Daily Archives: April 2, 2010

Reminder: SG:U is Back! Tonight! At Nine! On Syfy!

Or, if you want to be Canadian about it: SG:U is back! Tonight! At Nine! On Space!

Either way, don’t want to miss out on all the science fictional goodness. And aliens! Because there will be aliens. Oh, yes. And they will be alien – none of that “oh look, we have a head ridge, now we’re totally not human” nonsense. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

In any event: Hey, nine o’clock (eight central and mountain). Be there or… well, watch it on your DVR, I suppose. But it would be nice for you to be there.

Also, for those of you who use the official SG:U comment thread here, I put up a clean comment thread so you’ll have a fresh start for the second half of the season. Don’t worry, there are links to the previous comments. Have fun!

The Big Idea: Jetse de Vries

Is there reason to believe the future will be a better place than the present? It’s certainly possible, but often science fiction writers skip over that part because, let’s face it, writing dystopias and world threatening problems is fun. But editor Jetse de Vries wasn’t satisfied with that, and brought a challenge to writers: Write some science fiction that sees light at the end of the tunnel. The result is Shine, an anthology of “optimistic science fiction.” But does “optimistic” here simply mean “unrealistic sweetness and light”? De Vries is here to shed light on the subject.

JETSE de VRIES:

Often it seems that the world is going to hell in a handbasket: credit crisis and climate change, poverty and pollution, greed and genocide, and more. Problems becoming so huge and complex they seem intractable.

Also, the winds of change seemed to have turned into the hurricane of future shock: technological and social developments seemingly accelerating into one big blur. Your phone becoming your camera becoming your music machine becoming your TV becoming your internet portal and vice-versa. Internet fora overtaken by blogs and LJs which are overtaken by MySpace, FaceBook and Twitter until it  all becomes one big, well, Buzz.

Both these developments give us the impression that the future is a mad moloch on the run: unstoppable, unfathomable and uncontrollable. Worse, most people seem to think we’re heading for an apocalypse (or even a series of them). I call bullshit on that.

The future is in our hands: we still have the inventivity, chutzpah and chops to change it for the better. Shine is the mental road map towards it.

Science Fiction has many forms and guises, and can fullfil many functions. While it cannot accurately predict the future (no-one can), it can try to influence its direction. SF as a series of roadsigns. Increasingly, there’s a twofold problem: for one, the utmost majority of the roadsigns only say ‘DO NOT ENTER’ while almost none point towards a promising direction; for another the rare few that do show hopeful signs tend to be set in the far future.

In other words, almost all near-future SF is downbeat, often relentlessly so. My ‘Big Idea’ is that optimistic, near-future SF is not a contradiction in terms, nor—as Jason Stoddard (only half-jokingly) said: ‘taking on two kinds of impossible’, but a necessity.

Thus, a pitch to publishers. After Solaris Books took up the anthology, a call to action for writers. Now, an SF anthology that leads by example. The stories in Shine all face today’s huge problems head-on, and try to do something about them, with varying degrees of success.

Apart from displaying stories where SF actively thinks about solving problems (something it’s been extremely reluctant about in the past decades, or, worded differently: ‘if we can’t help point the ways to the answers, then what use are we, really?’), we also need to envision the future as a hopeful, workable ascent in a brighter place, not an inevitable descent into darkness.

For example, the ‘Big Idea’ that we need new approaches is seeping into Marvel Comics, as well, with the ‘Future Foundation’ (rings a bell, right…) for the Fantastic Four coming up. To quote Jonathan Hickman:

“The Future Foundation is an outreach of the Fantastic Four. It’s kind of a side project of his that has to do with his kids, and his responsibility to them, ensuring that there’s a better world for them to grow up in…

[…]We don’t need people who are afraid of tomorrow running things. It’s dangerous, and it’s not good.

It’s got kind of a sense of better days. And that’s not to say we’re nostalgic, but there’s this feeling of better days ahead instead of just better days gone by.

But we’re going to be part of the “Heroic Age” banner because it’s very timely, and it’s good for the Fantastic Four because it’s the type of environment where a family superhero book can be prominent and can seem a lot more relevant.”

Nothing wrong with great dystopian fiction (and nothing wrong with highly entertaining escapism, either), but right now the balance is gone and there is precious little SF trying to face today’s problems with a constructive attitude. With Shine I’m trying to redress that balance somewhat. And I find it highly ironic that the first ‘dangerous visions’ of the 21st Century—that is, fiction going against the current grain—are upbeat stories.

Hence, in a bid to make SF more relevant to the current young generation, an anthology that takes a cross-section of problems and possible solutions from around the globe and a bit beyond: from soil regeneration in China to rebuilding the ultimate surveillance tool in Afghanistan; from tentative first steps in West Africa to big steps—all the way to Mars—in East Africa; from premature wikindustries in Brazil to overdue AI recognition in Europe; from the rarity of ice in Summer to the abundance of plastic in the Pacific; from the Moon colony of last resort to the asteroid belt trip in tweets; all laced with western inventivity, eastern ingenuity, southern joie de vivre and northern persistence.

