Archive for November, 2016

Tortoise and Hare

November 30, 2016

November ends today and with it NaNoWriMo.  Perhaps coincidentally, the end of November also saw the launch of SnackWrites, an extension of Josh Gentry’s popular SnackReads website.

SnackReads (for those of you who weren’t around when it published my short story “Hamlet Revisited,” as well as “Servant of Death,” a story I wrote in collaboration with Fred Saberhagen) is Josh’s answer to the problem so many people face of not having enough time to read.  The stories featured at SnackReads  are original fiction, meant to be downloaded and read on the quick.

And The Winner Is...

And The Winner Is…

Yes.  Before you ask, you can still get “Hamlet Revisited” and “Servant of Death” there, as well as stories by authors such as Suzy McKee Charnas and Daniel Abraham.

Back in August, Josh confided to me that while he very much enjoyed publishing SnackReads, he felt a yearning to expand his focus.  Just as SnackReads is intended to provide a place to go when you want to read but don’t feel you have time, SnackWrites is intended to encourage people who don’t feel they have time to write to at least noodle around.

Josh’s own plan is to provide one prompt a month, one article about writing a month, and one interview a month.

Talking with Josh about SnackWrites made me think.  We live in a culture that celebrates “fast” as if fast is the same as “good.”  That’s the philosophy behind NaNoWriMo.  Thirty days, 50,000 words, software to help you track your progress and feel good about how well you’re doing.  NaNoWriMo turns the process of writing a novel into a race.  It tells you you’re a winner.  All good, right?

Well, maybe.  If you’re a sprinter by nature, I think this approach could be excellent.  If you’re the sort of person who always did assignments at the last minute, again, NaNoWriMo may be for you.  Over the years, there’s been more discussion about how finishing those 50,000 words is only the beginning of the process – that the finished work will need polishing, revision, and fleshing out.

Proponents say “Of course, everyone knows that,” but the editors who receive “finished” works in the first weeks of December say that many people aren’t getting the message.  When the rejection letters come, the winners start feeling like losers.

SnackWrites has a different philosophy.  As with SnackReads, the emphasis is on small bites, rather than big projects.  Josh wants to encourage writers to write just a little – even if that writing isn’t part of a bigger project.  To that end, he’s solicited input from professional writers.  This month, award-winning writer Daniel Abraham (who with Ty Franck is one half of James S.A. Corey of “The Expanse” novel and television series fame) provides a provocative writing exercise – one you can do even if you don’t have writing implements at hand.

I’ve given Josh permission to reprint one of my blog posts “Battling Against Distraction” (also featured in a slightly revised version in my book Wanderings on Writing).    I’ll probably continue to contribute and maybe occasionally answer questions on the site because I like Josh’s philosophy – and I like the idea of helping people find their way to their stories.

Think of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare.  NaNoWriMo’s philosophy is definitely that of the Hare.  Go fast.  Don’t worry if you get worn out.  You can always do the polishing, the refining of your craft later.

SnackWrite’s philosophy is closer to that of the Tortoise.  Write a little.  Play around with an interesting exercise.  See what that might spark.  Browse an essay or two by a professional writers discussing how they manage to write, to finish, to get the most out of their words.

It’s slower, surely, but just remember who won the race.  Hint.  It wasn’t the Hare.


FF: When the Sun Goes Down

November 25, 2016

We’ve continued reading in the evening.  It’s very relaxing and stimulating at the same time.

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel and Ruby Read

Kel and Ruby Read

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Golden Specific by S.E. Grove.  Audiobook.  Sequel to The Glass Sentence.  Like Tolkien’s Two Towers, two separate plotlines.  Book suffers a bit from “middle book of the trilogy” syndrome.  Will probably read the next book, but am not panting for it.

In Progress:

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.  This has been getting a lot of buzz, so I decided to try it.  About half-way.  Narrative is about half how the members of the “crows” ended up where they are and half caper.

The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie. Audiobook.   Agatha Christie had more range than people realized.  These tales are very much in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse.


Having finished the anime dealing with the first part of Naruto, Jim and I are now reading (or in my case, re-reading) the manga for the second story arc.  This week, volumes 27-33.

