Episode 68: Live with Gary K. Wolfe and Ian Mond!!

This week Gary and I invited Ian Mond from The Writer and the Critic to join us to discuss recommending books and how buzz is generated around new or upcoming books each year.  We discuss the very welcome feedback we received on the subject before we began to ramble in earnest, going on to discuss currently overlooked writers like Thomas M. Disch, Michael Bishop and Zenna Henderson,  sport in science fiction and fantasy, the delicate balance between literature and science in hard SF, and many other things.  Gary and I would like to thank Ian for joining us, and I’d like to make it clear, personally, that I was only joking about Alisa and the knitting needles. Really :)

Some useful links following on from the podcast: Subterranean are publishing a best of Michael Bishop, and NESFA publish the collected ‘People’ stories by Zenna Henderson.


10 thoughts on “Episode 68: Live with Gary K. Wolfe and Ian Mond!!”

  1. For the record, Alisa was not the only person shaking her head. Just at the moment that Jonathan jumped in and said that you were all talking almost exclusively about white men, I had been in the middle of deciding to give up listening to this podcast. Then Jonathan admitted to nominating Who Fears Death, and I rescinded the decision, because how could you not. Hurrah for Jonathan!

    (It’s not that I don’t understand having perferences and biases. I liked Kathleen Ann Goonan’s flower cities series very much. I’m late reading This Shared Dream because I’d skipped In War Times for just such a reason: I like jazz, but I rarely like people writing about jazz, and at least one review had made the book sound as if it was “about” jazz. Both In War Times and This Shared Dream are on my e-pile currently, as is Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire. I’m not sure whether I’ll manage to encompass Mechanique, as I also don’t often like books about the circus, any circus, even a circus that I’d want to attend.)

    May I also say for the record, that when you talk about the New Wave, I don’t recognize the New Wave that I lived through, and thought I read, and loved. I have a vivid memory of being an undergraduate and coming home with a nice, fresh copy of Again, Dangerous Visions and thumbing through the volume to decide where to start and falling into “When It Changed.” Herein follows a quotation from Harlan Ellison’s (TM, R,however you render the intellectual property element of the name in HTML) introduction to the story:

    “. . . as far as I’m concerned, the best writers in sf today are the women. Most of them are represented in this volume–Kate Wilhelm, Ursula Le Guin, Josephine Saxton, Lee Hoffman, Joanna [Russ]–and others were featured in the original Dangerous Visions–Sonya Dorman, Carol Emshwiller, Miriam Allen de Ford.”

    I’d have to add James Tiptree, Jr. to the list (present in Again, Dangerous Visions, but then known only by persona).. And those writers were the core of the New Wave I experienced, along with Samuel Delany (grouped correctly or in-), and Vonegut and Pynchon, who escaped the genre shelving. And Damon Knight’s Orbit series. And Stand on Zanzibar. Grant you, historical periods you live through are always experienced fractally and fractionally. They get codified later, and always by the “winners.” But what the heck happened that a movement I associate primarily with women you associate primarily with men? Who won, and why? Can we recount the vote?

    So in 1971 a major writer and anthologist says “the best writers in sf today are the women.” Full stop. In 2011 a major anthologist says something like “women are doing okay.” (Jump in and correct my memory of your words, Jonathan. The quotation is not quite right, but I’m not relistening to find the exact quote.) Discuss, please. At length and with specific examples, if I could have my druthers.

  2. I enjoyed recording the podcast very much. The challenge with recording is to remain clear-headed when you’re talking off-the-cuff and, in this particular case, in the midst of a bout of the flu (about which I’ve been complaining too much on Twitter).

    As the recording progressed I was aware that we weren’t talking about women enough, and could see it was necessary and appropriate to raise that with Ian and Gary, both of whom are very much aware of women in science fiction. However, sometimes a conversation has its own currents and eddies, and you need to nudge things.

    For the record, I don’t know if Alisa was shaking her head, and even though she blogs regularly about her knitting, I doubt strongly she would have thrown her knitting needles (or whatever item of equipment might be in use) into the air, but I would have understood perfectly well if she had.

    I share your feelings on Kathy Goonan’s books. I liked the flower cities books, especially the first, very much, but have been wary of This Shared Dream and In War Times for much the same reasons you outline.

