Wordplay: Deep dives into the history of science fiction

Hello!

This is a bit of a shorter letter this week: I don’t have any huge, overarching commentary this time around, but I did have a couple of things that caught my interest when it comes to the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.

End of an Era

The Bookseller reported last week that Malcolm Edwards, the longtime editor of British SF imprint Gollancz has retired after 43 years on the job. Edwards likely isn’t a household name, but for science fiction bibliophiles, he’s certainly someone who’s influenced the field in a number of ways, and is probably best known for setting up the Science Fiction Masterworks series at Gollancz.

Gollancz doesn’t have much of a presence here in the United States, which is a shame. It was founded in 1927 by Victor Gollancz, a publishing imprint which focused on popular fiction, including science fiction. It started off as an independent imprint, but was eventually bought out by Houghton Mifflin, then Cassell & Co., and eventually, Hachette, which merged it with another publisher, Orion, turning it into a dedicated science fiction and fantasy imprint.

I studied abroad in England when I was in college, and while I was over there, I often found Gollancz titles in bookstores, particularly its SF Masterworks books. Edwards set up that line — as he told Locus back in 2005:

“Entering a new job, it's the only time in your working life when you actually have any time: your desk is empty, and there you are! That's when I decided to do the SF Masterworks list. I looked around and realized, far more than I had before, how much had gone out of print in the UK. The day I discovered both Bester's The Stars My Destination and Haldeman's The Forever War were out of print, I thought, 'There's a list here.'"

His criteria was pretty simple: nothing published prior to 1950. “I wanted readers to think, 'These are the books that made science fiction.' I took soundings and recommendations from everyone I could think of.” The result is an impressive one, containing more than 200 titles, and he later set up a companion line for fantasy novels. The line ran through 2009, and Gollancz has reissued its entries a couple of times.

There are some fantastic books in the series, starting with familiar titles like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, while there’s some others that aren’t as well-known to mainstream readers: The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. In many ways, this sort of attention helps preserve science fiction’s history by making those books available to readers who are interested in digging further into it. Obviously, there’s some inherent issues in codifying this as a canon: women and authors of color are pretty much underrepresented here — there are around 20 women writers included here, for example. At one point, I was part of a big, book-reviewer super group that was planning to review each of the installments. Not sure what happened to that, although I think it fizzled out pretty quickly.

In many ways, this series sets up a real canon for science fiction and fantasy literature: a broad survey of the high points of the entire genre. It’s also a series that looks really appealing in hand: they feature really beautiful covers (the originals, at least — the more recent reissues leave something to be desired), and a unified look across the series. I’ve picked up a handful of them over the years, sometimes because they’re simply easier to find than a rarer reissue.

History of Cosplay Update

Now that the book has been announced, I’ve been hard at work actually writing it. The publishing industry is weird, and writing a novel is different from writing a non-fiction history. For one, you don’t have to go to a publisher with a completed manuscript for a nonfiction text (at least in my experience). In my instance, I pitched the book with a detailed outline and proposal, and I’ve had a bunch of lengthy chats with my editor, Joe Monti about what the book would look like, the style, what the story is that we’re interested in, etc.

I’ve broken the book up into roughly 20 chapters, each about a different topic, and each with their own word count, which takes a daunting target / final word count down to manageable chunks of around 3500-4500 words each section. Totally doable as a starting point, and I’ve started chipping away at a couple of those sections, based on the reporting I've done for it thus far.

Thus far:

  • Interviewed a handful of cosplayers at Star Wars Celebration about how they got into the hobby.

  • Interviewed other cosplayers — including one who made up a Darth Vader and Stormtrooper costume in 1977.

  • Interviewed / set up interviews with a couple of costume designers, journalists, makers, and shop owners about their work and how it relates to the field.

  • Picked up a bunch of additional books about the history of costuming for some background work. That won’t necessarily make it into the book, but it’s useful to know for context.

  • Written work: one section, solid progress on two others.

Coming up next, I've got more work on those sections, and the convention season will be heating up in June / July, and I'm hoping to get out to some of the larger shows to do more interviews and pictures in the coming months.

