Monday, September 1, 2014

Jay Kay Klein's Astounding Bequest


You don't have to be exceptionally good at what you do to be important.  Sometimes a combination of hard work, persistence, and caring for the right thing will suffice.

Case in point:  Jay Kay Klein.

Jay Kay was a fixture in science fiction long before I discovered fandom, and for decades thereafter.  At every convention he attended -- and he went to lots -- he was constantly wandering about, taking pictures of greats, near-greats, and obscurities of science fiction receiving awards, speaking on panels, taking part in costume events.  He began taking photographs in the 1940s and continued doing so until he could no longer attend science fiction events.  How many thousands of photos did he take?  I couldn't tell you.  But I do know that every single one of them had his photographer's stamp on the back, along with a penciled notation of who the photo was of, when it was taken, and at what event.  Thus making them extremely useful to scholars and literary historians.

Jay Kay was a competent photographer, nothing special.  His pics were clear and in focus, but only rarely striking.  They were good snapshots, for the most part.  But the number and range and comprehensiveness of them made them extremely valuable.

How valuable?  Well, he willed them to the University of California Riverside's Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, reputedly "the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world."  Which had them appraised as being worth $1.4 million dollars.


There's a lesson to be learned here, and I'm not above pointing it out to you:  Even if you don't have a special ability to paint or create music or write fiction, you can still lead a life of importance.  All it takes is gumption, hard work, and the ability to stick to a useful task.

And falling in love with the right thing, of course.

You can read io9's account here.  And UCR/Today's account here.

And as a happy side-effect . . .

Generous man that he was, Jay Kay Klein also left cash to the Eaton Collection.  Specifically, he left $3.5 million dollars.

Again, wow.

This may have had the happy side-effect of saving the Eaton Collection.  Recently, it looked like a new university administration -- not understanding the value of an archive dedicated not to the history of chemistry or Jacobean tragedy or Japanese ukiyo-e, or anything self-evidently worthwhile but to science fiction and fantasy, literary forms so young that there are still many of doubt their validity -- was going to downsize the collection or even fold it into some other department in their library system.

Jay Kay's bequest has surely saved the collection from any such fate, however.  Because this is America and in America nothing validates an intellectual endeavor like money.

And how cool is the Eaton Collection . . . ?

I have almost no idea.  But I do know that they recently bought Gardner Dozois's correspondence,  dating back to long before he became an editor.  Letters from writers like Gene Wolfe, George R. R. Martin, and William Gibson back when they were perfect unknowns.  Or the letter from a writer whose name I have conveniently forgotten, writing from Paris and signed "Your sniveling poodle."  Or the round-robin story beginning "There are seven silent salacious ways to fellate Robert A. Heinlein," and continuing in another hand (each writer got to contribute one sentence at a time) "And six of them don't work."  Or . . .

Oh, there's some juicy stuff in there, all right.  Scholars are going to have a great glimpse behind the curtain at how literature is really collected, once the stuff is available.

And once again . . .

I've told this story before, but what the heck.  I ran into Jay Kay Klein at the Millennial Philcon in 2000, and stopped to chat.  He told me he'd been at the 1953 Worldcon, the first one held in Philadelphia.  "I know things about it that nobody else remembers," he said.

"Oh yeah?" I replied.  "Like what?"

"Like the fact that I was there."

And now you've had the last laugh, Jay Kay.  For as long as scholars care about science fiction -- and I am confident that will be a long, long time -- there will be people who are grateful that you were there.

Above:  The image of Jay Kay Klein at work was taken from Mike Glyer's legendary fanzine File 770.  Click here to see their 2012 obituary of him.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Peter Watts' Wall of Science


A few months ago, I received an Advance Reading Copy of Peter Watts' new novel, Echopraxia, from  Tor, the publisher.  They were looking for a blurb.

I couldn't give it one.

Not that the book wasn't brilliant.  Watts is always brilliant.  But there was so much science-stuff going on and all of it integral to an understanding of the book that I simply couldn't boil it all down to a coherent four or five sentences.  I tried and, after a lot of hard work, I gave up.

