The Enjoyment of Fantasy: Open Letters to Adam Gopnik, Mur Lafferty, and John C. Wright

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The New Yorker, December 5I’ve been a bit under the weather the past couple of weeks, which has been annoying for a number of reasons. For one thing, I was unable to get my thoughts in enough order to respond adequately to three pieces of writing I came across several days ago. Each piece on its own seemed to pose interesting questions, and collectively they raised what seemed to me to be related issues about how one reads, and why; and how and why one reads fantasy in particular.

Well, my head’s cleared a bit over the past little while, and, however delayed, I’ve been able to frame responses (however wordy and inadequate) to the articles I had in mind. I present them here as open letters to the writers of the various pieces: Adam Gopnik, Mur Lafferty, and John C. Wright.

I: To Adam Gopnik

Dear Mr. Gopnik,

I read your recent article in The New Yorker, “The Dragon’s Egg,” with some interest. I haven’t read Christopher Paolini’s work; my interest is less in Young-Adult literature than in fantasy fiction. From that perspective I found your piece intriguing for what was left unsaid, or what you chose not to investigate. Specifically, I thought there were two major lacunae in the thinking underlying your approach to fantasy.

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Mur Lafferty on Reading the Classics

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

Mur Lafferty, author of The Afterlife Series and Playing For Keeps, has kicked off an interesting discussion on reading classic SF and Fantasy on her blog:

earth-abidesI’m not quite sure how to read classic SF. You know the stuff that was groundbreaking with its expanse of ideas that hadn’t even been considered yet? But it was also the stuff that was very likely sexist, had cardboard characters, was completely lacking women or POC, used what we consider now to be hack tools (eg “looking in a mirror to describe the protag”), and may have protags that are total jerks.

I couldn’t finish The Stars My DestinationThe Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or the Book of the New Sun. I can’t root for a rapist protagonist. And I really wanted to read Stars and New Sun.

Recently I couldn’t finish Earth Abides (despite the wonderful intro by one of my favorite authors of all time, Connie Willis.) I got bored and annoyed with the elitist, “It’s the end of the world, but I’m CERTAINLY not going to hang out with whores and drunks,” attitude of the protagonist. And WTF is up with mentioning that a woman is “young enough” in her description, and leaving it at that? …how can I appreciate the classics when I run into such painful roadblocks like this? It’s hard to read things I’m not enjoying, even for academic purposes.

Speaking as someone with an unnatural fondness for pulp fiction, this is a problem I’m intimately familiar with. My last attempt to re-read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy ended in utter failure. And I dearly loved that book in my early teens. But I didn’t pay much attention to girls then, and I suppose a book that also pretended women didn’t exist just didn’t seem very unusual.

Comments are now closed on Lafferty’s blog (she notes they had “gone into unhelpful areas“), but you can read the original post and comments here.


R.A. Lafferty: An Attempt at an Appreciation

Sunday, March 27th, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

R.A. LaffertyA little while ago, John O’Neill posted a news item on this blog about the literary estate of R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002) being put up for auction, with the current bid being $70,000 for the copyright to all his works. It’s an odd development, but then Lafferty was an odd writer. I want to try to say something about his work here, not because I’ve read everything he’s written — I’ve read only a fraction of his output, which runs to over two dozen novels and two hundred short stories — but because he’s a writer strong enough to have hooked me to want to read more. And I want to say something about why.

Which is tricky, because that means having to identify what it is that Lafferty does that’s so intriguing. And I think much of what is powerful in his work comes from its sense of strangeness. Almost all of his writing feels like nothing else; not like a traditional sf tale, not like a New Wave tale, not like typical fantasy or horror, less like a mainstream writer trying out genre. You could say there’s something folkloric, but not mythic to it; so it’s become almost a truism to say that Lafferty wrote tall tales. It’s an accurate statement, but what does it mean?

