Science Fiction

Apocalypse is a Dirty Business

 

We’ve got a treat today.  Author Nick Barton is celebrating that he has a story in the Enter the Apocalypse anthology (in which our editor-in-chief, Gustavo Bondoni also has a story) by writing about the apocalypse.  We think you’ll enjoy his take on what makes the subject so effective.

 

Apocalyptic stories have always appealed to me. That sounds somewhat sinister out loud, but I can’t help it. I’m not alone, either. So many writers have shared their own cataclysmic nightmares, all brought to print, the big screen, and in video games. From nuclear fallout to monster floods, dangerous spores and chemical warfare, and nameless disasters and formless creatures, you could say we are well studied.

However, insane weather and giant comets are great, but it’s the mystery of the disaster that always gets my attention. This year alone I have read around five apocalyptic stories (not always by choice) and each one has featured its own harrowing brand of terror. Four out of the five have clear names for their horsemen, but one book, BIRD BOX keeps the nature of its horrors unknown. This is a good thing. Monsters remain scary the less you see of them. That’s why the Xenomorph in ALIEN only has a token amount of screen time. In BIRD BOX, the end of the world comes about by erratic murders. Later it becomes apparent people are going kill-crazy because they have seen something. People begin to stay indoors, boarding up their windows so they can’t look outside. It gets to the point they must wear blindfolds to navigate outdoors. Scary? Bloody terrifying. I was genuinely getting anxious while reading it, and once when I left it to get a drink I jumped at a window. I was still halfway locked inside the story. That’s immersion on a level I haven’t experienced before. BIRD BOX is simply a book you must read.

While reading BIRD BOX, it reminded me of another end of the world novel that has haunted me long after reading it. THE ROAD. Perhaps the ultimate apocalyptic novel (at least in my mind.) Nothing remains. Nothing and nobody has a name, and the reason behind the burnt world is never explained. In every story like it there’s always a glimmer of hope, but for the Man and the Boy there is no hope. Trees are falling down, what people left have become cannibals, and the sun is always snuffed by the ashen atmosphere. You really wonder what the Man and the Boy are living for. They’re heading south for the coast, but it’s clear even if they do make it, what happens next? Without an ecosystem, the planet isn’t going to last.

THE ROAD, much like BIRD BOX, also features incredibly vivid and frightening imagery. BIRD BOX’s unseen horrors drive people rabid. One of the deaths include someone getting their lips torn off. In THE ROAD, the Man and the Boy come across a campfire with a charred newborn baby on a spit. It’s dark, terrifying and disturbing, but at the same time you sympathize with the characters. You don’t hate them. Survival instinct runs hot in humanity, and in THE ROAD it really does seem like people are surviving, not because they’ve got anything to live for, but because it’s in their nature. They just have to.

Hopefully we won’t ever have to.

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCover

Nick Barton is a speculative fiction writer living in Somerset, England. His horror short story, THE LAST RESORT can be found in Wicked Tales anthology, ‘Muffled Scream: Corner of the Eye.’ If Nick has gone missing, chances are high he is living as a wood elf in Skyrim, dancing to The Beatles or watching The Lord of the Rings, again. Visit him at nickbartonauthor.weebly.com, or on Twitter @NickBarton101.

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!

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-11-27-37-am

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!

 

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.

Worlds_Best_Science_Fiction_1969_cover

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.

 

Ad Space:  If you know someone who is classically educated, and as the personality to say so and damn the torpedoes and accusations of elitism, you might want to consider getting that person something from the Classically Educated Product Store this Holiday Season!

 

*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.

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.

A New Model for the Publishing Business?

Underwood

As always, it seems that topics for this blog pop up in bunches.  After last week’s article about the problems the SF community is having with an invasion of political correctness activists, and our article of a couple of weeks ago about the way technology is finally making complete personalization possible (an article which even manages to plug our awesome coffee mug), we have one that combines the two, and also opens a more general discussion about how readers can go about choosing the right book to read in this era of excessive freedom of publication opportunities.

One of the arguments currently raging across the literary world (not just specific genres), is the validity of self-publishing.  It’s an argument that has created heated, emotional discussion with former friends declaring their hatred for each other.  If this were the middle ages as opposed to our milquetoast modern era, people would be picking up swords and building trebuchets over this.