TT: From Here To Eternity

November 24, 2016

JANE: Happy Thanksgiving!  While you wait for your turkey to cook – or maybe while you digest – Alan and I will attempt to amuse you.

Last week we started talking about the use of the immortality trope.  Unlike outer space exploration and time travel, immortality is one that occurs with equal frequency in Fantasy and SF.

Thanksgiving -- Immortal Monster Style

Thanksgiving — Immortal Monster Style

If you don’t mind, I’d like to at least try to examine immortality as a trope in SF/F from the angle of the three sub-groups you mentioned last time.  Let’s see if I can recall them from memory.

There are the stories in which the immortal serves as an observer of history.  Then there are the stories about the search for immortality – what you called “The Gilgamesh Gambit.”  Finally, there are the stories about immortals whose long life experience gives them an edge when faced with current problems.

ALAN: Right!  You get full marks. You can be the inkwell monitor for the class tomorrow.  However, I would like to make one thing clear.  These categories are not in any way mutually exclusive.  Stories can – and often do – use more than one of the ideas.

JANE: I can think of a memorable novel that uses all three creatively, but I’ll save that until we’ve explored these more or less in isolation.

To me, logically, the first one to look at is the Observer of History type of story, since the immortal is most passive in these.

The Vierck and Eldridge novels we mentioned last week fit into this section.  Do you have any other favorites?

ALAN: Yes, I do. In 1978, Nicholas Monsarrat published Running Proud, the first volume of the Master Mariner series.  It told the story of an Elizabethan English seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is cursed by a witch to sail the world’s seas until the end of time. The series was designed to tell the maritime history of England with the immortal hero participating in critical historic episodes.

It was one of Monsarrat’s most popular books, but ironically he did not live to finish the project. He died with only one episode of the second volume (Darken Ship) completed, though he did leave some notes about how he saw the story progressing. These days, the completed episode and the notes are usually bound in with the first volume and published as a single volume under the title The Master Mariner. I highly recommend it.

JANE: Tall ships and ancient curses…  Sounds like a good combination.  I’m surprised no one else has picked up the idea and continued with it.  Then again, this book in particular highlights what is oddest about the Observer of History sub-trope.

While, essentially, it belongs to SF/F – after all, as far as we know, there are no immortals among us – this type of novel is a subgroup that would appeal more to mainstream fiction than to SF/F because of the essential passivity of the immortal.  I see these kind of stories as historical fiction in SF/F drag.

ALAN: I suppose that’s true, to an extent. But “proper” SF has certainly used the idea as well. Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years (1989) was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Prometheus award, so it must have had something going for it! The story follows a group of ten immortals from the ancient past to the far distant future.

JANE: Good example.  Another SF more or less immortal who serves in that “observer of events” role – although many of these events haven’t happened because they belong to a fictional future history – is Heinlein’s Lazarus Long.  He also belongs to your third category, but I find I think of him more as a tour guide to Heinlein’s future than as an actor in that history.

ALAN: Yes – I tend to think of him that way as well.

An interesting offshoot of the basic idea of the Observer of History is the legend of the Flying Dutchman – a sailing ship crewed by immortals which is doomed to sail the seven seas forever, never making landfall.

JANE: It’s hard to see how history could be observed if the ship never sees anything but the sea…

ALAN: True – and that’s probably why the trope isn’t used very often. But Tom Holt had a lot of fun with it in his comic fantasy novel Flying Dutch. It seems that the ship’s crew have drunk the elixir of life and are therefore immortal. Unfortunately, a side effect of the elixir has given them all the most appalling body odour and they cannot ever go ashore because their ferocious stink repulses everyone they meet. Hence their never ending voyage… (Once every seven years their stench drops to bearable levels. That’s when they make landfall and re-provision the ship).

JANE: Oh, lordy!  I haven’t read that one in ages.  Now you make me want to add it to my already crowded To Be Read shelf.

So, let’s move on to the Gilgamesh Gambit.  Despite the classic mythic elements, it seems to me that immortality, of body or at least of mind, would be a something SF would find very compelling.

ALAN: Indeed so. Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls (1972) is the very best Gilgamesh Gambit story I’ve ever read. I think a lot of people must agree with me because it was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus Award!

