Exploration and early science fiction

It’s Monday. (I feel very witty when I say things that appear obvious.) There are twists and turns every Monday and this week the small twist is that I’m actually writing this on Monday. Normally I write my Monday blog post very early Tuesday morning, and still post it on US Monday but today… I have nine minutes now and no time then for two hours and then a full hour before midnight, so I’m writing my Monday post on Monday.

The second twist (the big one) is that I’ve only read a bit of the book I’m introducing you to. I don’t have time to finish it right now, and I’m too excited by it to wait to write about it.

There’s a story behind why it’s open on my machine. Of course there’s a story. Someone very proudly told me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t the first work of science fiction. They claimed something from the eighteenth century as the first. I instantly wanted to argue, because the eighteenth century is too early and too late. Approaches matter, and there are at least half a dozen different arguments for this work or that work to be considered science fiction.

It all rests on definitions. What is science fiction? What is fantasy? Are we only talking about modern novels, or are we talking about other types of narrative? There’s a terrific Medieval life of Alexander, where Alexander explores underwater in a bathysphere and loses to the Amazons when he invades and is fed dinner by them and… I talked about it just the other day at a science fiction convention. It’s not one book. It’s many different types of stories in many different books. It’s also very well studied, even though it’s not known nearly well enough in some science fiction circles. Here’s a bibliography prepared by people who know more about it than me (I’ve read two versions, only.)

One can go back further than that, much further, or go forward. There are stories in many languages and from several continents. The trick is to start looking.

Two days ago I decided to look for French books from the seventeenth century. I already know the work where Cyrano goes to the Moon, and it’s fun, but where one book like that is written, there must be others. I used to know several others, but my brain sometimes forgets everything (I think it does it on purpose, to annoy me) so I looked again. I found several things I once had known, and one single book that’s new to me and that’s surprisingly close to home in a number of ways. It’s the one I want to read when I do not have time.

It’s the story of a voyage to Australia. It was published in 1732. Australia was known to many people by then, not least of all the people who had already been living here for the last tens of thousands of years, but Europe, for the most part, thought of it as unknown and exotic. Bits of it had appeared on European maps, and the region now known as South East Asia had contacts, especially up north. So did all the region north of Australia (Papua and PNG in modern parlance), and quite possibly New Zealand and maybe even China. But Europe didn’t pay much attention to what most of these places thought of the southern continent and was only just in the throes of making its own discoveries.

When I was at school, I was taught that there was no knowledge of Australia in Europe until the eighteenth century. Since then, however, the maps from the Dutch and Portuguese have demonstrated very much otherwise. Parts of Australia have been known to parts of Europe since at least the fifteenth century. Here is a map that reflects stuff from an earlier map, to show what was known to those Europeans who had access to this very specialised knowledge.

Of course, contact with Australia from nearby places dates back long before then. One of my students a few years ago was Indonesian and her family had stories about contact with Australia. We visited an exhibition at the National Museum and she was able to point to her island and then to where people from her island travelled to, for trade. How long has that trade been happening? I need to check out archaeological studies, her island began regular contact with northern Australia a long time before Europeans even thought to come to the Great Southern Land.

Before those early maps from Europe, there was talk about Australia. In fact, Europeans have been talking about Australia since at least the time of Cicero. Cicero wrote about it in his science fictional “Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), which was part of his De Re Publica where Scipio Africanus went to Mars and saw the world laid out. Australians were there as antipodeans, people who walked on the opposite side of the earth. Macrobius took that dream in the fifth century and wrote commentaries on it and those commentaries were used as geographical explanations throughout the Middle Ages.

A fictional account of someone voyaging to Australia in the seventeenth century has, therefore, a really solid background. It was a story based on things other people knew and accepted. That’s why I want to read it. I want to know what people thought about this country at a time when most Europeans saw it as an intellectual conceit or a place only specialist traders knew about.

The preface explains that the writer knew a fair amount about modern (for that time) geography. He makes it very clear that he’s not talking about Java, nor about the Americas. He even names explorers to demarcate their routes and interests. To me, this is the stuff that science fiction is made of. Take current knowledge (proving one’s cutting edge understanding) and then extrapolate and write fiction inspired by it. The extrapolation is invention, and it says more about Europe than about Australia, but it’s no less interesting for that. It describes an invented Australia in the year 1610. The land, the writer says, is more fertile and more populated than Europe.

