Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

Wandering For Ten Years

January 15, 2020

That Was The Year That Was

January 13th of 2010 saw my first Wednesday Wanderings post.

A decade.  Ten years.  Fifty-two weeks a year.  And I haven’t missed once.  I think that makes for 520 essays, plus this one today.

Sometimes, like today, the post has been relatively short.

Other times, the posts have been long essays, often on writing. Some of these became Wanderings on Writing, one of the few books on writing that focuses on the unique concerns encountered by a working writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Other times these Wanderings have been about life, or new releases, or trips.

There was that time we saw a camel in someone’s yard…

For seven years, I also wrote the Thursday Tangents, which my friend, Alan Robson of New Zealand.  You can download some of these as a free e-book here.

A bit over five years ago, I started the Friday Fragments, which gives you a glimpse into my reading habits and provides you with the opportunity to influence them.

I’m always open to suggestions as to possible topics for these Wanderings.  Please feel free to make suggestions for the year to come.

Lots of things have changed in these last ten years.  One thing hasn’t.  I’m still a writer.  And now I’m off to write.


TT: Drabbling in Feghoots

October 10, 2019

The Thursday Tangents Collection

JANE: Today I’m happy to announce the return of my long-time collaborator, Alan Robson.  As we promised, we said we’d resume writing Thursday Tangents as soon as we had something we wanted to Tangent about…

Alan, I’ve lost track.  How long did we write the Thursday Tangents?  How many Tangents were there before we ran out of things to babble about?

ALAN: We wrote 356 tangents over a period of six years. Goodness me!

I collected some of them in a free ebook.

JANE: Wow!  I’d forgotten we’d been so chatty.

One of the things we talked about was your plans when you retired.  One of these was finally having time to write.  From our various e-mail chats, I know you have kept your promise to yourself, even if you haven’t quite yet written the Great New Zealand Novel.

In fact, it was one of your stories that made me decide we needed to Tangent once more.  When you sent me a “drabble,” I admit, I had no idea what to expect.

What is a drabble?

ALAN: A drabble is a short story of exactly 100 words, not including the title. Hyphenated-words-are-argued-about.

 A drabble is not 99 words, and it’s not 101 words, it must be exactly 100 words. It turns out to be surprisingly hard to cram an entire story into that number of words. It requires an awful lot of self-discipline together with very careful word choice and sentence structure, so it makes a really good writing exercise. There’s a very strong sense of accomplishment when you finally get it to work.

JANE: Why is it called a drabble?

ALAN: The form derives from a Monty Python sketch and it is named for the English novelist Margaret Drabble, though I doubt if she knows that her name has been borrowed for that purpose. It’s also a real word, believe it or not. It means to make something wet and dirty by dragging it through mud.

And it’s worth 10 points in Scrabble.

JANE: When you sent me your most recent drabble, I was quite taken with it.  Would you like to share?

ALAN: I’d be happy to. But before I do, I’d like to go off on a tangent, if I may, and explain that in British English, the word “Ass” simply means a silly person. It has none of the ruder connotations that it does in American English. So bearing that in mind, here’s a drabble about…

An Ass on an Asteroid

The asteroid called Ceremony was an amorphous lump of rock that tumbled end over end in its orbit.  I wasn’t looking forward to landing my spaceship on it, particularly with untold billions of people glued to their television sets watching my every move.

Delicately I manipulated the thrusters to match my orbit with Ceremony. When I was satisfied, I cautiously lowered the ship to a perfect landing. I switched the engines off, opened the hatch and stepped down onto the dusty surface. Then I announced triumphantly to the waiting billions, “I am the very first person to stand on Ceremony!”

JANE: Tah-dah!

What I love about this story is that it is more than a punchline for a joke (although it certainly qualifies as a joke as well).  It has a main character, a plot arc, even a dramatic climax.

Did you find it hard to squeeze all of this into so few words?

ALAN: Writing the story wasn’t that hard in itself. I’m getting reasonably proficient at creating a proper story structure and, in this case at least, the punchline dictated how the story had to work. The first draft came out at about 150 words and took something like thirty minutes to write. Then the hard work began. I had to trim and cut and re-write and juggle so as to edit it down to the required word count. That took about four hours.

JANE: Given the pun at the end, your drabble can also be considered to be a feghoot. Two birds with one stone!

Feghoots are humorous short stories that resolve with a pun.  Unlike a drabble, they don’t need to be only 100 words, so they can sneak up on you.

I learned about feghoots from my buddy, David Weber, who loves them.  One memorable night a few months after Roger’s death when I couldn’t sleep, Weber set out to break my dark mood. To do this, he told me dozens of feghoots, one after another.  It worked.

ALAN: Ferdinand Feghoot was the hero of goodness knows how many stories written by the anagrammatical Grendel Briarton who, under his real name of Reginald Bretnor, was a respected science fiction author and critic. The name of the form derives from the name of the hero of course, and the only rule is that the story must end with a terrible pun.

Feghoots were published intermittently in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction starting in the 1950s. They soon became wildly popular. Isaac Asimov and John Brunner and many other authors also contributed to the form. The very best feghoots were so terrible that you really wanted to scoop your eyes out with a spoon after you’d read them so that you wouldn’t have to read any more.

Reginald Bretnor died in 1992 and Ferdinand Feghoot appears to have died with him, which I think is a great shame.

JANE: I’d love to hear another of your drabbles.

ALAN: I can do that. Here’s one I wrote about:

The Revolting Crew

The mighty spaceship ploughed through the void between the stars. The crew were near to mutiny and the captain was deep in angry conversation with the artificial intelligence in charge of supplies.