The arguments that say that self-publishing is a positive thing essentially have to do with the fact that it is often extremely difficult for new voices to break into the traditional publishing model, and that affordable self-publishing immediately allows people to bypass a system that many see as broken.  Additionally, SP’s proponents argue, a greater proportion of the profit goes to the creator in the SP model.  In general, proponents tend to celebrate the everyman and democratic nature of the system as well.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.08.55 AM

The arguments against self-publishing, on the other hand, generally tend to focus on quality and the need for gatekeepers.  The strongest argument, of course, is essentially “the fact that everyone can write a book in no way implies that everyone should“.  Anyone who has ever been a first reader of manuscripts or a teacher of creative writing grading papers will be nodding vigorously at this point.  Most of the work written on this planet should have been prohibited by law from ever being produced.  It is truly, horribly, unimaginably bad, and that badness is being foisted on unsuspecting readers by the self-published millions.  Most rejected manuscripts aren’t misunderstood – they are utter crap.  I’m not talking about “Stephanie Meyer bad” or “Dan Brown bad”.  Brown and Meyer are professional writers who can create sentences, stories, characters and tension – even if their style rubs people the wrong way sometimes.  I’m talking about truly bad.

The second argument is that, even seasoned pros need editing, and they need a third party to edit their books.  In fact one of the main reasons bestselling authors have declines is quality is because they become powerful and get edited less and less as their careers go on.  Self-published books are usually edited by the author, who – even in the unlikely event that he is a decent writer – probably has the editing skills of a chipmunk.

And let’s not even get started on the usual level of art and cover design that self-publishing “distinguishes” itself by. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.

So a reader is faced with a conundrum.  It’s clear that there must be diamonds waiting out there among the huge numbers  of independent writers’ work, but how does one go about finding them?  How to avoid falling into the inevitable traps predicted by Sturgeon’s Law in a field that hasn’t got gatekeepers removing the really bad stuff?

Science Fiction Sampler

A group of science fiction authors seems to have come up with a great idea (which is unsurprising as Science Fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, right?).  Eighteen writers who knew each other’s work because they’d been published in diverse traditional publications banded together to create an ebook “sampler” which can be downloaded free  on B&N and Kobo (currently listed on Amazon at $0.99, but they assure me that this price will be lowered to zero soon!).  This ebook allows readers to read work by any of these authors before deciding to plunk down their hard-earned cash on one of the books these writers have for sale.

It seems a brilliant, no-risk solution allowing readers to expose themselves to several different voices before making a purchasing decision.

Of course, this won’t solve everyones problems. This collection was created by a group of authors and editors that have been published repeatedly in traditional publications, and are all proven commodities (plus they clearly have access to a professional artist and cover designer).  A quick google search for any of the names will show that they are polished professionals who probably didn’t need that much of a push.  More than a search for new talent, this one seems to be a menu for people who want the latest from the up-and-coming writers in the field (list of the writers involved:  Brad R. Torgersen, Jeffrey Thomas, Martin L. Shoemaker, Larry K. Pinaire, Konstantine Paradias, Geoff Nelder, M.O. Muriel, Roderick MacDonald, David Kernot, Patty Jansen, Guy Immega, Kevin Ikenberry, Mark Iles, Stephen Gaskell, Kary English, David Conyers, Gustavo Bondoni)

But maybe it’s a way forward, a business model which will allow new writers to reach their audience and for readers to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff without having to buy stuff to do so – at least until a new system of gatekeepers or reviewers which can handle the huge volume comes into being.  There are signs of that, but there is still nothing like walking into a bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf for ensuring quality writing and production values.  It will be fun to see how this evolves.

 

Remember, you don’t need to miss any of Classically Educated’s posts.  Like our Facebook page and get news of all our updates on your timeline!

 

 

 

PC Runs Amok in Science Fiction Community

politically-correct-hypocrisy

Back in the mid-90s, when the political correctness movement was bursting onto the scene, one tended to pass it off as a bunch of post-modernists playing at deconstruction*.  The old “Doberperson” joke just about summed up how seriously it was taken by anyone not in the public eye.  Most people, it was concluded, wouldn’t care, and, in general, they didn’t.  People went about their lives normally, and only some of the weirdness filtered into everyday life, mainly in positive ways such as the use of non-pejorative terms for certain groups.  It was OK, and life went on.

But all was not as well as it looked on the surface.  A friend of the house was studying at the University of Arizona just about at this time, and he turned in a story for a creative writing assignment which, knowing this guy, was probably extremely well-written and insightful.

His teacher came back and said that the story was unacceptable.

