Sci-Fi Poetry

I know I’ve been slack on my Astronomicon 11 posts, especially since the con was a month ago, now. But since we’re done with one holiday and I’ve pushed a bunch of rejected short stories back out to various markets, here’s the next entry, as I promised last time.

I attended the panel on “Sci-Fi Poetry” (Moderated by Gerald Schwartz, with Herb Kauderer and John Roche) having no idea what to expect. My only exposure to genre poetry came in some of the pieces in The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the occasional piece I might catch in one of the “Big Three” print genre mags or some of the online mags I submit stories to (but only if I’d heard of the author previously).

There wasn’t too, too much in the way of discussion. Just readings. The pieces read were very competently written verse, at least in my uneducated “I know what I like when I hear it” point of view, covering a variety of topics. I was surprised –and I say this again in the context of my ignorance of the area of genre poetry–that until the very end of the presentation, I hadn’t heard any prose poetry.

Perhaps I had that one preconception about genre poetry. I don’t know why, exactly. I think it has something to do with a particular piece by Charles Simic, which starts, “He held the Beast” from Part I of his collection The World Doesn’t End (reprinted in The New York Times–second piece from the bottom).

He held the Beast of the Apocalypse by its tail, the stupid kid! Oh beards on fire, our doom appeared sealed. The buildings were tottering; the computer screens were as dark as our grandmother’s cupboards. We were too frightened to plead. Another century gone to hell – and for what? Just because some people don’t know how to bring their children up!

Simic and others might not say so, but I thought this could’ve easily fit into the rest of the work read in this session.

As it happens, the one prose poem I did hear–my favorite of all the pieces read–was from John Roche. Here it is, posted with permission.

“Reading Comix”
by John Roche

Those long rainy afternoons spent huddled on bed or chair with pile of DC comic books: The Flash or Superman or Batman or Green Lantern Clear heroes for an altar boy who believed Vietnam was a just war and didn’t talk to bad girls, or any girls other than his cousins, for that matter. Later, with onset of puberty, the Marvel anti-heroes: Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spider Man. Rare ones from my collector friend: Dr. Strange, Strange Tales, The Silver Surfer. Always the sense of forbiddenness, the frown of parents who didn’t quite approve of comic books, at least anything other than Nancy or Archie. Even Bugs Bunny too subversive. And connection to the darker side, the fat dorky guy with disheveled hair and pattern baldness sitting under impossible ziggarats of books reading a paperback and looking pissed when you disturbed him with your pitiful pile of comix then totaling the sum in his head never using a cash register except to make change. Then the older cousin of your collector friend, the cousin with ID to buy you all cigarettes and maybe the occasional six-pack and he had some cool comics but there was something not quite right about him you couldn’t place it except you didn’t want to be alone in the room with him and his pimply face, anymore than to be alone in the sacristy with Father McSheffield. Then, around age 16, came potsmoking, came the comix: Mr. Natural the Furry Freak Bros. Felix the Cat. Visual equivalents to The Fugs and Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. Girls with impossible breasts sucking off skinny cartoonist alter egos or upside down against walls, their giant asses primed for virtual penetration by fat bikers and smooth-talking gurus alike. Trucking on trucking on trucking on page after page after page joint after joint after joint masturbation after masturbation after masturbation laugh after laugh after guilty laugh while the hi-fi played The Doors and The Who and the Airplane such were the joys of reading at that age. But still the appeal of virtual worlds, the Bat Cave, the laboratory of Lex Luthor, the Sanctum Sanctorum of Dr. Strange, or his Himalayan lamasary, the Silver Surfer’s lost home of Zenn-la, the place you visited after your friend gave you that tab of windowpane to see through seven dimensions seven generations seven suns and daughters seven rings of Saturn seven hours and counting seven heads are better than one and after that you didn’t read many comics for a good long while because you lived in the world of Dr. Who and didn’t even need a phone booth to dial home to your extraterrestrial parents just had a tough time walking on the x’s never on the o’s lest you fall into the vast void opening up under your feet and that would be almost as bad as getting shipped off to Vietnam like your cousins and not even Sergeant Fury could save you then nor the Sky Pilots neither so you walk carefully on the lattice scaffolding between the sidewalk cracks for years, it seems, until Don Juan the Brujo and David Carradine the Kung Fu master come to teach you the proper way for a warrior to walk, magic string from the belly pulling you forward past unseen terrors, calmly past all the hunched up horrors of the next fifty years, unafraid through the transitive nightfall of diamonds.

