Happy New Year, Everybody!
I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a while, but with good cause: after many years away, I’ve returned to regular teaching duties at a local university!
This job change was a surprise because my wife and my plans for raising our two kids for the last twenty-one years hadn’t included me returning to active duty on a college campus. While parenting, any free time I had was either consumed with writing The Codex Lacrimae (and plotting the next books in my epic fantasy series) and staying active as a medieval historian in a couple of meaningful ways: involvement with a medieval and Renaissance association, and publishing research articles in the field where I earned a Ph.D. (12th Century Latin sermons and the Crusades).
The Return to University Teaching
Thanks to a coincidence of events, my return to teaching on a college campus in 2016 began a journey of self-rediscovery as a professional historian that I’d genuinely believed long lost. That is, during those years in the academic borderlands, I’d been able to research, translate, and analyze documents on my own terms, preparing journal articles and meeting papers without meeting the new demands that daily life on campus demands. Suddenly, being employed again, I found myself faced with lecture preparations, drafting quizzes and tests, making essay prompts, grading, and holding office hours with students! While all of this work reinvigorated my historical side, the duties did somewhat distract me from writing epic fantasy, as well as tending to this blog.
Now, that’s not to say that I wasn’t thinking about my favorite literary form — and, more specifically, plotting and writing my next book, The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance — but I had to redirect much of that creative writing and storytelling energy into updating lectures from circa 1996-2001 into relevant stories for today’s generation of students.
Rebooting Old Western Civ Courses into World History Surveys
That process became a full-time job because when I left teaching at schools such as Santa Clara University and CU Boulder back in 2001, Western Civilization surveys were the norm. These days, the realities of a modern global society that’s bound by economic and cultural exchanges demands that — in addition to mastering the traditional material from Western Civ courses (Old and New Stone Ages, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greco-Roman societies, and the Middle Ages) — undergraduates now need to have exposure to (and understanding of) the societies of India, Africa, Asia, Persia, and the Americas.
Happily Discovering a New Generation of Students Eager to Learn
So, whether in “World History to 1500” or, more recently, “World History since 1500” and “The Medieval World, 500-1500 C.E.,” making global history relevant to a few hundred students has dominated most of my time the last couple of years. I’ve found the return to be exhilarating — besides getting the chance to tell stories during lectures that canvas 4.5 billion years ago to the present, I’ve even enjoyed tending to the inevitable duties of grading essays and quizzes and holding office hours.
Happily, while verifying some of the recent commentary on the state of undergraduate life (most of my students work at least 20-40 hours a week, enter the university at a variety of ages, arrive on campus from diverse backgrounds and countries, and some even are veterans ), my observations of the students in my classes reveal a (generally felt) genuine interest both in advancing to a bachelor’s degree and a willingness to work hard to achieve success. (For a great article on some sobering realities facing today’s students, see Gail O. Mellow, “The Biggest Misconception about Today’s College Students” (NY Times, 8/28/17))
Returning to Sci-Fi & Epic Fantasy Blogging at an Exciting Time!
However, now that I’ve rebooted the teaching side of my life, and now have returned to this and resuming my ongoing assessments of Science Fiction and the Epic Fantasy genre, I find that I couldn’t have chosen a better time to make a comeback! Star Wars films are appearing now with a regularity that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I first saw the original as a wide-eyed eleven-year-old (and the recent Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi more than delivered on my hopes for the film), and they definitely don’t disappoint!
Moreover, Marvel and DC have added feature-films and television shows to enhance the comic-book tales that I still read daily from a collection that began when I was nine year’s old; so, in addition to reading Dan Slott’s fantastic run on The Amazing Spider-Man or Scott Snyder’s (and now Tom King’s) Batman, I find that Geoff Johns is creating a very cool addition to the original Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen graphic novel in the recent line-wide DC Rebirth, particularly in the new Doomsday Clock 12-issue mini series that promises to bring the world of the Watchmen and the DC Universe together in an exciting and original way.
And now, when I look up from the colored pages of comic books, I see live-action renditions of favorite characters and storylines proliferating everywhere! Last summer’s Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming were excellent films that demonstrated that the big-screen adaptations of the superhero genre still have legs; and then you go to the small screen, and top-quality television shows like The Flash and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are all bringing characters and storylines with which I grew up to a wider audience than ever before.
Add to all of these Sci-Fi & Fantasy that the fact that there are a lot of binge-worthy offerings such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Defenders, and there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to explore and enjoy all of these artistic expressions and meet the demands of academic life and creative writing for my own The Artifacts of Destiny fantasy series.
On that literary front, the year saw a variety of excellent contributions to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy form, some of the best of which from 2017 can be seen here:
Ah, well, not having enough time in the day to enjoy one’s hobbies and passions is the proverbial “problem worth having,” and, for my part, it’ll be fun rebooting this blog and sharing my thoughts about my novels, epic fantasy, and ALL of these subjects and more in the new year!
As we turn the page and leave 2017, I wish all of you and yours a fantastic New Year’s Eve — see you in 2018, when I’ll have new second edition releases of The Codex Lacrimae, Parts 1-3, and I hope you have a Happy New Year!
