Rob Wolf

Author of the Khronos Chronicles and host of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy

My Alternate Universe

Robert Silverberg's Inspiration

October 12, 2014

Tags: Words or phrases to categorize this post for the tags section

Science Fiction: 101 isn’t just an “exploration of the craft of science fiction” as its subtitle says; it’s also about the impact the stories in this anthology had on the imagination of a young boy.

That boy was Robert Silverberg, who was so inspired by the stories he found in pulpy magazines with names like Startling and Thrilling Wonder that he vowed he would one day become a science fiction writer himself.

He sold his first science fiction story in 1954 when he was a sophomore at Columbia and never looked back. But lest anyone think the job of writer is easy, one of the messages of Science Fiction: 101 is that “hard work rather than superior genetic endowment is the basic component of most writers’ success.”

The collection contains 13 stories, most of which were published in the 1950s and from which Silverberg, in essays accompanying each story, draws lessons about the art of storytelling. The anthology was originally published under a different name in 1987 but has been out of print until this year when Roc re-issued it.

In my interview with him on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Silverberg touches on, among other things, his relationship with Isaac Asimov. At first, he knew and admired Asimov from his writing. But eventually, they became not only good friends but collaborators on several books, including the novelization of Asimov’s famous short story Nightfall.

Ever present in the interview are reminders of the wonder Silverberg felt as a boy reading science fiction. That wonder is all the more poignant now that Silverberg is in the autumn of his career (he says he doesn’t plan to publish any new novels although hasn’t ruled out writing an occasional essay or short story). “Science Fiction: 101 is aimed for the people who, like me, like Isaac [Asimov], like Ray Bradbury were beginners once.”

Max Gladstone and the Mystery of Inspiration

September 22, 2014

Tags: Max Gladstone, Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five, inspiration, Ursula K. LeGuin

Max Gladstone is a busy guy. He’s marketing Full Fathom Five, the third novel in his Craft Sequence even as he prepares for the release of the next book in his out-of-order series of stand-alone books. On top of that, he recently released an interactive text-based game called Choice of the Deathless. He writes weekly, thoughtful blog posts, keeps up with his fans on Twitter, and, I imagine, all the while is imagining in the back of his head an alternate world of necromancers, goddesses and lawyerly witches (or witchy lawyers?)

With so much going on, I’m grateful he had time to talk with me on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Gladstone got me thinking about the mystery of inspiration. In the interview, he cites a number of sparks that gave life to the “post-industrial urban fantasy” landscape of the Craft Sequence: the financial collapse of 2008, his years working as an English teacher in China, where he saw non-profits collaborate with less-than-savory for-profits to achieve worthwhile outcomes and the Horatio Alger-like transformations of children of poor Chinese farmers into world-trotting bankers and engineers.

He also got me thinking how fiction itself offers inspiration by pointing me to a quote from the legendary Ursula K. LeGuin, in which she extols the power of science fiction and fantasy to help readers escape conformity and the confines of suffocating ideologies. I found the quote (which itself paraphrases J.R.R. Tolkein and comes from her 1979 collection of essays The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction) on I think it's powerful idea that worth quoting in full:

“There is an area where SF has most often failed to judge itself, and where it has been most harshly judged by its nonpartisans. It is an area where we badly need intelligent criticism and discussion. The oldest argument against SF is both the shallowest and the profoundest: the assertion that SF, like all fantasy, is escapist.

“This statement is shallow when made by the shallow. When an insurance broker tells you that SF doesn’t deal with the Real World, when a chemistry freshman informs you that Science has disproved Myth, when a censor suppresses a book because it doesn’t fit the canons of Socialist Realism, and so forth, that’s not criticism; it’s bigotry. If it’s worth answering, the best answer is given by Tolkien, author, critic, and scholar. Yes, he said, fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.”

A Tip from Andy Weir: Build a Following

September 1, 2014

Tags: Andy Weir, The Martian, writing tips

Andy Weir’s The Martian is an adventure both in and outside its pages. In the novel, an astronaut abandoned on Mars struggles to survive in a deadly environment. In the real world, the novel's author struggles to survive in a hostile publishing environment.

In the real world, of course, the author prevails. (To find out if the astronaut enjoys a similar triumph, you’ll have to read the book).

