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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Op-ed • “Notes Towards a Manifesto,” by Bruce Bethke •

It seems I need a manifesto.

I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve gotten along for decades just fine without one. But everyone seems to have a manifesto these days, and I’m beginning to feel embarrassingly underdressed without one. As we’re working to improve sales and develop the Stupefying Stories and Rampant Loon Press brands, people keep asking me, “What does Stupefying Stories mean?”

Um, “stupefy” is a transitive verb. It means to stun, astonish, or astound. So—

“No, no, what does Stupefying Stories stand for? What does it mean? What’s your agenda?”

Ooh. Agenda. I don’t like that word. It makes me nervous. I have come to distrust people who are all about their manifestos and agendas. In my first life, working in grant-funded music and theater, I came to view having an agenda as being a pre-excuse: a way for people to demand that they be judged on their intentions, not results. Announcing an agenda was a way to say, “Ignore the fact that my play is a tedious load of incoherent dreck. Instead, admire the way that it works to subvert the dominant paradigm and makes a statement!

Yeah, yeah, that’s nice. Can I have the last three hours of my life back?

In that life, I learned that people with agendas usually produced a lot of unwatchable plays, unlistenable music, and unreadable fiction—and were happy to do so, because they weren’t at all interested in trying to reach watchers, listeners, or readers. What they were most concerned with was doing something that would appeal to the conceits of the next grant committee they were going to meet, and pretty soon all concern for art and audience went out the window and it was all about nested layers of agendas within agendas.

So in my next life, I went commercial, and was fairly successful at it. I sold somewhere around 50 short stories—yes, I actually stopped counting after awhile—mostly to “pro” markets, both in and out of the SF/F genre. The pinnacle of this career was when I got put under contract by a major publishing house to develop an SF anthology series—

This isn’t my first time in the editor’s chair, you know.

—in a project that was doomed from the beginning, as the publisher had an agenda. I thought my job was to find the best stories I could find, from the best writers I could recruit, and to put together the best books I could produce. The publisher, on the other hand, wanted me to pick stories based on the personal politics of the writers, to snub writers the publisher didn’t like, even if they were producing great stories, and to promote writers the publisher liked, even if they were producing utter crap.

Like most bad marriages, the whole thing eventually fell apart in an argument over money. The publisher had some pretty sketchy accounting practices, and I could see that “my” authors were, if not being cheated, at least being seriously misled. I foolishly believed that I was in a position to do something about that, and tried to do so, but got myself fired instead. The books were eventually released, but with someone else’s name on the cover, and good riddance to ‘em.


And now here we are, years later, in my fifth or sixth regeneration (again, I’ve stopped keeping track), and people are still asking: What’s my agenda?

I’m not sure yet. Most often, I’ve noticed that people who are preoccupied with their manifestos and agendas aren’t really for anything so much as they’re against someone else, and usually for some pretty petty and personal reasons.

I don’t work that way. I’ve tried it. I don’t like the way those kinds of words taste in my mouth.

So what does Stupefying Stories stand for? What does Bruce Bethke stand for? Thus far all I have is a pretty short list:
  • Always be honest.
  • Never be cruel.
  • Never use “I’m just being brutally honest” as an excuse to indulge in plain old schoolyard-bully cruelty.
As I said: it’s a work in progress. I’ll keep you updated.

In science fiction circles, Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his 1995 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people in the SF world have known about him until recently is that he actually began his career in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI interface and the Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in supercomputer software R&D, doing work that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already fluent in Old High Unix and well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics.

In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer love of genre fiction and the short story form.

1 comment:

ray p daley said...

You don't need an agenda. You're Bruce Bethke.

You say "send me stories" and we'll do it. I know I already did, and have done again. Unless this page says "SUBMISSIONS CLOSED!" I'm going keep sending stuff.