Some of the references pre-date me by (precious) few years. Yet I and most everyone in attendance agreed that every bit of the poem resonated. To me, it was an archetypal resonance. If sci-fi/comic-book fandom has anything resembling a “race memory,” this piece listed most of them.

Odds & Ends

I didn’t take notes at some of the Astronomicon panels I attended because the material was pretty straightforward with nothing particularly earthshattering or, the opposite, I was too engrossed in the discussion and/or managed to take part! So, here are two of those, with more to come.

“Is It Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or Something Else?”
with Josepha Sherman (moderator), with Sal Monaco, Daniel Rabuzzi, and Steve Carper

I remember it started off with an invitation to the audience to shout out the name of a series (lit, TV, whatever) and the panel would try to categorize it as best they could. The Twilight Zone came up and I remembered being a little disappointed with how easily the panel resolved their hemming and hawing and decided, “Sci-fi. Well, no fantasy… well, it had some fantasy elements, but mostly sci-fi.” I let it go, ‘cos I didn’t want to come off like Prometheus from on-high (read: The 2009 Rod Serling Conference), pontificating to the unwashed.

The most interesting part of the discussion happened when the subject of the hard-to-categorize came up. That’s when I got to show off a bit, rattling off all the various lit mag issues devoted to that recently, Tin House 33, Conjunctions 39 and 52, Interfictions–well, I didn’t bring up Interfictions. One of the panelists, Rabuzzi (a member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation) did!

“The Internet and Personal Privacy”
with Alan Katerinsky (moderator) with the hosts of the radio show Sound Bytes–Nick Francesco, David Enright, & Steve Rea

The tech specifics were over my head, but we’ve heard all the principles before. Put anything on the internet, you’re putting it in public, and it’ll always be there, period. Their examples were pretty graphic. Transcripts of VOIP conversations that one member managed to sniff. One panelist was at his laptop rattling off the names of every laptop in the room currently on the hotel’s WiFi–thank god mine was off! “If I can see it, I can probably get into it,” he said.

Next time: Sci-fi poetry!

Writing the LOL

I think I got the deepest perspectives on writing from the Astronomicon 11 panel “You Think That’s Funny? (Writing Humor),” moderated by Guest of Honor Mike Resnick, with writers John Stormm and John-Allen Price.

Why/How do these writers use humor in their stories?

  • Stormm uses humor as a way of breaking tension. People sort of are looking for an escape nowadays, especially with everything going on in the world lately, and the fact is, funny things happen to people!
  • Price, who writes sf military, notes that humor “unfreezes you in those moments of terror.” He makes note of stories of (military) institutional humor–requisitions bordering on the strange & possibly illegal, officers who’ll just decide, “Aw what the hell, do it,” (Apparently the addage “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” is true even in the military.), as well as people just plain messing with each other
  • Resnick said several times, “Nobody in this field ever turned down a story for being too funny.” Just about every type of humor works in sf/fantasy, because humor is basically just “The expected, happening in unexpected ways at unexpected times.” He wasn’t talking about padding, but he said “You can add x-hundred amount of extra words to your story just by making a joke.”

Pitfalls and warnings? Resnick reiterated a few times: try to be original and don’t go overboard. Stormm says that if you do borrow anything, attribute it.

Stormm had the best piece of advice, I think: Take your readers up to the brink with a joke and let their imagination fill in the rest. That way, it becomes their joke.

Required reading:
Robert Sheckley, William Tenn (his short-stories), & Fred Pohl (his more satirical stuff).

The Neverending Story, Part π

I’m not a novel-writer–yet. I joke that I’m too ADD to stick with any project that long, which does have the ring of truth. But I couldn’t see a goldmine of an Astronomicon panel like “Writing Series and Sequels” and not take notes for future reference, especially when it’s moderated by Nancy Kress with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward) and GOH Mike Resnick sitting in, not to mention John Stormm, Rick Taubold, and Sal Monaco.

So, when I do finally write a novel and perhaps, as Kress put it, “commit trilogy,” I’ll keep these points in mind…

It was fun watching Nancy Kress and Mike Resnick fight over who was going to moderate, and by that I mean the way they went round-and-round with, “No, you do it!”

