The Future, Man

I originally posted this as a FB status, but it seemed to hit a note and I wanted to explore and expand on it.

The other day, I read an article about how anything resembling the Enterprise was many years in the future, and for some reason, it’s been bothering me ever since.

History is full of people saying, “Yeah, haha, that can’t happen for another HUNDRED YEARS!”, usually with the result that this impossible tech shows up within the next couple of years. And that was in the beginning of the technological revolution.

For all of our social ills, our scientific problems, and our problematic governments, we’re in an age where we have possibly more potential than ever before. We have people like Elon Musk and even James Cameron, who have big dreams and the money and connections to make it happen. There are pieces of technology that haven’t been utilized to their fullest, and a huge crop, worldwide, of brilliant people looking to build a new piece of the future. The Internet makes it possible for big dreamers to find support networks, resources, and outlets. We have calls for Martian settlers, tests for anti-grav technology, and biotechnology that would make the SF writers of twenty (TWENTY!) years ago green with envy. And they aren’t claims or projects by crackpots, but by leading scientists and entrepreneurs.

Moreover, we have writers–of novels, movies, games, nonfiction–who are positing and contemplating the technical and social aspects of these new developments, creating an incredibly rich environment of possibilities. I believe that one of the biggest aspects of any new development is the understanding of its effect on the world and its users, and with the so-called ‘soft sciences’ like psychology, sociology, and family sciences slowly gaining recognition and respect, there’s a wider outlet for those examinations than ever.

Dr. Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Future” talks about how futurist predictions are almost always wrong because they look at the trajectory that things are on at the time, and project that into the future, when, in fact, progress happens in leaps and bounds, plateauing for a while and then springing forward with huge strides.

I know I’ve complained in the past that it seemed like SF’s push and imagination had sort of stalled out and gotten left behind, but in the last couple of years, it seems like that is a hurdle that’s been overcome. This is particularly noticeable in short stories, where the industry is seeing an absolute burst of highly-talented authors. (A lot of those award-winners are heading into novel-length fiction now, and I look forward to seeing what they will add to that field.)

It may be that something like the Enterprise is 30 or 50 or 100 years in our future, but I think we have reached a point where we have to be careful in claiming that anything is too impossible, or too far in our future, because announcements are made weekly about new things once only found in SF.

Besides, isn’t it our job to bring the future right to our doorstep?

War Stories, People Stories

My family doesn’t share stories. When I sat down to write this piece, the opening line was. “I don’t come from a military family.”

Then I went and asked my grandparents, and, well, yes, I do. My great, great uncle Chuck was a Fire Control Officer on the USS Pennsylvania during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but was in the sick bay that day. Gordon and Bob, twins, were Army medics in Okinawa, Wayne and Dale were in the Philippines. Bob (different Bob!) and Harold enlisted in the Marines and were on Iwo Jima. My great-uncle Chuck (we’re also not very good at name diversity, apparently) was also in the Army during Vietnam, although no one seems to know where. His father, Charles W. Thomas, was a Rear Admiral in the Coast Guard. I found all of this out because I needed to write this piece about War Stories.

I was a teenager on September 11, 2001, old enough to know America before, and after. My favorite cousin joined the military, went to Ranger School, and then deployed. Although I didn’t know it then, the guy I’m dating now had just finished Ranger School, and deployed. Over a dozen of the kids I went to school with ended up in the military.

My first boyfriend was active-duty Army, my second boyfriend was an Army veteran with severe PTSD. Most of my close male friends were vets, too. I didn’t seek any of them out, they were just the people I got along with. The people I knew taught me about honor, responsibility, loyalty.

And as I got more involved in the SF community, I got to know people who are from war-torn countries, and my worldview shifted again.

The military and its history, culture, and legacy have been quietly around me my entire life. My perspective is that of someone half in, half out. People I love have been changed by war, thereby changing me, but I have not been directly subject to it myself.

My co-editor, Andrew Liptak, and I wanted their stories to be told. The history, the technology, the political and social triggers, all those elements of war are fascinating, and could fill endless books. But what does it look like from the ground? What are the stories from the front lines, the aftermath, the hospital? What does war do to the internal landscape of soldiers and civilians? How do we, as humans, survive, recover, move on, break, adapt to the unique and awful stress of conflict?

War Stories is a project that keeps surprising me. It’s brought me closer to my family, my boyfriend, my heritage, and my community. The stories we’ve seen so far are wonderfully diverse: a disabled veteran helping an A.I. deal with guilt; a little South African ghost girl protected by the downloaded consciousness of her rebel father; a commanding officer making an awful decision in defense of his troops; a field officer struggling to save one of her soldiers from suicidal penance; a soldier giving all to save civilians; a civilian contractor learning the cost of teaching machines to judge; a civilian activist, and more.

On-planet, off-planet. Near-future, far-future, alternate-future. Human, alien, robot, A.I.

These are the stories you find out when you ask your grandparents if anyone else in your family served in the military; that a soldier tells her wife when she can finally talk about what happened; that get told to boost courage before a first battle, or a twentieth.