One of the keys to Andy Weir’s success is that he built an audience over many years, starting with cartoons and short stories posted on his website. One story in particular—The Egg —has been so popular, that fans have now translated it into dozens of languages.

“I had accumulated a few thousand readers to start with, before I’d written The Martian. And that gives you kind of a critical mass for word of mouth,” he tells me on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

He wrote and posted The Martian in installments on his site. It was only when some of his fans said they were having trouble downloading the The Martian (which he eventually compiled into a single book) to their Kindle that he decided to self-publish the entire manuscript on Amazon in 2012.

“I charged people 99 cents, which was the minimum [Amazon allowed], and I told people if you want it for free you can download it from my website. If you want to pay a buck to have Amazon put it on your Kindle, then here you go. And more people bought it then downloaded it for free because that’s just how much reach into the readership market that Amazon has. More people heard about it through Amazon than had heard about it from my site or my readers. So it started to sell really well and climb up the bestseller lists and that got the attention of the print publisher Crown.”

The Martian clearly has broad appeal. But one of the keys to its success has to do with all the hard work Weir put into building his fan base. This was not something he did in a calculated way; it happened naturally as his creative output—which until The Martian’s success was basically a hobby—slowly attracted more and more followers.

It’s a great story of a writer doing what he enjoys, giving pleasure to a readership he’s built through his own hard work; and the readership helping the writer, providing critical mass to launch him into the publishing stratosphere.

Astronaut Mark Watney is smart enough to survive on the unforgiving surface
of Mars, but my copy of
The Martian is no match for Mr. Catfish.

Inventing Plausible Aliens

August 23, 2014

Tags: James Cambias, A Darkling Sea, podcast, Prime Directive, aliens

One of the things that impresses me about James Cambias’ novel A Darkling Sea is its thoroughly believable depiction of the thoughts and feelings of alien characters.

When writing about an alien, an author can make up anything he/she wants. If he/she wants to give Creature X seven arms or the power to walk through walls, well… voila, an author can, as Captain Picard likes to say, “make it so.”

Unfortunately, it’s one thing to create an alien and another to convince a reader of the alien’s plausibility. As a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m always eager to suspend disbelief, but a writer has to give me something to work with. And that’s one of the wonders of A Darkling Sea: Cambias gives the reader plenty of wonderful details to make his vision complete.

He introduces two alien societies—the Sholen and the Ilmataran. As he explains in our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, he came to understand the Ilmatarans through their biology “and extrapolated outward from there”:

You have a species which reproduces by spawning, which means there is virtually no difference between the sexes, and there is absolutely no parental impulse at all. Children are –they’re about at the same level people view squirrels.

He incorporates into the narrative the Ilmatarans’ caste system, laws, relationships, forms of communication (through sonar and tying knots in cord), methods of scientific exploration, and on and on, weaving a complex and highly believable world at the bottom of a cold, black-as-night ocean. (more…)

My Path to Indie Publishing

August 4, 2014

Tags: Shelbi Wescott, podcast, indie publishing

It seemed miraculous when Shelbi Wescott’s Virulent: The Release appeared on my Kindle unbidden. As it turned out, my then 15-year-old son had bought it, and since we share the same Amazon account, it wasn’t so miraculous after all. Still, I took it as a sign that “indie” publishing had gone mainstream. After all, it meant that my son, who represented a new generation of readers, had no hang-ups (as I still did at that point) about reading a self-published book.

That started me down the path to publish my own books independently. Slowly my prejudice against self-publishing vanished, helped by the inspiring examples of folks like Ms. Wescott and Hugh Howey and many others. Members of my writing workshop also encouraged me. They included our workshop leader, Jennifer Belle, who has experienced bestseller-dom as a conventionally published author, and Donna Brodie, executive director of The Writers Room in New York City, who has witnessed first-hand the often tumultuous and frequently disappointing experiences hundreds of writers have had during conventional agent-to-publisher-to-remainder-pile careers.