“Why?” asked our friend

“Because it doesn’t contain any references to feminism or to the struggle of women.  Literature without those qualities is unacceptable to me,” was the gist of the reply.

Random question

Now, our friend is both non-confrontational and was, for scholarship reasons, trying to maintain a perfect GPA, so as far as we can recall after twenty years, he mumbled something and modified his tale (creative writing is not important enough to an engineering student as anything other than credit for him to have done otherwise), went on to maintain his scholarship and graduate with gigantic honors and now designs products that all of you use every day.  His response was probably the wisest course of action.

But it was the wrong response.  The correct response would have been to say “What the fuck?”, send the teacher and her imbecilic agenda to hell, and then immediately report her to the school authorities.  You see, using coercion in this way is, to me, a fireable offense.  I don’t care what your political / social leanings are, it’s wrong.  I also have no idea whether the teacher in question is still at UofA, but I doubt it – people of that sort don’t last long at prestigious universities (well, they do sometimes, but hopefully not in this case).

This may seem like an isolated incident, and in real life, probably is.  But there is one particular place where the kind of people who think this way are not only a vocal (if small) minority, but are being pandered to by the rest of the community mainly because of the fear from the tactics they use, and that place is the Science Fiction and Fantasy writers and fan community.

Over the past five years, the community has been rocked by several tempests in a teapot regarding the nebulous and politically charged concept of “privilege“. Essentially, the idea of the concept is to disqualify anyone who is part of the “mainstream” in a number of categories (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc) as being able to voice a valid opposing opinion (or of writing about in fiction!!!!!!) to the view of the extremists because they have privilege – essentially “you haven’t suffered what I’ve suffered, so you don’t have any right to talk about it.”  Usually, the fanatic goes on to call the other person a sexist or racist.

Since the discussion is usually about charged subjects, most of  the antagonists stop arguing right there.  People who go on have found that reason simply doesn’t work against them, so they stop, too.  The problem is that, by the time people pull out, a small but rabid strike group has been put into action, and Twitter, blogs and emails to employers have been sent out to the effect that so-and-so is a racist.  Perfectly nice, unracist people have lost paying jobs, guest-of-honor gigs and editorships as well as being hounded, bullied and harassed thanks to these unfounded accusations of racism – as defined by a splinter group of extremists.

A book that was censored and who's editor was hounded

The problem, you see, is that these nice, rational people, who won’t think twice about ruining someone’s career, livelihood or reputation for not marching in lockstep are trying to stop racism.  That makes it all right, then.  They can call you whatever they want, because you have privilege, and they (most of “they” are just as privileged, intellectual and white – but are making the “effort” to understand) have suffered.

So it’s no real surprise that no one in the genre world was willing to stand up to these people.  It has gotten to the point where many people no longer consider the SFWA to validly represent the interests of authors in the genre – many qualifying professionals are choosing NOT to send the SFWA their fees at all until the current group of vocal activists are severely reduced in power, as they are noxious to all the writers who want an organization that represents the majority of them, not a puppet spokes-arm of a “diversity” activism group, which it is on the slippery road to becoming.  Romance writers don’t seem to have these issues (probably because they sell a lot more books than SF writers, to their professional organization HAS to be professional!).

Fortunately, I’ve been seeing a recent trend towards people speaking out.  This was recently posted on the Heroines of Fantasy site (and you can imagine that Heroines of Fantasy is not precisely sexist), and this has been written about the most recent guest of Honor Affair, plus a good piece on Jonathan Ross hosting the Hugos.  All in the last couple of months.

Which, as tangential members of that community we find encouraging.  Maybe Science Fiction and Fantasy can find a way to stop being offended by everything and return to a civil discussion of things – you know, like rational human beings?

Many of the Classically Educated team and contributors are proud SF geeks.  We hope the fact that people are stepping up and saying that the bullying is not OK is a good sign.  Hope springs eternal.

Agree?  Disagree?  All discussion is welcome – especially differing points of view! But calling anyone a racist or a sexist immediately invokes a modified version of Godwin’s law that we’ve created just for this post, and you automatically lose the argument!

 

And remember, if you liked this post, by liking our Facebook page, you’ll be notified when new posts come up!

 

 

*If you think deconstruction can ever be serious, all you have to do is read the Wikipedia entry about  it to disabuse yourself of that notion.**

**Even better is the story of the Sokal Affair.  Only tangentially related, but still brilliant!