“What happened?” he demanded. “Come on, Marie, you stupid machine. How could you allow such a situation to arise? How did you expect us to travel five hundred light years with no toilet paper?”

“What is it to me?” said Marie haughtily. “I have no need for toilet paper.”

The captain buried his head in his hands. “What am I going do?”

“Let them use cake,” suggested Marie.

JANE: That made me laugh out loud, which brought Jim in from the other room so he could read it.  And he laughed.  Congratulations.

ALAN: Thank you. If you’d like to read a few more of my drabbles you can find them on my website.

In all fairness, I probably ought to point out that, although my drabbles tend to be rather feghhootian (because that’s the way my mind works), drabbles don’t always have to be humorous. Gene Wolfe, Brian Aldiss and many other respected authors have all written drabbles that are dramatic and thoughtful and sometimes quite deep. A drabble is just like any other fictional form and therefore it can be used for any legitimate fictional purpose. That’s part of the beauty of it.

JANE: I may need to dabble in drabble one of these days…

TT: The Magazine of Your Dreams

March 22, 2018

The Magic Box

JANE: Over the last several weeks, Alan, we’ve been discussing your encounters with various magazines.  Even though you met these through the “magic box,” you rapidly found those you preferred.

These days, as people feel they have less and less time to read,  seems like a perfect time for magazines to once again achieve dominance with the reading public.

So, I’d like to ask you – and our readers – to tell me what you’d be looking for in a magazine.

ALAN: That’s a hard question for me to answer directly. My encounters with SF magazines were so intermittent and so haphazard that I never really developed the habit of reading them. I was always pleased when I stumbled across one, of course, and I quickly learned which ones I liked. It did become clear to me that each magazine reflected the interests of its editor and, of course, the ones I liked had editors whose tastes matched my own.

When I started taking books out of the library, and buying books of my own, I found a lot of short story collections and anthologies on the shelves. It seemed to me then (and it still seems to me now) that an anthology and a magazine are really very similar things – each has an editor and each reflects the personal tastes of the editor. So it wasn’t long before I consciously started looking for anthologies that had been put together by people whose tastes I trusted.

JANE: That makes sense!  So, who were the first editors you sought out?

ALAN: Back in the day, I would deliberately seek out anthologies edited by Judith Merril, and by Terry Carr. There was an excellent anthology series called Full Spectrum that was edited by Lou Aronica and Shawna McCarthy. And of course there was Harlan Ellison’s ground-breaking Dangerous Visions.

These days I look for anthologies edited by Gardner Dozois.  (I’ll buy anything edited by him sight unseen.) I’m also rather fond of Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran as well. And Jonathan Strahan has recently attracted my attention…

JANE: Whoa!  Back up a moment there…  At least three of those editors were also associated with magazines.  Gardner Dozois edited Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine from 1984-2004.  Ellen Datlow edited Omni from 1981-1998.

Did you ever feel tempted to subscribe to either of these magazines because of your respect for their editors?  After all, magazines would come out more frequently than anthologies.

ALAN: I’ve never subscribed to a magazine – in the days of often unreliable snail mail and vast distances across the world, it always seemed a bit too financially risky.

I vaguely knew that Gardner Dozois had been an editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy of it. Maybe I have, but if I did, it made no impression on me.

JANE: That’s fascinating.  During Dozois’s decades at the helm of Asimov’s, I’d guess that most American SF/F fans knew him for that first, for his anthology editing second.  Of course, I’m a writer, so my point of view may be skewed.

How about Omni?

ALAN: I did read a few copies of Omni but I never liked it much – the fiction was generally first class of course (as witness the large number of award-winning stories the magazine published) but the stories were spread far too thinly and were quite overwhelmed by far too many dumbed-down articles about science and cranky parapsychological nonsense. I found the mixture quite unpalatable.

JANE: What about Jonathan Strahan?  He co-founded and co-edited Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy between 1990 and 1999.  That’s closer to home.

ALAN: Much closer to home – Robin has known Johnathan forever. (Quote: “He’s a lovely person”). They both belonged to the same SF crowd in Perth, Western Australia. I’m pretty sure that she has many copies of Eidolon in a box somewhere.  Jonathan and Eidolon also spawned a small publishing company called Eidolon Press. One of the books it published was Howard Waldrop’s Going Home Again (1997), and an autographed copy of that sits very proudly on our bookshelves.

Consequently it’s a rule – I’m required to like Jonathan Strahan and, by extension, anything he produces. Fortunately I do, so it’s a very easy rule to obey.

JANE: Lucky for you!  Robin might get very upset with you otherwise.

ALAN: So I think what I’m saying is that, whether we are talking about magazines or about anthologies, the thing that I look for every time is that rather nebulous thing called the taste of the editor. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

And when I find an editor whose tastes overlap with mine I will deliberately continue to look for and buy their books.

JANE:  That makes perfect sense.

Once again I invite our readers to tell us what they’d like to see in a magazine.   Do you like when stories are serialized between issues?   Repeating characters or settings?  Stories set in a writer’s “known” universe?  Non-fiction?  Review columns?  How important are illustrations?  Would you consider graphic storytelling – such as a one panel comic or an on-going series – to be a bonus?

In the first installment of this discussion, one of how readers talked about how, for him, the magazines gave him a sense of belonging to a community of shared ideals.  To quote his last closing question: “Does anyone think a magazine can also foster a sense of community, hope, and possibilities?”

Do any of the magazines currently publishing have a strong, dynamic identity that makes you want to recommend them?  Absolutely include those that primarily publish in electronic form.  Who knows?  Electrons just may be the new pulp!