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R.A. Lafferty Literary Estate For Sale

Friday, March 4th, 2011 | Posted by John ONeill

past-masterSteven Silver at SF Site is reporting that the estate of R.A. Lafferty, including rights to his 29 novels and 225 short stories, is currently being auctioned off.

The source for the news appears to be an online classified ad at Locus Online, which claims that the “Current bid is $70,000+.”

R.A. Lafferty is the author of the novels Past MasterThe Reefs of Earth, Fourth Mansions, and Sindbad: The Thirteenth Voyage, as well as the classic short story collections Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Strange Doings, and Lafferty in Orbit.

He won a Hugo Award in 1973 for the short story “Eurema’s Dam,” and was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Past Master.

He died in 2002.

900-grandReports have been circulating for some time that the Lafferty estate had withdrawn reprint rights to all of his work, including recent short story collections. While Lafferty’s novels have not generally drawn much attention in recent years, his short stories continue to be highly regarded.

Until recently Wildside Press had been keeping much of Lafferty’s best work in print, including Nine Hundred Grandmothers, The Devil is Dead, The Reefs of Earth, Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?, and many others. Those editions are now out of print.

While it’s not unusual  for literary rights to go to auction, I can’t recall seeing a bulk lot of an author’s entire output auctioned at once — especially one as large as Lafferty’s.

Interested bidders can contact the Lafferty estate.


The Boxed Set of the Year: American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s edited by Gary K. Wolfe

Sunday, October 20th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

American Science Fiction Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s-small

Cover by Paul Lehr

Gary K. Wolfe is one of my favorite Locus columnists. He also reviews science fiction for the Chicago Tribune and, with Jonathan Strahan, co-hosts the excellent Coode Street Podcast. But more and more these days I think of him as an editor. He edited the Philip Jose Farmer retrospective collection Up the Bright River (2011) and, even more significantly, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set (2012), a massive 1,700-page, 2-volume omnibus collection of classic novels by Pohl & Kornbluth, Sturgeon, Brackett, Matheson, Heinlein, Bester, Blish, Budrys, and Leiber, all in gorgeous hardcover with acid-free paper, sewn binding, and full cloth covers.

So I was thrilled to hear that, seven long years later, Wolfe has fulfilled that promise of that first beautiful boxed set with a sequel: American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. Like the first, it will be sold as two separate hardcovers, and also available in a handsome boxed set edition. It contains eight of the finest SF novels of the 60s:

The High Crusade, Poul Anderson (1960)
Way Station, Clifford D. Simak (1963)
Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes (1966)
…And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal), Roger Zelazny (1966)
Past Master, R. A. Lafferty (1968)
Picnic on Paradise, Joanna Russ (1968)
Nova, Samuel R. Delany (1968)
Emphyrio, Jack Vance (1969)

The whole package comes wrapped up in a boxed set featuring artwork from the brilliant Paul Lehr. It will be in bookstores on November 5th — and is available now at $15 below retail if you order direct from Library of America.

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Carol Emshwiller wins the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

Saturday, July 20th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Report to the Men's Club-small The Secret City Emshwiller-small The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller Volume 1-small

Author Carol Emshwiller, who died in February of this year at the age of 97, has won the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, which honors overlooked and neglected science fiction and fantasy writers who deserve to be discovered by modern readers.

I met Carol only a couple of times, always at the World Fantasy Convention. I’m pretty sure she was in her 90s both times we met. She was friendly, approachable, and absolutely charming. Many writers have a late flowering in their career; Carol, who was the wife of Ed Emshwiller, one of the most popular and prolific SF cover artists of the 50s and 60s, and who famously was the model for most of the beautiful women in his paintings, published her first stories in 1955, but wrote the majority of her substantial body of short fiction from 1985 – 2011, after she turned 60. She published the first of her four SF novels, Carmen Dog, in 1988, when she was 67.

It took far too long for Carol to be acknowledged as a serious writer, but it eventually happened. Her short story “Creature” won a Nebula Award in 2002; she won again for “I Live With You” in 2005. Her 2002 novel The Mount was nominated for a Nebula and won the Philip K. Dick Award. Her 1990 collection The Start of the End of It All won the World Fantasy Award, and she received the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 2005.