Now you know why I want to read it. I wish I had time. It’s on my computer, however, and if ever an excuse arises (if someone tells me “I want a talk about this book” or “Give me an article”) then I shall be very grateful to Professor Ron Ridley who gave me the capacity to read seventeenth century French. Let me tell you about that, and then sign off, because it’s heading for midnight here and I do like the thought of finishing my Monday post on Monday itself.

I was doing third year History, as an undergraduate, and I’d been allowed into a fourth year class on Roman historiography, because it wasn’t going to be offered the following year. Ridley noted that I was doing historical French as another subject, and set me an essay that used it. I had to read and analyse 22 volumes of seventeenth century French in a collection of rare books, with only one article about them (in modern French) to help me. It was a lot of work. So much work… By the end of it, I could read seventeenth century French perfectly well. Even if I have no other skills to my name, I have this one. And now that these early novels are available on the web, I have a reason to rediscover that odd little skill of mine. All I need is someone to give me an excuse…

Talking genre

This post is brought to you in between panels at Balticon. I’m still in Australia and there’s a 14 hour time difference between my computer and Balticon, so this will be short.

My supporters have asked for Medieval recipes for the next little while on my Patreon page, so the Medieval food and foodways books will have to wait. So where do I look for inspiration? The panel I’m in the audience for is an amazing group of writers and editors and they’re talking about genre as literature. Balticon has the best panels. Instead of a single book or group of books, then, I’ll use their discussion for inspiration. The panel began with an analysis of why some books belong in one part of a bookshop and why in another. Karen Osborne let us know that marketing is an issue, that where books are placed in a shop depends partly on negotiations between the shop and the publisher’s people.

This makes me think about how marketing can hide a book from an audience and how the culture that underlies the book calls out to some audiences more than others. This makes me think (again) of Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

The marketing of The Swan Book was that it was great literature, which it is. It’s a totally brilliant and absorbing novel. It’s also not an easy read. This means that the ‘this is great literature’ categorisation meant that genre readers are only just discovering it. US novels travel more easily between the two markers, but US genre critics don’t always watch for Australian literature and so The Swan Book was missed for all the awards that might have enabled it to be seen by the wider public.

This applies to so many books from outside the US. Books from Canada and the UK are a bit more likely to cross genre boundaries because they are that much more visible, but most Australian books that win awards and that enter into US bookshops and that are reviewed in Locus are not only firmly seen as genre from the get-go and marketed as genre, but follow US genre tags. The more unique a writer is and the more their work brings out cultural material that is not widely known and break genre tropes in so doing, the more difficult it is for their work to be seen by genre readers.

I know this from experience, because my novels are distinctly Australian and are discovered more slowly by readers than, say, the more US-like writing of Garth Nix or of Trudi Canavan. This is not a quality issue. It’s to do with choices we’ve made as writers about what will be in our novels. Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is so very remarkable and the culture that it expresses is not only very Australian, but specifically Indigenous Australian. It’s now sneaking into conversation about speculative fiction.

Genre boundaries are porous, but some work doesn’t cross it and reach genre readers when it ought, and some crosses more slowly and… it’s complicated.

Pivotal times and their books

I’ve been thinking all day about Louise Lawrence’s first novel, Andra. I read it when it was first released in 1971. I was ten and there was one scene where Andra (the protagonist) was addressing a crowd and winning them over. That scene helped me become a bit more political and when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, I could hear some of the devices used in Andra’s speech in what he said. Whitlam was an amazing speaker and very witty, so the combination of the book and the politician were big influences on me.

This isn’t why I was thinking of Andra today, however.

Andra is a political novel. It’s science fiction, about how teenagers handle authoritarian governments and about how governments talk and listen and where everyone fails. That was my reading of it when I was a child then again when I was a teenager, anyhow. It was a novel I read for comfort whenever anything politically challenging happened.

For two weeks now, my city has been visited by protesters. The unruly mobs causing problems in many capital cities have not spared Canberra. We normally support demonstrations here, but this one is different. If you want to know just how different and why it’s so very uncomfortable, find me and chat about it. While many of the protesters are probably exceptionally nice and simply want a better world, there are enough seriously disruptive and difficult people among them to turn a crowd into a mob. A mob during a pandemic is not a good thing.

I need a novel that’s as important to me now as Andra was in the 1970s. I don’t know if one exists, or whether I need to write it. If I have to write it, I haven’t reached the moment where I know what is critical in it. All I know is that something in me needs a book that touches that emotional trigger and makes it possible for me to think past the politics of this strange situation and to reach the heart of it.

