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Last week I spent way too much time filling out the Locus 20th Century Poll. I had to make two lists: my top ten favorite science fiction novels from the 20th century, and my top ten favorite fantasy novels. (There were short fiction categories too, but I’m less well read in those categories. And the 21st Century poll, since it only covered twelve years, was not as time-consuming.) Locus provided a handy reference list of many eligible novels that I poured over.

What I found fascinating was the difference for me in creating the science fiction list versus the fantasy list. For the science fiction list, I had no trouble coming up with ten titles. In fact, my main problem was I kept coming up with ever more titles, and then I had to choose which ones to actually include in my final list, and in what order. And all the titles I was coming up with are books that I’ve adored, that have had a huge impact on me, that I could obligingly gush on about for some time.

And then I started working on my fantasy list. I eventually added Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, both of which I am deeply enthusiastic about and neither of which was on Locus’s reference list. However, the other novels I listed, while entertaining novels and influential in the field, did not inspire the same gush-worthy feelings. I’ve always thought of myself as an equal lover of both science fiction and fantasy, so this surprised me. Which led me to consider the general pervasiveness of fantasy in my experience of story.

I fell in love with science fiction as an adolescent. I still remember exactly where I was when I finished reading Ender’s Game for the first time, and how I felt about it. I was twelve. And from then on, I swallowed science fiction novels from the library’s adult section upstairs in great gulps.

But fantasy has been with me from the very beginning. I didn’t call it fantasy back then. In my experience, it was a natural and inevitable part of the landscape of storytelling. It was my air. Even the picture books my mom read to me before I could read to myself involved talking animals and portal quests and magical items. And those titles in children’s literature that I now know are part of the fantasy genre? I can gush about them just as long and just as fervently as I can about Dune or The Handmaid’s Tale.

I grew up on fairy tales, so very many fairy tales. I loved them with a passion. My other two favorites? King Arthur stories and Robin Hood stories. I devoured so many of the children’s fantasy classics: Peter Pan; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and all the other Oz books at the library; The Narnia Chronicles; the Roald Dahl books (I particularly adored The Witches); The Phantom Tolbooth; Mary Poppins; The Sword in the Stone; Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (I loved The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream); Freaky Friday; The Dark is Rising series; the Black Cauldron series by Lloyd Alexander; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Mrs. Piggle-wiggle’s Magic, The Princess and the Goblin; E. Nesbit’s novels; Diana Wynne Jones’s novels; The Ordinary Princess; The Hobbit. And eventually I was lucky enough to graduate to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley.

This was one of my two favorite books (along with Ender's Game) for almost a decade. Then I added many more.

This was one of my two favorite books (along with Ender’s Game) for almost a decade. Then I added many more to my favorites list.

So now whenever I am asked about my favorite fantasy novels, or my fantasy influences, or apparently when I try to make lists of fantasy novels, those books and stories from my childhood are what I remember. I remember them from a time before I knew fantasy was a separate thing (which means, of course, that it doesn’t have to be). And a lot of my gush-worthy fantasy feelings are focused there. (Several of my favorite new fantasy novels have also been YA or MG.)

This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate adult fantasy novels, or even love them. But I do think I approach them with eyes and mind very much informed by children’s literature, those titles that were such a deep and early part of my love of reading and of story.

How about you? Did you read a lot of fantasy or science fiction as a child? How difficult would it be for you to make those two top ten lists?

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My flash science fiction story Man on the Moon Day is now available on Daily Science Fiction’s website. Hooray! (Make sure you press the “Display Entire Story” button so you don’t miss out on the end.)

For those of you who don’t know what flash fiction is, it is super short fiction. The word limits vary, but in my own mind, I usually define flash fiction as stories of 1000 words or less. Other people say flash fiction is even shorter than that.

I wrote Man on the Moon Day for a contest of the Codex Writers’ Group called Weekend Warrior. The idea is that every weekend for five weeks, the participants are provided with a few prompts to choose from, and must write a story of 750 words or less. Then everyone reads everyone else’s stories and rates them all from 1 to 10 and provides brief comments (a sentence or two).

For me, this contest was a great education in flash fiction, a form of fiction I hadn’t been very familiar with before. I participated in three of the weeks (one weekend I was in Detroit for ConFusion, and the last weekend I was just tired and very steeped in Novel). My first two stories…well, they weren’t very good. And then I wrote Man on the Moon Day, edited it based on contest feedback (it’s now 850 words long instead of 750), and sent it into Daily Science Fiction. Thirty-five days later I received the e-mail saying they wanted to buy it.