I thought because I already had an agent at a respected agency, I was crazy to publish my books myself. But now I realize I was insane to wait so long (six years in total) for my agent to peddle my manuscripts (my first book was a memoir about my husband and I adopting our son, my second a series of two sci-fi novels) with progressively decreasing enthusiasm. I was momentarily blinded (more…)

Writing in 2 Languages (at the Same Time)

July 21, 2014

Tags: Memory of Water, Science Fiction, #scifi, Emmi Itaranta, Finnish, Finland, Scandinavia, Global Warming, Dsytopia, Heroines

One of the many strengths of science fiction is its ability to take a critical eye to present-world problems by speculating about their impact on the distant future. Emmi Itäranta, who joins me on the current episode of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy, takes full advantage of that strength in her debut novel Memory of Water.

In Memory of Water the future is marked by water scarcity. The origins of the problem are murky to protagonist 17-year-old Noria but not to us: Itäranta leaves readers clues that her fictional Scandinavian Union’s semi-primitive society and authoritarian government have their roots in our contemporary failure to address global warming.

In our conversation, global warming is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. I found it particularly fascinating that Ms. Itäranta wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in Finnish and English—two languages that, she says, are “at extreme ends of how languages work.”

Here’s more of what she said on the subject:

English and Finnish are extremely different languages. English is a language that has a huge amount of words. The vocabulary is massive, compared to Finnish anyway, but the grammar is relatively simple, whereas Finnish is a language where you have a very small vocabulary but the grammar is very complex and you can do a lot with those few words because of the grammar. So in some ways you could say they are almost at extreme ends of how languages work.

For me, looking at the work in both languages forced me to be extremely careful. It forced me to throw away anything that was unnecessary. It forced me to look at each word and each sentence very closely on an almost microscopic level. So I felt that when I finished the manuscript, even if people didn’t like it, at least I’d be able to tell why I’d made each of the choices that I’d made writing it because I’d had looked at the story through two languages rather than just one. It forced me to be precise and I think that was helpful for the book.

Another remarkable aspect of Memory of Water is the fact that Ms. Itäranta has created in Noria a heroine whose strength comes not through, say, her skill as a fighter (à la Katniss Everdeen) or through magic spells (think Hermione Granger) but through her quiet, careful, and brave determination to search for truth and do what’s right.

Next up on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Shelbi Wescott, author of the Virulent series.

Welcome to the New Books Network

July 8, 2014

Tags: New Books Network, science fiction, #scifi, Eekhout, California Bones, New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy

My inaugural podcast as host of New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy is now available on the New Books Network.

I supposed I’m biased, but I think the New Books Network is amazing. Its concise description as “a consortium of podcasts dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing serious authors to serious audiences” belies its depth and reach.

It has over 100 channels dedicated to topics as varied as comics, mathematics, food, global conflict, theater, digital culture, archeology and on and on. And this oasis of enlightened conversation is run entirely by volunteers and overseen by Marshall Poe, its editor-in-chief, founder, and all-around workhorse.

I was honored that Marshall asked me to host the channel although I was a bit nervous at first, concerned about the time it might take away from my own writing. Then I realized it was actually a wonderful and fun opportunity. I’d assiduously avoided reading too much science fiction and fantasy so as not to unconsciously steal ideas for my own writing. But hosting has given me a chance to test an entirely new approach: spark my imagination by immersing myself deeply in new works of science fiction and fantasy.

My plan is to produce a new podcast every two weeks. My first interview is with Greg van Eekhout, author of California Bones (Tor, 2014), which came out in June. In this first of a trilogy, van Eekhout creates a completely new, internally consistent world. The primary premise of this world is that magic is real, and the rulers of the Kingdom of Southern California draw power and wealth from potions derived from the bones of magical creatures. Interestingly, I’ve scheduled an interview with James Cambias, author of A Darkling Sea, who recently wrote an interesting blog post about fictional magic and the great lengths authors will go to in order to create their own internally consistent set of magical mechanics.

To give you a preview of what’s to come, I’m also planning interviews with Emmi Itäranta about her Memory of Water (Harper Voyager, 2014), Shelbi Wescott about her Virulent series (Amazon Digital Services, 2013) and Robert K. Silverberg about his Science Fiction: 101: Exploring the Craft of Science Fiction (Roc, 2014).

If anyone has suggestions for other authors to interview, please send them my way.

Book Party!

