Sunday, October 15, 2017

Be Wollheim

We might argue about whether Donald A Wollheim is the most significant figure in 20th Century science fiction[1] but there can be little doubt about the influence he had on the development of modern science fiction and fantasy[2] is both broad and deep.

He leapt onto the stage early as an ardent fan, and immediately began to shape history: from his proposal for what is arguably the first science fiction convention,[3] through his championing of the fanzine platform via newly-affordable home-printing technologies,[4] and into his uncanny understanding of the potential of rapidly cheapening media such as the pulps and pocketbooks as a platform to make SFF grow[5], his contributions to building the SFF publishing world we know today were enormous.[6]

But where I think Wollheim’s most interesting influence really shows is in his editorial hand.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


I'm not a Jack London character, but I play one on the internet.
I've long-since taken a mantle here in Japan that includes expectations of 5 day grizzled beard, canvas, and red and black flannel. The weirdness comes when I try to forge places with fellow Canadians or online.

Still, leaning in really is the only answer.

Forge your place, own it, be it.

Such strange roles we forge for ourselves on the internet and abroad, such insistent ur-identities. Do we realise what we're doing, I wonder? How we're slicing ourselves finer and finer until at last we reach some Planck length of self?

And what then?

The thing is: humans think in shorthand. Thus stereotypes - if we had to analyse in detail every time we met something new we'd get eaten or go hungry: "tigerish- run!" "gazellish - yum!" This part is basic, but we extend the ability via culture to serve social functions. We build up sets of symbols that serve as platonic ideals of things and situations - mythology.

In human terms this mythology serves to tag social place as well - social roles, status, ritual function, etc. We use it to understand the place of others in a situation, but also to signal our own. This is where masks come in.

It's masks all the way down.

We all have multiple roles/identities that apply in different situations. When we take on those roles we display the essential mythology and get affirmation from others' responses "look - I am X" vs "I see you - you are X"

But when you enter a new situation, there's a negotiation - you display your mythological identity, others affirm or reject, rinse and repeat as a) you adjust to expectations and b) they adjust their expectations according to observation ("stripes! Tigerish! Run!....hang on, it's eating grass.").

When the situation isn't just new but completely alien - ie you relocate to another country - there may be little or no overlap between your identity-masks and their expectations. Fundamental things may match - things like expectations for your role as father for example - but there may also be radical differences. 

New roles need to be negotiated, but the old mythology doesn't just go away - in real terms they remain part of identity, but are now reinforced in different ways. 

They get pared down to truly essential elements, those elements get exaggerated. Some of your identities get distilled into "urSelf". Others begin to blend with local expectations. The latter is integration, the former is dislocation. Both occur and continue to occur for as long as you live once you've been transplanted. At times integration is dominant. Others, circumstances emphasize difference and dislocation dominates. I've noticed that in the latter case people tend to retreat into really essentialist nationalism, clinging to iconic elements of identity and fiercely resistant to any suggestion they exist in anything but an ideal. Rationally, they know it's not the case, but that essentialism provides bedrock affirmation of identity they're not getting from those around them.

On the internet it's a blank slate. You still have identities and others still have expectations, but there are no/few reference points. You throw things at the screen and see what sticks. Then you build on it, emphasize what seems to resonate most widely, what seems to garner affirmation of place.

You forge another mask.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Rocket to Limbo

We would, I think, agree that Margaret St. Clair is one of the (late) pulp era greats. Here is her autobiographical essay published in Fantastic Adventures (Ray Palmer ed.) in November 1946[1] to accompany her first published science fiction story: “A Rocket to Limbo.”

There are a few notable things here, I think:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Diamond Edda

Imagine an alternate history in which the first European settlers of Iceland and Greenland were Vikings.

Standard fare, sure, but how about this:

At first these Vikings went about things in typically Viking fashion, complete with Althings, expeditions to Vinland, and grand tales of daring do by warriors set on feasting in Valhalla with the gods.