TT: Two Faces of New Worlds

March 15, 2018

JANE: You promised to tell me about New Worlds magazine.

ALAN: New Worlds was a British SF magazine edited by John Carnell. Because it was British, I assume it must have been sold by the big book chain W. H. Smith, but distribution must have been erratic because I don’t recall ever seeing it there. However, copies did turn up in the magic box every so often.

Amazing Magic Box

JANE: Wait!  Why would that have happened?  I thought the magic box was full of magazines taken from the holds of merchant ships where they were used for ballast.  Surely a British magazine would not travel around Britain in a ship?

ALAN: Yes and no…

New Worlds was distributed throughout the Commonwealth. In one sense, that was quite a good idea because it encouraged Commonwealth writers to submit stories, and the magazine did indeed publish stories by Australian, Canadian and South African writers. But I strongly suspect that the copies that turned up in my magic box had originally been sent out to (say) Australia where they didn’t sell, and so they were returned to Britain as unsold copies used for ballast, thus becoming eligible for the magic box. It’s all quite ironic, really.

JANE: That is weird.  So, what did you think of New Worlds?

ALAN: I didn’t like it very much. I thought of it as a poor imitation of Astounding/Analog. John Carnell was cast very much in the mould of John Campbell and he liked the same kind of stories that Campbell did (though, to be fair, Carnell did not share the weird and sometimes distasteful ideas that Campbell promulgated in his eccentric editorials).

The magazine published mainly British and Commonwealth writers and at the time I had a vague feeling that proper SF was American, and that British SF was, almost by definition, inferior in some way that I couldn’t quite pin down.

JANE:  Wait a minute!  What about Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Brunner, and even Eric Frank Russell?

ALAN: Oh, I agree.  My opinion that proper SF was American didn’t make any sense at all. In my defense though, I must point out that British SF Writers of the time included E. C. Tubb, John Russell Fearn, Volsted Gridban and Vargo Statten. These last two were also the first two (they shared many, many pseudonyms). But no matter what names they attached to their stories, none of them ever set the SF world on fire – and all of them had stories published in New Worlds.

JANE: What time period are we talking about?

ALAN: This would be the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s.

JANE: Above you said: “to be fair, Carnell did not share the weird and sometimes distasteful ideas that Campbell promulgated in his eccentric editorials.”  Do you remember what any of these were?

ALAN: Campbell’s obsession with the perpetual motion machine he referred to as “The Dean Drive” was scientifically embarrassing. He was also extremely racist and sexist in his opinions. After Campbell died, Harry Harrison edited a book that put together a selection of Campbell’s editorials from Astounding. I have a copy, but I’m afraid that I find the political and social opinions expressed in the editorials so annoying that I simply can’t read it.

JANE: That’s interesting.  It’s not what first comes up when I think of Campbell.

Did Commonwealth SF have any qualities that made it distinct from American SF?

ALAN: Not really. It sometimes felt a little “old fashioned” in the sense that many of the stories would happily have fitted into Astounding magazine a decade before it turned into Analog. But I suspect that this was more a reflection of Carnell’s personal taste than it was a description of Commonwealth SF as a whole.

After Carnell left the editorial helm of New Worlds, he went on to edit a series of books generically called New Writings In SF which had the same feel to it. But to be fair, Carnell was responsible for publishing James White’s Hospital Station stories which were very popular in both Britain and America. So he must have been doing something right! I’m sure he had other editorial successes as well.

JANE: What happened to New Worlds when John Carnell stopped editing it?

ALAN: Michael Moorcock took over the editorial chair and he very quickly turned the magazine into an avant-garde literary publication with science fictional leanings. It was the beginning of the so-called New Wave of science fiction. Moorcock also seemed to do something to the distribution mechanism because I regularly saw the magazine on the shelves of W. H. Smiths.

Then, in 1967, Moorcock published Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron which had (gasp!) dirty words in it. W. H. Smiths decided they no longer wanted to be associated with such filth and they refused to distribute it any more.

JANE: Did the magazine survive the loss of its major distributor?

ALAN: After W. H. Smiths stopped selling it, New Worlds had to make use of alternative distribution channels. It was often to be found on the shelves of sex shops. Presumably the proprietors of these shops were fooled by its reputation for publishing dirty words and felt that it would appeal to a certain class of customer. I often wonder what the New Wave SF fans felt as they browsed among shelves of magazines dedicated to hobbies even more esoteric than their own…

JANE: Indeed!

ALAN: But the writing was on the wall for New Worlds. In 1971 a final “Good Taste” issue was published, and that was the end. Moorcock did resurrect it a couple of times in later years as a series of original anthologies, but the magazine itself never reappeared.

JANE: What I’ve found interesting about this discussion is how the same name may be attached to what are, essentially, very different magazines, and how the interests of an editor shape the  magazine’s identity.

That brings me to a new question, but one I’ll save for next time!

TT: Deeper Into the Magic Box

March 8, 2018

JANE:  When we finished last time, you promised to tell me about how you came to feel that the different magazines had distinct identities – so much so that you could often guess where a story was originally published.

Galaxy in the Magic Box

ALAN: Yes indeed. One of the magazines seemed to specialise very much in what these days I suppose we’d call hard SF. I recall greatly enjoying the stories I read in it but, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you any of the titles now… However, I do recall that the magazine seemed to take itself very seriously. The stories were often very solemn and humour was in short supply.

I found the name of this magazine a bit puzzling. Sometimes it was called Astounding and sometimes it was called Analog and sometimes it was called both those things at the same time. I learned later that the editor, John W. Campbell, wanted to change the name from Astounding to Analog for mysterious reasons of his own, and he introduced the change gradually over several issues so that people could get used to it.