Not everyone on the panel necessarily knew they were going to write any kind of series. In the novel Far-Seer, Robert J. Sawyer killed off the main character in the last chapter. But as demand in the UK rose, he wrote the sequel. Nancy Kress was done with The Beggars Trilogy after the second book, and “fell into” the third one because of her publisher, who would only publish a collection of her stories if the third book was written.

A series has certain special needs, including (but not limited to): Consistency of characters, the need to keep yourself interested as the writer, and the need to deal with the problem of backstory, i.e. avoiding the infodump.

Sawyer had a different view. “I love the infodump!” he declared. The edict against infodump is “Turkey City Lexicon bullshit!” Just don’t be lazy, he said.

The different types of series written by the authors on the panel seemed to fall into three types:

  • Types with a story arc
  • Types when characters cycle in and out of the stories
  • Types when the characters are always the same and don’t really change

General take-aways/advice…

  • Planning and consistency are key!
  • Each book needs a climax and stories that evolve.
  • It’s important to have some kind of end in mind to work toward. cf. George Martin. Things have a natural life–sometimes it’s best to know when to let it die a natural death.
  • It can be scary when a franchise actually becomes popular. You could need a different pseudonym to escape a successful series the same way you would a bad one.
  • Publishing is in transition nowadays. As Mike Resnick said, “Everywhere you look there are new ways to make money.”
  • There is a certain professional pride in wanting each book you write to stand alone. Nothing wrong with that.
  • Have an idea that’s big enough and make sure you have enough story for it.

Whaddya Mean, No Babel Fish?

The first Astronomicon panel I attended was “Aliens Speaking Alien,” which included writers Josepha Sherman, Rick Taubold, Nancy Kress, and Carl Fredericks. I admit, the only reason I went to this panel was that it was the first opportunity I had to hear Kress speak. But I took notes anyway, and here’s what I learned:

Carl Fredericks says there are two levels to think about when writing or writing about alien language. The lowest level is “language.” A higher level involves semantics, e.g. “motor oil” vs. “baby oil.” Might an alien think we make oil from babies? Could we make that mistake of an alien tongue?

Nancy Kress told us that one way to start is by considering the biology of aliens. Do they even make sounds? Do they make sounds within a range audible to the human ear?

Also, instant universal translators [my paraphrasing:] suck.

Recommended reading: “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

Other approaches to writing alien language: Sherman starts with the premise that for space travel to be possible the way modern aviation is possible, there has to be a sort of intergalactic lingua franca that everyone understands. Kress tries to “sneak it in.” Fredericks wrote (or read? Can’t remember) a story where a race’s vocal language was a secondary language reserved for parental interactions with their children.

Some thoughts on actual mechanics, most (but not all) from Kress…

  • Quotation marks or italics sorta suck [my word] for telepathy or other non-verbal communication. People have used typographical tricks w/great success.
  • Any invented language needs an integrity to it. A consistency. One option: pick 3-4 consonant sounds and a couple of vowels to use most of the time.
  • Fluted effects usually involve K or L sounds. Growls: G, R, or F
  • And even if you think you’ve made up a name, Google it anyway!
  • One writer used typography to illustrate one twin starting a sentence and the other finishing, every single time.

Idea Free-For-All

  • More required reading: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
  • Go overboard and you won’t get published.
  • Language is only partly auditory. That’s why we need emoticons in email/text.
  • Using pheromones. Poul Anderson had a smell on every 3rd MS page. Maybe overdoing it?
  • Animals don’t speak in phonemes. Most of their stuff is in the spaces between sounds.
  • Some panelists irritated when every single slang/foreign expression gets immediately translated. It’s very possible to tell by context.
  • In some stories, humans and aliens never really communicate, but they just get it. (Or, not!)
  • You usually have two choices when writing “English in the future” — just use English or go ahead and invent slang. There’s a high risk of sounding ridiculous with the latter.
  • Alien societies probably have classes and their language would reflect that.

“Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?”

I intended to neatly organize my panel notes and thoughts from Astronomicon 11. It was a lot of fun and I met some wonderful people–legendary sci-fi writers, aspiring writers, poets, and other artists, some small-press publishers, and of course, other fans. And I wanted to blog it all in order. Then, mindful of my broken promise to blog more about the 2009 Rod Serling Conference, I decided to just post since I know there are folks interested in the following topic.

I had two goals for the con: To meet Nancy Kress (she signed my copy of Beggars in Spain as I squeed about how awesome I thought the novella was) and to attend a panel called “Short Stories: Does Anyone Still Care.” Everything else was icing–and very substantial icing, I might add.