    I think we may re-address the issue of the New Wave in upcoming podcasts. I’d not given it a lot of thought before the recording, and my own reading of New Wave texts was many years after events, so I wouldn’t put my hand up as any kind of expert. I do wonder if Harlan’s statement that you quote from the introduction to Again, Dangerous Visions was more aspirational than accurately descriptive, though. A quick look at the two volumes (Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions) shows 85 fiction contributions, of which 11 are from women (or about 12%). There’s no doubt that of those ten Carole Emshwiller, Ursula Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree stand among the all time greats in the history of the field, and that Russ’s and Le Guin’s Again, Dangerous Visions stories are two of the all time great stories.

    And yes I agree that it is all personal. I associate the New Wave with the rise of women in science fiction, but not immediately with the level of recognition that came later. I guess I still associate it more in my mind’s eye with Moorcock, Harrison, Ballard, Ellison, Silverberg, and so on, though I am going to re-examine it.

    In terms of the quote, I’m not listening back either , but I am happy to amend it to “many of the best SF writers today are women”. I think that’s true.

    And thank you for the long and considered comments. They’re greatly appreciated and welcome.

  3. It was a mostly male-author podcast, which was a bit disconcerting.

    I got to meet Joan at Diversicon here in St. Paul a couple of months back. Haven’t tackled The Highest Frontier, but I want to…

    Are you still taking recommendations on books to buzz about, Jonathan?

  4. Since joining the fine people at SF Signal and the Functional Nerds, my reading of current-year books has gone up dramatically.

    My nominating ballot is looking like this:

    The Quantum Thief, Hanno Rajaniemi. I’d like to point out that there is a definite strain of Nine Princes in Amber in this book. I about fell out of my seat when Jean clothes himself in Corwin’s colors at one point.

    Of Blood and Honey, Stina Leicht. Yes, another first novel, and a meticulously researched first novel that I was afraid, wrongly would sideline its fantastic elements in favor of the slice of life of the Troubles. Both are integrated wonderfully.

    The Cloud Roads, Martha Wells. Another author who didn’t “break through” despite Death of the Necromancer being shortlisted for a Nebula. Cloud Roads is a fresh start, and a good one for her.

    God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Audacious. “Blood, Bugs and Brutal Women. All the best things in life” is the way the author inscribed the book to me. Not all of it works, but you don’t need a perfect book. And its something different and new.

    Wolfsangel, M.D. Lachlan. He’s a new writer in our genre, although Mark has written other things. A fresh and unique take on werewolves, and a gritty, realistic portrayal of Dark Age Scandinavia in the bargain. Again, like the Leicht, he did his research and it shows in the vivid detail he brings to the book.

    I could triple this with honorable mentions, but I will stop here.

  5. I loved The Quantum Thief, but would be surprised to see if make the ballot next year. I’ve heard great things about Stina’s novel, though I wonder if it might be more likely to make the World Fantasy ballot. And I did try God’s War, but it didn’t quite connect for me. I probably should try it again. Many thanks for the recommendations!

  6. While “On Wings of Song” might not be a SF novel, it certainly was marketed directly to the genre audience. “On Wings of Song” was first serialized in F&SF complete with a showcase cover by Carol Emshwiller’s husband – who was brought out of retirement from SF illustration just for this Disch novel.The hardcover never achieved the crossover success St. Martin’s was counting on but it certainly viewed by Russ, Spinrad and Spider Robinson as a (pardon the expression) straight SF genre work.

  7. An interesting two episodes, this and the previous one. I had commented to someone earlier this year that one of the fascinating things about hearing these conversations was precisely being able to hear heretofore-hidden parts of the process by which some books acquire and sustain buzz, and some books do not. These episodes both discuss the topic explicitly–and also implicitly show some of the ways it occurs.

    I thought it was interesting, for example, that in the same Writer&Critic podcast that Jonathan took the topic from, both Ian and Kirstyn voice their support of Cathrynne Valente’s Deathless as a Hugo nominee. Jonathan mentioned the podcast, but didn’t pass along their recommendation; on the other hand, he did pass along suggestions of good books from other folks. And then in this podcast a second factor was illustrated: Ian himself backed away from Deathless a bit, suggesting that while it was a very good book, it was an unlikely Hugo nominee. This, even though Valente had a not-dissimilar novel (Palimpsest) on the shortlist just a year ago in 2010; and a not-dissimilar novel (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) made the shortlist this year.

