Thursday, June 22, 2017

So It Goes: Where I've been, what's happening now, and where I'm going

When my aunt died three years ago, I ended up with her house. My grandfather bought it from a bank back in 1943 and fixed it up with a gang of his fellow Norwegians. I love the house, mostly because I've spent a large part of my life there. 

The problem with the house is that it's about 150 years old and my aunt's maintenance of it was piss-poor for the last decade of her life. When my wife and I decided to move in, there was more than a little work to be done. Then we hired a nice but business sense-lacking contractor. Eventually, we fired him, found an awesome new guy, and moving in. A year and a half later than planned. So it goes. 

The last month or two has been madness. Every time it looked liked we were done, something came up. First, we learned the sump pump didn't work when the basement flooded with three inches of water and fried the hot water heater. At the same time it looked like we'd have to rip up ten feet of sidewalk to clear the sewer line. Fortunately, that last one didn't happen, but we didn't have water in the house for a week.

I'm telling you all this 1) for the heck of it, and 2) to explain where I've been. It's been a struggle to keep on top of my regular Black Gate reviews, so this site has just gone silent. Now I'm back(ish).

I've been enjoying the heck out of reading old sci-fi for Black Gate these past few months. I hope you've enjoyed following along as I've returned to my youthful haunts. So far, most of the trips I've taken have been good fun, particularly some of the most recent ones, City and Half Past Human in particular. 


In addition to becoming burned out on swords & sorcery, I was getting a little irritated by the recent kerfuffle over hard sf vs. soft sf. I think there was a serious misunderstanding over the two definitions. 

As long as I've been aware, hard sci-fi, a term apparently coined in the fifties, referred to fiction that tended to utilize the hard science (ie. physics, mathematics, etc.) for its story hooks. That means Clarke, Clement, Anderson, as well as Niven, Bear, and Brin. You'll note all those writers took tremendous liberties with science, to the point that they included wholly fantastic things like psychohistory the Teela Brown gene. At some level, though, the getting some of the science right is important for the stories they're telling.

Soft sci-fi, a term generally attributed to Peter Nicholls of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, refers to writing with two strands. The first, echoing the real science, is concerned with the soft sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and the like. Think of Ursula K. LeGuin's sci-fi. The second strand is one where the science is just not that accurate or important. A good example here would be Simak's City, where the even the broadest generalities of how the robots function or humans (and dogs) are transmogrified into Jovian lifeforms are never a concern. Nicholls also wrote that what's hard and soft sci-fi is all a little nebulous and rarely a clear cut set of categories. I definitely can't disagree with that.

The pre-WWII sci-fi that everybody was up in arms defending doesn't need to be defended, let alone by crapping on later "harder" fiction. The examples people brought up about Campbell and company dismissing older sci-fi were worth discussing, but only insofar as it explained why Astounding published what it did and what it didn't. Writers like Anderson, Norton, and Heinlein may not have been writing as extravagant space opera as Doc Smith had, but they didn't stop writing tales of heroic action and adventure just because they took more time thinking about physics.

The only thing that matters is whether a story's well told. Sticking labels on things is really only beneficial to book sellers and critics. It helps them find a place to put, the former to stock their shelves, the latter to decide if they should condescend to reviewing it favorably or just dismiss it as so much trash.

I like science fiction that's concerned with ideas as much as I like stuff that's pulp adventure. When I read sci-fi, it's a question of what mood I'm. It's really a question of using props that are explained scientifically instead of supernaturally. This means Edgar Rice Burroughs=Robert Heinlein=CJ Cherryh=William Gibson=Cixin Liu.

I'm not done with swords & sorcery by any means. A few weeks back, I reviewed the mighty Charles R. Saunders' new collection, Nyumbani Tales over at Black Gate. Even though I swore off heroic fantasy for the time being (except my story roundups), I readily agreed when Milton Davis asked me to review it. I'm glad I did, because it's an important book. It gathers together 13 of Saunders' non-Imaro stories set in a fantastical version of ancient Africa. That there is no other review of this book than mine is an indictment of the failure of fantasy readers and critics to recognize and respect one of the best and most important voices in the genre. For those of you who haven't bought it yet, go forth, now, and buy it!

I have a short story roundup next week that, if I get everything read in time, will have at least one nifty surprise. I might even break my promise to myself and read some S&S for myself. It's been a long time since I read any of the Witch World books and I think I need to get back to them.


