For the centenary of the coining of the word ‘robot’, Jonathan Strahan has compiled an anthology of new work about those… beings? objects? creations? The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word for slave, so perhaps it’s appropriate that a description of what they are is hard to come by. Strahan begins by putting robots into an even greater lineage and ancestry than a hundred years, though, pointing out that the Greek god Hephaestus has golden assistants, and the many stories of golems, and coming up to Frankenstein’s creation too. He goes on to touch lightly on the myriad ways robot-like beings have influenced fiction more recently (tripods to chat bots). I don’t always read introductions (sorry J), but this one is well worth the time and really sets the scene for the entire anthology.
I won’t go over every story, because that would be a bit tedious. Basically every story was great, which pleased me immensely!
Vina Jie-Min Prasad starts off the anthology with “A Guide for Working Breeds,” written as a series of chats between two bots. One is required to be the mentor for the other, who is pretty new to the whole work-scene; the slight boredom and irritation of the first is set off against the enthusiasm of the newb and feels all too real. The entire narrative is in chat; Prasad works in enough detail that by the end of it I felt like I had read far more narrative than was actually on the page. Very nice.
On the other hand, Peter Watts’ “Test 4 Echo” is not nice. It’s a great story, but it’s not nice. It’s got solar exploration and an intriguing design for a robot on Enceladus, but the way that the robot is treated is not nice. It’s got discussion of developing robot sentience, but the way it works out is not nice. I really enjoyed it… but it’s not nice.
“The Hurt Pattern,” from Tochi Onyebuchi, is a terrifying look at a very near, very plausible future that is more about the humans than the robots, because it’s about how humans teach robots and what we can unconsciously impart, and how that can be manipulated and used for profit, or nefarious purpose. I found this story distressing, actually, because it’s so very believable: how algorithms can be used to affect society. Including law enforcement.
In-built obsolesce crops up a few times, and perhaps nowhere as poignantly as in John Chu’s “Dancing with Death” which features a robot that should be on its way out and a mechanic who is more than he seems and also a really, really good mechanic. This one really is beautiful.
Sofia Samatar contributes probably my favourite story, in “Fairy Tales for Robots.” Onyebuchi presented a nightmare scenario for what might happen with the way humans teach algorithms; Samatar presents someone trying to teach a ‘robot'(ish) to think for itself, to consider how stories might guide decisions and attitudes. The way Samatar takes fairytales and myths – some familiar to my Anglo-Australian upbringing, others not so – and demonstrates how they can be seen as relevant to an artificial life is just breathtaking, it’s so imaginative. I really, really loved this piece.
As a rule, I really enjoy Strahan’s anthologies, and this one intrigued me: the stories of when things go wrong. These are small stories and large, set in our near space and a very long way away – in time as well as space – and stories where not everything ends up well. You already know something is going to go wrong.
I didn’t love every story in the book; it’s an anthology, so that’s no surprise. To my own surprise I did not love the Greg Egan story that starts it: it was fine, but it didn’t have quite the… flair… that I like from his work usually. Ah well. There were plenty of stories I did love. Linda Nagata’s was in the vein of AI-gone-wrong, and I really enjoyed the characterisation. Gregory Feeley’s is set on Mars, like Nagata’s, with a completely different set of problems and hints at a whole bunch of background issues that intrigued me. Possibly not one to read if you’re feeling sensitive about children in danger. Going way off into the distance, temporally and spatially, Tobias S Buckell sets up a really intriguing society and a problem that verges on a “Cold Equations” scenario. I loved the characters a lot, and would absolutely read a novel or three set in this place.
Despite what the Goodreads page says, this book does not have an Alastair Reynolds story. To my disappointment, as you can imagine. There is, however, a Yoon Ha Lee story, and these days that pretty nearly makes me as happy. And “The Empty Gun” absolutely delivers in cold hard explosive story that I could not hope to guess the ending of. Same goes for Peter F Hamilton’s story. I’ve read only a few things by him, and it’s been a bit hit and miss – I think because he often verges on, or is outright, horror – but this one, set in our solar system but many, many years away, is amazing: the changes to humanity necessary for survival, the uncomfortable conception of maternity, and the outrageous version of a bad roadtrip. The final story, by Peter Watts, is a fairly uncomfortable place to end the anthology – it absolutely works, but it’s a grim view of the future, and one that feels if not plausible then at least imaginable.
This is a highly enjoyable anthology with a good range of stories; I’ve only covered maybe half of them here. The theme is broad enough that you’d almost not know that the authors were writing to a theme, except for all the time things go wrong. Many of the stories are long enough that they get to develop their worlds and characters a bit more than in a short-short. Definitely one to read if you’re after some wide-ranging SF.
