How to make me feel old.

So far my Facebook group, Swann’s Lounge, seems to be a success. But it comes at a price. On one of the more popular threads people are listing “obscure” SF/F titles. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.  But apparently it’s been long enough for Jack L. Chalker’s Well of Souls, and Julian May’s  Saga of Pliocene Exile to become obscure to some folks. Given that I bought both these series as they came out. . .  Let’s just say it made me feel my age.

World-building is what you make it. . .


cryptonomicon reamde

I’ve been reading some Neal Stephenson lately and I’ve been reminded of a point that I often try to make when I do my world-building talks. The point being that the skills used for world-building in science fiction and fantasy are not genre specific. I see writers who assume that if they’re not building the universe from the ground up, the whole world-building toolkit is irrelevant. They fail to realize that every writer has to build a world in the reader’s mind, and even if the facts behind the pages are not the author’s invention, those facts still need to inform the story and make it into the reader’s head. The world of Cryptonomicon is no less full and complex and richly detailed as Snow Crash, despite the former being less science fiction than the average Tom Clancy novel.

I’m currently reading (listening to) Reamde. And I’m reminded a lot of a triptych of John Brunner novels; Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. Like those three rightly classic novels, Stephenson juggles multiple viewpoints to illuminate an incredibly detailed and complex world— even when that world is much more congruent to the one we live in than Brunner’s.


shockwave zanzibar sheep

Those Who Would Protect Us From Art

I wrote about the morality of fiction earlier, a couple of things I’ve read recently brought me back to the question from the another side. In that post I was talking about morality of fiction in light of the inner processes of the author. But really, when most people talk about the morality of fiction, they seem to talk about morals enforced from outside, either by social pressure, or in extremis, the heavy hand of the state.  (At the risk of Godwinizing this post, such talk has always made me think of Entartete Kunst.)  Such impulses always seem to come from some misguided effort to “protect” society, or some subgroup, from “bad” ideas.

The perennial example that’s back in the news is, of course, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, is being considered for removal by the Accomack County Public Schools in Virginia for “the books’ use of racial slurs.” It’s almost a cliche now to point out the deep irony of banning these books in the name of racial sensitivity.  The battle here is so well-trod that I think even die-hard advocates of free speech sort of glaze over these stories, despite the implications of erasing uncomfortable parts of history.

Perhaps more alarming is when art is censored because it illustrates uncomfortable parts of our present. Not fiction here, but the implications are chilling:

Organisers of an art exhibition celebrating freedom of expression have found themselves removing one of the exhibits after police raised concerns it was “inflammatory” and warned it would cost an extra £36,000 to secure the event.

The artwork in question was a series of tableaux entitled ‘Isis Threaten Sylvania’ that used children’s Sylvanian Families dolls to satirise the Isis terrorist group.

In the work Sylvanian Families dolls are seen enjoying a picnic or a day on the beach, while other black-clad dolls, some of them armed, one carrying a black flag, gather on the sidelines.

Consider the various elements here: A “freedom of expression” exhibit was told by police that an artwork satirizing a terrorist group was too “inflammatory.” Note that none of the typical complaints of xenophobia apply here. The work was not targeting Muslims as a group, or Islam as a religion, the scenes were all anthropomorphic animals, so no racial bigotry was on display. The only group critiqued here was, in fact, ISIS. One wonders who is being protected by hiding this work, and what are they being protected from?

mimsy-capture-web

So I have a fan theory

movie_poster_zootopia_866a1bf2So I noticed that the movie Zootopia is on Netflix now, and it reminded me of a little fan theory I developed back when I saw the movie in theatres.  If you’ve seen it, you may have noticed something that differentiates this film from the typical Disney (or any) “funny animal” story.  In stories of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, the world the characters inhabit is simply a proxy for the real world us humans inhabit.  If species is mentioned, it’s only for the sake of a joke, or as an obvious metaphor for class or race or nationality and we just accept the characters are just humans in funny suits.

Zootopia is very different in this respect. The story spends science-fictional levels of effort world building to show that we’re not just dealing with furry humans. The eponymous city spends vast technological resources to accommodate everything from radical size differentials to having separate artificial ecosystems emulating everything from artic to tropical conditions.  Most importantly, it acknowledges a past history where the animal denizens had the predator-prey relationships we’re familiar with. “Thousands of years ago,” these animals didn’t have culture, technology, or even the anthropomorphic posture they show in the present time.  This is, in fact, a major plot point… Which leaves a question dangling.

How does one get from there to here? Everything about the film is sfnal in its attention to detail, but it mentions “thousands of years” for this transition in the first few minutes.  That doesn’t seem enough to build a technological culture from scratch.  Also, no humans are in evidence. While we could posit this is an alternate Earth where humans never evolved, we still see at least one major character that seems to have developed from a domesticated species.  Also, it seems that these animals, mammals at least, all developed intelligence at roughly the same time, evolutionarily speaking.

brain-wave-coverNow consider the plot of the Poul Anderson novel, Brain Wave.  From Wikipedia:

At the end of the Cretaceous period, Earth moved into an energy-damping field in space. As long as Earth was in this field, all conductors became more insulating. As a result, almost all of the life on Earth with neurons died off, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The ones that survived passed on their genes for sufficiently capable neurons to deal with the new circumstance. Now in modern times, Earth suddenly moves out of the field. Within weeks all animal life on Earth becomes about 5 times as intelligent. The novel goes through the triumphs and tribulations of various people and non-human animals on Earth after this event.