JANE: Analog continues to have a reputation for publishing hard SF.  Indeed, its official title is Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  Their guidelines require the story to be firmly related in science of some sort – not just science as window dressing.

ALAN: I think that’s been a never-changing policy ever since the glory days of John Campbell, and clearly it’s been a successful one. Even in these internet days, the magazine continues to sell very well indeed.

I felt much happier with a magazine called Galaxy. The stories had a broader range than those in Astounding/Analog. Whimsy and satire were very welcome in its pages. It was in Galaxy that I first came across Harry Harrison’s marvelously funny anti-war satire Bill the Galactic Hero. Harrison told me that he’d actually first submitted the story to Campbell at Astounding and that Campbell had said he’d be happy to publish it if Harrison would take all the jokes out. Since that would have destroyed the whole point of the story, Harrison took it to Galaxy instead where it was welcomed with glad cries of glee. And the rest, as they say, is history.

JANE: I have a fondness for Galaxy.  In fact, I sold a short story to a later incarnation of Galaxy.  It’s called “Behind the Curtain of Flowers.”  Since the magazine is very hard to find these days, I included it in my short story collection, Curiosities.

ALAN: I’m sure the magazine is in a box on a market stall somewhere in the multiverse.

There was a third magazine that often turned up. It was called The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (F&SF for short.) As the name implies, the stories it published spread right across the spectrum and they also had an elusive quality that seemed absent from most of the stories in the other magazines. They had more depth, more structure. They were, if you like, more literary. F&SF quickly became my favourite of the magazines and I still remember the stories and the authors with great fondness – Avram Davidson and Zenna Henderson, for example, seemed to publish nowhere else! In later years, I deliberately sought out books by those two authors solely on the strength of the stories I read in F&SF.

And I’ll never forget my first encounter with the wonderful Richard McKenna. The opening line of “Casey Agonistes” took my breath away, and I still think the story is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read:

“You can’t just plain die. You got to do it by the book.”

Richard McKenna died far too young. What glorious stories he would have written had he lived.

F&SF was far and away my favourite of the magazines I found lurking in that market store box.

JANE: Except for Galaxy, the magazines you’ve mentioned are still going. But over the years a lot of other magazines have fallen by the wayside. Did you come across any of those other magazines in your magic box?

ALAN: Yes, there was a rather puzzling magazine called Worlds of If.

JANE: Puzzling?  How so?

ALAN: It didn’t seem to have a style of its own; rather the stories it published seemed to be an amalgamation of the styles of stories from the other magazines. Frederik Pohl was the editor (this would be some time in the early to mid-1960s) and it wasn’t until I read his autobiography (The Way The Future Was, Del Rey, 1978) many years later that I discovered the reason for this curious style.

Pohl’s budget for buying stories was very small – about a third of what the other magazines were paying. Naturally writers would submit their stories to the highest paying markets first. But if the stories were rejected, they would send them to Frederik Pohl next. However, editors are not infallible, of course, and many of the stories that Pohl accepted would really have felt quite at home in Analog or Galaxy or F&SF.

JANE: Magazine pay rates continue to vary.  I will admit, I try those that pay “professional” rates before I try those that don’t.

ALAN: Pohl also had a deliberate policy of publishing one new writer in every issue and that too added a curious stylistic flourish to the magazine. One of those new writers was Larry Niven…

JANE: Good choice!

Pohl must have been doing something right because Worlds of If won the Hugo for best professional magazine three years in a row from 1966 to 1968.

ALAN: Although my “magic box” contained American magazines, not all SF magazines were American. There was a British SF magazine being published in the 1950s and 1960s called New Worlds.  I have quite a lot to say about. Perhaps we can discuss it next time?

JANE: You bet!

TT: In An Astounding Galaxy

March 1, 2018

JANE: Alan, I know in your formative years as a reader of SF/F, you read a lot of SF/F novels and short story collections, but did you read any of the SF magazines?

Magic Box

ALAN: Yes and no. In my younger days I got my SF books from the library and from the occasional paperback that I bought with my saved up pocket money. I was vaguely aware that SF magazines existed, but I’d never actually seen one. None of the shops I haunted sold them.

JANE: But you said “Yes” as well as “No.”  How could you say “Yes” if none of the shops you haunted sold them?  I sense a deep mystery here.

ALAN: Ah. Thereby hangs a tale… The major book and magazine distributor in the UK was (and probably still is) W. H. Smiths. They have a branch in pretty much every town and city. So the only things on sale are the things they choose to sell. And they didn’t choose to sell American magazines.

JANE: Perhaps it was too expensive to import them?  After all, unlike books, magazines were considered low priced items.

ALAN: Probably so. And there might have been legal difficulties as well.

Anyway, one day I was browsing around a table of second hand books on a market stall. There was a cardboard box on the table, and it seemed to be full of rubbish – things with torn covers and broken spines and some that seemed to have suffered extensive water damage. I  dug around in the junk and found something called Galaxy. I flipped through the pages and found, to my great excitement, that it had nothing but science fiction stories in it. And it only cost tuppence (two pennies, for those unfamiliar with the English currency of the era). Even I could afford tuppence. My pocket money was a whole shilling a week!

JANE: Remind me about English currency. How much is a shilling?

ALAN: A shilling is twelve pennies, so if I used up my whole shilling I could have bought six magazines.

JANE: I don’t think I’ll ever come to grips with English money…

ALAN: Fortunately for your peace of mind, they don’t use it any more. These days everything is nicely decimal.