The panel consisted of Kim Wehner, a local (to the Rochester area) writing instructor (who writes as K.L. Gore), and Craig DeLancey, professor, playwright, and fiction-writer with publication credits in Analog, among others. Author Daniel A. Rabuzzi, a panelist in other panels, was invited to contribute from the audience. Here’s what I picked up…

To start, the question of whether or not anyone still cares about short stories has a simple answer: Yes and no. Using figures from Locus, DeLancey observed that while subscription rates for genre magazines (particularly “The Big Three”) are decreasing, the number of published short stories are increasing. (I was a little unclear about how “published” was defined, exactly.)

95% of the audience raised their hands when asked by Wehner, “Who writes short-stories?” When she asked why, the typical answers popped up: To take advantage of brevity for impact, to follow the examples of novelists who can’t fit everything into their novels and put them into short-stories, to practice in preparation for novel-writing, etc. I chimed in with the credo I adopted from a line in one of Aimee Bender’s stories, “I want to be violated by insight.”

It was funny. I could feel that parts of the audience were thinking, “That’s cool!” and other parts were thinking, “He’s gotta be one of those pretentious MFA bastards.”

Wehner’s theory–something I’ve heard elsewhere–is that short-story readers are primarily writers or aspiring writers. She did not say it in the tone that usually accompanies that statement (“Those hoity-toity Raymond Carver wannabes!”) nor did the typical “Writers writing stories to impress other writers rather than for readers” argument come up.

But I wondered if that accounted for the fact that short-story collections and anthologies just keep on coming. “Can we say that writers are the ones supporting the short-story industry?” I asked. One audience member attributed the continued propagation of short stories to pros who basically force the issue with their publishers. He repeated a story one of the pros told in another panel (I think it was Nancy Kress, but I could be wrong), that she was willing to write a novel for her publisher that she didn’t really want to write in exchange for publishing her short story collection.

I countered that while that may be true of individual collections (I don’t believe that, personally), that doesn’t really account for anthologies: themed anthologies, “best of” and “year’s best” anthologies, etc. “Clearly, there is a maket,” DeLancey said.

The panelists asked the audience “Where do you read your short stories?” Answers varied–it seemed that only slightly more people answered “online” than “books.”

At that point, I publicly admitted that I didn’t subscribe to the Big Three magazines. I buy a magazine or read a particular online mag based on the table of contents. Period.

DeLancey, a playwright, wondered if the art of the short-story was a “mature art form” in the way theater and opera are, and if so, why don’t we hold it subject to the same limitations? In other words, no one expects a ballerina to become a millionaire. No one expects a theater to break even, let alone make a significant profit. And things being what they are nowadays, is it fair to tell a short-story writer (or even a novelist, for that matter)–and these are my words, not the panelists’–that, “You’re probably not going to be Stephanie Meyer, so get over yourself.”

Rabuzzi took the comparison a step further, mentioning the theater scene in New York City, where you have Broadway–the rock stars, the big hits–and Off-Broadway, Off-off, and down the line. The more interesting stuff tends to be in those areas.

Short-stories have been, and still are, the “bleeding edge of our [i.e. genre] fiction”, DeLancey said. “What would our fiction landscape look like if short-stories were gone?” he asked. Someone responded, “It’d be all Cats and Phantom of the Opera.”

Though folks were quick to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It’s interesting to note how often I heard that phrase, especially when names like Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer came up. Moreso, it was the way it sometimes came out, like “I have to say that even though I secretly wish those people would go back where they came from.

Despite a bit of arguing (again, a story I’ve heard elsewhere) about the difference between what editors say their subscription numbers are vs. what appears in Locus, the number of stories published (again, what’s “published” exactly?) as podcasts are booming.


I know I’m missing a few points, but I can always add those later. But here’s what I took away…

  • I realize that at a lot of panels, one rarely walks away with any feeling of resolution. And I personally wouldn’t have minded if there was a dissenting voice somewhere in the audience who would’ve said, “No, I don’t care. Fuck short-stories!”
  • Yes, people care about short-stories. They’re not going away.
  • Yes, it’s a fact, publishers–the big ones–hate short-story collections. And yet, how exactly do we account for something like The New Space Opera 2?
  • If the short-story still has growth potential, it’s not solely in print.