I’m pretty excited right now, because I’m not that far away from the launch of a project that I’ve been working on almost nonstop for the past several weeks. It’s involved the writing of several thousand lines of code, more than a few sleepless nights (thank you, coffee), and flurries of emails and text messages. I’m not going to reveal it just yet, because we’re only 95% of the way there and I need to wait until it’s completely ready.
No, what I want to do is take a break from writing code and just write for a while: write about the origins of this project, what it means to me, and why it means so much to me. It’s fairly difficult to talk about something without saying too much about it, so if it seems at times like I’m being vague or obtuse, I probably am.
When I was a kid, I read a lot, and I mean a lot. I also read fast. When I was twelve years old, I had to spend a Saturday at my grandmother’s house because my mother had to work that day. I went to the library after school on Friday and checked out three or four books—my usual routine for the weekend. That Saturday, I took Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with me to my grandmother’s house.
When I arrived at my grandmother’s house, I settled into a quiet, sunny corner and started reading. Five hours later, I had finished the book. Because I had done nothing but read, I was both starving and busting for a pee. This was due less to my dedication to reading and more to Harper Lee’s having had created a world that was so beautifully described, so carefully delineated, that in the space of a few hours, I managed to live a handful of summers in a southern town several decades before. It was impossible not to.
Now any kid who can read like that is going to take a lot of shit from other people, and I certainly did.
But as much as I enjoyed reading To Kill A Mockingbird (and to this day, it remains high on my list of books you must read because they will change your life), there were other books, other types of books, that I preferred to read.
I’m referring, of course, to science fiction and fantasy.
The problem here is that if reading a lot makes you an outsider, then reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy really makes you an outsider. I didn’t just take shit from my fellow students, I also took shit from the adults around me, including teachers. “When are you going to quit reading that crap and pick up a real book?” they’d ask, not just once, but over and over again.
But before I get too far into what these stories meant to me, and continue to mean to me, I feel obligated to point out a few things.
First, not all adults felt this way. A few of them were just happy that my friends and I were reading at all. But there was only a single teacher that I can remember who was elated that we were reading fantasy. (That clunker, The Chronicles of Narnia, and this in fifth grade.)
Second, quality in the science fiction and fantasy fields wavers quite considerably, sometimes even within a single author’s oeuvre. (Murray Leinster comes to mind here, as does Robert E. Howard.) This is partly due to the nature of criticism, because critics often fail to understand or appreciate these genres in any but the broadest strokes. If all that gets recognized are the broadest strokes, there is a natural human tendency to produce only the broadest strokes.
But part of is also certainly due to how difficult it always has been to make a living as a writer, a situation made more difficult by being a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Pure economics sometimes forced writers to produce at a white-hot heat. In such a case, it’s only natural that the occasional turd of a book gets through.
Third, younger readers are reading tons of science fiction and fantasy these days, except that the publishers have conveniently forgotten to label these works as science fiction or fantasy. It’s almost as if publishers have recognized the quality that can be found within these genres (they both have a vast array of heavy-duty storytelling tools, after all), but they want to avoid any stigma that the labels carry.
Harry Potter is a case in point. The HP books are very elaborate fantasies (and in their description of Platform 9¾ and the Ministry of Magic, they also function beautifully as satires), but very few book reviews and absolutely no publisher describes them as such, at least that I’m aware.
So too, with science fiction. Books such as The Hunger Games and Divergent are science fiction, even if they (and the movies based upon them) are labeled “young adult” or “action adventure.” I won’t dispute the label, for they are aimed at a young adult audience and they are certainly full of action and adventure, but there is something else going on here. In an age when massive amounts of information come at us on a daily basis, we need labels to sort things out. Unfortunately, those labels are often inaccurately applied, and as a result, they obscure more often than they clarify. Even people in the industry sometimes screw it up.*
So even though Harry Potter and Twilight are fantasies, and The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner are science fiction, we dare not label them as such. Notably, Wikipedia gets it right more often than not, but then again, Wikipedia is edited by people like me.
I am jealous of today’s young readers at the same time that I feel a little bit sorry for them.
I’m jealous of them because it’s finally okay for young people to read—and delight in—science fiction and fantasy. It’s okay to read a book in which a hippogriff plays a pivotal role, it’s okay to read a book in which modern scientific concerns such as overpopulation, climate change, or pollution play pivotal roles. Or all three at once, as in Ernest Cline’s clever and engaging Ready Player One, or in Paulo Bacigalupi’s dark and brilliant Shipbreaker and its even more brilliant (and darker and more haunting) follow-up The Drowned Cities.