Four college students discover a manuscript that tells of an order of monks who live in a monastery in the Arizona desert. The monks have the power to bestow immortality on those who complete a rather bizarre initiation rite. Naturally, the students set out to investigate the claims…

JANE: Monks, though…  That sounds as if the solution is going to be magical, rather than scientific.

ALAN: You could say that and I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with you. But this is Silverberg we’re talking about. The concepts are slippery…

One of the difficulties with “Gilgamesh Gambit” stories, especially of the Science Fictional sort, is that immortality always seems to be around the corner, but the science never seems to quite work out – that is unless the techniques relied on are so extreme that they might as well be magic.

JANE: And that’s another can of worms. Let’s watch them wriggle next time…


November 23, 2016

This weekend, I went to an art show called “Fantasía Fantástica: Imaginative Spaces and Other-Worldly Collage” at the National Hispanic Cultural Center.  This features the works of four artists, all of whom create using a variety of found or repurposed materials.  Although all four artists are considered Latina/o, they work outside of the (to quote the brochure) “narrow definitions of what is considered Latina/o art.”

As Peter said last week: “Art is an ongoing conversation the future is having with the past,” and this show seemed built around that idea.

A Different Look

A Different Look

One of the reasons I wanted to see this show was because it involved collage and the use of unusual materials.  Rachel Muldez, for example, uses materials from nature: oak galls, magnolia seed pods, bits of wood or stone, tiny dried vines.  Nick Abdalla builds abstract sculptures from a variety of found objects, including wickerwork, placemats, animal horns, and scrap metal.  Color was downplayed in the majority of his works, which invited the viewer to look more closely at the shapes.

Cynthia Cook’s and Carlos Quinto Kemm’s art fit more closely into what people usually mean when they say “collage” in that the works were flat (more or less) and were intended to be hung on a wall.   That didn’t mean they were in the least “same old, same old.”  Cynthia Cook uses found objects – or as she herself calls it “trash metal, trash glass” – as not only elements in the collages but in creating the frames.  Carlos Quinto Kemm’s multi-layer collages are so densely populated with images that the three of us (I went to the show with Jim and our friend Michael Wester) spent a great deal of time exploring the details. “Did you see that tiny monkey in the corner?”  “Is that a turtle or a griffin?  “I really want to know the story behind that woman.”

Another reason I wanted to go to this show was the promised fantasy element.  I’ve seen many SF/F art shows.  These are always fun but, after a while, a degree of sameness does creep in – and not only due to the fact that certain artists mail their contributions to shows all around the country.  There are always dragons (and I like dragons), vampires, fairies, as well as works inspired by visual media productions – both new favorites and older “classics.”

I wanted to see what Fantasy meant to people outside of the SF/F community.  Certainly there were similarities such as mermaids and dragons, but there were differences too.  Religious elements –  and not only Christian – had a larger place.  There was a sense of a dialogue between a historical culture and an evolving present.  Mystical searching seemed to reverberate though many of the works, an impression confirmed by the artists’ statements accompanying the show.

Among the interesting elements was the time these artists were willing to give to permit a piece of art to evolve or to find the right place for a particular found object.  Several of the artists mentioned how a certain item might stay in their studios for years until the time came to use it.  Lately, maybe because November is NanoWriMo, I’ve seen a lot of emphasis on working hard and fast – as if that also means working at one’s best.  This show was a good reminder that a work that takes weeks or months to write may be years or even decades in gestation.

I found a bonus in the statement that accompanied Nick Addalla’s work.  He’s been involved in various forms of art for over forty years, and is recently retired after being a teacher at UNM for twenty.  About his current work he says: “I am learning to PLAY again…  Hours and hours of serious and totally involved play, getting lost in the MAKING.  No ambitions.  No goals.  No need to justify.  Just doing.”

That really spoke to me.  After years of writing to deadline, wondering what the next job will be, I’ve been doing a lot of creative “play” that has been very satisfying.  I’m feeling happier about my recent decision to permit myself a chance to explore my own creative ventures with less concern about where the story might “go.”

Seriously, these narrow definitions can really impede a writer’s creativity.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a plaintive Twitter post from a well-known YA writer who was commenting on her own work in process:  “Is this even YA anymore?”