In their expeditions across the Arctic, through Hudson’s Bay and beyond in search of furs, ivory and trinkets traded up from the South (Aztec gold, perhaps? Lapis lazuli amulets? Strings of gem-like shells?) they ultimately begin exploring the west coast of the continent – eventually coming into contact with the Chinese colonies there.

And so, rather than converting to Christianity these New World Vikings converted to Buddhism.

True to the transcendental traditions of their own go
ði, these alter-Vikings adopted an esoteric approach to Buddhism, something like Shingon or Tangmi/Mizong – with their practice founded on the idea of Odin as their own boddhisatva, and ultimately developing a tradition of warrior mystics who seek enlightenment through development of their bodies in the fighting arts and various ascetic techniques and mortifications. 

In the end, the religious text "The Diamond Edda" would be the foundation of this tradition, and berserk a manifestation of transcendental Zen as the masters of this tradition release attachment to the self and thought and immerse themselves in the moment of battle.

Sun darkened, half-clothed warriors - shaggy in the fashion of the Indian ascetics - would necessarily wander the frozen steppes of the Arctic circle, the crunch of their fur-wrapped feet on the snow nearly drowned by the rhythmic "jingle...jingle...jingle..." as their belled staves strike the ground.

Naturally, their robes would be blood red, their furs white.

And the infidel would weep with terror in the night.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Henshin! (a brief history of Japanese SF 3/3)

Last time, in Denki Jidai, we followed the transformation of Japanese genre fiction through what might be seen as a kind of “industrial revolution” – from the Meiji era on, Japan was absorbing and adapting Western technologies and ideas at a breakneck pace, and by the 1920s and 1930s hunger to catch up with the Western powers and take a place on the world stage had led to the import and translation of a variety of major Western writers.[1]

As the new technologies – particularly medical sciences and electrification/radio – exploded into the public consciousness, so too did technology start to play a larger and larger part in the adventure and mystery stories that were so popular.  Domestic authors like Yokomizo Seiji, Kosakai Fuboku, and especially Unno Juza were pushing the art of fantastic fiction into the public view, blending the shocking implications of the new technology with the drama and excitement of murder mystery and adventure.

But it’s really what came next, after the shattering social and intellectual impact of World War 2 and the reality of the Bomb, that really sparked the amazing evolution of Japanese fantastic fiction in the following decades. So come with me now to trace the three pillars of that transformation: Henshin![2]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Trap

So what if...

What if rather than being a demonstration of how autonomous vehicle sensors work and how stupid automotive AI systems are this was evidence of something more...arcane.

Evidence that AIs are actually bound demons, for example.

Or evidence that instead of computers "next generation" vehicles are in fact controlled by the zombie brains of the long dead. (zombies also being notoriously averse to salt)

Or evidence that the "quantum" effects of microchip systems are in fact a matter of resonance with a parallel world, that when our bits are zeros their bits are ones, and that sometimes - just sometimes - when the veil between us thins...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Denki Jidai (a brief history of Japanese SF 2/3)

As we saw in part one, Japan’s rich literary history had prepared Japanese writers for the influx of European style speculative fiction in the mid-1800s, and by the end of the century the flow of imported work had reached firehose rates as the literate public scrambled to learn as much as they could about the outside world from which they’d been separated for so long.

But Japan’s speculative fiction history isn’t just about imports, nor is it about imitation: As with many things adopted and adapted by the Japanese during the Meiji Era they combined the new with the old and made something unique and compelling.

A blog post is really far too short to do the subject justice, but I hope you’ll join me for a wild ride from the beginning of the 20th Century, and into the “Denki Jidai” (the electric era)!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Stumbling Block

Context: I was reading a story I thought was great, then felt it starting to stumble, and just reached the part where I would get out my form letter to say "I regret to say..."

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Iron Tengu, Bamboo Girl (a brief history of Japanese SF 1/3)

These days, no-one really questions Japanese influence on modern science fiction – from the dark Orientalist fantasies of Japanese corporatism as a symbol of oppression in cyberpunk near futures, through Japanese industry’s place as a signal for “high tech”[1], and on through the ongoing anime and manga boom Japan seems almost omnipresent in modern science fiction.