(It’s notable here that space opera—think Star Wars/Star Trek if you’re unfamiliar with the term—are absent here. Perhaps they are only latecomers to the game, and the movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and its graphic novel adaptation, will change that particular dynamic. We’ll have to wait and see if they can do what Starship Troopers failed to do.)
But I also feel sorry for today’s young readers, because while there is a freedom to enjoy science fiction and fantasy, that freedom is only allowed so long as you do not label them as such. In some ways, science fiction and fantasy have both become the genres that dare not speak their names.
That saddens me greatly. If you love something, you shouldn’t have to hide that love, or hide the thing you love. I love liver and onions fried in bacon fat, and even if I cook it and eat it when no one else is at home, you’re still going to smell it on my breath and in my hair. I can call it foie avec oignons aux bacon all I want, but it’s still liver and onions fried in bacon fat. I can change labels, but I can’t change facts.
This depressed me for a long time, until I saw this video:
(Sorry about the audio quality. If you can’t hear it that well, you can read a transcript on Wil’s blog.)
The great thing about social media is that even if there is no one on your block, or even in your town, who has the same interests you do, that you can find people with similar outlooks and interests through social media. Of course, the bad thing about social media is that 98% of what you find there is crap. You need to learn how to create and fine tune filters to keep out the cosmic background irrelevance.
If you’ve read this far, you can pretty much tell that the thing I’m talking about involves science fiction and fantasy. You would not be wrong.
In fact, you would be quite correct.
If you know me well enough to know that I have a background in small-house publishing (ages and ages ago, it seems), you might guess that this also involves publishing in some way. Again, you would not be wrong.
I’ve always wanted, at least since high school, to publish some kind of science fiction and fantasy magazine, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it in a sustainable way. Anyone doing it in print is going up against the big three: Asimov’s, Analog, and TMFSF: serious competition indeed.
A look at their business model is instructive. Most magazines make their money through ad revenue, but all three of these have very little in the way of advertisements. They mostly make their money through subscriptions, which naturally leads to higher subscription costs than other magazines such as People, Popular Mechanics or Better Homes and Gardens.
Thus, in order to survive, a small magazine devoted to science fiction and fantasy has to charge a pretty steep price for a yearly subscription. It also has to publish at least four times a year (six, preferably) or it will simply drop off people’s radar. That means it has to find and publish quality writing, often from new writers. (That’s the easy bit, actually.) It’s a bit like being a little leaguer playing in the World Series.
Needless to say, the internet has changed all of that. It’s now possible to reach a somewhat large audience in a fairly low cost and sustainable way.
I finally realized this a few years ago when I began designing web sites seriously, and I laid the beginning ground work. Unfortunately, at the same time I also got involved with another project which took up entirely too much energy and ultimately proved fruitless. (The origins of that project go back many, many years, so you can understand my reluctance to give it up. But at some point, you have to realize that you are playing a less-than-zero-sum game, and you just have to let it go, no matter how difficult or painful that may be.)
Now, with all my energy free to devote to other projects, I’ve at last managed to combine some of my earliest passions (science fiction and fantasy, reading, writing) with some of my later passions (web design and development).
I can’t say the process has been flawless, because it’s been beset with issues and difficulties. But I finally understand the meaning of the word synergy: what happens when you get the right group of people with the right energy all working together on the right project.
It’s not just synergy; it’s magic. And it’s a damn lot of fun, too.
This is the point where I am tempted to spill the beans, but I’m not going to. I just hope that all of you are at least 1% as excited as I am. 1% may not seem like much, but 1% of how excited I am now is pretty damned excited.
Keep watching this space.
*In Danse Macabre, Stephen King laments the fact that Ray Bradbury’s publisher insists on calling him “The World’s Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer”. Stephen King has fallen prey to this himself, for although his early works—Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining—are certainly horror novels, for the past thirty years, much of what he’s written would easily have been described as science fiction (Hearts in Atlantis, The Mist, Under the Dome) or fantasy (The Dark Tower), but he got labeled early on as a spook writer, and that’s were many critics—and bookstores—are content to leave him. Sometimes labels are glued on, sometimes they’re sewn on, but in the literary field, they’re often tattooed on your forehead.