This story challenged me in two particular ways (well, besides the challenge of learning to write at a much shorter length, which was hard enough!). First, I was playing with a protagonist who…well, she’s fairly bitter, and many readers did not find her particularly likeable. I actually enjoy writing about protagonists who aren’t likeable but with whom I still have some sympathetic connection, and I figured, if I couldn’t play with that in such a short form, when could I get away with it? The structure of the story doesn’t help this either, as it is just one moment in time in what I consider to be the denouement of the entire story. Showing more of the story would, most likely, have helped to build more sympathy for the main character. So it was definitely a risk to take and doesn’t work for all readers. Indeed, many of the readers on Codex adamantly didn’t like this story.

The second challenge was one of theme and how this story plays into the “great space explorer” trope of science fiction. Because the story should be about the spouse who travels off into the great beyond and founds a colony on the moon…shouldn’t it? Well, I didn’t think so. In this case, I thought it was more interesting to explore what (or in this case, who) the explorer leaves behind and ask the question, at what cost? I’m not trying to make value judgments here about the cost as much as present the question to the reader so they can answer it for themselves. At the same time, the story may cause some readers to question traditional gender roles and how gender privilege sometimes asserts itself into relationships. It certainly caused me to think about that, even though I didn’t originally intend to write a story about that issue.

So this is a story that very much challenged me, as both a writer and a human being, and I hope it will challenge some of you as well.

Meanwhile, if you are wondering why a Wednesday post, it is because I will be on a plane for most of Thursday. I’ll be at Readercon outside of Boston this weekend, my first time at this particular con. I have a group Codex reading on Friday at 12pm in Room NH, at which I’ll be reading this story (it is, after all, a Codex success story). The rest of the time, I’ll be gorging on exciting panels and interesting conversation. If you are going to be there as well, I’d love to say hello!

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I’ve recently stumbled over a conversation in SF circles about the dearth of positive written science fiction, in spite of the demand for such stories from readers. Not that this is a brand new conversation in the genre; while attending my first Worldcon in Montreal back in 2009, I met Jetse de Vries, who was in the process of pitching the idea of his anthology of near-future optimistic science fiction stories.

I don’t seek to disagree with the argument in favor of positive stories but instead to offer a more nuanced view. I think there is plenty of room within science fiction for optimism and stories of a basically positive nature. I also emphatically agree that the demand for such stories is high; we have but to look at Analog, which has the highest circulation numbers of the Big 3 science fiction magazines and the most prominent focus on more upbeat endings for stories, to see the popularity of positivity. And if we take a peek at novel-length science fiction, we see many of the genre’s favorite writers who take a generally positive tone (or at the very least, not excessively bleak): Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, and John Scalzi come to mind, as do Charles Stross and Robert Sawyer, all authors who have been nominated for Hugos in the novel category in recent years. Indeed, my husband and I have often wondered if the recent upsurge of the steampunk subgenre is related to a general desire for nostalgia and shiny adventure stories decked out with amazing flashing gadgets and mad science.

On the other hand, I would be disappointed to see the hunger for positive stories lead to less ambiguity in modern science fiction and fantasy. Bryan Thomas Schmidt says he misses old-fashioned stories “where good people fought for good causes and came out ahead, making for a better world.” He argues that the wildly popular Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin are gritty but feature “admirable heroes who fight against evil for good.” Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve read these books, but I don’t remember any admirable heroes–what I remember are flawed human beings who make a lot of mistakes and get caught up in the throes of power in various interesting ways. While some characters are worse than others and there are exceptions (Jon Snow comes to mind as being more noble than most of the characters, and also one of my least favorite, although as I’ve said, it’s been a while), the reason I enjoy those books is because of the ambiguity, not the noble heroes…an ambiguity that equates more with how I view our own world. In fact, I have a problem reading many fantasy novels that have the obviously good guys (constructed of cardboard) fighting the obviously evil forces of darkness (made of a lesser grade of cardboard). I don’t object to novels where good people win in the end, but paint the villain too evil or the hero too saintly and good and the story loses a lot of its tension for me.

Meanwhile, my colleague Brad Torgersen states, “Yet a good deal of written sci-fi adores the “downer” ending, the anti-hero, the morally ambiguous and ultimately meaningless stories…” While you all know I love a good comfort read, I don’t find all science fiction that isn’t optimistic and upbeat to be meaningless, and I think describing dystopias and darker science fiction in such terms is doing the genre a disservice. Sometimes people fail. Sometimes moral questions have more than one answer depending on a person’s point of view. Sometimes downer endings and ambiguous stories show us more about ourselves and what we hold to be important.