Should she need to worry about that?  Shouldn’t she just be permitted to write the best book she possibly can?  But the fact is that, in these days of “if you like this, you should read that” marketing, stories often aren’t permitted to be themselves, they’re trimmed and altered so they can be presented as a “portal story” or a “space opera” or a…  Well, you get what I mean.

In the handful of days since we saw Fantasía Fantástica, I’m already seeing the world  differently.  A friend sent a beautiful card.  I’m saving it with a future collage of my own in mind.  I’m smiling as I think about the short story I started last week, a story inspired by my allowing myself a foray into visual art.  It’s all good.  In fact, it’s all great!

FF: More Time to Read

November 18, 2016

Jim and I finished what we’d been watching, and switched to reading in the evening, so I had more time this past week.

Can We Wash the Black Off?

Can We Wash the Black Off?

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Goldenhand by Garth Nix.  The first novel to carry the excellent “Old Kingdom” series forward since Abhorsen.  Pluses – ties the prequel Clariel more into the series.  Minuses – suffers a bit from how good the resolution was to Abhorsen. Still, I enjoyed.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck. Sequel to A Long Way From Chicago.  Very strong.  I’ll need to try some of Peck’s other works.

In Progress:

The Golden Specific by S.E. Grove.  Audiobook.  Sequel to The Glass Sentence.  Split plot lines.  One has the more “go-getter” character, the other the more interesting material.  Makes for an odd read.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.  This has been getting a lot of buzz, so I decided to try it.


Finished off what’s available of The Wicked and the Divine.  Am happily speculating on where the final plot twist may lead.  I have two theories…

TT: Live Long and Prosper

November 17, 2016

ALAN: Do you want to live forever?

JANE: Depends.  Do I get to stay relatively young and healthy?  Does everyone I love get to keep living, too, or do I need to watch all of them die?   Immortality is a lot more complicated than just not dying.

Long Term Fiction

Long Term Fiction

ALAN: And considerations like that make immortality a fascinating subject to investigate in fiction.

We’ve been telling stories about living forever for as long as we’ve been telling stories. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest story we know. It dates from about 2100 BC and part of it tells of a hunt for the secret of eternal life.

It’s a popular idea, and it’s a story that we’re still telling today, in one way or another.

JANE: It’s worth noting that The Epic of Gilgamesh (which exists in several variations) deals with all of my concerns.  In one of the most common versions, the reason Gilgamesh goes looking for the secret of immortality is because his best friend, Enkidu, dies.  Gilgamesh learns the secret, but – being merely mortal – does not succeed in bringing the gift back to humanity.  The secret of eternal youth (and presumably health) is a separate deal.

So there we have all of it: not dying, staying young (and healthy), and the dread of loss wrapped up in one tidy package.

ALAN: Tidy indeed!

It seems to me that there are three basic story lines belonging to this theme. We have the search for immortality (the Gilgamesh Gambit, if you like). You can also use an immortal protagonist as an observer who watches, and comments on, the passage of history. And finally you can have a protagonist whose immortality gives him the experience to cope with whatever crisis or conflict he is currently facing in (probably) the modern day or the near future.

I have examples of all of these from both SFF and the mainstream, one of which was written by a certain Jane Lindskold… The story line of your novel Changer is a perfect example of the last category I mentioned. What made you decide to write the novel in this way?

JANE: Damn…  I hate to do this to you, but I didn’t decide.  The story decided.  I started what would become Changer relatively soon after I’d come to Santa Fe to live with Roger Zelazny.   Twenty years ago, Santa Fe was less self-consciously touristy, more a place where people lived and tourists came, in part because of the people who lived there and the things they made.

One of the things that I encountered one day when Roger and I were walking down to the Plaza to have lunch was a section of concrete sidewalk where someone had drawn a magic circle, complete with a few little crystals embedded in it when the concrete had still been wet.

Roger walked right over it without deeming it worthy of comment.  At that moment, I resolved to write a story set in New Mexico before I, too, took such things for granted.  Changer and the athanor began to take shape that day.  But I didn’t sit down and say, “Well, I think I’ll write an ‘immortals among us’ story.”  It just happened.