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Finally, the coolest thing I've got coming up is I'm going on the radio. Folks on Facebook already know that, so I figured it was time to spread the word here as well. 

MakerPark Radio is the brainchild of Kristin Wallace. She's wanted to do this for years, and it's finally happening. She's got all sorts of DJs lined up, with metal, hip hop, hardcore, a Sri Lankan kids' show, and all sorts of other cool stuff. We've got a booth built into the front of Staten Island Maker Space with a big picture window looking out onto the street and Maker Park. It goes live on July 1st.

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My show is called MUSIC I LIKE. It's exactly what that says. There'll be bits of everything rock 'n' roll that I like, from rockabilly to psychedelia to prog to metal to punk and more. I'll be on every Sunday from 4pm to 6pm EST. Expect lots of glitches and mishaps the first few times out. Nonetheless, it should be a blast.


  1. This is the most intelligent commentary on hard vs. soft sf, Campbell vs. pulp I've seen.

    I hadn't heard of Saunders' new collection (and missed your review). I'll try to fit it in, although I'm not blogging much right now due to real life time constraints.

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  3. Thanx, Keith I hadn't started out to write this the way it turned out, but I looked at all the sf I've read in the past two months, and much of it would seem to fall afoul of the battle lines that were getting drawn this spring - battle lines that seemed sorta ill-informed if anything.

  4. I find it a little hard to square the revulsion towards Campbell by the pulp crowd with this bit from MPorcius Fiction Log ( with this about Campbell:

    In his essay "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," (written in 1980, published in The Engines of the Night) Barry Malzberg describes a meeting with Campbell. Malzberg complained to Campbell that Analog was "antiliterary" and didn't deal with the "real issues," like how technology was "consuming" and "victimizing" people. Campbell responded with assertions like these:
    "I'm not interested in victims...I'm interested in heroes. I have to be; science fiction is a problem-solving medium, man is a curious animal who wants to know how things work and given enough time can find out."
    "If science fiction doesn't deal with success or the road to success then it isn't science fiction at all."
    "Mainstream literature is about failure....a literature of defeat. Science fiction is challenge and discovery."

    1. Yeah, I don't get the turning on Campbell. While I think he had a dislike of "crudely written" space opera, he never seemed anything but a proponent of human heroes capable of outwitting and defeating all sorts of "superior beings."

  5. Reckon I've been so out of touch that I missed the kerfuffle. Day job and other concerns, and only recently returned to writing.

    My SF falls into pulp and space opera, with only a smidge of actual science. As a reader, however, I'll dive into whatever catches my fancy. Never really did like being told what to like / read.

    Recently edited a "literary fiction" manuscript and was bored outta my skull. Nothing much happened, and characters talked about it. A lot.

    Hard SF, soft SF, whatever -- just give me a good yarn.

    1. There a host of bloggers and writers promoting old and new pulp sci-fi. It's led to the creation of some great things, like Cirsova magazine. Unfortunately, things got a little heated this spring.

      I've avoided sf until recently because I find a lot of the current genre writing boring and obsessed with making social and political points (even more than libertarians like Pournelle, Dickson, and Anderson did fifty years ago).

      I read some literary fiction but it's all old - 19th century stuff in particular. Modern lit-fiction is pretty dry stuff.

  6. Great post. Sorry to hear about all the troubles. I bet there's some gorgeous woodwork and lots of fine built-ins in that house!

    1. Thanks. It was the servants' quarters for one of the old mansions that used to exist in the are, so it's not too fancy inside. Still, attractive door frames and a beautiful turned banister. The only built-ins were some my grandfather made 75 years ago, and we replaced them with new ones to hold our, well mostly my, books.

  7. House problems suck. Does look like a neat one, though. They don't make things the way they used to. I have a 1901 house, and sometimes I wonder if it's worth the upkeep (and lack of closet space), but, yeah, to me it is. Glad to see you back(ish).

    1. They do indeed. As it's my granparents' house, where I spent half my childhood, it's totally worth it.

      This house didn't have any closets when my grandfather bought it, so he built them into each room. Since we reconfigure the bedroom floor, we had to rip them all out, which I won't deny hurt a little bit.

  8. Happy return to the blog. Hopefully thing settle down for you a bit.

    I never understood arguments over genre (or non-genre) classification of books. It's rarely helpful to any kind of discussion about a story's merits or an evaluation of a work. My take is that it's a tool for booksellers and that's it.