Speaking as a reader, I didn’t discover science fiction through the optimistic Golden Age of science fiction. I didn’t read Asimov’s short story gems or Heinlein’s romping juveniles as an adolescent. My gateway drug, at age 11 or 12, was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, a novel I would not classify as particularly lighthearted. Sure, we get the fun zero-G and gaming bits, but we also get a faceful of child brutality, emotional isolation, and the morality of war and genocide (or xenocide, in this case). We follow our protagonist into dark places, and ultimately it is his nearness to perfection that damns him. I fell in love with science fiction not because of its ability to uplift (although nothing to sneer at) but because of its penchant for dealing with difficult questions of humanity.

Granted, Ender’s Game does end on a hopeful note. I find that overall, I prefer reading novels that do have some sort of hopeful or positive note at the end (although there are exceptions, 1984 being the first to come to mind). I don’t need a crystal-clear happy ending, mind you; I enjoy goals achieved but at a high price, or goals achieved that the protagonist then realizes weren’t what she wanted. I enjoy the bittersweet. But I do like some kind of positive salve to end with. Short stories, though, are a different beast altogether for me. They can end in an extremely dark place, they can devastate me and make me cry, and often I’ll like them better for it. I don’t tend to feel despair from a sad ending as much as I feel empathy and an increased understanding of the more painful aspects of being human. The more positive, romping short stories often (although again, not always) lose my interest as they don’t always seem to be about anything in particular, and they more often fail to make me think about things in a different way.

So my complaint of some positive stories is that they are not sufficiently challenging to satisfy me, while my colleagues’ complaint of some dark stories is that they’re depressing and overly pessimistic. All of this makes me suspect that the problem may not be nihilism so much as differing tastes of the reader. Some readers like happy stories; some readers like dark stories. Some readers like a nice variety. Readers will be depressed by different things, readers are looking for different experiences, and readers find meaning filtered through their own perspectives. Perhaps we have an imbalance of dark short sf fiction (in novel-length, I’m not seeing it as much), and if more writers begin to explore optimistic ideas in short form, I won’t be sad. But I’m also very glad there’s a place for experimenting with darkness, exploring the ugly parts of humanity, and shining a light onto those things we most fear.

Your turn to weigh in! Would you like to see more positive science fiction stories? What are your reading preferences (or writing preferences, for that matter)? Anything you’d like to add?

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I was all ready to pound out another rant today, when my little dog began to snore. She’s sleeping in her bed right next to where I’m sitting, lying on her side with her legs all stretched out, and she’s making the most adorable little snorey snuffle noises. Watching her sleep makes me want to write about something happy instead, because how can I fail to be happy listening to such a cute dog’s satisfied little sleep grunts?

Oh so sleepy.

Yes, I know. My dog is cute, and the blog suffers as a result. But hopefully the reason you’re reading in the first place is because you’re like me and you don’t need constant controversy all the time. After all, it’s not only controversy that is interesting–is it? (Blogging experts everywhere are now vehemently disagreeing with me.)

Oh, I feel a list coming on. A “What’s Interesting to Amy” sort of list. Because really, isn’t that the best kind?

1. Psychology, or Why Individual Humans Behave the Way They Do: This never fails to fascinate me. For instance, today in my blog feed, I found out about 13 types of worriers; last week I learned about 7 common defense mechanisms (well, it might have been 8, but I can’t find it now, so I have no idea). This also feeds into my interest in cognitive science.

2. Sociology, or What Humans Do When They Get Together in Groups: Yeah, I’m interested in people, what can I say? For instance, I read this article (I can’t find it, but here’s another one about a similar topic) about a study in which it was shown that a group of people who think they are in competition with another group for the same resources is likely to give that other group negative qualities and characteristics, even if they know absolutely nothing about that other group. How interesting is that?

3. History, or What Humans Did in the Past: People say that history is important so that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. I don’t know about this because it seems to me that we do, in fact, repeat the same mistakes sometimes. I think history is interesting because it tells us the story of where we come from (and there are many versions of the same story, some of which have been lost over time) and show us what is possible in terms of human existence and human behavior. We see both the best and the worst of humanity through study of our history, and every shade of gray in between.

4. Science Fiction, or What Humans Might Do in the Future: I guess technically this is called futurism, but science fiction comes close enough for me. I love wondering what the world will be like in fifty years, or a hundred years, or two hundred years. I love guessing what societies might develop, and what aspects of them might be unthinkably bizarre to us now. I’m grateful I’m an optimist because otherwise I’d probably find this more depressing than interesting, but as it is, I can’t wait to find out if we figure out how to cause humans to regrow their teeth in my lifetime.