At the time I had no idea how the magazines had ended up in the box, but later in life I learned that American magazines which had been returned unsold to the publisher were supposed to be sent off to be pulped, (they were pulp magazines after all!), but sometimes they never arrived at the pulping mills. Instead the magazines ended up as ballast on merchant ships sailing from America for exotic destinations like Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Magazines that survived the journey without getting too waterlogged ended up in boxes on market stalls up and down the country, where they sold for derisorily low prices.

And so in my early teens, I discovered the joy of American SF magazines. Astounding/Analog  and Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction and Worlds of If … The list goes on.

JANE: Ah!  Mystery solved.  I’ll admit, despite being American, and despite there being many more SF magazines on the newsstand than there are today, I never really got into them.  My pocket money was very short, so I read what the library had.  My school library didn’t have SF/F magazines and, if our public library did, I never saw them.

It seems to me that at least some of your reading should have crossed the time period where the magazines were particularly influential.  What did you think of them?

ALAN: It was at one and the same time a fantastic and frustrating experience. Fantastic because I got to read a lot of wonderful stories, and frustrating because the magazines ran very long stories as serials and I almost never got all the installments. There was absolutely no rhyme nor reason to what turned up in the box on the table of my local market stall. Everything in it was a completely random selection from the hold of a merchant ship.

Eventually, of course, the serials were published as novels, and over the years I think I finally managed to catch up with them all. But I still remember the cliff-hanging frustration of those missing episodes.

JANE: Oh…  I can sympathize with your frustration… but for a sort of funny reason.  When I was young, I used to read articles and stories on my mother’s magazines.  Many of them ended with “con’t.”  I was young enough that I thought this was a contraction for “could not,” and thought they hadn’t had room to finish the piece in that magazine and I’d need to wait for the next issue – I’d already encountered serialized fiction by then, so it made sense.

You can imagine my relief when, purely by accident, I came across the rest of an article in the same issue and realized the “con’t” was a contraction for “continued,” not “could not.”

ALAN: At least you got some sense of completion when you found the rest of the article, which is more than I often managed to achieve.

Nevertheless, despite the frustration, I continued to haunt the box on the market stall and I soon owned quite a selection of (sometimes rather battered) SF magazines. It became clear to me that the different magazines had what I suppose I ought to call their own house style. If you’d handed me the stories in isolation, I think I could have made a very informed guess as to which of the magazines had originally published it. Perhaps we could delve into that can of worms next time?

JANE: A can of bookworms?  Perfect!

TT: Political Commentator

February 22, 2018

JANE: Last time you said there was another aspect to Ursula Le Guin’s writing that you wanted to explore.

ALAN: Yes – I’ve really always regarded her as a political commentator first and a feminist writer second. Hence, I suppose, my admiration for The Disposessed, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Stories With a Message

Politics was a theme she explored again in her novella/novel The Word for World Is Forest, though this time the ideas related more directly to contemporary America. The story was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s collection Again, Dangerous Visions so I’m sure she thought her subject matter was, to some degree, controversial. Among other things, The World for World Is Forest was a direct commentary on the Vietnam war. Le Guin never made any secret of her opposition to America’s involvement in that conflict and the story’s anti-militaristic theme makes that perfectly clear.

JANE: The first time I read the book, I was too young to catch that I wasn’t reading just a novel but political commentary.  In fact, the book quite turned me off, especially how the humans referred to the natives as “creechies” and how many remained closeminded even when presented with evidence that the native population was – in its own way – quite sophisticated.  Sadly, even when I read the book later, I never could get around that initial aversion.

ALAN: Sometimes it’s hard to overcome first impressions when you re-visit a story and try to read it with different eyes.

Have you read the series of stories (and one novel) that she set in a fictional central European country called Orsinia? We learn from the stories that the country was once an independent kingdom which was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Orsinia sent an army to the First World War. After that conflict ended, Orsinia briefly regained its independence. However, after the Second World War, it became part of the Soviet bloc. At the end of the 1980s, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the country again became self-governing. In other words the country has a history typical of the place and times.

Le Guin invented Orsinia when she was in her teens.  As she said in her introduction to The Complete Orsinia (The Library of America, 2016):

Most of the people I really wished I could write like were foreign, or dead, or both. Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there.

At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.

She wrote stories set in Orsinia throughout her career and they directly reflect her reactions to the various events that defined the political and social history of Europe and, by extension, of the world at large.

The later stories were sophisticated and thoughtful, but I found the only novel set in Orsinia (Malafrena) to be rather weak. Probably that was because she had been tinkering with it for thirty years or more before it was finally published in 1979. It reads like a nineteenth century novel of manners, and it never really comes alive. The other Orsinian Tales, though, are well worth seeking out.

JANE: Thanks for letting me know.  I must admit, I haven’t read those stories, and when I heard they were based on her juvenilia, I wasn’t particularly interested.  You make them sound much more appealing.

Tell me, have you read Le Guin’s Always Coming Home?

ALAN: No, not in any formal sense. I doubt that anybody has. The book presents itself as a description of the life and culture of the Kesh people who live at some indeterminate future time in California. It’s a ragbag collection of a book that consists of songs, poems, recipes, anthropological notes and anything else that she felt like tossing into the mixture. It doesn’t tell a linear story (though there is a story there if you look closely). Instead it tries to present a whole culture, a gestalt if you will. It’s a book to dip into rather than to read from start to finish.

JANE: Okay, folks!  Tell us, have any of you read Always Coming Home in a linear fashion?