At the end of the novel the humans develop interstellar travel and it’s implied that they leave for the stars. Given how close the apes are to humans, they may have joined them. The super intelligent animals left behind wouldn’t need to develop technology, language, or culture from scratch, the humans would have left that all behind for them. A few thousand years would be enough time to build a culture out of those remnants, and also probably enough time for the animals to self-select, breeding for a more “human” appearance and posture, emulating these long-disappeared humans, their progenitors, who left for the heavens…

Zootopia is a sequel to Brain Wave, set about nine or ten thousand years after the humans left.

Speaking of the 80’s. . .

I just finished the 1987 apocalyptic doorstopper of a novel, Swan Song by Robert McCammon.

My first thought:

As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.
As 80s as Chuck Norris stabbing a dirty commie.

If any one piece of literature embodied the pop-culture zeitgeist of a particular decade, it is this novel. This book could not be more eighties if it was sporting a mullet and fronting for Van Halen. It’s eighties like a block of government cheese, leg warmers, and slasher movies on VHS. Don’t believe me? Let me list some of the elements we’re introduced to:

  • The homeless bag lady.
  • The pro wrestler.
  • The crazy ‘Nam veteran.
  • The computer nerd who’s into gaming so much he has trouble distinguishing the game from reality.
  • A fleet of homemade armor-plated cars straight out of the Road Warrior.
  • The Cold War, natch.
  • At least one Rubik’s cube.

My second thought:
The book is enjoyable, but I suspect those with a more sfnal bent may have some substantial problems with it. It works as an apocalyptic fever-dream, or an extended allegory, but if you try to bring any real-world logic to the proceedings after the bombs drop, your brain will hurt. (Example: If you know anything about dressing game, the wolf-hunting scene makes about as much sense as the turkey dinner scene in Eraserhead, and has a similar effect on the audience. ) One of the points to the book seems to be the nuclear war creates a literal hell-on-earth, and everything from physics to biology seems to be twisted to this purpose. In this sense, it may almost qualify as a proto work of bizarro fiction.

Weekend of the Pooka

pookawebbanner2015This coming weekend I will be participating along with other local authors Saturday & Sunday 1:00pm to 5:00pm at the annual Bedford, Ohio “Weekend of the Pooka.” at the Bedford Commons. (730 Broadway Avenue, Bedford, Ohio.)

In addition to myself, attending authors will include Vince McKee, Michael Heaton, Jonathan Knight, James Renner, Gail Bellamy, Kelley Grealis, Laura Peskin, DM Pulley, Les Roberts, Shelley Bloomfield Costa, Irv Korman, Charles Cassidy & Wendy Koile.

In addition to the authors, there will be art and wine 🙂

Hope to see you there.

And this makes me happy.

If you follow me at all, you know I’ve been at this for quite a while now. I’ve written about my first novel, Forests of the Night a couple of times now, but in both cases I talk more about the story than how it was published.  Back in the early nineties I was still in my twenties and still in college.  Instead of a brag shelf, I had a bulletin board covered with rejection slips.  (Do people still do that?)  I had written one execrable fantasy novel that was 120,000 words of learning experience, which, to my credit, I knew was unsalvageable.  Forests was different though.  It was the first writing I’d ever workshopped, and while I received a lot of criticism, I got enough feedback to produce something I thought was publishable.  As one did in days of yore, I sent queries to many, many literary agents. And, upon finding representation, my new agent, Jane Butler (who retired some time ago now) sent Forests off to Sheila Gilbert at DAW.

In 1992, Sheila bought my first novel about an anthropomorphic tiger detective and started my career as a novelist.  I’ve been working with her ever since.  For nearly a quarter century and 23 subsequent novels she has worked with me and supported even some of my more insane story ideas.  Her late husband contributed the map of the planet Bakunin in the front of the Hostile Takeover books.  In addition to giving me editorial notes on my books, she’s asked for input on cover ideas, and some of the suggestions she’s accepted have resulted in some of my favorite cover art. Perhaps most important for my career, and my fans, she’s kept most of those 23 novels in print, including that first one with the anthropomorphic tiger detective. For paperback original genre fiction, that’s not just rare, it’s practically unheard of.

This past weekend, at Worldcon, Sheila got the kind of recognition she deserves. As much as she’s supported me, and all her other authors, it’s gratifying to see the SF community supporting her with a well deserved (and overdue) Hugo.  Congrats, Sheila!


And Coming This Month!

mq1

This month sees the omnibus re-issue of Forests of the Night and Fearful Symmetries in a single snazzy new package: The Moreau Quartet Volume One.  For those of you that are worried about breaking up of the original Moreau trilogy, no worries. A) Fearful Symmetries is a direct sequel to Forests of the Night, and can be read in that order and B) The Moreau Quartet Volume Two will be following in October.

If you want to get your hands on a copy for free, I’m sponsoring a Goodreads book giveaway for the month of August:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Moreau Quartet by S. Andrew Swann

The Moreau Quartet

by S. Andrew Swann

Giveaway ends August 31, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

SF as Thriller/Thriller as SF

FoldFor various reasons I’ve been pondering thrillers as a genre lately, considering the directions of future projects.  One of the nice things about SFF is the fact that it is the universal donor of literary genres.  Tropes from science fiction and fantasy can be mixed with almost any other genre you can name.  They seem to do particularly well in mystery/thriller contexts, see the Dresden Files for an example marketed as SFF, see Repairman Jack for one marketed more more as thriller.

So, thinking thriller thoughts, I grabbed The Fold by Peter Clines from Audible.  If this is the first you’ve heard of this book, you are lucky.  If any book deserves to be read (or listened to) spoiler free, it is this one.  This is structured as an excellent thriller that’s best read without any preconceptions where it is going.  We have all the requirements: unexplained goings-on, an interesting protagonist, a research lab populated with a cast of characters that are keeping secrets, and a project that seems to be running perfectly fine. . . until it doesn’t.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, because the less you know where you’re going, the more fun it will be.