5. Chocolate: Yes, chocolate is very interesting indeed, only to be trumped by chocolate ice cream. Excuse me for a minute, won’t you?

Your turn! What’s interesting to you? What subjects do you find endlessly fascinating? Where do you turn when you want brain candy?

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Sometime in the last few months, I read someone’s Tweet about space travel. I don’t remember who it was, but they said something to the effect of how science fiction set in space felt irrelevant or dated to them. Like it was nostalgia and nothing more. Of course, this was right around NASA’s final space shuttle launch, so depression about the space program and the likelihood of humans doing much in space is understandable. But more than the final space shuttle launch itself, that comment depressed me, and I’ve been thinking about it off and on ever since.Has space really become so passé that stories involving it are outdated? I began thinking of my own (admittedly small) body of work, almost none of which takes place in space. I have a few subtle nods to the idea that there are humans in space, even though the stories in question take place completely on Earth, and I believe I have one scene of a trunked story that takes place on the Moon. And that’s it. But I’ve written a lot more fantasy and contemporary fiction, so I don’t see myself as indicative. I actually see my lack of space settings as more of an oversight than anything else.

I love space. I love learning about space, and I love reading stories set in space. Many of my all-time favorite novels and series are set in space, and some of the most formative of my reading experiences came from space operas (the Hyperion books and Dune come to mind). As sad as I am that the space shuttle has been discontinued, I would be a whole lot sadder if science fiction that explored the possibilities of space was no longer being written.

Here’s the thing. Economics and politics are always changing. Technology is constantly being developed, and scientists are gaining new knowledge about the world and the universe around us. Our world isn’t a constant–it’s always in a state of flux.

So there aren’t any huge, aggressive space programs right now. Given the present geopolitical and economic climate, this isn’t a huge shocker. But does that mean there never will be a great space program in any country in the world? I don’t think so. The confluence of events, powers, and technologies during and after World War II led to the Cold War and provided the perfect pressure cooker in which the space race could occur. Such a perfect storm could happen again, this time with different political pressures and different emerging technologies.

In the meantime, it is science fiction that keeps the dream of space alive, whether that be in literature, film and TV, or video games. It reminds us of what is possible. Beyond that, space provides an evocative backdrop for storytelling, in which we can enjoy stories of truly epic scope, explore the other (often in the form of an alien race), celebrate innovation and a spirit of adventure, and encounter different cultures and ways of being human.

Just in the past few days, I saw another Tweet from someone who said they were watching Firefly just to see the spaceships. And i09 had an article about how we need more space adventures. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my love for and appreciation of fiction set in space. Yes, I’m an optimist in a gloomy time, but I hope I can find space in science fiction for a long time to come.

ETA: Just found another great article on the importance of science fiction that seems relevant to this conversation: China has decided that science fiction is the key to its future success in invention and design of new products.

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Lightspeed, December 2010

As we descend into award season for the speculative fiction community, I would like to bring to your attention the wonderful new science fiction magazine Lightspeed and its editor, John Joseph Adams.1

Lightspeed began its publication last June and released seven issues in 2010. Every issue features two original stories and two reprints, as well as several nonfiction pieces that often (although not always) connect to the stories. It’s available on-line (for free) or as an e-edition, purchasable as either a subscription or on an issue-by-issue basis.

I’ve been deeply impressed by the quality of the stories published at Lightspeed, and I’m not the only one. Out of the 16 original stories published in Lightspeed in 2010, a full 50% of them have been selected for Year’s Best Anthologies. I’ll repeat that: FIFTY PERCENT.

In line with what I spoke about yesterday, John Joseph Adams seems to select the risky stories, the stories that say something, the subversive or vaguely disturbing stories, the interesting, mind-bending stories. Happily for me, the stories I want to read most.

So first of all, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out the magazine for yourself. You might also wish to consider nominating Lightspeed in the Best Semiprozine category for the Hugos, or its editor John Joseph Adams for Best Editor, Short Form. (He also had some anthologies out in 2010, including The Way of the Wizard and The Living Dead 2.)

Any other semiprozine or editor you think should be considered for this year’s Hugos? Let me know below!

1 Disclaimer: Yes, I know John in Real LifeTM.

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I’ve had many people ask me about Taos Toolbox, the speculative fiction writer’s workshop I attended this past summer of 2010.  Here’s the scoop on what my experience was like.  Please note, however, that every year will inevitably be different, both in terms of participants, lectures, and details.