I’ll admit, I haven’t.  The edition I have includes notes that tell you where to go if you want to pick up the more narrative portion of the book, but I’ll be honest.  Stone Telling’s tale didn’t grip me.  I think the reason is encompassed in the second part of her name.  “Telling” isn’t appealing to me.  Nor, honestly, was she.  Even in the sections where she is a small child, I felt implicitly lectured, and I don’t enjoy that.

Once I decided I didn’t like Stone Telling, I dipped into various portions, enjoyed a poem or two, contemplated a recipe, read some of the other bits, but that was it.

ALAN: John Scalzi greatly admires Always Coming Home. He praises it very highly in the obituary he wrote for Ursula Le Guin.

JANE: Thanks!  I went and looked at his piece.  He makes a persuasive argument, but it’s not one that applies to me.  By the time I picked up Always Coming Home, as an English major with an interest in what was then called “Modern Literature,” I was already familiar with non-linear storytelling, and so form alone was not enough to intrigue me – and certainly not to provide an influence.

Non-linear storytelling wasn’t even all that new to SF/F, since many of the New Wave writers – including Roger Zelazny, whose work I had read extensively – had dabbled in these waters.   Creatures of Light and Darkness, published in 1969, immediately comes to mind.

ALAN: I tend to agree with you. I think it’s one of her less approachable works. But despite her occasional failures, she was an important and influential writer. I will miss her now that she is gone.

JANE: Me, too.  She gave me pleasure as a reader, helped me grow as a writer.  Two tremendous gifts.

TT: A Wizard of Change

February 15, 2018

JANE: Last time you mentioned that the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s  novels you read was A Wizard of Earthsea.  That was certainly the first of her novels I read.  By the time I read it, all three of the first books in the sequence were out, so I don’t so much think of “Earthsea” as consisting of three novels as one.   I was probably in my early double digits at the time, the exact target audience for the series.

Ged’s Story

It worked for me very well.  I was swept up not only by the mythic feeling of the story, but because Ged’s grand journey is so deeply rooted in reality.  For all its dragons and wizards, Earthsea felt distinctly real.  This ability to make unreal places real is something that I would continue to admire in Le Guin’s work.

ALAN: I had much the same reaction as you, though I was older than you (in my twenties) when I first read the books. It’s probably worth mentioning that fantasy novels were few and far between in those days, and any new addition to the canon was always met with glad cries of glee, no matter how good or bad it was – but the Earthsea books were clearly something special and, in later years when sprawling, derivative fantasy doorstop novels seemed to be everywhere, it became more and more obvious just how special and how well-crafted Le Guin’s fantasies were.

My copies of the books were published by Puffin, which was an imprint that Penguin used for children’s books. So officially, I suppose, I was far too old to be reading that childish rubbish. But I couldn’t see that it mattered. A good book is a good book, and there was a depth and a maturity to the Earthsea stories, as there is to all the best “Young Adult” fiction, which transcended categories.

JANE: I agree!  What’s great about the Earthsea books is that they grow with the reader.  A kid might be caught up in Ged’s quest.  An older reader starts wondering about the consequences of impulsive actions.  And so on…

The Earthsea books also contributed to an element of my mental landscape as a writer.  This happened when LeGuin’s fourth novel in the sequence, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published in 1990.  Tehanu was published with much fanfare as a work in which the writer who – by then – had become a feminist icon made amends for having been so sexist in her earlier works.

ALAN: If I remember rightly, Le Guin’s protagonists up to that point had mostly been male. But I’m not sure that’s inherently sexist in and of itself. Can you elaborate?

JANE: I agree with you that male protagonists alone were not enough to make Le Guin’s books sexist.  Indeed, “male as protagonist” was still a major part of the landscape in the late 1960’s.  Even when I started writing many years later, I automatically envisioned my protagonists as male.

For example, Sarah in Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls started out as Sam.  I made a conscious choice to write women – and women as I know them to be – which has led to me being identified as a writer of “strong female characters.”

ALAN: Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I have no problem identifying with the protagonist of a story, be they men or be they women. So I consider both you and Ursula Le Guin to be writers of “strong characters”. For me, the adjective is not necessary.

JANE: I’m like you in that.  No one was more surprised than I to be praised for creating “strong female characters.”  I just wanted to include more characters who were female.

But the problem Le Guin created in Earthsea was more complicated than having her protagonist be male.

Le Guin’s lack of respect for the feminine went further than putting her women in the background.  Phrases such as “Weak as a woman’s magic” and/or “Wicked as a woman’s magic” occur in the Earthsea books.   Ged’s first teacher is a woman, and she leads him and his considerable magical talent astray by her manner of teaching.

Le Guin’s admission that she had basically been blind to her own cultural biases had a huge impact on me.  I’d already begun to write more female characters.  (Once again, I must remind our readers that publication date and writing date are not the same; although my first novel would not come out until 1994, I was already absorbed in writing.)  Le Guin’s admission made me wonder what my own blind spots might be.

ALAN: A question that worries me as well. I’m sure I must have them, but I don’t know what they are…

I do remember the fanfare that greeted the publication of Tehanu but I never wholly agreed with it. Certainly Le Guin’s view of women in the world of Earthsea did perhaps leave something to be desired, but she didn’t impose that point of view on her other literary worlds.

In 1969, only a year after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that was deeply preoccupied with gender issues and the societal roles played by men and women.  So in light of that, the claims made for Tehanu were perhaps a little disingenuous.

JANE: I agree with you – and I felt so at the time.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful to Le Guin’s admission because it set me questing for what I might be blind to and led me to write more varied characters and situations as a result.

