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Writing: The Ghettoization of Speculative Fiction?

CBC, ghettoizing SF, bad science fiction, badly written fantasy

From a 50s B-movie. Unfortunately some people think SF novels are still like this.

Yesterday on CBC Radio’s Q, Jian Ghomeshi talked with Clive Thompson about the ghettoization of speculative fiction or whether William Gibson was the next Tolstoy. Thompson was extolling the virtues of SF, sort of. Or damning with faint praise. Below is the response that I sent, which I also put here in case CBC decides they have moral rights on my opinion.

Dear Jian,

 

I’m not quite sure what to make of the speaker Clive Thompson you had on talking about SF, science fiction, or speculative fiction since it encompassed both science fiction and fantasy works.

 

I write here as an individual but also as the president of SF Canada whose members consist of professional writers and others in the speculative fiction community. I missed the first part of Thompson’s conversation but I also express here views of the members of SF Canada.

 

Although Clive was supposed to be regaling the virtues of SF, he sounded uninformed in many ways. As a reader he seemed to exhibit huge gaps in knowledge when he said that most SF is badly written, misogynistic, dominated by men. And he gave Heinlein and Dick as examples. Robert Heinlein and Phillip K. Dick were in their heyday in the 60s and 70s; that’s at least 30-40 years ago. Taken in context, Heinlein was no different than many authors (whether SF or not) of the day, and some of his views on relationships were far reaching for the time.

 

Thompson did mention Cory Doctorow, who is a Canadian but there was a huge gap in between. (Doctorow’s book has been nominated for this year’s Nebula awards.) Some of the bigger names in speculative fiction may be men but there are many women writing and of merit: Ursula Le Guin, Kij Johnson, Pat Cadigan, Pat Murphy (of old, Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Anne McCaffery), Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kris Rusch, Nalo Hopkinson, etc.

 

If he was talking Canadian speculative fiction, then he was all over the map with his observations so I must presume this was about SF in general. There is very little that is published these days that would be misogynistic unless it was showing a particular culture. Much is extremely well written and if you ask Michael Chabon, winner of both SF awards and the Pulitzer, he places more value on his SF awards.

 

Basically Thompson picked some of the worst or most dated examples for his points. It would have been better to see more current knowledge that goes beyond Margaret Atwood.

 

As for ghettoization, well there is good and bad writing in all genres. He spoke about the issue of whether one would place Oryx & Crake on literary or SF shelves and how it was confusing for publishers. I spent 20 years in the book industry as book rep and book buyer (for a store). This doesn’t confuse the publishers as they are the ones that came up with the categories through their marketing departments. A book will be marketed to the group that they think will buy the most copies. The cover will be changed accordingly. So in essence it is the publisher that has ghettoized all genres.

 

As to the attitude toward SF, well it depends. What sells the best in movie theatres, and is often based off of a book? There is indeed a snobby attitude that only literary is real writing and many of those writers who do write speculative stories adamantly say that it is not of that ilk. My creative writing degree did not include speculative fiction because of the attitude at the university that the only good writer was a dead white man. I would argue that erotic fiction and romances have a lower spot in the old world thinker’s eyes of “genre” and ghettoization, even though they may sell better. Harlequin romances have some of the highest sell-through rates of any books. Are they good? I don’t know as I haven’t read one.

 

Thompson also mentioned that SF is doing quite well. On one level yes, on another, not so much. Fantasy still outsells science fiction and in many cases editors are begging for science fiction stories. But sales of speculative fiction? Yes, the Harry Potter series can speak to that.

 

Next time, when talking about SF and whether William Gibson (an expat American living in Canada) is the next Tolstoy, it would be great to have someone up to date on current speculative fiction trends. Heck, try Neil Gaiman who you talked with a couple of weeks ago, or contact SF Canada and we’ll send you a boatload of opinions by Canadians.

 

Regards,

Colleen Anderson

President

SF Canada

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World Fantasy 2008: Part II

A big part of these conventions are the parties. Because World Fantasy is a professional con there are few but advertised parties and launches. SF Canada put on a party on Friday night, which I oversaw and I’m pleased to say that we never ran out of alcohol and that I had to actually return some. I could have ordered more of some things and less of others. We’ll know for the next one but it was definitely a success with over two hundred people passing through the suite.

Other parties included book launches for authors by RedJack press, Tor books, Borderlands, and others that I can’t recall. Because we weren’t leaving until Monday we attended the dead dog Sunday party which had a fair number of people and drinks. The parties were good, noisy and lasted until the room closed around 2 am.

The other place to meet people was in the bar, as always. I met Jetse De Vries, former editor with Interzone, a noticeable man for his long wavy hair, tallness and great rolling, Dutch accent. He was talking about the Netherlands for World Fantasy in 2016 as it would be the 500th birthday of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a ways off so who knows. I also met Jenny Blackford from Australia, one of the awards judges for next year, and we discussed Greek mythos.

I met Mark Kelly of Locus, recognizing his name before I linked it with his reviews, Bob Brown, an antiquarian bookseller in Seattle, writers Mark Rich and Liz Bourke, and artist Mike Dringenberg. I met many SF Canada members in person including Leslie Carmichael, Claire Earmer, Lorna Toolis, Richard Bartrop, Dom Benoit, Den Valdron, Carolyn Clink, Celu Amberstone, Candas Jane Dorsey, Marcelle Dube, Dave Duncan, Matt Hughes, Alison Sinclair, Cath Jackal, Marie Jakober, Ed Willett.