An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 1
An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 1
Good Morning, Everybody!
It’s an exciting time to be a Science Fiction fan because the wide-ranging and diverse potential of the genre is enjoying an unprecedented popularity; that is, while there was certainly a steady increase in SF offerings when I started reading “the classics” in the 1980s (Asimov, Bester, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, LeGuin, Moorcock, et al), today’s proliferation of the genre in literature, comic books, tv shows, films, & gaming reveals demand on a scale perhaps only dreamed of by original SF creators of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Those creators and their stories are the subject of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). James & Mendlesohn’s introduction situates the text as a part of an “ongoing discussion” within the Science Fiction (sf) community, organizing their topic by dividing this book of essays into three parts: “The History,” “Critical Approaches,” and “Sub-Genres and Themes.”
A foreward by sf legend James Gunn—24th Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and author of innumerable sf books—sets the tone for this fascinating book, with Gunn giving his own synoptic history of the sf genre, beginning with an anecdote from 1971’s inaugural meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association and focusing on the pulp magazines, rise of fandom, academic assessments, and sf’s rise in mainstream publishing.
The following essays elaborate on these phenomena, with appreciated attention in the first section to the origins and history of sf. Space permits only a brief look below at a couple of essays, but the entirety of the 19th and 20th Centuries are canvassed in articles by established academic and popular authorities in the field: Damien Broderick’s “New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980,” John Clute’s “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present,” Mark Bould’s “Film and Television,” and Gary K. Wolfe’s “Science fiction and its editors.”
Part 1. The history
Because of their foundational aspects in the books, the initial two essays in the history section deserve closer attention. The first essay, Brian Stableford’s “Science fiction before the genre,” covers a considerable amount of ground in 16 pages; beginning in the 17th Century with the popular interest that began in the scientific discoveries of the time, Stableford gives examples of utopian fantasy, imaginary voyages, and dream stories that never quite rose above the level of unique literature until the experimental works of Edgar Allan Poe (“Sonnet—To Science”). He sees aspects of what became sf in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, but finds that the work’s Romantic trappings actually made it ‘anti-sf’ because of its fatalism about progress.
Stableford cites Jules Verne as the writer who first took seriously scientific inquiry in stories that used imaginatively rendered technological devices for travel extraterrestrial (From the Earth to the Moon), subterranean (Journey to the Centre of the Earth), and marine (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea).
The essay here has the admirable quality of tracing simultaneous sf developments in Great Britain, the U.S., and France as newspapers and magazines of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries provided forums for fledgling sf writers to experiment with new milieus and expressions. After Verne, Stableford sees H.G. Wells expanding upon Verne’s fascination with matters technological by introducing visions and dreamscapes into futuristic speculation (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds) and moral fables that included elements of romance (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man).
Magazines and pulp novels were part of the flurry of periodicals that attended the rise of sf in the early 1900s, a time when Edgar Rice Burroughs’s short story, “Under the Moons of Mars” became the first novel in the Barroom series, A Princess of Mars, and inviting a host of imitative tales that started introducing concepts of magic portals and parallel worlds (Abraham Merritt’s “The Moon Pool”  and Francis Stevens’s “The Heads of Cerebus” ).
The second essay in this historical section, Brian Attebery’s “The magazine era: 1926-1960,” assesses the pivotal role that magazines played in promoting sf as what Attebery usefully defines as a “… mode of storytelling, but also a niche for writers, a marketing category for publishers, a collection of visual images and styles and a community of like-minded individuals.”
Brian Attebery’s story begins with the namesake of the World Science Fiction Society’s “Hugo Awards,” Hugo Gernsback, whose Amazing Stories magazine (f. 1926) seriously attempted to define the sf genre—initially the style of writing was called ‘scientification’— and in the first issue Gernsback called for more creative works to follow the examples of Verne, Wells, and Poe, with a magazine format and perspective that intended to “… supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain-and…supply it in a very palatable form.’ In other words (Atterby writes), sf, as Gernsback envisioned it, ‘was primarily a teaching tool, but one that did not make its teaching obvious.’
Ways that sf writers accomplished this teaching were by following these what John Cawelti grouped as “adventure, mystery, and romance,” with mystery the most prominent form of the early pulps. Attebery next outlines the fictional formulas that characterized the magazine stories of this period:
space opera: E. E. ‘Doc Smith’s’ “Skylark” and “Lensmen” series, where any “…one of his interchangeable heroes coming across a spaceship in distress, single-handedly defeating a band of space pirates, making friends with a bizarre but good-natured alien and rescuing a beautiful woman.”