Strangely though, despite Japan’s place as almost symbolic of near-future technological wonders[2] Japan’s own rich SF history is very little known in the English-speaking world. Oh, most people who grew up with TV in the 80s and 90s have some inkling of what was going on, but apart from kids’ cartoons and some thinly veiled adaptations of Western classics[3] the view from the West would largely make it seem as though the history of Japanese SF is short and reactive.

This is a shame, as Japan’s unique domestic SF culture has deep roots of its own.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Write Short, Write Fast, Write Often

Original images by Sebastien D'ARCO, animation by Koba-chan CC BY-SA 2.5,

I really think short stories are a neglected form in genre fiction.

There's a real pressure to write long because it seems like the only way to get into print for a lot of people - at least, to get into print in what feels like a meaningful way. But the bar to getting a novel out the door is much higher than for a short.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Campbell vs Wollheim

Jacopo Zucci's "The Golden Age" (1575)
I recently returned to Robert Silverberg's essay on the "Golden Age" of SF.

It's interesting how Silverberg characterises Campbell's influence, especially how it contrasts with Wollheim's opinion. I think, though, that they're really on the same page:

I think to start with what Campbell was looking for was something along the lines of Gernsback's "SciEng Evangelism" but with the kind of near-slick writing you could find in Merritt and Moore and other greats of the 30s (taking into account that Moore was still going strong in the 40s and on into the 50s - I'm not sure why she doesn't merit a mention here, but suspect it's because Silverberg is focusing on SCI-fi, and over the years she has been classified strongly as fantasy)

But it grows evident in the later years of the 50s and on into the 60s that he was curating Astounding/Analog with a heavy hand. Even some of his "golden boys" occasionally griped that Campbell was giving them marching orders or entirely rewriting stories. And with the end of the hot part of WW2 and the opening of the cold front with the USSR, the 50s was also kind of a "golden age" of prophesies of doom - it seems inevitable that "cold hard logic" applied to predictive SF would generate an unhealthy serving of that tone.

The key is to note which of the Campbell crew were also getting accolades from Wollheim: Heinlein in particular gets comment for his upbeat, optimistic visions of interplanetary civilization.

So yeah, the 50s is a Golden Age, but I think it's also the period in which SF began to diverge into what Wollheim called the Welles vs Verne branches - enthusiastic utopianism vs scientism. This right after SFF - the larger category - had begun to diverge (partly because of the Campbell/neoFuturian movement) into clearer fantasy and "scientifiction" streams.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Who needs another hero?

Heroes. Who needs them!

Just another holier-than-thou vehicle for someone’s personal hangups.

Just another over-inflated cardboard cutout, a power fantasy made flesh.

Too strong, too competent, too perfect.

Real life isn’t like that.

Real people aren’t heroes.

And heroes have no place in serious fiction for mature adults.



Friday, August 25, 2017

Fat Cats and Hippies

Frank Zappa gave the interview this clip is from to MTV's "The Cutting Edge" in 1987. In this section he outlines a problem he saw with the music industry of the 80s - a problem he saw developing years earlier.

I hope you'll listen to the interview - it's just 4 minutes long. But for the moment here's the issue in a nutshell, and in Zappa's own words:

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


(click to get a readably-big image)
How small can we go with SFF? No, how small really?

I love short-shorts - make no mistake, I also love the deeply-rooted, sprawling masterpieces of the classic epics.

But I love short-shorts - or flash fiction as the modern lexicon tags them. In fact, one of the first reading projects I set myself when I reached the point in my study of Japanese that regular reading was required to progress any further was to explore the work of Hoshi Shinichi, a science fiction author famed for his mastery of the short-short format.

The short short story format takes you to a world and gives you the penny tour through the eyes of the protagonist. It leaves enormous vistas open to the imagination and puts your mind into overdrive. It's like a carefully selected aperitif - just a taste, really, and maybe an incredible contrast to the main course, but perfectly formulated to make your stomach growl and your mouth water.