Echopraxia is not an easy read.  To begin with, it's a sequel to Blindsight, which also had enormous amounts of science-stuff going on and which ended with the death of pretty much everybody including (I think) the human race.  It was, mind you, a wonderful play of ideas; once you accept that in a Peter Watts novel everyone and everything is going to end badly, the narrative is exhilarating.  If you haven't read the first novel, the second will leave you baffled.  There's simply too much science-stuff going on to leave room for a reader-friendly recap of what came before.  So the motivations of several of the major players in this secret war for the control of human consciousness will be opaque to anyone who starts with Echopraxia.

It's also worth noting that Echopraxia ends with several essays on the science-stuff (mostly neuroscience) covered in the book, along with citations for the original papers and links to more essays Watts has posted online.  This can be exhilarating.  Or it can be daunting.  It all depends on how you feel about science-stuff, particularly neuroscience-stuff.

Love it or loathe it, this all makes for a certain density of prose.  The best way to think of this, I believe, is as the science fictional equivalent of Phil Spector's great contribution to pop music, the Wall of Sound.  Just as Spector created a dense, overlapping, reverberative sound made up of many instruments playing at once in order to push through the sonic limitations of the jukeboxes and AM radios of his time, Peter Watts has created a dense, overlapping, reverberative Wall of Science that attempts to push through the limitations of the prose science fiction novel.

Anyway, that's one of the things he's up to.  As I said, there's a lot of science-stuff going on in there.

Above:  Peter Watts.  Echopraxia (also known as echokinesis) is the involuntary repetition or imitation of another person's actions.  If I tried to explain its relationship to the novel, we’d be here all day.


Monday, August 25, 2014

A Chinese Worldcon?


You probably know that Kansas City won the bid for the 2016 Worldcon and that I'll be a Guest of Honor at MidAmeriCon 2.  These facts were announced a week ago at the Sunday morning business meeting at Loncon.  But you probably don't know that the first thing the bid committee did, after coming to the front of the room and giving voice to their happiness, was to read a statement expressing their respect and admiration for the losing bid -- Beijing in 2016 -- and pledging their support for the effort to bring the Worldcon to China sometime in the future.

That was thoroughly admirable of the MAC 2 folks and, if I'm any judge of these things, absolutely sincere.

So . . . will there be a Worldcon in China in the foreseeable future?

I'm pretty sure yes.  China is a wonderful place to visit, and the fans who put together the bid were a positive, idealistic, hard-working batch.  Also, as John Updike wrote of the Chinese people he met on a trip there, "full of fun."  It would take a world-grade curmudgeon not to wish them well.  They're going to have a lot of friends and allies the next time they launch a bid.

Also, I can't help thinking of Jennie Bai who was, seven years ago, one of the editors of Science Fiction World, then (and perhaps still) the science fiction magazine with the largest circulation in the world.  On my last day in Chengdu, she suggested that I should write a column of writing advice for the magazine.  I wasn't very enthusiastic about the idea, but "Think about it," she urged me gently.

On the flight home, I did think about the offer and remembered that Nancy Kress (who was also at the conference, so I knew they were aware of her as a major SF writer) wrote a column of writing advice for Writer's Digest.  I taught a Clarion West a few weeks after she did, so I also knew that her advice was a model of clarity and concision, far better than anything I might have been able to come up with myself.  So I happily wrote back to Jenny and suggested she get in touch with Nancy.

By return email, Jenny Bai thanked me for the lead, said she had written Nancy Kress immediately, and suggested that I should write a column for the magazine on various science fiction issues.

Which is how I came to be, for a time, a columnist for Science Fiction World.  I swear to God, I have no memory of actually agreeing to it.  It just sort of happened.

I happen to have Chinese relatives in my extended family, so this is not the first time I've had this kind of experience.  I think it's a cultural thing -- determination combined with patience and an ethos of playing fair and playing clean.

The Chinese fans think it would be a great thing to have a Worldcon in China, so it's almost inevitable that they will.