ALAN: And it seems to me that the quest was successful – a lot of your characters and situations have stuck in my mind for years. If that’s the result of Le Guin’s influence on your writing, then good on her!

But there is another aspect of her work that I think we ought to talk about. Next week, perhaps?

TT: Creative Encounter

February 8, 2018

JANE: Last time I mentioned how fandom can provide connections that never would happen any other way.  I’d like to tell you how my long ago visit to New Zealand led to my meeting a legend once I was home again in New Mexico.

Alan’s Favorite!

ALAN: I never knew that, after I took you to the airport so you could fly home, it would result in you meeting someone famous! Tell me all about it.

JANE: As I’m certain you recall, the co-Guest of Honor that year (along with Roger Zelazny) was Vonda McIntyre.  Vonda proved to be a wonderful person.  She shared her cup of noodle soup with us when Roger felt a little unwell.  When Roger wasn’t up to going touristing, she encouraged me to stop hovering and, instead, go out and see a bit of New Zealand with her and whichever local fan had taken time to serve as a tour guide.

ALAN: That was me! I remember that I took you both to explore Auckland and you were astonished that the traffic lights controlling the crossroad in the city centre went red for all four roads at once so that pedestrians could cross in every direction. I remember that you were a bit nervous about crossing the street diagonally. You’d never done that before…

JANE: I remember that outing.  Other fans took us around on other days.  You guys were so amazingly nice.

Vonda and I stayed in touch after that trip.  When, in, I think 1996, she visited New Mexico with some friends, she got in touch and asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with her.

I agreed with enthusiasm, and told her that, although I didn’t know Albuquerque very well yet (I’d only moved there a few months before), I did know which restaurant the locals said served the best New Mexican style food.   When I knocked at the door of Vonda’s motel room (in a charmingly retro place along Route 66), she greeted me as if we’d seen each other just a few days before.

Then she said: “When I told the friends I’m travelling with that we were going to have lunch at a place that the locals said served the best New Mexican food, they asked if they could come along.”

I agreed, and Vonda said, “Great!  Charles and Ursula’s room is over here…”

And to my astonishment, a few moments later, I discovered I was going to have lunch with Ursula K. Le Guin.

ALAN: In a word, wow! I always wanted to meet Ursula Le Guin. She was high on my list of favourite authors. But sadly, our paths never crossed. What was she like as a lunch guest? I’ve always found that her non-fiction is often quite funny (as well as being erudite and informative) and I’ve always imagined that she would be a warm, chatty and amusing person to have a conversation with. Am I right in that assumption?

JANE: She was so down-to-earth and real that after a while I wasn’t sure I’d heard her name right.  I mean, she looked like pictures I’d seen of The Famous Le Guin, but she wanted to chat about the differences in types of southwestern cooking.  She also wasn’t overly talkative – not at all a showoff.

To put this in perspective, remember, I’d shared a home with another famous writer of her generation: Roger Zelazny.  You’d think I’d be beyond this sort of reaction.  But I wasn’t.  In fact, I was a bit too awed to ask as many questions as I might have done.

After lunch, we went out to a local independent bookstore.  Did she try to be recognized?  Have a fuss made over her?  Sign stock?  Nope.  She just wanted to look at books.  Her husband, Charles, was also very friendly and approachable.  It was a good day.

Which of Ursula Le Guin’s books made her one of your favorite authors?

ALAN: That’s an easy question to answer. The Disposessed is by far and away my favourite of her books. It was some time in the early 1970s and I’d just graduated from university. As a student, I’d been surrounded by political discussion of one sort and another, because that’s what students do. The debate was mostly from a left wing point of view and sometimes it seemed to involve a lot of hair splitting on points of doctrine. I couldn’t make any sense of it and I felt a bit uneasy about the practicality of some the things that were being said. And then The Disposessed turned up in the local bookshop. I’d already read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and rather enjoyed them, so I looked forward to reading this new book.

JANE: It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Dispossessed, but I remember it as a story that made me think.

ALAN: It’s definitely that – but it tells a great story as well. Quite simply, it blew me away. For the first time some of the ideas (and ideals) that I’d been grappling with so unsuccessfully started to make sense. It was clear from the book that no society could be perfect – the political and social systems that Le Guin presented in her novel worked, to a certain extent, but they also had their faults and their failures. And that was the missing ingredient that had so puzzled me before. My socialist friends were all so sure that they had the recipe for a perfect society. Le Guin embraced many of their ideas and, in addition, showed me that perfection was impossible. Doctrine can only take you so far. The book has often been described as an ambiguous utopia and I think that’s a perfect way to sum it up.

I just absolutely love that book to bits.

JANE: Those aspects of The Dispossessed are precisely why I think it will always remain worth reading.  So much socially-oriented SF stops at the level of your college-aged discussions – idealistic solutions.  Le Guin encourages a more adult level of discourse, even if it’s far less comforting.

ALAN: What about you? What’s your favourite Le Guin book?

JANE: For me it’s less a book than a process, and a process is difficult to explain in a few words.  Perhaps we can save it for next time.

TT: Furry Fandom!

February 1, 2018

ALAN: Last week, I suggested that a logical extension of our on-going discussion of both fandom and costuming would be to take a look at furry fandom – a fandom that most people first become aware of because of the highly visible “fursuit” costumes that these people wear. I must say that personally I find these costumes extremely attractive, both aesthetically and emotionally, and I’d like to know more.

Jane and Furry

You said you’ve actually been to a furry con?

JANE: That’s right. Some years ago, I had the great pleasure of being one of the Guests of Honor at Further Confusion. I’ll say right off that it was a great experience, and I learned that there’s a lot more to furry fandom than fursuits.