It’s funny, because when I was ten I needed the opposite. I needed a novel that taught me that politics existed and that words could address it and that not everything worked out well all the time.

If I find that book that I need, I might have to compare it with Andra and to discover how fifty years of my life has shaped me. Or maybe I’ll discover what fifty years in the world has done to our image of politics. Andra was written soon after the 1968 student protests and in the middle of the Cold War. In years leading up to Andra humans travelled in space and landed on the moon. The Chicago Seven were put on trial and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty changed international relations. The Beatles broke up and Hutt River Province seceded from Australia. I didn’t know any of this, of course, but Andra was published in one of those pivotal times when everything changed. This is why Whitlam became Prime Minister, in fact. We used to sing “It’s time”  – the election jingle that helped persuade voters to choose a different party to the one that had ruled for 23 years.

We’re in one of those times now. No-one told me when I was ten just how uncomfortable pivotal periods can be. I hope I find that book.

The Future Is Starting Right Now

The Ministry for the FutureKim Stanley Robinson is an optimist.

If you only read chapter 1 of The Ministry for the Future, you might not believe that. But even though his novel opens with a horrific and all too realistic disaster caused by climate change — and later describes several others — he isn’t writing a dystopia.

Rather he’s writing a story in which human beings find ways to deal with climate change without pretending that the process won’t be messy.

I called him an optimist, not Pollyanna. (Do people still read Pollyanna?)

He knows how bad things are and how much worse they can get, but he also knows we are capable of making things better. In this book, the efforts to address climate change include everything from economics to politics to geoengineering to violent actions against those who refuse to take action to stop carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

There’s also what happens with climate refugees, mental breakdowns among those who have suffered from disasters, and violence against those working for real change. It’s a long book.

I have no doubt that we’re going to see something similar to the disorder he chronicles here over the next 30 years or so. I hope he’s right that we’ll get some of the positive changes, too.

He has more faith in political change than I have, but Wikipedia reports that Francis Fukuyama, who was notoriously wrong about the end of history, has called the book “ludicrously unrealistic.”

If I have to choose between Stan Robinson and Francis Fukuyama, I’m going with Stan every time. Continue reading “The Future Is Starting Right Now”

Helicon Lifetime Achievement Award Goes to Jeffrey A. Carver!

Treehouse Editor Crow is excited to report that Treehouse author Jeffrey A. Carver has been named recipient of this year’s Helicon Society’s Frank Herbert Lifetime Achievement Award!

2022 Helicon Award Badge

From his perch in the treetop, Carver responds, “This came to me as a bolt out of the blue. The Helicon Awards are announced each year by the Helicon Society, ‘a collective of SF/F authors and other creators who subscribe to the Superversive approach to creating SF/F media and look to promote good quality sci-fi/fantasy…’ The judges and membership are anonymous. They have been announcing these awards since 2019. I am humbled and gratified that they have found my work worthy of a lifetime achievement award! Thank you.”

Here are the past winners of Helicon’s Frank Herbert Lifetime Achievement Award:

  • 2019 – Jack McDevitt
  • 2020 – Anne McCaffrey
  • 2021 – David Weber
  • 2022 – Jeffrey A. Carver

Carver is delighted to join their ranks.

See the recipients in other categories here. Congratulations to all of them!

Out of the Silence and into Culture Shock

Today I’m thinking about a group of older Australian science fiction and fantasy books. I’ve just finished writing them up for a magazine (several articles, will appear sometime in 2022) and I am just emerging from culture shock.

There’s a difference between reading something for fun and reading it with intent to analyse. The ‘intent to analyse’ means I have to delve into how the novel is put together, what it carries with it to the reader and a bunch more. It’s where my historian brain tackles my writer brain for my own work, and where my historian brain meets up with my editor and literary brain when I’m thinking more academically. To be honest, I have no idea if it’s possible to shift between different parts of myself in this way. I pretend I do, though, by changing my vocabulary and approach to the novels and working out which audience I’m writing for. Sometimes I go profoundly wrong in this, especially when I’m writing pure literary studies in the middle of writing novel myself, and editors have saved me from myself several times now.

Back to culture shock. The novel in question is out of copyright, so you can find a free copy and argue with what I’m saying here, or nod sagely, or simply get angry. It’s a good novel, but very much of its time. It’s Erle Cox’s Out of the Silence and was first published (as a newspaper serial) in 1919.