But (contrary to a recent call for submissions that suggested you could write a 1500 word story in an hour (but maybe take an extra hour to edit it)) the short-short is very challenging to do well. After all, you have only one or two thousand words in which to provide the reader with an engaging situation, a believable context, and most importantly a relatable hero

Can it really be done? Can you really pack all three of these things onto a single sheet of paper?

My answer: Not only yes, but hell yes.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Mind the Gap - A Brief History of Science Fiction

There’s a strange blank in SFnal history these days:

When most people talk about SFF literature they start in the middle, with the lionized authors of the Campbell era – who doesn’t know the names Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke? – and then skip forward an entire generation to start talking about the 1980s and 1990s.

There are those of course who cry foul and point out the non-Campbell greats who had eager followers during the same era, and those who point further back to the pre-war pulps and the rich but forgotten veins that lie in the pages of Argosy and Weird Tales of the 1920s and 1930s.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Secret of Ma

I edit with an axe. I hack and hammer, and when I'm done there's red everywhere.

I have to: I'm wordy.

No doubt there are a few people who've asked for my "suggestions" in the past who find the results alarming. Hopefully not discouraging, though.

But developing a habit of ruthless editing isn't the only way:

Monday, August 14, 2017

KAIJU! The Game

It’s summer vacation, the kids are all off school (sorta - this is Japan after all: the only really close the schools for about 5 days) and parents everywhere are wondering what to do with them. This gets worse when it’s so hot and humid you hardly want to move.

Enter the kaiju!

To deal with my own enforced monkey-wrangling I devised the below. Feel free to share and remix.

Kaiju: The Game

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 3

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1. Likewise, for stories 3 and 4 see Part 2.

Enough blather! Reviews!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 2

Check out an alternate cover that was considered for this one!

To get some background on the whole magazine see my post here. For an explanation of my thinking for these reviews, and for the first 2 stories see Part 1.

Enough blather! Reviews!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Broadswords & Blasters: Story Reviews Part 1

Way over on the other side, I put together an overview review of the new SFF magazine Broadswords and Blasters.

Briefly, despite being initially sceptical I was pleasantly surprised: there’s an interesting mix of story styles here, though the quality does vary a bit. There are a couple of winners here, a number of solid if unremarkable pieces, and (though it pains me) a couple of duds. In all, a pretty respectable showing for the first issue of an experiment, especially considering how little money they had to throw around at authors.

I don’t know if I’d really call the magazine “pulp” – with modern sensibilities or not – but there are a few stories here that either make the sorting pile or come close. It will be interesting to see how they develop it.

Now, on to the reviews!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Get Pulp in Your Teeth

Image result for trump juicero
There’s been a lot of talk lately about a “magical” device that delivers “perfect” juice, and is destined to revolutionize the way people drink juice in just the same way Keurig revolutionized coffee.

I have no idea about this device other than what has been in the news and so will refrain from more than a brief comment about money[1] and coffee[2] but I will use it as an excuse to talk about pulp.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on Appendix N

Full disclosure: In January I began contributing a column on vintage SFF and genre literary history for the Castalia House blog, at +Jeffro Johnson ’s invitation.  The below is my own thoughts on Jeffro’s Appendix N project. I receive no payment from CH, nor have I been asked or encouraged to promote Jeffro’s book beyond a friendly thanks from the author for what little I’ve done to support his project and his hope that I’ll talk about it. 

And I will. 

I’ve been engaged with what has come to be called #pulprevolution since long before it became a thing. My ongoing mission[1] has been to learn more about the roots of SFF, and to bring back some of the amazing aesthetic that was dominant in the pre-Campbell era. Part of that is a matter of developing my own writing – to learn from proven classics how it’s done. Part of it is to delve deep and learn about the social and cultural contexts in which my mentors[2] were working.

So, when I stumbled on Jeffro a couple of years ago[3] imagine my surprise – and pleasure – to discover that he had decided to undertake a project: