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Moving Forward:
Life in a Science-Fiction Novel

April 24th, 2020

A few months back, while prepping for The International Conference on the Fantastic, I wrote a piece titled “Existential Threats” that considered how social media and digital tech were reshaping our culture. The essay centered on two sf classics, Ray Bradbury’s “The Murderer” (pictured at left) and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein.” Since the conference would focus on the Anthropocene, I figured the essay would fit nicely into the discussion of how technology is transforming the world.

Then came COVID-19. The conference was canceled, and the essay is now available in the current issue of Dissections, the British literary journal edited by Gina Wisker and published out of the University of Brighton, UK. You can read the essay here.

Reflecting in the essay now — just two months after it was written — I recall a review of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey that appeared in The New Yorker some 20 years ago. The review considers how scenarios in Crichton novels tend to ignore the technological changes that follow cataclysmic events:

[Crichton’s novels describe] things that could change the world—but don’t. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in Sphere, the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren’t). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today? What if nanoswarms offered promise as well as peril? Prey, with its kill-them-all-and-get-out approach, is neither as frightening nor as fascinating as Greg Bear’s novelette of twenty years ago, “Blood Music,” in which the characters, transformed by the nanotechnology within them, become both far more and much less than human.

COVID-19 will certainly be a game-changer, with the potential to accelerate the development of digital communication and redefine the elements of human interaction. Consider just a few of the news stories and op/eds running today:

Clearly, digital media seems poised to change the post World War C world as dramatically as missiles and atomic energy did in the aftermath of WWII. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A point I might have hit harder in “Existential Threats” is that the dooms-day scenarios of  “The Murderer” and “Dial F” are best read as cautionary tales, warnings of what could happen if change is handled irresponsibly. Such stories are not predictions, and they are balanced nicely by other sf works that look beyond momentary chaos and toward the promise of a new normal.

Fasten those seat belts folks. Stay safe, healthy, and open to the possibilities lie beyond the turbulence. As characters in a science fiction novel, we have no choice but to face the current challenge and move forward into a life 2.0.

Remembering Twilight Zone Magazine @ World Fantasy 2012

October 30th, 2012

The big news today might be Frankenstorm, but once that monster blows through, I’m hoping to head north for something bigger.

This year, Toronto will be playing host to The World Fantasy Convention, an international gathering of writers, editors, scholars, readers, and others associated with all aspects of fantastic literature.

This year, my first big convention event takes place on Thursday night at 9:00, when I’ll be moderating a panel titled “Remembering The Twilight Zone,” featuring fantasy writers who got their starts writing for the magazine during its decade-long run as one of our most influential magazines.

Known officially as Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, the publication carried on the tradition of the popular CBS television series by delivering an eclectic mix of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

Joining me on the panel will be the convention’s author guest of honor Elizabeth Hand, whose first short story sale “Prince of Flowers” appeared in the magazine’s February 1988 issue. I did a reading with Elizabeth at The International Conference of the Fantastic in Florida in 2009, and I’m looking forward to joining her again in Toronto.

Also on the panel will be Scott Edelman, whose story “Fifth Dimension” appeared in March-April 1983. At his blog, Scott writes about how although he worked a block away from the Twilight Zone offices in the ‘80s, he did not want to meet editor T. E. D. Klein for lunch until after the magazine had purchased one of his stories.  “I didn’t want him to buy a story because he was biased to like me; I wanted him to buy a story because he liked the story.” Fortunately for me, after “Fifth Dimension” sold, Scott showed up at Ted’s office on a day that I was in town, and the three of us headed out to Costello’s Restaurant for lunch. The restaurant’s walls were covered with original doodles by James Thurber, and I remember Ted and Scott sitting with their backs to a droopy eared dachshund who seemed captivated by our discussion. For good reason. At the time, Scott was editing the magazine Last Wave, and both he and Ted had a lot of good advice about writing.

Other panelists will include Nancy Baker, whose first story “Exodus 22:18” appeared in June 1989; and the prolific Darrell Schweitzer, whose story “The Man Who Wasn’t Nice to Pumpkin Head Dolls” appeared in December 1988. Darrell had been selling fiction elsewhere before placing a story in TZ. I first discovered him in the pages of Fantastic Science Fiction and Amazing Stories – where my stories were also appearing in the early ‘80s.

My first Twilight Zone story, “Mrs. Halfbooger’s Basement,” appeared in June 1982. The following year, “Echoes” appeared in February 1983. The stories each reappeared in separate editions of Karl Edward Wagner’s Year’s Best Horror Stories, and both remain in print today. Their success, in large part, can be attributed to Ted, who guided me through the rewrites and made sure each story became what it needed to be.

After the Twilight Zone panel, I’m set to take part in the autograph session on Friday at 8:00 PM, where Ash-Tree Press tells me there will be plenty of copies of my collection This Way to Egress, which contains both of my Twilight Zone stories. The book also features some recollections about writing for the magazine.

Beyond that, I’m scheduled to do a reading on Saturday, 1:00 PM, where I plan to share some excerpts from my forthcoming novel Vortex: Book Three of the Veins Cycle. I may also share a bit of my new story “Mercenary,” from Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy, the music-themed anthology that came out earlier this month. The publisher Prime Books will have a table in the dealers room.

After my reading I get to relax and attend some of the other panels, presentations, and readings before heading back home early Sunday morning. The weather report shows Frankenstorm will be burning itself out somewhere to the north by then.

It should be clear sailing for the return trip.