Publishers that I met in the flesh included Virginia O’Dine and Dominic Macquire of Bundoran Press (Prince George), Gwen Gades of Dragon Moon, Karl and Stephanie Johanson of Neo-Opsis, Jacob Wiseman of Tachyon Press, Diane Walton of OnSpec, Champagne Books, Flash Me Online. I said hello again to Patrick Swenson of Talebones, Brian Hades of Edge, Peter Halasz sponsoring the Sunburst Awards auction, Brit Graham Joyce, Karen Abrahamson, Chris Lotts, Janine Cross, Rhea Rose, Linda DeMeulemeester, Eileen and Pat Kernaghan, Derryl Murphy, Nina Munteanu, Rob Sawyer, Darrell Schweitzer, John Douglas, David Hartwell, Bruce Taylor, Nancy Kilpatrick, Leslie Howle (of Clarion administration) and a few others. There were so many people and conversations that I don’t remember everyone but it’s a good place to meet people and talk about art and writing.

World Fantasy special guests included David Morrell, dark fiction and thriller writer and creator of Rambo, Patricia McKillip, who sold her first novel at the age of 23, Todd Lockwood with a lovely body of artwork, Barbara Hambly with an impressive number of books, Tom Doherty, publisher of Tor and other ventures and Tad Williams as emcee. During the presentation of the World Fantasy awards he gave a very funny speech about the beginning of fantasy writing, with such things as it all starting in the US and William Shakingspear made an indent. He claimed that Canadian writers were really just geographically confused Canadians and that no one knows if Charles de Lint is real but that his footprints have been found deep in the forests.

Tad’s history of fantasy began in the times of cave men and came forward to present day. I do hope this speech will be printed somewhere as it was extremely well done and had people laughing. The awards presentation happened on Sunday. My friend Kij Johnson was up again for a short story but she did not win. Ellen Datlow, who did win, has nine World Fantasy awards. A bunch of us joked about her forming her own Easter Island. Following is the list of winners at the convention:

Life Achievement: Leo and Diane Dillon; Patricia McKillip

Novel: “Ysabel” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada/Penguin Roc).
Novella: “Illyria” by Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing).
Short Story: “Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss (Logorrhea, Bantam Spectra).
Anthology: “Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural” edited by Ellen Datlow, Editor (Tor).
Collection: “Tiny Deaths” by Robert Shearman (Comma Press).

Artist: Edward Miller
Special Award—Professional: Peter Crowther for PS Publishing
Special Award—Non-professional: Midori Snyder and Terri Windling for Endicott Studios Website

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World Fantasy Convention 2008: Calgary

World Fantasy took place in Calgary’s downtown at the Hyatt Regency this last weekend. Although the hotel had an exceptional collection of paintings and heavily focused ungulate statuary everywhere, it was still a very expensive hotel. I haven’t been in a hotel in the US in the past five years that charged for internet and $1 for local calls. Internet cost $14 a day, an exorbitant fee, and the hotel price was high even at convention rates. We found Calgary pricey for food but cheap for alcohol, if you were buying it in stores but comparably priced to Vancouver in the hotel.

The con hospitality suites were smaller than I have seen at other cons and the air conditioning (hardly needed in Oct. in Calgary) was on high for most of the convention. The dealers room and art show were also small. From one discussion with a Seattle antiquarian dealer, the hoops and paperwork besides shipping costs are prohibitive and discourage international exchanges. The dealers room did have an interesting array of publishers. Some of them were Redjack, Fitzhenry/Red Deer Press, Tachyon, Edge, Talebones/Fairwood Press, OnSpec, Electric Velocipede, SFC table of members’ work, Sunburst awards, used and new booksellers, and other dealers that I don’t remember off hand.

 The dealers room used to feature books and some jewellery. This is a professional convention of editors, publishers and authors (and some fans as well) and fan paraphernalia is not allowed. The books are still there but the jewellery is not. It seems the WFC board has put a stop to it after so many years because it is a “serious” convention. I let them know that quite a few of us “pros” enjoyed buying our piece of con jewellery over the years and that we missed it. Does serious mean no fun? After all, the jewellery could be juried to fit certain criteria as well.

As often is the case with these cons, I get to few or no panels. I went to one on Friday and then left halfway through to see another. Unfortunately both were clunky, with no real flow and very short to no answers by the pros on the panel.

Saturday, I missed half of one, which had George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams and Steve Erickson talking about killing significant characters in a novel. They may have been more focused in the first half but it wasn’t bad for flow and was funny. Tad Williams, one of the special guests and emcee for the World Fantasy awards is a very funny guy.

The other panel I attended was “Why do we write dark fiction?” with Graham Joyce, Nancy Kilpatrick and David Morrell. It was moderated well by Nancy and thought provoking. Very interesting panel that had many of us thinking of their childhoods and surreal experiences.

Because this is long, I’ll continue tomorrow with more on WFC.

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Writing: SF Canada

SF Canada is the professional writers group for Canada, for speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.) http://news.sfcanada.ca/ It is similar to but different from SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) which is the grand mal professional organization. SFWA has many more members and therefore money, clout and able to legally aid their members.

SF Canada allows membership to Canadian writers who have sold some works, but does not have as rigorous requirements as SFWA. Therefore, SFC represents Canadian speculative writers who may and may not yet have achieved a full professional status. It’s also there to foster community and support, as well as to promote the publishing and sale of works by members. It’s small, it’s Canadian.

The board of directors, like most boards is volunteer run. I have become the president as of Saturday. It’s not a lot of work but I’m hoping we can continue to foster community and bring more notice to our writers and our genre. We’ll see how that shapes up but with the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary this year, it’s a good opportunity to feature our local (Canadian) talent.

There has been discussion in the past that Canadian fiction of any genre has a different flavour than that of US authors. I don’t know if it’s true in speculative fiction but books have been written about how the landscape, in one way or another, features in many Canadian books and films. Perhaps there’ll be a larger discussion of whether aliens created by Canadians are more Canadian than alien. We’ll see.

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