On my last day at Loncon, I talked about the Chinese bid with someone who'd served on several Worldcon committees.  He too thought they would eventually succeed.  "The first step toward winning a Worldcon bid," he told me, "is losing a Worldcon bid."

I don't know when that winning bid will be.  But I'm sure I'll be a pre-supporter.

Above:  It's not easy picking out a single image to represent all of China.  I chose this one because it was the lifelong ambition of Samuel Johnson to see the Great Wall.  He also urged Boswell to go, saying, "Your children will admire you for it."


Friday, August 22, 2014

Obscurity and Fame


Writers have conflicted feelings about fame.  On the one hand, it's a necessary attribute of the kind of success we want our books to have.  On the other hand, we are by nature creatures of the shadows.  Obscurity, anonymity, and the freedom to wander about wherever we wish without being noticed are valuable tools if you want to write about human beings.

A few years ago, in Chengdu, China, Neil Gaiman spoke for a bit about the inconveniences of being as famous as he is.  This was in a private conversation, so I won't share the details.  But afterwards, when Neil was off talking with somebody else, Rob Sawyer looked thoughtful, and said, "I think now that I only want to be forty percent as famous as he is."

I thought about this at Loncon, when I was sitting at a table full of friends and somebody approached George R. R. Martin with a paper napkin and a pen.  George turned in his chair and was reaching for the napkin when one of his entourage leaped up, shouting, "No, no, no!  He can't sign!  It's not allowed!  No signatures!"

Which was a reasonable thing to do because if it had been allowed, George would have been swamped with autograph seekers, and he wouldn't have been allowed to enjoy the convention at all.  I am not exaggerating here.  I recall running across another of my genuinely famous friends at a Worldcon and stopping to talk with him in the hall.  A crowed gathered around us.  Within minutes it was so thick that nobody could get by.

Whenever Neil or George has a signing, there are rules about how many books will be signed, whether there will be inscriptions, whether it's permitted for them to talk.  Just so a reasonable number of people will be able to get autographs.  I, on the other hand, signed autographs for an hour at the convention, and was able to chat a bit with everybody who showed up with books.  It was a very pleasant experience.  And when the weekend was over, I could return to obscurity.

I'm not saying I don't want my books to be better known, mind.  Only, to paraphrase Saint Augustine, "Lord, make me famous -- but not just yet."

Above:  I couldn't find an image to fit today's post.  So instead you get a painting by Charles Knight.  From the Field Museum.  One of sacred places of the world.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gardner Dozois -- GEEK of the WEEK!!!


Gardner Dozois has received many honors, not all of which he welcomed.  Once, Philadelphia Magazine named him one of the One Hundred Most Intelligent People in Philadelphia.  And if you can't imagine what he had to say about that, then I guess you don't know Gardner half as well as you think you do.

But now at last, he's received a local honor he can accept with pleasure.  Geekadelphia has named him this week's Geek of the Week!

Here's an excerpt from the interview by Chris Urie:

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and editors?
Persevere. Often persistence and determination are as important as talent, if not more so. There have been many writers of talent who have given up and fallen by the wayside, and are never heard from again. The writing life, after all, is not a series of gentle encouragements; it’s more like a series of kicks in the teeth. I can guarantee you that any “overnight success” you’ve heard of has been through years if not decades of rejection and discouragement. If they’re tough enough, if they have a thick enough skin, if they believe in themselves enough, if they want it enough, they persevere. Otherwise, they vanish.

Which is, every word of it, the pure and utter truth.  Seriously, if God offers you the choice between talent and stubbornness, the wise writer will choose the latter every time.

You can read the entire interview with the Great Man here.

Oh, and . . .

The interview more than once mentions Rogues, the anthology with a self-explanatory title which Gardner and George R. R. Martin created and which is fresh out on the stands.  I have a story in there, and as a result I signed about a metric hundred copies of the book over the course of last weekend's Worldcon.  Since I'm only halfway through reading it, I asked a lot of the autographees their opinion of the book.

They all said that every story in it was great.