Neither is it all work and no play: Shine features a few humourous pieces—involving the roaring future of metal, the rollicking progress on a lone Pacific Island and the shenanigans of environmentalists turned Casanovas—showing that idealists can have both a sense of perspective and irony, as well.

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Shine: Amazon| Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s;

Visit the Shine website. Read story excerpts; Listen to a podcast of “The Earth of Yunhe” (the opening story); More upbeat stories at DayBreak Magazine.

Tom Becker

The fellow you see in the picture above is Tom Becker. In 1991, I got my first full-time professional writing gig, as a movie critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. Tom was the Assistant Features Editor there, which is to say he was my boss.

There are many things that are important for a young writer, but the one I want to focus on at the moment is this one: That it helps to have the right editor at the right time. When I started at the Bee, I was 22, young enough that I got carded at the first “R”-rated movie I was sent to review, and madly, truly, deeply full of myself, because, hey, I was 22 years old and I spent my time watching movies and interviewing movie stars, so obviously I was doing something right, you know? Basically, I was a bit of an ass. Had I been matched with the wrong editor, bad things would have happened.

Tom was, very simply, the right editor for me. I think Tom very quickly sized me up for what I was — a young guy who had the potential to let his ego get in the way of his development as a writer — and also quickly figured out what it was I needed from him, and then set to providing it to me. Tom’s method was to be calm and sensible, to give me enough of a lead to try things and then reel me in during the editing process and show me where things needed to fixed and why. I can’t say I always agreed with him — I was a bit of an ass, remember — but how he worked with me did the job just as much as what he did when he edited. It’s a long way of saying that he did his job in a way that didn’t set off my ego and insecurities. Over the time I worked with him, I did indeed become a better writer.

That being said, I truly learned to appreciate what Tom did for me not when I was at the Bee, but when I left it and took a job at America Online. One of my tasks was to be an editor, and I spent a not-inconsiderable time with writers, finding ways to make their writing better, and also finding ways to do it in a way that didn’t collapse those writers into tight little balls of neurosis. Once I did my stint as an editor, I went back to look at some of my raw writing from my Bee years and was horrified at how unfinished it was, and how much it really had needed an editor — how much, in point of fact, it needed Tom Becker.

Shortly thereafter I had reason to visit Fresno again, and on a visit to the Bee I went over to Tom’s desk, to thank him for the help he’d given me, and to apologize to him for being, as previously mentioned, a bit of an ass while I worked with him. Tom was amused, and very gracious, and also, I think, happy to know that his work and patience had been recognized and valued, even if that recognition had been a bit late in coming.

I do recognize it and I do value it. What Tom Becker did for me and for my writing helped make it possible for me to go on to do everything else I have been able to do. He’s also responsible for me recognizing that as famously solitary as writers are alleged to be, we really don’t work alone. Our words — and our skills as writers — very often do need help, which we get from editors, copy editors, proofers and all the other people between the writer and the audience for our words. Writers are fortunate to have people who strengthen our skills and our work, and it doesn’t hurt for us to recognize that fact. I may or may not still be a bit of an ass, but I know how much more of an ass I would look like without the help I get from editors and others. I owe that sense of realism, and humility, to Tom.

Tom passed away on Wednesday, at peace and with family and friends by his side, in his home. Tom had known for some time that this was coming and from what friends tell me handled it in the gentle and orderly manner I remember him having. I was fortunate to have been able to say goodbye to him before he left us, and to thank him again for everything he’d done for me. He wrote something to me then which I don’t think he would mind me sharing with you:

It makes me happy to know the influence I had on you. I was never sure at the time. You always seemed like a wild horse running free on the plains. All I tried to do was get you to look in the right direction every now and then. Sounds like I did just that. Thanks so much for remembering and absorbing my teachings and editing. I consider my life as a journalist and editor successful and full with the positive influence I had on you and others. And that makes me happy. I always was trying to teach as I went along. I think I did with you. Now you are spreading the word to others, so maybe there will be fewer hurt feelings and more working together between writers and editors in the world thanks to your stories about me. I am honored.

In fact, it is I who am honored, to have worked with Tom and to have been taught by him. And I am honored to be able to tell all of you this little bit about him and about how he was important to me.

If you are a writer, in Tom’s honor I would ask you to think about the editors and others who have helped to you to become the writers you wanted to become. Everyone else, think on your teachers and mentors who with patience and humor and possibly even a bit of love looked past your unformed nature, saw what you could be, and helped you be just that.

Your appreciation of their work would be a fine memorial to my friend, teacher and editor Tom Becker. You might not have known him, but I bet you know someone like him. Let that person know that you know what they did for you. You won’t regret it.