June 29, 2014

Tags: Book Party, Celebrations

I wasn’t sure what the point of a book party was when my friends asked me if I was going to have one. In fact, my writing friends didn’t just ask but insisted I have one. “The publication of a book is worth celebrating,” said one. “A party is a great way to get the word out,” said another.

And they were both right. It was a wonderful celebration, bringing together people I love and respect from all areas of my life. Although I knew the books were finished, polished and ready for sale, that truth didn’t fully sink in until I saw people buy them, received their congratulations, and signed book after book with individualized inscriptions.

I also did a reading. Fortunately, Jennifer Belle, my friend and leader of my weekly writing workshop, urged me to practice the reading beforehand. That was an excellent idea. During my practice session, I stumbled over two spots. Had I stumbled over those spots before a live audience, I would have blushed, started sweating profusely, and begun to read super fast and probably stumbled more.

I also handed out with every book a note of thanks and a list of three suggestions for supporters: to read the books; to review and recommend them; and to regard me as a resource (for book groups, school visits, etc.)

The next day, there was a wonderful blog post by Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, where I work as Director of Communications.

Attack of the Lawyers from Outer Space

June 19, 2014

Tags: outer space, utopia, dystopia, Ursula K. Le Guin, space law scholars

Maybe if the human race was turned into candy, we'd finally live in harmony.
One of the things I enjoyed most about science fiction as a kid was its optimism. Sure, there were dystopic visions of nuclear holocaust and intergalactic empires at war, but there were also tales of utopian societies where people lived sustainably and in peace (the collectivist society of Anarres in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed comes to mind.)

The reassuring message of utopian sci-fi is that, “Sure, humans screwed up Earth, but when they finally figure out how to travel through space, they’ll also figure out how to live in harmony.” That message was reflected in the multi-ethnic, multi-species crew of the Starship Enterprise, whose members enjoyed a collegiality (unless one of them was overcome by some demonic alien influence or replaced by an evil twin from an alternate universe) that many hoped would eventually emerge from the civil rights struggles and anti-war protests of the 1960s.

Well, this article in The Economist makes me think we’re no closer to solving our problems even as the prospect of space colonization seems ever more tangible.

The article notes that in a Star Trek-like moment of international harmony, space-faring nations in 1967 devised the United Nations Outer Space Treaty to declare that no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon. A hundred and two nations have signed on.

But now “space law scholars” (the next best thing to being an astronaut if weightlessness makes you nauseous) are debating whether the treaty still allows for private (as opposed to national ownership) of celestial satellites. It figures, of course, the debate is being fueled in part by a billionaire, who “wants to establish private property rights on the Moon in a bid to tackle Chinese lunar dominance. He believes ‘the final nail in America’s 21st century coffin is likely to be China’s takeover of the Moon.’”

I can’t help but think of the Native Americans, who knew nothing of property rights, watching the Europeans steal their land, chop it into lots, and transform it from a shared inheritance to a private commodity.

Once someone owns a chunk of the Moon, it’s easy to imagine someone suing if they trip over a carelessly placed Moon rock or someone getting arrested for trespassing (“Private Crater: Keep Out”.) From there, it’s not too hard to imagine more serious crime, more serious lawsuits, more serious conflicts eventually leading to interstellar wars.

The only good thing, I suppose, is that there will still be a need for books like The Dispossessed, imagining utopian worlds that will still seem just around the corner and yet perhaps forever out of reach.

This is a Dad's Brain on Parenting

June 14, 2014

Tags: fatherhood, brains, parenting, science

There are as many types of fathers as there are people. The Khronos Chronicles
features a father who is intellectually brilliant but largely blind to his son's emotional needs, not to mention blind to the potential consequences of his brilliant invention.

Some people don't think fathers are capable of being fully emotionally present in their children's lives, at least when compared to the paradigmatic mother. That was definitely the sense I got 16 years ago when our son was a newborn; quite a few people seemed to express either doubt or wonder at Dru's and my capacity to be effective nurturers.

But now there's research to prove that moms and dads are made of the same stuff, according to an article on by Bahar Gholipour. "Taking care of a child reshapes a dad's brain, causing it to show the same patterns of cognitive and emotional engagement that are seen in moms," she writes. This pretty much confirms what I've known viscerally as a (gay) dad, but it's nice to see it confirmed.

Click here for the full article (which had a bunch of other interesting dad-related research).