The thing about analysing a novel is that I’ve got to get under its skin and see how it works. This brings me up close and personal. When a story has a group of people who decide that their view of their own cultural superiority means they should commit genocide (as Cox’s novel did) I can’t politely distance myself and say, “Thank goodness I am not that person” and put the book down. I have to understand why the story was told in that way and that means reading deeply into it and analysing it word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence… I want to list all the different levels of one type of analysis and move on to another and generally prevaricate rather than address this subject. That’s how bad it is when you can’t say “I’m a superior being.”

The big question is, in this instance, why I couldn’t just say “I’m a superior being and this is something I don’t have to worry about.” I’ve seen any number of reviews and articles implying just this.

Firstly, a century later, it’s easy to see Cox’s prejudices. It’s easy to see that those who actually committed genocide were the baddies as Cox intended, but that all the good human beings were equally potentially culpable. It’s not so easy to see my own bias. Who do I condemn to a secondary position when they’re in my vicinity? How do I do this? I can explain Cox’s novel, but I’m in no position to judge Cox.

Secondly, as I said just a moment ago, Cox is of his time. He was born in 1873. During his lifetime his home state went from being a colony to being a part of Australia. In chronological order, during that same life, Ned Kelly (is Australia’s Jesse James a good description? Maybe…) was tried an executed. Women were given the vote. Many, many people Cox would have known would have died in World War I and then from the influenza pandemic after it. The Russian revolution and so many other world events changed the world as he knew it, and he saw so much of it, as a journalist. All of this was before he serialised the novel.

After he serialised the novel the world changed again and yet again. 1873-1950 is a heck of a time for a science fiction writer to live though. By the time the last edition of Out of the Silence was published (1947), Cox had seen more than one attempted genocide. His novel wasn’t prophetic – it simply turned into story what a journalist saw.

That’s the thing. We write science fiction about futures and about strange worlds. They always include us and are always about us. I can’t know if I have Cox’s level of prejudice against some people or his capacity to be honest about racism. I can say, having looked closely at his work, that he intended his novel to reveal uncomfortable truths and to help address them. I doubt if he saw his own biases clearly.

I need someone to analyse my work if I really want to know these things about myself. I do. I want to know.

It’s moments like this when honesty about ourselves when we read and analyse can bring the most uncomfortable truths into daylight, where it’s very hard to ignore them. This is the culture shock. It’s not the first time I’ve suffered from it, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. I hope I don’t ‘recover’ from it and bury these truths. Insights may sometimes be terribly uncomfortable, but both my own fiction and myself will be the better for this one.

What the Humans have been Up To

Bright MorningThe humans have been busy working on a book together. This is something we crows have not seen them do before. The book is in honor of someone they knew who died. We do know about honoring the dead.

They call this book Bright Morning, and they have filled it full of stories. Being the resident editor of the Treehouse, I looked it over. There are no stories about crows, but there are some about horses, dogs, and dragons, so that’s all right. At least the humans are thinking about beings other than just themselves.

Here is their announcement about the book, and a picture of the cover. There will be a paper book with a shiny cover next month, they say.

Vonda N. McIntyre preferred to keep her author’s biography short and sweet: “Vonda N. McIntyre writes science fiction.” While true, this modest claim conceals accomplishments that earned her multiple accolades and an enduring place among the most influential fantasy and science fiction writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Even more important to the authors of this tribute anthology, McIntyre was a kind and generous supporter of other writers. In Bright Morning, eleven career writers of science fiction, fantasy, and other genres share stories of hope in her honor, along with their memories of working with McIntyre. Profits from the anthology will benefit a charity that promotes literacy for children all over the world.

Bright Morning
An Anthology of Hopeful Tales
In Honor of Vonda N. McIntyre

from the Treehouse Writers
edited by Deborah J. Ross

Order Bright Morning from your favorite bookseller

 

Award-Eligible Works by Treehouse Residents

As 2021 draws to a close, writers in the Treehouse want to call attention to the new works they published this year. These works are eligible for writing awards based on year of publication. These works include three novels, a novella, and three short stories that are already in print.

Additionally, four of the stories in the forthcoming anthology Bright Morning, which will be published on December 20, 2021, qualify as short stories. Bright Morning, edited by Treehouse resident Deborah Ross, honors the late Vonda N. McIntyre. All proceeds go to Room to Read, a nonprofit supporting literacy and education for girls.