Doubtless the fact that I am a life-long reader of myth and legend had something to do with my choices, but I wasn’t at all conscious of making them.

ALAN: You may not have been conscious of it, but I think you were well aware of what you were doing on a deeper level. When I was reading Changer, I was interested to come across this sentence:

“There are turtles,” Eddie says, “like the one that Salome had in Viereck and Eldridge’s novel.”

The reference here is to a trilogy of mainstream novels from the late 1920s by George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge. The first, My First Two Thousand Years was the autobiography of the Wandering Jew and is a perfect example of the second story line that I mentioned before, in that Viereck and Eldridge use the myth of the Wandering Jew to comment on the passage of history. The other novels in the series (Salome and The Invincible Adam) continue the theme from other points of view. They are rather obscure books and for a long time I thought I was the only person in the world who had read them.   So I was pleased to see your little aside. Clearly you were also familiar with the books – something else that we had in common!

How did you come across them and how influential did you find them to be?

JANE: I was given my copies by Roger Zelazny.  Once Roger and I started corresponding regularly, he’d send me books, often ones that he’d loved and wanted to share.

When he sent me my copies (which I still have), he said, “When I was growing up I read the 2000-Year Trilogy (each volume told from a different viewpoint) many times, & was doubtless influenced thereby in my own writing.”

As for how influential I found them?  In one way, not at all, except that they were good books.  However, I’d already encountered the motif of “immortals among us” through the works of many writers – including, no great surprise, Roger Zelazny.  However, in that Viereck’s and Eldridge’s novels had an impact on a writer who, in turn, was a great influence on me, I suppose you could say they had a tremendous influence.

Influence is all a matter of timing…

ALAN: I think you might have just said something quite profound.

There’s still a lot more to say about this subject. Shall we look into it again next time?

JANE: Absolutely!  After all, you came up with three general types of immortality stories and we’ve barely touched on any of them.  Let’s explore the secret of immortality together.

Moving Along Now

November 16, 2016

Thanks to everyone who weighed in last week regarding branding as it applies to books and your awareness of them.  I’ll keep you posted on developments.  Please feel free to keep sending me comments, either on the post or to my work e-mail:

A Pile of Ongoing Projects

A Pile of Ongoing Projects.

Currently, I’m focusing in on the writing/editing side of things.  Last week, Jim finished reading the manuscript for a novel I wrote on spec.  The original manuscript was 54,000 words, but I recently expanded it to a tidy 72,000.  One of my jobs this week will be polishing the expanded version and getting it to a few beta-readers.

I’ve also selected which of my out-of-print Avon novels I’ll be getting ready for e-book publication.  Smoke and Mirrors, originally published in 1996, is a far future science fiction novel about what happens when a very unlikely person becomes among the few to realize that there just may be hostile aliens infiltrating human-inhabited worlds.  It’s more thriller than war story, because I prefer the small picture to massive troop movements.

If you can’t wait for the e-book, I still have some copies of the original mass market paperback of Smoke and Mirrors.  See my website bookstore for details.

I’m also writing a short story, because I’ve learned the hard way that if I’m not doing something creative, I get very, very grumpy.

This past weekend featured several fun and creatively stimulating events.  Friday, I read my yet-unpublished short story “A Familiar’s Predicament” at the monthly meeting of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society.  I very much enjoyed the discussion afterwards.  Particular thanks to the lady who cheered at the story’s resolution.

Saturday, Jim and I went to the New Mexico Archeological Council’s annual conference.   Although Jim’s paper was the last of the day, we went early enough to listen to most of the other papers.   Even though this is technically outside of my “field,” I find such events very creatively stimulating precisely because the papers are outside of what I would usually be reading and thinking about.

Many of the papers we listened to had to do with the crossing of the various cultures that have settled the region now known as New Mexico.  In addition to the “alien invasions” represented by the incursion of peoples from Europe, there were culture clashes and cross fertilizations between the numerous indigenous peoples – many of whom spoke completely different languages and practiced widely varied religions.  By contrast, modern “America” looks positively homogeneous.  How many cultures have occupied this landmass is worth remembering, especially in these days when there is a rising myth that the United States was once a monoculture.