These are stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

War Stories is an upcoming anthology of military science fiction from Apex Publications, edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak. Come check us out on the War Stories Kickstarter.

Inspiration From the Darkest Places

A quick note about this post: Andrew Liptak and I just announced an anthology of military SF, to be published by Apex Publishing in April, 2014. One of the things that can’t really be explored in press releases is, “Where did this idea come from? What are you trying to accomplish?” And because this is something very personal and dear to me, I asked if I could post it here.

More info on the anthology can be found at War Stories Anthology.

Last year, one of my friends said ‘I love George R. R. Martin because he’s pretty much the only SF writer I’ve seen who really understands what war and its effects are really like’. While I was quick to inundate him with suggestions about other writers who have actual military background, the statement stuck with me.

My friend is a former Army Ranger. He’s done six tours throughout the Middle East, was a staff sergeant, and spent long periods of time imbedded with the local fighters. He will talk for hours about how wonderful the Kurds are, how the generals of the Afghani army have ours beaten in terms of knowledge, and then go off on a rant about the cultural destruction that’s been perpetrated by both sides. Another quote of his: “I wish that my war was the last one, but I know it won’t be.”

He’s the reason I started thinking about an anthology of military SF stories that wasn’t just about war, but about the people touched by war.

I went out to get Greek food with my mom last year, in North Carolina, and we struck up a conversation with one of the owner’s daughters. She told us about how hard it was to get back to Greece, how the current political system affected them, even in America.

I have a friend in Israel right now, who told me last night about seeing troop transports moving north, toward Syria. I have friends in Istanbul, too, and still harbor a deep hope that I’ll be able to travel there some day. I know a couple of people who have been involved in South and Central America…and some who were involved in the Waco and Ruby Ridge conflicts.

I have listened to a Palestinian friend talk about what it’s like to watch your birth country support the destruction of your ancestral home.

We live in a world of war.

I have been so very, very fortunate, because war has never impacted me directly. I’ve never lost a loved one to war, or been forced out of my home, or had to live on wartime rations. I know how much worse things could be.

But I’ve seen what war does. My cousin advocates for soldiers with PTSD. I’ve dated active-service military, and lived in fear of the news. I have friends who are at severe risk of suicide from untreated PTSD. Many of them talk to me when it gets too bad, because they don’t have anyone else who will listen. Many members of my family have served, in various conflicts, in different ways.

The conflict doesn’t end when the guns go silent. Our entire history is marred and shaped by war, by defeat and victory, conflict and pacification. We are all affected and marked by it, whether we realize it or not. We may go a generation or two without being directly involved in a war, but that doesn’t mean we escape it.

No country escapes it, either. Invader or invaded, it changes us, and seldom for the better. The casualties aren’t just measured in bodies.

In War Stories, we want to bring to light those far-reaching ripples, and the dark things beneath the surface. We want to see men and women of all cultures, dealing with the most enduring legacy of humanity: conflict. Civil, religious, global. We want to see people rising above the blood and loss to change things in the most difficult of situations.

This isn’t an anthology about US soldiers, or Middle Eastern wars. It is about the future, and how we will process and come to terms with something that shows no signs of dying out. It’s about the bonds of friendship, cultural evolution, survival, and personal triumph.

The wars of today are where we found the building blocks of this collection, but they are not what we’re looking for. War has evolved constantly, but in leaps and bounds over the last century. What will it be like a century from now? Who will we be fighting? Why? How? What will change?

Those are the stories we’re looking for. It won’t be a pretty, comfortable collection of stories. But hopefully it will be a transformative one.

A Life of Writing, James Gunn Interviewed

James Gunn is an award-winning author, editor, anthologist, scholar and educator. His long career has spanned more than sixty years, during which he has authored twenty-six books, edited eighteen, and published nearly one-hundred stories. Additionally he is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas and the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 2007 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the SFWA.

I met James Gunn in 1993 as a student of one of his writing classes. At the time I had no idea of his successful career, and still kick myself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know him better. Being able to interview him has been a pleasant step toward correcting some of that mistake.

On Writing and Publishing:


There’s a lot of talk about the death of books or the end of publishing during your long career – how often have you heard this or a variation on it (with the rise of television, etc.)?

It’s true that book publishing has been in trouble for some time now, but when I got started in 1948 (my first novel was published in 1955; my second, too) the publishing business was still strong and still expanding. The slick magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s…) got killed when television captured most of the advertising revenue and then some of the audience. The book industry didn’t come under attack until the rise of the book-selling chains and then digital publishing, which also attacked the chains.

How has the publishing industry changed since you’ve been involved with it?

The main change has been the growing influence of the sales force and then the accountants. When I was starting, the editor decided what was worth publishing and the salesmen sold it; now the editor has to get the sales force (which hasn’t read the book) for an estimate of how many copies it can sell and the accountants have to agree that the book can make money. Maybe the small publishers, who sprang up to market the “mid-list” books that the major publishers stopped publishing do things the old-fashioned way.