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Happy Release Day to Mission Critical, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Mission Critical Jonathan Strahan-smallHappy release day to Mission Critical, the brand new anthology from Jonathan Strahan, editor of Engineering Infinity (2010), Drowned Worlds (2016), and thirteen volumes of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year.

In a Facebook post announcing the release today, Jonathan said:

My new book is out in the world! With stories by by Peter F. Hamilton, Yoon Lee, Aliette de Bodard, Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Gregory Feeley, John Barnes, Tobias Buckell, Jason Fischer & Sean Williams, Carolyn Ives Gilman, John Meaney, Dominica Phetteplace, Allen M. Steele, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Peter Watts, [it’s] a mix of great science fiction adventure all based on the idea that when things go wrong you have to do *something*!

I love the stories in the book and am really proud of it. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of my anthologies, if you liked stories like The Martian, if you just want to keep anthologies coming out, or if you just love good short fiction, consider ordering this one.

I’ll second that notion. Jonathan has become one of the most respected and successful anthologists in the field. Back in 2015 I talked about how his book Meeting Infinity was the Most Successful Anthology of the year, and just last year Todd McAulty (author of The Robots of Gotham) opined about How Science Fiction Was Saved by Solaris and Jonathan Strahan.

Todd’s point was that short fiction is still critically important to the field, and that prestige anthologies like Strahan’s Infinity project are still the most reliable way for readers to discover new authors. It’s a premise that a lot of Black Gate readers agree with.

If you enjoy short fiction, or science fiction at all, supporting books like Mission Critical — and the publishers who produce them — is important. I hope you’ll give it a try. And if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll spread the word far and wide. (And if you don’t, why not shut the hell up about it.)

Mission Critical was published in paperback by Solaris today. Here’s the publisher’s description.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Locus Award for Best Publisher: Ballantine Books

Sunday, March 24th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

Ballantine Lary Niven-small

Larry Niven Ballantine Books (and Inconstant Moon from Sphere)

Steven Silver has been doing a series covering the award winners from his age 12 year, and Steven has credited me for (indirectly) suggesting this, when I quoted Peter Graham’s statement “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” is 12, in the “comment section” to the entry on 1973 in Jo Walton’s wonderful book An Informal History of the Hugos. You see, I was 12 in 1972, so the awards for 1973 were the awards for my personal Golden Age. And Steven suggested that much as he is covering awards for 1980, I might cover awards for 1973 here in Black Gate.

The Locus Awards, given by a poll of the readers of Locus Magazine (full disclosure: for which I write a regular column), and lately including an online component open to anyone (with non-subscriber votes counting half), have been given since 1971. One of the inspired categories is for Best Publisher (this category began in 1972.) In 1973, the award for Best Publisher went to Ballantine Books. In fact, Ballantine won every year but two between 1972 and 1987. Every year since then, the award has gone to Tor. (Note: the Ballantine awards were often to Ballantine/Del Rey, and the Tor awards were often to Tor/St. Martin’s.) In fact, only four entities have ever won the Locus Best Publisher award: Ballantine/Del Rey, Tor/St. Martin’s, the Science Fiction Book Club, and Pocket/Timescape. So – I still think the award is a good idea, but perhaps the winner doesn’t tell us much beyond the obvious.

Certainly when I was first buying books – beginning in 1974, I think – it was obvious that Ballantine (and, soon Del Rey) was the leading paperback imprint. (And, of course, at that age I bought only paperback and SFBC editions.) Sure, Ace published some good stuff. And so did DAW, and Signet, and Berkley, etc. But Ballantine was king – they published the most good stuff, and had the better packaging – they were the clear leaders. My main association, at that time, was with Larry Niven’s books – Niven was a favorite of mine, and in the mid-70s Ballantine issued a near-uniform edition of Niven’s works to that date. Ballantine also published, under Lin Carter’s editorship, the groundbreaking Ballantine Adult Fantasy series – paperback reprints of really wonderful early fantasy books. This was made possible from a marketing point of view by the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and, of course, Ballantine published the first authorized U. S. paperback editions of those books.

