Posts Tagged ‘Ray Bradbury’


Old Mars cover

(Old Mars, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds. Bantam, 2013, 486 pp., $28.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

The number of science fiction short story collections has exploded in recent years. Formerly, there were a relatively few “year’s best” collections of stories that had already been published in science fiction magazines. But roughly two decades ago that began to change. “Themed” sci-fi short story collections began to appear in large numbers: detective/noir; alien sex; time travel; alternate history (alternate presidents, alternate Kennedys); alternate futures (including one collection with advanced technologies, but no Internet); “positive” sci-fi; and the list goes on. Another change is that the stories in many of these collections had not already been published, and were written specifically for these anthologies.

This is somewhat unfortunate, because formerly (as in the “year’s best” collections) the stories had jumped two selection hurdles, the first to make it into magazines, the second to make it into an anthology. As well, the editors choosing the stories for “year’s best” anthologies had a plethora of material to choose from.

In themed collections, the situation is different. The stories in them, when written specifically for the anthologies, only have one selection hurdle to jump, and the editors often have to actively solicit contributions. So, at least occasionally, quality suffers. But this is much less of a problem with themed anthologies such as Old Mars, which has well established, well respected editors, and features stories by established writers.

Old Mars, as the title and cover suggest, is a collection of stories set in the romantic worlds portrayed by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and (in the sense that the anthology deals with “lost worlds”), H. Rider Haggard. Thus the Mars depicted in Old Mars has canals, a breathable atmosphere, humanoid Martians, terrifying beasts, cities fallen to ruin, booby-trapped royal tombs, and swashbluckling heroes–with, as additional backdrop, an ocean- and swamp-covered Venus populated by telepathic Venusians.

The most well known authors represented in Old Mars are Allen Steele and Mike Resnick. And this anthology seems an ideal vehicle for Resnick, who has written an impressive number of  sly, tongue-in-cheek tall tales, such as the “Santiago” and “Inner Frontier” stories. He doesn’t disappoint here.

Even though it’s well done, Old Mars is not for all sci-fi fans. If your interests lie in space opera, hard sci-fi, social sci-fi, cyberpunk, steampunk, or military sci-fi, you probably won’t like Old Mars. But if you’re a fan of Burroughs, Bradbury, or pulp or “golden age” sci-fi, you probably will.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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leadBy Kathy De Grave

(Kathy De Grave is the author of The Hour of Lead: A Novel of Kansas and Other Alternate Realities)

Talking houses, vast fields of ice and snow, and a box that lets humanoids communicate across galaxies, giant insects that mate with their human slaves—what could be more intriguing? Science fiction by its nature is likely to have an audience, because it is human nature to be curious and to want to read about the bizarre. But is strangeness enough? Doesn’t surprise after surprise cloy after a while? What makes us read Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Olivia Butler again and again?

The question can be put another way: what is the difference between good science fiction and literary fiction? The answer, on one level, is that there isn’t one. Literary fiction centers on richly complex characters struggling in a fully developed, fully imagined world. Such fiction shines on the page in language that is crisp or lush, simple or elaborate—but always nuanced and precisely right. No stereotypes. No clichés. Good science fiction writing is the same. Bradbury knew this. He claims as his influences Alexander Pope, John Donne, Walt Whitman, and Eudora Welty. He understood that a good story has to make its readers feel—sci-fi or not.

On the other hand, writing science fiction is tremendously different from writing literary fiction: the author has to create his own world. Fiction is hard enough to write when the world in question is our own. Of course the sky is blue and only one sun shines. In sci-fi, however, everything—including green and purple skies—is possible.

That is, until a first choice is made. Just as a free-verse poem creates its own rules, a science fiction story creates its own limitations. In addition to having the sentence-level artistry and character development demanded by any strong literary fiction, a good sci-fi story has to have inner consistency. The writer has to know the physics of her purely imagined world (this is where the science comes in), and she has to know how the people dress, how they speak, what the rules of social interaction are. Jokes there will not be the same as jokes here. Using idioms from our present culture would be out of place in a society that is so vastly different from our own.

That’s why Ursula Le Guin spends years constructing her worlds, getting to know them inside and out: not only their physical shape, but also their cultural and psychological make-up. If a sci-fi writer wants to keep the reader securely in what John Gardner (The Art of Fiction and Grendel) calls “the continuous dream,” the world can’t have slippage. Readers are smart; they’ll notice. And once a reader begins to distrust the implied author of this unique and mysterious world, the project is lost.

There’s another big difference between realist fiction and science fiction: a point. Realist literary fiction works because it has no agenda. Its purpose is simply to render human complexity—an overwhelming job in itself. Readers of science fiction, on the other hand, expect metaphor. They presume that the effort to understand the workings of the fully imagined world of the sci-fi writer will have real-world applications. We will learn to understand pollution, nuclear war, fascist states, fanatic religion. Science fiction writers are not just “imagineers.” They are teachers, and their readers want to understand their lessons.

A caveat here: sci-fi writers might be teachers, but they are not philosophers. They do not create new ideas. They bring to life ideas already in the air—ideas that perhaps sound fine on the surface but that can have tragic results if carried out.

Many young writers think science fiction is easy to write. That’s because they are copying some other writer’s world, and everything they put on the page—no matter how “shocking”—is expected. To write original sci-fi is not easy in the least. Try it if you dare!