Poesque horror: most notably this branch of sf could be seen in Weird Tales magazine (1923-1954), with H.P. Lovecraft blurring the boundaries between fantastic landscapes and supernatural horror
sympathetic aliens & sf technology: for a couple of decades, the stories that appeared in magazines featured what Attebery calls ‘blandly indistinguishable’ human beings who confronted alien beings and space ships that started to be popularized with the artwork of Frank R. Paul, who “…translated words into images—space ships, domed cities, goggle-eyed creatures—that are still being used to represent the future in advertisements, movies and television shows.”
young scientist saving the world, usually with help of mentor’s daughter: Attebery writes, “…using this basic plot structure, the [sf] writer could introduce variations regarding the nature of of the threat (aliens, rival scientists, natural disasters) and the invention (a time machine, a device to accelerate evolution, a death ray). The tone could be sombre, rapturous or comic. The ending, though, was nearly always happy, a vindication of the young hero’s character and the reader’s belief…”
These formulas were successful, with circulation to Amazing Stories reaching over 100,000 subscribers in just a few months; unfortunately, Gernsback overextended himself and went bankrupt in the early 1930s, but a spate of magazines successfully imitated his format and tried to meet demand for ‘thought-variant stories’—Science Wonder Quarterly (1929), Astounding Stories (1930), and Marvel Science Stories (1937), with expansion of formats in editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Stories-era that are still familiar today: “… chatty editorials, the advertising (for radio kits, scientific publications, correspondence course, razors and body-building regimens) and, perhaps most significantly, the letters from the fans.”
Attebery traces the interaction between fans and editors during this period (1930s-1950s), where correspondence both within the pages of the magazines were paralleled by the rise of fan clubs and sf associations, the most important of which was 1934’s Science Fiction League, whose offshoots “… carried on the fan tradition of meeting, arguing, publishing non-professional magazines for one another and generally behaving more like active partners than passive consumers. One group, the Futurians, included many of the most important writers in the next generation: Frederick Pohl, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Cyril Kornbluth, Isaac Asimov and James Blish…”
Within this milieu, thanks to the influence and editorial decisions of Campbell in Astounding Stories, important sf writers began to reshape the genre into a form that still retains the contributions of each:
Robert A Heinlein: in “The Roads Must Roll” (1940) established the prototype of the Astounding Stories engineer/technocrat as action hero
Isaac Asimov: in the Foundation stories, invented a scholarly society & ‘psychohistory’ that predicts fall of a galactic empire
A.E. Van Vogt: “created dream-like narratives about psychic supermen in hiding” and shifted part of the sf form into realms of fantasy
By the 1950s, when feature films began attempting to meet the growing demand for the expanding genre and fan-base, Attebery notes that ‘Science fiction for grown-ups’ began to appear in new magazines such as New Worlds (U.K.) and Galaxy Science Fiction (U.S.), when writers such as Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End), Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man), Theodore Sturgeon (More than Human), and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) led a creative sf explosion of works that eventually transcended the magazine format and yielded a new kind of sf novel that would become popular in the 1960s.
That transition in itself created new kinds of issues with the dissemination of sf stories—the shift from a newsstand distribution model to a book format that needed publisher promotion being the most notable—but Attebery’s essay more than satisfies in its conclusion that, fittingly, the major sf magazine that survived into the 1980s and 1990s was Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a periodical that still made room for out-of-the-box ideas in an increasingly competitive and book-dominated marketplace.
Next Time: Book Review, Part 2: “Critical Approaches & Sub-Genres and Themes”
Carlisle Kickstarter Update: “The Codex Lacrimae” at Friday’s DCPA Off-Center’s “Kick-Off Cabaret!”
Good Morning, Everyone!
I just wanted to give you an update on how things went at this past Friday’s “Kick-Off Cabaret,” where I promoted my Kickstarter project http://kck.st/1KRP10j at the Denver Center for Performing Arts in front of a packed, 200-hundred seat Jones Theatre.
To channel the favorite word of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, the event was “FANTASTIC!”
I closed the “pitch” part of the presentation by telling how the $6,500 goal would be used to line-edit and publish a new trilogy of books, and then narrated a scene from the novel, “Chapter 11: Trouble in the Library.”
Now, $110 of that recent pledge activity came from the Off-Center itself! Here’s how it worked: besides wanting to blend the “turbo-charged” artistic patronage system of Kickstarter with the vibrancy of live-theater, curator Charlie Miller thought it important that the audience have a say in which acts should get a portion of the ticket sales for the night!
That meant that for every $15 ticket sold, $5 would go to an audience member’s preferred act.
We’ll see in coming days Friday night’s experience translates into getting “The Codex Lacrimae” closer to (or over!) its $6,500 goal, but I want to THANK Charlie, Emily Tarquin, Hope Grandon, & the entire Off-Center entire cast & crew for all of their help and support in promoting my work.
I think that Charlie’s entire idea was brilliant, and as the Off-Center is a “testing” venue for the Denver Center for Performing Arts, I wish Off-Center many more future Kickstarter/Theater events as successful as Friday night’s was!
Now, that being said, I’m still only 20% funded on my Kickstarter campaign, with 27 days left until it ends on April 13th, so please keep watching this space for more updates!
Also, I’d really appreciate you taking a moment to visit the website (and share the link with friends and followers) and make a pledge: help bring a new epic fantasy into the world! http://kck.st/1KRP10j
All my best (and keep spreading the word!),