Sunday, I had a lovely time running my on-going roleplaying game.  Running a game is an entirely different type of storytelling.  I very much enjoy the stimulus of setting up a situation, then seeing how my players react as they discover something.  This week in particular was full of discoveries.  I can hardly wait for next time…

But, for now, I’m off to split my time between pen and paper and keyboard once more.  The stories are calling, and I must come!

TT: Special Edition!

November 14, 2016

Hi Folks,

I’ve had e-mail asking me if Alan is okay after the earthquake that hit the South Island in New Zealand.

Yesterday, Alan e-mailed me to let me know that although the South Island was hit by a 7.5 earthquake, he, his wife, their dog, and two cats are fine.

Jake Reads Phillip Mann

Jake Robson, Not an Earthquake Detectorre fine.

Obviously, there could be further problems from aftershocks, tsunami, and the like but, as of my latest report, Alan and family are well.

With typical Alan sense of importance, he noted that — contrary to folklore — none of their animals reacted to the quake.

Let’s all keep a good thought as the world does Shake, Rattle, and Roll…


FF: Reading Tonight and Always

November 11, 2016

Tonight I’m giving a reading of a yet unpublished short story at the meeting of ASFS, the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society.  Hope to see some of you there!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Starlight Reads!

Starlight Reads!

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Man in the Tree by Sage Walker.  Advanced Bound Manuscript of forthcoming release.  Not your usual car chase murder mystery, but a thoughtful examination how murder impacts a closed community – in this case on a generation ship about to set off for the stars.

The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  Weaker than the prior two, with too much repetition and a plot that relies on both Tarzan and Jane being really dumb.

In Progress:

Goldenhand by Garth Nix.  The first novel to carry the excellent “Old Kingdom” series forward since Abhorsen.  So far an interesting journey.

The Golden Specific by S.E. Grove.  Audiobook.  Sequel to The Glass Sentence.


Almost done with the issues of The Wicked and the Divine graphic novel I have on hand.  I can’t help but think Roger Zelazny would have liked this, too.

TT: To Time Travel or…

November 10, 2016

JANE: So, before we fall into minutia, it’s time for the Big Question.  Is time travel as a trope still viable?  One of the articles I read suggested that, in fact, it was played out.  What do you think?

ALAN: Certainly the mainstream doesn’t think time travel is played out. They’ve adopted the idea wholeheartedly (after filing the serial numbers off it, of course).

Viable Time Travel

Viable Time Travel

In Martin Amis’ 1991 novel Time’s Arrow, for example, people age backwards through time from death to birth. If you think that sounds like a similar plot to Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World (1965), you’d be quite right. I think that Dick did it much better than Martin Amis did – indeed, I seriously doubt that Martin Amis even knew about the Dick novel (though I’ll guarantee that the book was well known to his father Kingsley!)

JANE: That’s right, as well as being a literary lion, Kingsley Amis wrote one of the first definitive works of SF/F criticism, New Maps of Hell.  I realize sons and fathers don’t always share each other’s tastes, but I wonder if Martin Amis could truly claim to be innocent of influence from earlier time travel works.  Ah, well, unless he chooses to tell, we’ll never know.

“Wholeheartedly” implies more than one example, and I’m betting you have one up your sleeve.

ALAN: Indeed I do. The best example is Audrey Niffenegger’s magnificent novel The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003). The title tells you all you need to know about the plot. It was marketed as a mainstream “literary” novel with no hint whatsoever that the author was slumming in the SF genre. It was a huge best seller. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I thought she handled the “Time Paradox” aspects brilliantly.

JANE: To be the grump…

Mainstream authors can have huge successes with an SF trope precisely because it’s new to their audience.  I haven’t read either of those novels, but I will admit that I’ve read other (not only time travel) ventures by “mainstream” authors into turf already well-tended by SF/F and been bored because what is new to them is far from new to me.

ALAN: That’s always a danger of course, and the Martin Amis novel is definitely rather disappointing for that very reason. But The Time Traveler’s Wife is, quite simply, superb no matter how you try and categorize it.

JANE: So, has anyone writing specifically in SF/F done anything fresh and interesting with the time travel theme recently?

