Tag Archives: Mike Resnick

The Business of Science-Fiction, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg

<em class="BookTitle">The Business of Science-Fiction</em>, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg

McFarland, 2010, 269 pages, ~C$35.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-7864-4797-8

Reading books about how to write are one of my not-so-secret vices.  Jaded by endless convention panels repeating the same advice, I don’t read them to learn how to write as much as to learn how other writers write.  A good how-to-write book is usually a window into an author’s career, or an inside look in the publishing business.  The best of such books will tell stories, teach real-world pitfalls and be entertaining as well.

The Business of Science-Fiction is a collection of twenty-six columns published in the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) trade journal “The Bulletin”.  SFWA is where speculative fiction writers go to talk shop, and it’s hard to get closer to the SF&F genre than to read its internal house publication.  For more than a decade, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have been jointly writing a column on various aspects of SF writing and publishing.  Those columns take the form of exchanges between the two of them; Resnick usually plays the role of the optimist, with Malzberg’s gloomy outlook balancing the dialogue.

To SF fans with short memories, Resnick and Malzberg may not be the obvious choices to write authoritative columns on the current state of SF writing.  While Resnick regularly gets nominated for the shorter Hugo Award categories, it’s usually for cloying stories that seem designed to appeal to SF fans’ sense of nostalgia rather than try anything new.  Meanwhile, Malzberg’s heyday as an author dates back to the seventies, without much of a public profile since then.

But that’s being myopic.  Resnick has been tremendously influential in discovering and encouraging newer writers.  If his own fiction is a bit bland, it’s usually solidly bolted together and as we discover through the columns, he has proven uncommonly effective at reselling his stories to markets other than first-run English-language paper publication.  Few other writers in the genre are as knowledgeable about the business aspect of Science-Fiction.  Meanwhile, Malzberg has developed a reputation as a cranky historian of the field: His Breakfast in the Ruins non-fiction collection brought together a number of highly astute pieces about the state of Science-Fiction over the past decades.  Reading the columns, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the depth of his historical knowledge of the field.  More crucially, readers may not see his continuing work for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which has let him keep an insider’s view of the business throughout the years.

The columns collected in The Business of Science-Fiction, taken together, show a snapshot of the changing publishing industry in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Resnick and Malzberg discuss the state of the business with the benefit of long memories, but they don’t forget to question themselves in trying to figure out what is changing along the way.  They can also, writing for a professional audience, allow themselves to discuss “the next question” and pick up arguments aimed at professional writers rather than beginners.  The references they make to SF publishing’s long history are filled with interesting details, and the advice they provide feels fresh and uncompromising.  (SF convention organizers won’t like reading what they say about whether authors should attend conventions.)  The dialogue format can be entertaining to read, especially when both of them are aware of the role they have picked for themselves.  (Both refer to Malzberg as “Eeyore” more than once.)

Given that this is a re-packaging of existing content, it’s no surprise if some material and stories echo throughout the book, or that it’s not a good idea to read more than a few of the 4,000-word columns at a time.  Academic publisher McFarland has done a fine job putting the collection together, not the least feature being a complete index at the end of the book.  What’s missing, unfortunately, are dates of publication attached to each column: In discussing rapidly-changing topics such as e-books or the Google Settlement, for instance, it’s vital to know whether these are facts and opinions from 2003 or 2008.  I also can’t help but be amused at the cover design, which takes some Shutterstock stock art to suggest a dialogue between the two authors: Having seen both Resnick and Malzberg in real life more than once, it’s obvious to me that neither of the silhouetted figures are even close to them in physical appearance.

But the book does live up to its subtitle as “Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publish”, and the quality of the advice here is good enough to justify its Hugo nomination in the non-fiction category.  Both are charming and witty to read in print, and the advice has some real-world relevance.  What more would you want from a how-to-write book?

Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches, Ed. Mike Resnick & Joe Scilari

ISFIC Press, 2006, 309 pages, US$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-9759156-3-9

In Science Fiction fannish circles, much is made of Worldcon’s place as the convention of the year for all SF fans. Regardless of your sub-genre affiliation, Worldcon is “the gathering of the tribes” of Science Fiction, the one general-interest convention where all fans can find something interesting to do. Worldcon has been running yearly since 1939 and one of its greatest achievement has been to expand and embrace the myriads of sub-groups that have sprung from the original crucible of SF fandom.

In this context, a collection of Worldcon Guest of Honor speeches has an interest that runs deeper that the merely fannish. What editors Mike Resnick and Joe Scilari have done with this book is give us a rare oral history of the genre, tracking it year after year as it evolved in a society itself in constant change. Some of the language of the book reflects its era all too well, for instance, as casual sexism is prevalent in the earlier half of the book, and racial issues in the Sixties are discussed (positively) as “the problem of the Negro”. Stilted language and period references to now-forgotten celebrities add to the flavour of the collection.

A number of speeches attempt to confront the genre and its place in contemporary society, which is interesting to compare as the decades move on. Robert A. Heinlein’s famous 1941 speech (you know, the one that said “even the corniest of [SF]… no matter how badly it’s written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change.”) marked a way of thinking about Science Fiction. Later, Robert Silverberg would confront the social turbulence of the late sixties by encouraging SF writers to “transform our readers with the intensity of what we see.” Reading those speeches is like getting a pure dose of manifesto fever, fit to inspire you about the possibilities of the genre as social driver and literary force.