Further Reading

The best thing that’s come out in the last couple of weeks is a fantastic profile of Nnedi Okorafor, over in The Chicago Tribune. It’s a pretty deeply-reported feature that looks at her approach to writing, and her upbringing.

“She calls her work “Africanfuturism,” as opposed to the more common “Afro-futurism.” The difference, she says, is her books — sometimes with aliens, sometimes with witches, often set in a recognizable, future Africa, with African lineages — are not cultural hybrids but rooted in the history and traditions of the continent, without a desire to look toward Western culture (or even pop culture). If that makes her work sound a touch polemical, understand: Her writing voice is accessible, and as harrowing and bracing as her stories often are — “Who Fears Death” is set in a violent, future Sudan, about a child born from rape with supernatural abilities — the pace is borderline breezy.”

The Ringer has an excellent feature about Roy Dotrice, the long-time audiobook narrator for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It’s also a really interesting biography of a literary person, and it goes into some of the efforts he made to record each of the existing novels, and what he did to prepare:

“And he was meticulous in his work and research. The night before recording, he would go over pages of notes on the next day’s characters. By the end of recording all five books, he had every character name listed in alphabetical order on more than a dozen pieces of paper. But despite his best efforts to stay organized, characters still sneaked up on him in the years and weeks between books and chapters. “You’re convinced it’s a brand-new character … and you find out that 15 years earlier you actually used a voice for it,” Dotrice said in an interview in 2011. He often listened to earlier recordings of the character before stepping into their skin once again. Sometimes, he even asked an old friend for advice. “He’d call George and say, ‘What the eff did you mean by this?’” Karen says.”

I’ll admit that I haven’t listened to the series on audio, but this piece (and listening to a preview on Audible) is making me rethink that decision.

Finally, for a bit of space history, here’s a neat story in Russia Beyond about cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was sent to Mir in May 19th, 1991, and was onboard when the Soviet Union collapsed in December, and he ended up spending a considerable amount of additional time in space because of the chaos, returning in March 1992. He returned to space a couple of more times — first on STS-63 on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1994, in December 1998 as part of STS-88 on Space Shuttle Endeavour, and to the International Space Station in 2000 and 2005, before retiring in 2007.

Here are a handful of things that I published recently:

  • I reviewed Stanley Chen’s Waste Tide for The Verge. This is probably one of my favorite books of the year — it’s a really fantastic, near-future thriller, and one that reminded me quite a bit of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I highly recommend this one.

Currently reading


As noted, I’ve been reading Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, and recently finished Waste Tide and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Storm of Locusts — my review of that is coming out on The Verge in a couple of hours. Spoiler: it's good. Very good.

I’m currently starting two other books. The first is The Untold Story of the Talking Book by Matthew Rubery, which is a history of audiobooks. This is a bit of a beat that I’ve fallen into at The Verge, and it’s a topic that I’m generally interested in: how does the medium end up influencing or changing the story that it’s conveying? This looks like it’ll talk a bit about that, which I’m excited to examine.

I’m also reading Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron, which hits stores on June 11th. I’ve got high hopes for this one: it’s a Star Wars novel about starfighter pilots (what’s not to love?), but it’s got a high bar: Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series. So far, I’m enjoying it. I've also started reading Westside by W.M. Akers, which is pretty neat so far.

After that, I’ve got a handful of books that I’m adding to the short list: Dan Moren’s The Bayern Agenda, Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, Suzanne Palmer’s Finder, and Daniel Suarez’s Delta-V. I had a handful of audiobook credits to use up, so I’ll likely be listening / reading to them in the next couple of weeks. That’s not to say that there aren’t others on the list — The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, and The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson are also ones that I want to get to.

Next Issue

The next issue of this will be subscriber-locked: it’ll contain a short story that I’ve been working on that I’m calling “Proposals for regulating the use of free-range velociraptors.” I had a lot of fun writing it, and it’s gotten some good feedback from beta readers. Stay tuned.


As always, let me know what you think, and what you've been reading lately.

Andrew