Novels:

A Valentine for One – book 8, Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. August 2021.  (mystery)

The Green Children Help Out, by Gillian Polack ( (fantasy)

For the Good of the Realm, June 2021 by Nancy Jane Moore (fantasy)

Novella:

Intermezzo – Household Matters” – novella, tie-in to Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. January 2021. (mystery)

Short Stories:

“Mannikin,” by Madeleine Robins in the March/April 2021 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (science fiction)

The Missing Forget-Me-Nots,” – mystery short story, tie-in to Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. August 2021. (mystery)

Karen’s Secret Story,” by Gillian Polack (science fiction)

Original Stories from Bright Morning (forthcoming December 20), all science fiction:

“Sanitizing the Safe House,” by Leah Cutter.

“More Lasting Than Bronze,” by Judith Tarr.

“Panacea,” by Pati Nagle.

“Harden,” by Gillian Polack.

A Psalter for Our Times

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A few years back, when Becky Chambers was a guest of honor at FOGcon, I checked The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet out from the library and promptly got hooked. We ended up with a complete set of the Wayfarers books.

So despite the teetering piles of unread books cluttering every flat surface in our place, I got a copy of her new novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, which is the first in a new series of Monk and Robot stories.

The dedication page reads:

For anybody who could use a break.

And while I knew I needed a break, I don’t think I realized just how important that was until I read this book.

There are two good reasons why this book provides just the kind of refreshing break that we all need these days. Continue reading “A Psalter for Our Times”

Not a Fairy Story

I’m researching fairy tale retellings right now, so I want to start this post with Once Upon a Time. The story has a fairy tale element to it. It starts with a dream and ends with a happy surprise. It is, however, no fairy tale. Let me start it with the right words anyhow, because I can.

Once Upon a Time I had a dream. It was only a little dream. I woke up with an image from it so firmly imprinted into my vision memory, that, even before I had coffee, I went to my computer. I looked to see if I could find a picture of Io, because my dream was looking up at Io through an old telescope and seeing it as if it were our moon.

I found the picture almost immediately. Io looked the way my mind had dreamed it. I don’t remember if I took time for coffee, or if I wrote the story immediately, but by the end of the day I had a first draft of a story set in a far-distant planet, where a society re-enacted the eighteenth century.

I was chatting with a friend and told her about it. She read my draft. Then she told me her dream, which was to run a magazine. I let her have my story to use to build that magazine. She set up the organisation and edited everything and I and a couple of other friends built a world writers and artists could play in. That world was New Ceres. My story was its backbone and its heart, but it was never published. Life got in the way.

I took my version of New Ceres because I had new dreams about what could happen on that planet. Alisa took hers and she published a lovely anthology. She then started a publishing house and that publishing house has put out amazing book after amazing book. I watch to see where her dreams taker her next, because they’re always to fascinating places.

My dreams took a while to realise. First, I wrote them into a novel. An editor from a well-known science fiction press asked if I could send it to him. Whenever I asked about how he was going with it, I was told that it would be read the next week, that it was a priority, that I should not worry. Eight years later I took my manuscript back, and resolved to try elsewhere.

The novel was accepted somewhere else almost immediately, but that publisher imploded. Another publisher took it on. They asked one of my favourite artists to do the cover and he built (literally, built) a scene from the novel, and photographed it. A street from New Ceres lives in the Blue Mountains.

My novel was released straight into the first COVID inversion, where no-one looked for new novels by small press on the other side of the world. It was going to be celebrated at WorldCon in New Zealand. New Zealand is so close and so friendly and… the pandemic changed that, too. At least, I thought, it was finally published. I could close that chapter on those dreams and move on. Its final name was Poison and Light. Here, have a link to it. Admire the cover.

Tonight I had news about the novel I thought no-one could read because all the publicity and distribution were hit so hard by the pandemic that it simply wasn’t very visible. It’s been shortlisted for an award.

In that short-list are novels by wonderful writers whose work was issued by that first publisher. The editors won’t remember the eight years I had to wait, nor the emails that went unanswered in the last year, when I tried to find out what was happening. I remember. And now, finally, I know that the initial request to see the novel was serious. That it was an unlucky novel, but not one that was poorly written. And that readers are finding it, despite its travails.

I shall dream again tonight of that acned moon. And, finally, I will move on.