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Frazetta and Family: Ace Books House Ads, circa 1975

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Ace Books House ad 1975-small

I bought a small collection of Mack Reynolds paperbacks on eBay last week, and they arrived yesterday. I settled in with them last night, and was surprised to find one of them, the 1975 title The Five Way Secret Agent and Mercenary From Tomorrow, which looked like a collection of two novellas from Analog, was actually an Ace Double. It didn’t have two covers in back-to-back dos-à-dos format, and the second book wasn’t printed upside down, but otherwise it was an Ace Double, with separate pagination for each novel and everything. It had the usual Ace house ads in the middle, which I normally flip past, but the double-page spread above brought me to a complete stop.

I mean, just look at this thing. Never mind the questionable tactic of trying to sell gloriously color Frazetta posters (for 3 bucks each) using muddy black & white images. Check out that house ad on the left: The number 1, formed from the names of the  most prominent authors in the Ace Books publishing family. And what a staggering list!

Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Leigh Brackett, John Brunner, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John W. Campbell, Terry Carr, A. Bertram Chandler, Lester del Rey, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Edmond Hamilton, Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, R.A. Lafferty, Damon Knight, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, Stanislaw Lem, Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock, Barry Malzberg, Alexei Panshin, Frederik Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Joanna Russ, Bob Shaw, Clifford D. Simak, Robert Silverberg, Brian Stableford, Theodore Sturgeon, James Tiptree, Jr., EC Tubb, A.E. Van Vogt, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, Roger Zelazny

It’s not just the amazing list of authors — which is, let’s face it, a nearly unprecedented line up of talent for a single SF publisher. It’s that fact that most of those authors are still revered today, and in fact more than a few — Philip Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, and others — have achieved even greater fame in the intervening four decades.

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Golden Age of Science Fiction: The 1973 Phoenix Award

Saturday, January 19th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

The Weirwoods-small The Dolphin and the Deep-small Day of the Minotaur-small

Ace edition covers by Gray Morrow

Steven Silver has been doing a series covering the award winners from his age 12 year, and Steven has credited me for (indirectly) suggesting this, when I quoted Peter Graham’s statement “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12″, in the “comment section” to the entry on 1973 in Jo Walton’s wonderful book An Informal History of the Hugos. You see, I was 12 in 1972, so the awards for 1973 were the awards for my personal Golden Age. And Steven suggested that much as he is covering awards for 1980, I might cover awards for 1973 here in Black Gate.

And, indeed, 1972 is when I discovered Science Fiction in the adult section of Nichols Library in Naperville, IL. Mind you, I’d already read and loved The Zero Stone by Andre Norton, and read and kind of liked Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C, and read and loved a ton of fantasies such as the Narnia books, The Hobbit, and George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie and At the Back of the North Wind. But I found all those in the children’s section. When I was 12 two things happened. In my seventh grade class we were introduced to a variety of books via a huge set of large folded cards, each of which had a substantial extract from a book. You were supposed to read the extract and answer a quiz about it, but the real motive of the developers was to try to get kids interesting in reading the whole of some of these books.

I read a bunch of things – Exodus by Leon Uris is one I recall – but I quickly realized it was the Science Fiction that lit me up. Books I recall reading because of that class include The Currents of Space, by Isaac Asimov; Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke; The Universe Between, by Alan E. Nourse; Time is the Simplest Thing, by Clifford Simak; and Galactic Derelict, by Andre Norton. And, of course, to find those books I had to go the adult section of the library. Where I quickly also found other stuff by those authors, and then other authors, and perhaps more important, anthologies. The Science Fiction Hall of Fame was a revelation. And so were the Nebula anthologies. And Anthony Boucher’s Treasury of Great Science Fiction. So I was hooked forever.

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