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This book was sent to me by the editor, at no cost.
I have loved the Infinity series so far. I like that the focus is on science fiction, that it’s often a focus on the engineering side of the future but that that doesn’t preclude fascinating characters and intriguing worlds. I am consistently impressed by the variety of worlds presented and the writing talent included.
The anthology opens with a series of stories focused on the solar system. Alastair Reynolds gives us a problem with the sun where the narrative jumps tantalisingly between now and later, while Pat Cadigan provides what might be a prequel story for her “The Girl-Thing who went out for Sushi” in a story set on Earth but focused on colonising near Jupiter. Stephen Baxter goes to Venus with a sweeping story about human hubris and the problem of families. Charlie Jane Anders totally mocks the whole idea of going to space in a hilarious story of being, like, an adolescent in space? Tobias S Buckell and Karen Lord also take the long view, temporally speaking, about what it might mean to undertake engineering projects within the asteroid belt and elsewhere, given the distances (and therefore time) involved. Plus Calypso.
Naturally, there are some stories in the anthology that confront climate change – it’s understandably becoming a go-to theme. Cadigan’s story references the issues in passing; stories by Pamela Sargent, and Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty, suggest possible ways of dealing with the problem – the latter is one of my favourites, being both optimistic and pessimistic, and largely set in the Arctic. Ken Liu writes over an extremely long period of time in posing the idea that the coming of the singularity might solve climate change in a rather radical manner. And Thoraiya Dyer posits a rather intriguing solution to the loss of island real estate while also dealing with the problems of family.
There are also several stories with extra-solar settings. Kristine Kathryn Rusch combines desert urban planning on alien planets with a devastating mystery to great effect; Robert Reed writes a Great Ship story about how the materials you use (and the tools) can impact on the thing you’re making. Allen M Steele’s story sounds like it might be from a pre-existing set of stories, like the Great Ship suite, in that it’s focused on a group of wanderers in what is effectively a Dyson sphere called Hex. It’s less focused on the engineering and more focused on human exploration of alien tech.
A few stories didn’t especially work for me. Karin Lowachee’s story of a contractor alone on a supply depot installation didn’t have enough character development for me to get my teeth into, while Gregory Benford and Larry Niven made my teeth ache with their extra-heavy serves of techno speak and missing out on character or plot. An Owomoyela’s narrative didn’t quite seem to go anywhere… which given the narrative itself is kind of funny, but it still didn’t work for me.
Highly recommending this anthology for lovers of science fiction.
Jonathan Strahan is an award-winning editor, anthologist, and podcaster. Since 1997 he has has edited more than fifty anthologies including The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Infinity, New Space Opera, and Eclipse anthology series. He is the recipient of the World Fantasy Award, a three-time winner of the Locus Award, a four-time winner of the Aurealis Award, and an ten-time Hugo Award nominee. He is the reviews editor of Locus, and the co-host of The Coode Street Podcast. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and their two daughters. (Photo by Cat Sparks; used with permission.)
Your new anthology of originals is Drowned Worlds, with authors confronting the prospect of, as the title suggests, Earth drowning. What led you to imagine such a theme for an anthology, and has it turned out like you expected?
Every book changes as you work on it, shifts and changes in your hands before you finally deliver it to the publisher. A lot of that has to do with communicating with authors and how they bring their own worldview to the challenge you’ve placed before them. Drowned Worlds is a good example of this. It started out simply as a book of stories that featured inundated landscapes. I’d recently read Paul McAuley’s story “The Choice”, which features a drowned England, and then picked up a copy of Ballard’s The Drowned World, which is hypnotic, powerful and crazy. I thought a book of stories in that space could be fun. That was my inspiration. It quickly became clear that the authors saw Drowned Worlds as a climate change challenge, and one story after another took us there. One even managed to do it by leaving the ‘drowning’ off camera, and showing us a parched landscape in a world where rising sea levels had radically changed everything. So it didn’t turn out at all like I expected. It didn’t even strictly hit the original theme, but I’m very happy with it. Why? I think it touches on a nerve, is timely, and shows what writers are focussed on right now. That’s a good thing.
You edited your tenth volume of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year for Solaris Books this year. What do you see as the main value of such an endeavour, and what sort of audience are you imagining when you put the table of contents together?