Taos Toolbox is a two-week residential workshop in the high mountains above Taos.  It is run by Walter Jon Williams, who teaches with one other writer (for my year, this was Nancy Kress, who will also be teaching in 2011).  During this time, each attendee has the chance to have two pieces critiqued.

My Taos Toolbox classmates

Pros of Taos Toolbox:

1. The shorter time (2 weeks) is easier to fit into life without massive restructuring.

2. Participants can work on either short stories OR novels.  Both lengths are addressed in lecture.  In my year, I’d say about two-thirds of the attendees presented the first section of a novel plus a synopsis for at least one of their two pieces.  However, I opted to turn in two different short stories and also received valuable feedback.  So there’s flexibility here.

3. Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress are both experienced writers AND teachers.  Not everyone who can write can teach, but these two certainly can.  I learned a great deal about many aspects of craft and business during my two weeks.

4. Because the two teachers are teaching together and present for each other’s lectures, that means you get two different views on many subjects.  Walter and Nancy are perfect for this because they don’t have the same writing process at all.

5. The location is gorgeous and secluded.  You really do feel like you’ve gotten away from it all.  But there was (in my year, at least) still internet and cell service, so you’re not completely cut off.

6. As with other workshops, by the end of the two weeks the group had really bonded and I now have many new wonderful writer friends.  We’re still regularly in touch both one-on-one via email and social media, and through our email list.  I see Danielle every few weeks for coffee.  We’re planning other writing and critiquing events and hang out at conventions.  We even read each other’s blogs (hi guys!)

Potential Downsides:

1. Yes, it’s a wee bit expensive.  But do remember that your fee covers the instruction and critiques from two top pros, most of your meals (except for a few dinners), and your lodging.  Personally, I felt like it was worth every penny.

2. The altitude can be a killer, so be warned.  In retrospect, I wish I had come a day earlier and slept in Albuquerque for a night to help my body adjust.

3. It’s intense and involves a lot of critiquing.  A lot. Happily I learned a lot from all the critiques, whether on my own or other people’s work.  However, if you are not comfortable receiving criticism, this might not be the workshop for you.

Format and Logistics:

Every weekday, we’d gather at 10am and usually meet until around 3 or 3:30pm, with a lunch break somewhere in the middle.  During this time, we’d listen to two lectures, one from each teacher, and go through that day’s critiques, Milford style.  Each student had a two-minute time limit on critique-giving, although Walter and Nancy could speak for as long as necessary.  We were also assigned various writing exercises.

Afterwards we’d have free time to write or critique.  Many people took advantage of the free time to go down to Taos for sundries or take hikes in the surrounding mountains.  There was also much hanging out, playing music (Rich brought his guitar), soaking in the hot tub, and movie watching.  (Walter does a plot breakdown of The Maltese Falcon that shouldn’t be missed.)  We were provided with three meals a day during the week, and everyone had their own room.

I will add that I was unsure if I was qualified enough to attend the workshop, being unpublished and never having attended other workshops in the past.  Obviously it worked out well for me, and I’d encourage you to apply if you’re interested and let Walter and Nancy decide if you’re at a level that could benefit from the instruction.

Topics of Instruction:

  • Cleaning up prose
  • Story and structure
  • Writing in scenes
  • Plotting (WJW and NK have fairly different approaches to this.)
  • Literary elements and rhetorical devices
  • Plotting elements and maintaining suspense
  • Narrative modes
  • Analysis of specific works
  • Opening Scenes
  • Writing description
  • Characterization
  • World building
  • Business and contracts
  • Commercial fiction, genre, and issues specifically relating to spec fic

I would say that overall, the greatest focus was on plot and structure (and related topics).

What I Learned:

Do I think my writing improved due to my Taos experience?  Yes, indeed.  One of my critique group members back at home even commented on the difference.  My understanding of the various elements of writing fiction has been deepened in a variety of big and subtle ways.  For example, when I arrived at Taos, I was relying on intuition and my experiences as a reader to work with plot.  It feels like I was fumbling around in the dark compared with how I think about plot now.  My awareness of some of my most pressing issues has been heightened, and I now have tools to deal with these weaknesses and to gradually improve my skills.  I’ve also become more comfortable experimenting with my writing, which I think will ultimately speed up my learning process.  Combine all of these writing lessons with the fabulous friends I made, and I think of my time at Taos as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Final Note:

If you apply to Taos Toolbox before the end of the year, Walter is offering a discount on the cost of the workshop.  So if you’re interested, consider applying early.  Walter and Nancy are accepting applications for 2011 starting on December 1.

More questions about Taos Toolbox?  Please feel free to email me or ask away in the comments.

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