But one con doesn’t make me an expert, so I’d like your permission to make this Tangent a “trialogue” and include my friend Brent Edwards – aka Chip Unicorn – to supply expert knowledge on the intricacies of furrydom.

ALAN: That sounds like a great idea.

JANE: Okay! Brent, meet Alan. Alan meet Brent.

BRENT: Pleased to meet you!

ALAN: Hi, Brent!

JANE: Brent, it occurred to me that most of us encounter furry fandom without a sense of the roots. I believe you told me that it is a fandom deeply rooted in art.

BRENT: Yeah — furry fandom has created an astonishing amount of artwork!

JANE: One thing I really enjoyed about Further Confusion was how much the art extended out of the show. I loved the individualized badges (people often wore several) that depicted what I’ll term the wearer’s “furry identity” character. This meant that even those people who weren’t wearing fur suits showed who they were.

However, there were also a lot of graphic novels available as well.

BRENT: Graphic novels and comic books are a central part of furry fandom.  Many people date furry fandom’s start to amateur press associations (APA’s) like Vootie, which ran from 1976 – 1983. APAs were small magazines created by and only for its members. Every quarter, artists would create some pages, Xerox enough copies for the membership list, and send those Xeroxes to the publisher. The publisher would staple everything together, and send the ‘magazine’ with all of the artists’ work back.

Soon, people from those APAs created fanzines: magazines for sale to the general public. The most important of these was possibly YARF! — but I’m rather biased, as I’ve worked with its editor for more than a decade.

ALAN: I’ve never been involved with an APA, but when I first moved to New Zealand there was a flourishing APA here called Aoteorapa, which is a very clever pun on Aoteoroa, the Maori name for New Zealand. I never took part in it, but several of my friends did, so I’m familiar with the mechanism. It’s a very clever and, in pre-internet days anyway, a very successful method of disseminating material.

I wasn’t aware that there were cons devoted to furries, though based on how popular furry costumes are, I shouldn’t really be surprised. Have they been going on for a long time?

BRENT: There is one origin con, Confurence, an event that happened annually from 1989-2003 in southern California. It was the first convention exclusively for furries.

Soon after Confurence happened, other conventions started – Furtasticon created by Trish Ny in 1994, and the first international furry convention, Eurofurence, started in 1995.

The number of conventions has exploded in the last 23 years. At this moment, there are at least 62 different conventions in places as diverse as Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, Russia , South Africa, and Thailand.

The biggest furry convention now is Midwest Furfest, with about 8,700 members.

ALAN: That’s an awful lot of furries!

I don’t really remember when I first began hearing rumours about salacious goings-on between consenting furries and, not being a furry myself, I don’t know any details. So can you satisfy my prurient curiosity? How much truth is there in the nudge, nudge, wink, wink gossip that is so often associated with furries?

JANE: Uh… I’d like to add to Alan’s question. If fursuit sex does go on, what percentage of the furries are into this? That is, is it a majority interest or not?

BRENT: I’ve been married since 2001, so I haven’t been to those kinds of parties for a long while. But the most sexual thing that I’ve ever seen that also involves fursuits was one fellow rolling around naked in a pile of fursuiters.

I don’t think many fursuiters would appreciate ejacule on their fursuits. Remember that if you don’t create them yourself, fursuits cost between $500 and $3,700. Fake fur is heat-sensitive, so it’s harder to clean than throwing it into a washing machine.

People have sex at furry conventions. People have sex at science fiction conventions. But I haven’t seen or heard about anything wildly different in the amount or kind of sex. In short, it’s no more exciting (or less exciting) than any other fandom

Dang if I know what percentage of the fandom is into it. I haven’t asked!

JANE: Wasn’t there a TV show that used furries in an episode and slanted the representation? I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard people refer to some show as their source for “This is what furries are really like.”

BRENT: The television show was probably “Fur and Loathing” on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, from October 2003.

ALAN: I love the pun in that title! Judging by what you said, you’ve been involved in furry fandom for quite a while. What’s the appeal for you personally? Are you an artist? Fursuiter? Writer? Something else?

BRENT: The appeal for me? In the late 1980s, I discovered that I like running conventions. I enjoy all the planning that goes into it. And Watts Martin introduced me to furry fandom, when he created a ‘zine named Mythagoras.

Also, furry fandom reminds me of the early days of science fiction fandom. It combines creativity and fun.  Most large SF/F conventions are now “media” conventions: about what happens in movies, television, or books. They’re rarely about how to create new media. Furry fandom is often about teaching how to create. There’re always panels for how to improve artwork, writing, costuming, music, and photography – even dance.

There are many excellent science fiction conventions that focus on teaching. But many focus only on professional development. Furry fandom is fun: it has loud, wild parties at the end of the day and lively dances.

JANE: I very much felt the creative vibe at Further Confusion.  The talent show was brilliant.  Jim and I were sitting in the middle of the audience.  During a scene break, two fellows behind us were having an animated discussion on sources for material to make fursuits.  It was enlightening to realize that the people wearing the costumes often had made them as well.

But we’re definitely risking the TL/DR zone, so sadly, I’ll draw this discussion to a close.

ALAN: Thanks, Brent. I learned a lot from this discussion.

BRENT: It was an honor to meet you, Alan.

JANE:  As we were chatting, it occurred to me that I met both of you through fandom. The chance we would have met and become friends without that link seems pretty slim. If there’s any way to sum up the larger value of fandom , the chance to make friends who not only share common interests but can expand those interests as both of you have done for me, must be the best part.

Thank you both so much!