Monday, April 3, 2023

Status Update • continued


The longer I worked on finishing last week’s status update, the more it felt like I was trying to produce a truly tangled mess, which at times felt like the beginnings of a manifesto and at other times veered into being an incoherent rant. I was doing okay with it until the part where I was comparing and contrasting the works of Isao Tomita and Wendy Carlos, when suddenly I began to second-guess myself and wonder whether I even dared to criticize Carlos in a public forum even as small as this one. Then, when I found myself writing the words, “When you have a new instrument, it’s like learning a new language. As a creative person, what’s important is what you have to say with this language that’s new. If your chosen instrument is the science fiction story, no one really cares how well you can perform an idea Issac Asimov first made famous nearly eighty years ag—

Oh. Wait. I’m the guy who wrote this.

A bit hypocritical, don’t you think?

I’ll be blunt. I did it for the money. In hindsight, I sometimes wish I hadn’t. If I hadn’t accepted the offer to write this book—and for the record, the publisher sought me out and recruited me to write it, I didn’t actively try to seek out this deal—my entire life would have taken a different path. Maverick is what convinced Jim Baen I could write a novel, which begat the Cyberpunk book deal, in which I tried to turn my partial and outline into a finished novel in the face of fierce editorial meddling, which experience in turn begat Headcrash, which along with “Cyberpunk” is the pillar on which my entire subsequent career stands…

Causality will drive you nuts, if you let it. If I hadn’t written Maverick, how would my future have turned out? Odds are I’d have puttered along with attempting novels for a few more years, never experiencing much success with it, and eventually I’d have walked away from science fiction completely, at about the same time as the two magazines that bought most of my short story output, Amazing and Aboriginal, both went out of business.

Would I have been happier if my life had taken that turn? Impossible to say.


Now I’m facing another fork in the road. It’s been four months since Karen died. Gradually, it’s become clear to me that the reason why I’m having so much trouble finishing up Stupefying Stories #24 and pushing it out the door is that her fingerprints are all over it. She picked the stories. She set the order in which they’ll appear. Whenever I look at the files, her comments are all over them. Whenever I look at the manuscripts, her comments are scribbled in the margins and on Post-It notes. It wasn’t until I began to think about Stupefying Stories #25 that the nature of the problem became clear to me. 

I can think about #25. I can work on #25. Issue #24 is the problem. So maybe, if I approach #24 as being just something I need to get out of the pipeline in order to clear the obstruction and begin work on #25… Yeah. I should be able to do that.

More than a few people have asked when we’re going to reopen for new submissions. Right now, I can’t make any promises in that regard. If I can get #25 out the door on schedule, if the crowd-funding campaign makes more progress, and if I can reconstitute the Fearless Slush Pile Reader Corps, then we can start to think about reopening for submissions, for issues #26 and beyond. Be advised, though, that Karen was a moderating influence on me. If we do reopen for submissions, I may not be exactly the same gruff-but-basically-kindly editor you’ve known these past ten years. She championed a lot of stories and authors I wouldn’t have given a second look. Assuming we do go forward, Stupefying Stories can’t help but change.

Coupled with that, another issue we’re going to have to deal with is that while I’ve been standing still, the market has changed again. Based on the new titles I’m seeing from major publishers and the recommendations Amazon keeps stuffing in my inbox, more stories like the ones Isaac Asimov made famous eighty years ago are exactly what the readers of today want to see. Or if not Asimov, then endless series that seem to mash up Starship Troopers with Warhammer 40K, or are thinly veiled Star Trek or video game fanfic, or…

When we cooked up this mock cover a few years ago, it was a cynical inside joke. In today’s market it would probably not just sell, but sell a 12-book series of direct-to-Kindle novels.

Long ago, I figured out that SF publishing has a recurring boom-and-bust business cycle that repeats on about a 20-year basis. Lately I’ve begun to suspect that it also has a similar idea cycle, and that readers who buy the product are actively resistant to new ideas. They want to read more stuff just like other stuff they’ve already read, and featuring characters just like the ones they already know and love. They buy lightly face-lifted and gender-swapped remakes of old ideas for the same reason The Andy Griffith Show lives on forever in reruns while episodes of Playhouse 90 are nearly impossible to find. Most consumers of entertainment media products crave comfortable familiarity, not even slightly challenging originality.

Has SF truly become a fossil form then, stuck in about a 40-year ideation loop between 1940 and 1980? I don’t know, but I expect that this is the year in which I’ll find out. 

Kind regards,

P.S. To bring this back to electronic music: while writing earlier versions of this post, I learned something I didn’t expect to see. Wendy Carlos didn’t want to keep making all those Switched-On Bach records. She made them because her record company pressured her to keep making them, because that’s what the market wanted. The Market is all-wise and all-knowing. All praise The Market.

The Market is a slack-jawed imbecile. The question I need to answer for myself is, do I want to ignore that reality or pander to it? There’s good money to be made in pandering.



ray p daley said...

"Isao Tomita". Wow. There's a name I haven't heard since the interactive Black Mirror episode. Not many people have even heard of him.

Leatherwing said...

If you choose to pander, you will be in good company. It seems all the aging rock stars have taken that path (not saying you're aging!).