’t interest men as much. Since I’d taken great pains to buy stories that anyone can enjoy, with plenty of action, science, alternate history and great world building, it would have been a terrible waste to design a cover that warded half of my customers away right off the bat. I thought about ways to blend the heralds of romance stories with the scientific, the historical and the strange.

My first inspiration came from my day job. I work for a medical non-profit, and often see pictures of cells, anatomical drawings and other such work. I think that these images contain great beauty, and seeing them led me to the idea of using an anatomically correct heart on the cover as a way of conveying both beauty and the complication of traditional romance tropes. I also love the use of flowing script and old manuscripts, and thought that using the texture of an old parchment manuscript would also convey the fantasy and historical elements of the stories I’d chosen. Naturally, when I put these two trains of thought together, I was led to Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. In my font, image, and texture choices, I tried to get as close to a Da Vinci manuscript as possible, while still keeping a modern flair.

The result was this:

Love, Time, Space, Magic Cover

I don’t think anyone would call this cover un-romantic, but there are still no airbrushed cuddling models or Fabio-esque guys with hair flowing in the wind. It appeals to both the emotional and the historical/scientific in its influences, and just generally catches the eye.

I first started on this anthology looking to better serve my core customer base, but through the challenges that ensued, and the wonderful work that I found to publish, I ended up with something that I really enjoyed working on. I think that Love, Time, Space, Magic is truly a Romance anthology for any gender, and diverse sexual orientations, and that makes it a thing of beauty. Through working on this book, I feel that I, and the contributing authors, have shown that Romance doesn’t have to fit a narrow conception of the genre, or a gendered concept of love, and I couldn’t be prouder to bring that message to the world.