Some other speeches are pure inner-fandom wankery: The opening salvo of the book couldn’t have been better chosen: Frank R. Paul’s address exemplifies the type of “fans are slans” thinking that came along the early days of SF fandom (and, by the same token, the first recorded geek groups): “The Science Fiction Fan may very well be called the advance guard of progress.” Paul isn’t the only one to stroke fans’ egos like this –though by the latter half of the book, you can sense a number of speakers consciously working against the temptation.

Other Guests of Honor want to change the world, and use their speeches as platforms. Many of the suggestions haven’t survived the years well: A.E. Van Vogt suggestions for self-improvement now smell like a mish-mash of positive thinking and straight-out woo-woo. Harlan Ellison’s (pre-written) exhortation to fight for the ERA now seems both noble and insignificant. Other suggestions to take SF and bring it closer to contemporary social problems (such as Silverberg’s) are generally more interesting.

Then there are writers who take full advantage of their tribune as Guest of Honor to talk about, well, themselves. Reaction to those pieces is unpredictable: I found George R.R. Martin’s 2003 childhood recollections to be uninteresting, but Joe Haldeman’s 1990 “How to Get a Job Like Mine” career overview was fascinating. Lest we forget, the SF community is a big extended family where the top writers generally know each other: Tales of SF careers usually bring along dozens of anecdotes about other SF names, and it takes a fan to enjoy this.

Two speeches are not speeches but interviews: One can understand the strange atmosphere of the Strugatsky Brothers’ 1987 interview (through an interpreter handling the English-to-Russian-and-back translation), but the result on the page isn’t all that interesting. Far more successful, at least in written format, is the 2002 Vernor Vinge interview by Gregory Benford: It’s a fascinating slice of two top-notch minds at play, peppered with scientific jokes and tossed-off concepts.

Then, finally, there are the one-off speeches, sui generis to the point of being unclassifiable. The most memorable of them is certainly Theodore Sturgeon’s 1962 speech, a piece best experienced than described, even in text form. (It must have been an amazing performance.)

The collection’s biggest disappointment is that Resnick and Scilari, despite what I assume must have been heroic efforts, have only managed to collect maybe half of all Worldcon GoH speeches: the rest are either lost or forgotten, though they haven’t stopped looking and hope to produce a companion volume when they finish collecting what can be discovered. I find it amazing that some of their “lost” speeches include numerous ones from the nineties (in fact, the book has nothing between 1990 and 2000), and I truly hope they’ll be able to find as many of them as possible. I also wouldn’t mind seeing even a “wrong” transcription of Harlan Ellison’s actual 1978 Iguanacon II speech rather than the explanation/article that took its place.

But Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches also makes one long for another type of book: An oral history of Worldcons in general, of infamous incidents, of organizational problems and small triumphs, of fannish scandals and professional woes. I was lucky enough to be there at a few of this century’s Worldcons, but I wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about the previous ones.

A Miracle of Rare Design, Mike Resnick

Tor, 1994, 247 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52424-1

The best science-fiction does two things.

First, it uses the traditional science-fiction devices to bring light on what it means to be human. The point of SF is not the gadgets, but the gadget’s effects on the human mind.

Also, the best SF entertains as much as it enlightens.

A Miracle of Rare Design fares very well in both regards.

Xavier William Lennox is an author, an anthropologist and a very driven human being. In the first chapter, he gets caught by aliens in a sacred temple, and is almost killed for his troubles. Mutilated but not beaten, he then agrees to be transformed into an alien to study them better.

The book is unpredictable: It goes on for longer and covers more territory that would be expected. Along the way, we get glimpses of a few fascinating alien races. Unusually, Resnick doesn’t bore with interminable descriptions of alien societies and mores: He moves on to other things. At times, the novel almost reads as a fix-up, but an single theme underlies the whole book.

Strangely, as Lennox becomes more alien, he also appears more human: His drive toward understanding, exploration and new experiences will strike most as being more representative of the ideal human drive than the more conservative supporting cast of characters.

Almost readable in a single sitting, A Miracle of Rare Design is also a miracle of economic writing. The prose is lean, and propels the reader from one adventure to another. There is a very definite narrative drive. It is almost strange to speak of suspense in the case of this novel, but it is put away only with the greatest reluctance. A Miracle of Rare design is good, satisfying SF. It can be read either as entertainment or literature, and succeeds well on both levels. Recommended.

BRIEFLY: The Widowmaker, by the same author, is another entertaining short novel, readable in a flash and as enjoyable as anything written in the genre. The story of Jefferson Nighthawk (clone of the famous bounty hunter Widowmaker) is told quickly and simply. There are more than a few memorable scenes, and even more good replies. In many ways, The Widowmaker is a throwback to the simpler, more amusing years of classical SF. The biggest flaw of the book is that it eventually moves beyond its initially light tone to become much darker and tragic. Otherwise, good stuff for all. First in a trilogy, but stands quite well alone.