ALAN: Well, in 1995, to celebrate the centenary of Wells’ novel, Stephen Baxter published The Time Ships, which is a brilliant sequel to Wells’ original story. But perhaps that doesn’t really count as an answer to your question.

JANE: Maybe not, but I’m curious as to what Baxter chose to focus on for his sequel.  Can you give me a non-spoiler thumbnail sketch?

ALAN: In 1891, the time traveller attempts to return to the year 802,701 in order to save Weena, the Eloi who died in a fire during the battle with the Morlocks. Unfortunately, he fails to reach his destination because, it turns out, there are multiple mutable futures. Complex cross-time adventures ensue…

JANE: I always felt bad about what happened to Weena…  Maybe I’ll need to find out if she gets saved this time.

ALAN: One problem with time travel stories is that there is a tendency to concentrate on well-known historical incidents and to examine them from the point of view of the time traveller, who acts purely as an observer or with the intention of trying to change the events so as to alter the course of history. This can lead to a certain sameness in the story lines. There’s a definite narrowness of focus enforced by the trope.

That’s probably the reason why the article that you read claimed that the idea was played out.

But in the hands of a skillful writer, even the hoariest old idea can take on a new life.  Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (2011) tells of a man who travels through time to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. The book has received rave reviews from one and all. Indeed, some people have claimed that it is the best thing that Stephen King has ever written!

JANE: I’ll admit, I gave this one a pass because whether or not JFK was assassinated didn’t interest me enough.  If I want to read a story like that, I’ll re-read Day of the Jackal.

King’s novel may be among the best things he’s done, but he’s still using the trope in a familiar fashion. Is there anything new being done with the time travel trope?

ALAN: Yes, I think there is.  In a series of novels and stories published  between 1997 and 2013, Kage Baker tells the story of The Company which operates from the 24th century, and uses time travel to exploit the past for commercial gain by rescuing valuable artefacts just before the forces of history conspire to destroy them. As far as the continuity of the time stream is concerned, these things no longer exist and therefore no paradoxes can result by saving them. It’s a nice idea with lots of ramifications and Kage Baker explores them all. The stories are clever, witty, satirical and complex with a long story arc that gradually reveals that the eponymous Company is not quite what it seemed to be at first.

It’s a brilliant sequence and I find it hard to imagine how anyone could ever improve on it. So maybe Kage Baker has written the definitive time travel story and effectively killed the whole idea. But I doubt it…

JANE: You’ve mentioned the “Company” stories before and always with enthusiasm.  I keep forgetting to read them.  This time I vow I will!

Any other examples of creative uses of time travel?

ALAN: In 2007, Joe Haldeman came up with a nifty time travel idea in The Accidental Time Machine in which his hero invents a time machine while attempting to construct a calibrator to measure the relationships between gravity and light. The machine travels exponentially into the future, initially by seconds… Then by minutes… It isn’t long before the inexorable laws of arithmetic mean that every jump the traveller takes moves him forwards by centuries… And then by millennia.

The hero uses the device to leave his problems behind him, long forgotten in a dim and distant past; the statutes of limitation long expired. He also comes across and (superficially) investigates a lot of interesting and cleverly constructed future societies. The novel was nominated for a Nebula Award and a Locus Award, so it was certainly well received. But I suspect that, clever though it was, the future societies were not explored in sufficient depth to make the book a classic. Nevertheless it came very close!

JANE: So, here’s a novel where—unlike what you mentioned with space exploration – it might have benefited from being turned into a series.  Interesting!

ALAN: Much as I hate series, I’m forced to admit that you could well be right.

You might think that the paradoxical implications of time travel have been so thoroughly explored by now that nothing new remains to be said about them. But in 2009, Jack McDevitt found a clever little wrinkle that nobody else had ever thought of and he wrote a novel in which he assured us that Time Travelers Never Die.

So I think that, on balance, time travel stories really are alive and well and flourishing.

JANE: I think you’re right…  I also think that you just told me about a McDevitt novel I believe I somehow missed.  I’m off to check my bookshelves.

I don’t think we’ve exhausted all the perennial SF tropes.  Let’s choose another for next time!