What has changed for the better?

Digital publishing means that the built-in costs of returns and remainders have to be reconsidered, and, also, that every author has a recourse. It isn’t clear yet how the author is going to get fair compensation that will support a writing career, or even motivate a part-time writer, or how readers are going to select what is worth reading out of a plethora of choices.

How has the pay changed (when what’s considered pro-rate – $.05/word – hasn’t changed forever)?

There a lot more opportunities to get paid for writing, some of them remunerative. There is more room at the top; more writers are writing full-time, and the best-sellers make out quite well. The short-story doesn’t have much of a market, and those that exist have not kept up with inflation. The magazines once were important, even critical, to a writer’s development and career; now the book market is where the action is.

If you were a writer just starting out now what would you be doing differently? Do you think you’d still be a Sci-Fi writer?

My interests have always been in idea-fiction, and I’d be an SF writer today. But I’d probably focus on the novel, even though my love has always been the short story.

What makes good writing today, versus what you saw previously?

We and my predecessors were motivated amateurs, more interested in story than technique. Today’s writers, often graduates of MFA writing programs are more interested in technique than story. The writing is marvelous, but the stories are usually not as involving.

How have the tools (word processors, writing software) changed the market and the craft for better or worse?

Anything that makes the process easier is good. I know that some writers still write by hand or typewriter, and think that they write better because of it. I used to think I was the same until I tried a computer and found I could get my thoughts into language almost without effort, as well as all the other advantages of revision, transmission, etc.

What should the writers of tomorrow be reading today?

I’d still read the magazines, and support them with subscriptions (because if the magazines go the center will not hold). But I’d read the better novels and the reviewers you trust (I’ve always depended on reviewers for guidance and insights).

What elements of style are getting better or worse?

Language and sentences are better because writers focus on them. Imagery, too. Story, not so much. The avoidance of a good story, like artists avoiding representation, is a fear of being found out.

What makes a good story today?

The nature of story has changed from the obvious (“shoot the sheriff in the first scene”) to subtlety, but the reader must care for the characters and what happens to them. John Ciardi once defined fiction as “interesting people in difficulties,” and that’s still true.

You started out using a pen name? In hind sight would you have still done it?

No. Then I was under the illusion that I would save my real name for scholarly works, but I merely lost some name recognition.

On Science Fiction:


What is it about Sci-Fi that has drawn you to it?

I’ve always been drawn to idea fiction and how to make readers emotionally involved in them. And, I think, in how present decisions lead to outcomes. And, maybe, by SF’s Darwinian belief in human adaptability: people, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are shaped by their environments, but, unlike the rest, humans can recognize their conditioning and decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do.

How has Sci-Fi changed over the years? What is better now, and what is worse?

SF has changed because many of its speculations about change have been realized. As Isaac Asimov once said, “We live in a science-fiction world.” SF has had to move on, and the world today is more complex and harder to predict. Science is less certain and technology is more pervasive. SF reflects that.

Sci-Fi has been a very forward-looking enterprise, but has it become more reactionary to scientific discovery and less innovative?

SF has always drawn upon scientific speculation and technological possibilities, beginning with Hugo Gernsback and his early 20th century serials in Modern Electrics.  Today once conservative scientists are far bolder in their speculations (see quantum theory, dark matter, dark energy, etc.) and SF writers seem less innovative unless they keep up and even out-imagine the scientists.

Sci-Fi has often been about optimism. Do you think that has changed, that there’s more darkness in the recent past?

Science fiction has always had a pessimistic element (see H. G. Wells’s scientific romances) to balance its optimism (spaceflight, solving our problems through science or technology), but two World Wars made optimism seem sentimental and even solution-oriented fiction tends toward greater realism and ambiguity.

What do you think about the prospects for space with the changes at NASA and a public that seems generally uninterested in further exploration (or at least the costs associated with it)?

Clearly the promise of the moon landings have not been realized, to the dismay of many of us who nursed our early dreams. I don’t think we’ll get that back for another decade or two, but I think we will regain our love of adventure and discovery and move on.

How do you feel about seeing classic science fiction and fantasy making it to the big screen? How well do you think Hollywood handles these stories?

Hollywood has not done well by SF, with a few exceptions (Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a few others), including my own novel The Immortals. One keeps hoping. What usually happens to produce a successful adaptation is someone involved in the production who knows SF–like Arthur C. Clarke–and someone independent of Hollywood mythology and control–like Stanley Kubrick.

What other sci-fi/fantasy stories should be adapted to film?

There are so many. For personal reasons, I’d like to see Jack Williamson’s work reach the screen (The Humanoids?) and A. E. van Vogt (The World of Null-A?) and in more recent times William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and sequels).

You’ve recently sold some new works – anything you can talk about?

Tor Books will publish my new novel, Transcendental, probably in 2013 and probably along with my 1955 novel with Jack Williamson Star Bridge. Both of them are space epics, but of different kinds and they provide kind of bookends to a career, with Transcendental a commentary on and a tribute to the category itself.