    Tangled up with this is that it is unclear whether you gentlemen are asking a) what books we think are this year’s must-reads, the “books you’ve got to read in 2011” (Jonathan’s original phrase in Episode 67), or b) what books we think are likely to appeal to Hugo voters specifically (which Jonathan notes is not the same thing). Are we, are you, highlighting good books, or handicapping an award? When you mention a book like Fuzzy Nation as the kind of book that Hugo voters like, it sounds like you are handicapping. One issue I have with that is the self-censorship that it engenders. Good novels don’t get mentioned, or are mentioned only to dismiss them as serious candidates, while lesser works are promoted simply because they have an almost self-parodying level of “fit” with perceived notions about what the group in question wants. Or rather, what some subset of the group wants. And that’s the other, larger issue. Jonathan speaks of “what the field wants,” but what does that mean? If you only mention as likely nominees the books that fit your perception of what the nominators want, if you publicly dismiss books that don’t seem to fit, it seems to me that you’re on one hand (as would-be advocates) contributing to the Hugos being insular and change-resistant–you’re legitimizing a literary culture that dismisses books on criteria other than success at their own project and the value of that project, which if genres continue to evaporate is surely a dead end–and on the other hand (as would-be reporters) you’re risking being out of touch with what the full range of nominators are reading, as demonstrated by recent shortlists.

    And really, handicapping avoids what I’d suggest is the more interesting topic, the question of what two widely-read, experienced evaluators of speculative fiction did in fact think were some of the best books of the year, and why–nevermind the suitability of those works as candidates for various awards.

    For myself, like everyone it seems, I feel horribly under-read this year in novels–and reluctant to mention ones I haven’t read, because a number of novels I did read based on buzz (and have seen other people list) struck me as average-to-good rather than great. As you can probably tell, I did like Valente’s Deathless, if it doesn’t do all that it might it still does more than most books, and more passionately; I liked God’s War, of which a similar statement might be made; I liked Michael Cisco’s The Great Lover, some of the best genre writing I’ve seen this year; I liked Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, for its setting, and its integration of the fantastic and the mundane that just feels right to me; Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, for similar reasons if quite different specifics; and I liked Embassytown, as Blindsight-like high-concept SF. There are still a lot of promising 2011 books on my to-read list, though, both mainstream and genre. Several I learned about from these last two podcasts, so I thank you two, and your listeners.

    Regarding the New Wave, I came along after it, too–I can’t say how it was seen at the time, but I can suggest how someone younger might see it when they encounter it after the fact. Partly I think the divide between Susan and the podcasters above is the oft-cited Atlantic divide: the question of whether the perceived epicenter of the New Wave was in England, with Moorcock’s editorship of New Worlds and the writers that gathered around the publication, or with Dangerous Visions in the US and the writers included there. Another possible factor, which I suggest equally as a question and an argument, might be the contemporaneous rise of the bound volume as the genre fiction’s unit of currency, over the short story. So many of the male New Wave writers seem now to be remembered for signature novels of the period–Aldiss, Ballard, Brunner, Delany, Disch, Harrison, Moorcock, Siverberg, Spinrad, Zelazny, et al, all have at least one which seem to have defined them as New Wave writers. In contrast, the female authors seem to have published fewer novels, and fewer widely-lauded novels, during the New Wave years. (Of course we can guess that recent discussions on women in SF applied just as much, if not more, then as now.) But indeed, the degree that female writers are remembered today in connection with the New Wave roughly corresponds to their output of novels in that period. Le Guin is foremost; Russ, up there; Wilhelm, remembered but fading in specific connection with the New Wave–she had many novels, but only Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, toward the end of the New Wave, seems to have garnered sufficient acclaim as to be award-nominated (suggests the ISFDB; info below also sourced there). Tiptree, granted, is something of an exception, gaining acclaim through her short fiction, and not writing novels until near the end of her career. But Carol Emshwiller also didn’t turn to novels until later in her career, well after the New Wave period, and is remembered less well (if on the uptick now), and not especially as a “New Wave writer”; Josephine Saxton had a brief flurry of three novels around 1970, then went back to short fiction; Lee Hoffman wrote a handful of SF novels and a handful of short SF stories, but a significant majority of her works were Western novels–I don’t know if she ever built up much name recognition among SF&F readers; Sonya Dorman had one series of four SF juvenile novels, but otherwise published only short stories and poetry; Miriam DeFord doesn’t seem to have written any SF novels. So by and large, I think the answer to the questions of “who won, and why” might be “the novelists.”

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