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Friday, May 10, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part One)

by Bruce Bethke


And once again, Spring returns to the North Country. In the space of two short weeks we've gone from watching the glaciers calve...


To watching the trees bud, the grass turn green, and the crocuses, tulips, and daffodils erupt from the ground in a glorious riot of color, only to get nommed to bits every night by hordes of ravenous bunnies.


Still, the flowers keeping trying. You have to admire that.

Along with the flowers, another sure sign that Spring has returned are the messages like this one, which have begun popping up in my email Inbox lately:
"Dear Mr. Bethke,

"I teach [subject] at [school], and I was wondering if you'd be interested in coming in to talk to my class about..."
Actually, yes; schedule permitting, I would be delighted to come in and speak with your class.

Why?

My reasons are complex, and not always altogether clear to me. Some part of it is born of a simple and honest sense of altruism. Another part is born of a nagging sense of obligation. When I was a cocky young brat just starting out in this business, a lot of older and more experienced writers and editors were much more patient with me than I really deserved. While it's too late to repay their kindness now, I can pay it forward, so this is something I always try to do.

Then there is another, somewhat more mercenary and perhaps less admirable part.

I wouldn't do anything so precious as to claim that I do this for market research, or to "keep a finger on the pulse of the next generation" or anything like that. But the truth is, these conversations always end up being very educational for me. We who live and work inside the ant farm of SF/F publishing tend to take the long view, and given half a chance will tell you all about some story that Arthur C. Clarke first published in Galaxy in 1952. We tend to forget that out there, in the so-called real world, time continues to slide by -- and it does so in the form of window, about ten years long. For most people out there, five years ago is ancient history, and five years in the future is almost unimaginable.

Couple that with the other ten-year window -- that short span of years between the age when a young person is old enough to begin reading for pleasure and the age at which his or her literary tastes have become ossified for life -- and it's enough to make you feel positively Tralfamadorian.

So from time to time I feel the need to step out into the rushing time-flow, to talk to this year's crop of students, but mostly to listen and learn. And some of the things I learn are astonishing.
  • Science fiction, fantasy, horror? Those bright lines of demarcation between genres and subgenres that we in the business claim to see so clearly are invisible to younger eyes. Steampunk elves? Sure. Fighting vampires and zombies on spaceships? Why not? As long as the story is exciting and the imagery is engaging, all else can be forgiven.
     
  • Print, video, graphic novels, online gaming? It's all one continuous media space now, and the different incarnations of a given property are all just different points on the same continuum. Books, live-action movies, animated movies, graphic novels, and video game cut scenes are all treated as equally valid. "The movie was cool but the game totally sucked" is a trenchant critique.

  • Star Wars? Bring that up in a classroom today and you're most like to spark an argument over whether Disney's decision to close down LucasArts and turn all game development over to Electronic Arts was a disaster or a catastrophe. "Oh, you mean the movies? I think my Dad still has those on DVD and watches them once in a while."
     
  • Star Trek? "Wasn't that movie with Chris Pine and Zach Quinto great? I am so waiting for Into Darkness to open next week!

    "What, you mean the old stuff, like with Captain Piccard, or the really old stuff, that my Grandpa still watches?" To this generation, the original Star Trek occupies the same cognitive space that old Flash Gordon serials occupied for mine: some pretty cool ideas, hampered by hammy acting, plodding scripts, and laughably cheap special effects. The idea that Into Darkness is a re-imagining of a thirty-year-old idea bothers them no more than the idea that The Wrath of Khan was an expansion of "Space Seed" bothered their parents.
     
  • Harry Potter? "I think my older sister read all those books. I'm more into Twilight. And World War Z. And The Walking Dead. And The Hunger Games."
     
  • Doctor Who is a series you watch on Netflix. Any mention of Dr. Who is sure to start a vigorous argument over which one's the best Doctor -- Matt Smith or David Tennant -- with one smug girl in the back insisting they're both wrong, it's Christopher Eccleston. Mention Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker, or how wonderful it was to see Elisabeth Sladen one more time in "The Stolen Earth," and all you'll get is a roomful of blank looks. "Who?"
     
  • Radagast the Brown gets a surprising amount of name recognition. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are those films by Peter Jackson. Dwarves are awesome. Elves are probably gay. (This last assertion is always followed by a sudden nervous look around, and then, "Not that there's anything wrong with that.")
     
  • A generation of steady indoctrination has failed: most girls still don't want to be kick-ass warrior women. They want to be Disney princesses, or better yet a Disney princess with a longbow and a talking unicorn for a companion.
     
  • If dwarves are awesome, tharks are even more awesomer. Disney totally botched the deal with John Carter, because the film really resonates with teenage boys, most of whom have watched it on DVD or Blu-Ray and can't wait for the next one to come out. I haven't yet had the heart to tell any of them that it took 80 years for this one to get made, so they're probably in for a long wait.
     
  • Only Goths like Batman. Captain America is awesome (now that was a surprise), and boys don't want to be Batman or Superman, they want to be Tony Stark -- provided they also get Gwyneth Paltrow in the deal.
     
  • No teenagers read comic books any more. They can't afford to.
     
Of course, this is all incidental. The kids aren't there to teach me -- at least, not consciously -- they're there to hear me teach them The Secret. And no matter how I might try to steer and control the conversation, it always ends up with one brave student finally getting up the nerve to ask:
"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?"
Oh, boy...

...to be continued...

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