Those of you who read for pleasure, may want to take note.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Greatest Award Ellen Datlow Will Never Literally Receive


I was present at Loncon last Sunday when Ellen Datlow won a Hugo, her fifth.   Ellen and I have been friends since she was a new-minted assistant fiction editor at the late, lamented Omni.  She rose to the position of fiction editor, which we all expected would be the peak of her career – not because any of us had any doubts about her abilities, but because there simply was no higher position as a genre short fiction editor available.  When Omni folded, she became the fiction editor of Event Horizon and then Sci Fiction, both webzines.  Meanwhile, she was co-editing The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (she chose the horror while the fantasy was handled by first Terri Windling and then Gavin Grant and Kelly Link).  When that volume ceased to be she began editing The Best Horror of the Year.  And simultaneously with all that, Ellen was editing many, many original SF, fantasy, and horror anthologies.  For which she has won, in addition to the aforementioned Hugos, three Bram Stoker Awards, two Shirley Jackson Awards, and nine World Fantasy Awards. 

Oh yeah, and she’s slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in D. C. this year.

Did I mention that she’s my pal?  Marianne and I have known her for (cough) years and we enjoy her company immensely.  She's definitely one of the good guys.

But for all that, I was caught by surprise Sunday when the slate of nominees for Best Editor (Short Form) was read out.  All the editors were popular with the crowd.  But the applause for Ellen was not only louder but warmer than the applause for all the rest.  And when she was announced the winner the entire room roared.

All these years I've known Ellen, liked her, sold her stories, and admired her editing.  But now, in amazement, I realized that she was not just an extremely good editor -- she was a legendary editor.

There is no official mechanism for achieving this status, no trophy, no ceremony, not even a certificate.  It is something that can be only given spontaneously by the readership at large.  And for this reason it is worth more than all the other awards put together.

Legendary.  Wow.

Congratulations, Ellen!  I'm proud to be your friend.

And I really must say . . .

Thank you to everyone who congratulated me on being chosen as a guest of honor for MidAmeriCon 2, the 2016 Worldcon.  I was delighted by the honor and am deeply grateful for your good wishes.  Particularly those of the writers who (you know who you are, most of you) deserve that same honor yourselves.

Um... and that's all, really.  I'm going to slip back into obscurity now.

Above:  Everybody's favorite photo of Ellen, created by the brilliant J. K. Potter.  


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

After The Good Advice...


So many people congratulated me on my goh gig at the MidAmericon 2!  I'll write something tomorrow to thank them all, when I'm not so washed-out and weary from travel.  For today, though, the following brief thought...

My last conversation in London was in Heathrow with a writer (one who, as you'll see in a sec, would not thank me if I used his name) who told me his stories were all beginning to sound alike, climax in the same place and so on, and asked me how to mix it up.

So I did my best.  I checked and found he was reading the magazines voraciously, which was good because you want to compete with the very best of the contemporary writers.  I suggested he go back and reread some of the classic Fifties and New Wave stories to see if any of them sparked a response.  ("This is so wrong-headed!" is an even better story-sparker than "how dare this person write something cooler than I'm working on!")  And I suggested he go out and look at things he's never seen before, stuff that has not much to do with narrative art, and try to daydream a story out of them.  (I've gotten whole stories out of Picasso and Miro exhibitions and many tweaks and details out of individual paintings.)  It was a short conversation -- I had a plane to catch -- but I did my honest best to be of use.

Afterward, though, I thought of one thing I had not said.  It was not advice, so I would not have given up any of what I'd told him to make room for it, but it might be of a lesser usefulness.  So I'll address him directly here:

It's a good sign that you saw this problem, that it disturbed you, and that you're looking for a solution to it.  Every serious writer I know has these kinds of problems, is disturbed by them, and looks for solutions.  It's part of the job.

That's all.  I just thought he -- and by extension a lot of other young writers, both published and someday to be -- could use a word of encouragement.

Above:  Paul Klee's Fish Magic.  A wonderful painting, far better and more profound than the image above makes it look, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I've spent hours staring at it.  It was a big influence on "Slow Life."