The first book I edited was a year’s best anthology. That was back in 1997, so I’ve been doing this for nearly twenty years. I think the essential value of ‘year’s best’ anthologies as a project remains unchanged. They serve as simple one-stop shops for readers, where readers can find some of the best stories of the year in a single book. Given the incredible variety of places where stories get published, I think that’s valuable. I think they serve as books of record. There always is a varying number of ‘year’s bests’ being published, but collectively they tend to provide a good record of what the field has been doing over time. You wouldn’t want to rely on a single series to give you that overview, but collectively they do a good job of recording the history of SF/F. I think they also stand as one reader’s record of the history of the field. Gardner Dozois’ nearly 40 year long library of SF, my own 20 year long one, and others give readers a picture of the field from one perspective, which is interesting. And finally they can be a tool for change over long periods of time. An editor, if lucky, can mount an argument over many years about what excellence is in SF/F and that can have an effect. And, perhaps less pretentiously, they are pretty good reading value. As to what sort of audience? Hmm. I suppose a blend of me (we can only read from our own perspective after all), and an idealised notion of a reader who is interested in the SF/F field who has a broad taste. I edit a best science fiction and fantasy. By it’s nature, it’s a book less interested in definitions, more willing to tolerate ambiguity and strangeness, and the reader I imagine wanting my books is a reader who considers that a good thing.
Bridging Infinity is planned for later this year (2016), and Infinity Wars for next year. You’ve edited original anthologies, best-ofs, and author collections, as well as short stories for various venues. Do you see yourself continuing to work across a variety of projects for the future? Are there authors you’d really like to collect, or themed anthologies you’re desperate to pitch?
I do. I can’t imagine just doing one thing, but editing original anthologies, year’s bests, single-author collections, reviews and so on helps to keep editing fresh and new for me. In terms of authors I’d like to collect, there are so many! From Keith Roberts and Howard Waldrop, to Margo Lanagan and Elizabeth Hand, there are many many short fiction writers I’d like to see properly collected and presented to readers. I’m hoping Geoff Ryman’s “100 African Writers” project will also see more new books coming from the many African nations that are producing great writers. As to anthologies, I don’t know. I’m actually thinking on that right now.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I’ve read a few things I’ve really loved. Greg Egan’s “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred” is a really powerful piece of science fiction that came out last December and should in my opinion have won all sorts of awards. Sadly, it hasn’t so far. I really enjoyed Angela Slatter’s debut novel Vigil, and just finished Garth Nix’s latest Old Kingdom novel, Goldenhand, which was smart and funny and moving and absolutely wonderful. I also loved James Bradley’s terrific novel Clade. There has been other stuff, but those stand out.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
I don’t know. I’m tempted to say Garth Nix, because he’s already a good friend, or Sean Williams. Um. Robert Heinlein, I think. Why? Because he was so fundamental to me as a young reader and young person growing up. I’d love to have been able to sit down and talk to him about his worldview and his books. I think a good long flight – hopefully in First Class – would give me a chance to talk to him about those stories that I loved so much and to get a feeling for the person behind the stories.
Crossposted to the Snapshot blog, along with all the other interviews.
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Edge of Infinity is not especially concerned about Earth, but it cares deeply about humanity. It’s not blindly optimistic, but neither is it depressingly morbid. It cares about the little things and the big, it’s got romance and death, and lots and lots of adventure, set within our solar system but not on Earth. Also, space ships.
Pat Cadigan opens the anthology and immediately throws the reader into the position of deciding whether they can hack the displacement. “Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg.” This, accompanied by the story’s title – “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” – is a very clear sign that Here Be Science Fiction; the sort of science fiction that requires the reader to do a bit of work, while trusting in the author that these things really will make sense. And, of course, they do; Cadigan is a marvellous writer who mixes the very weird with the quite familiar, and gently leads the reader to understanding where she’s going with her story. The unfamiliar language is used partly to warn the reader that this is not a situation they can just take for granted, but also because it’s entirely appropriate that language would change out there around the moons of Jupiter – perhaps especially, as in this case, when those living in an alien-to-humanity environment have themselves changed from the human standard, at least morphologically. Cadigan also makes some interesting points about how being “two-steppers” has impacted on humanity’s ways of thinking, especially with regard to binary decision making. At heart, this story is about choice: an individual’s freedom to make choices about their body and their livelihood and where they live. Just suggested in the background is also a broader discussion about political choice, too, with shades of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, about the place of Jupiter in the solar system. It’s a fitting opening to the anthology, flagging as it does many of the issues that resonate across the set.
Elizabeth Bear’s”The Deeps of the Sky,” which comes next, is the only story that focusses on aliens. Here again though the focus is on choice; Stormchases and his skiff have been out mining a storm for trace elements such as iron when a curious object appears in the sky, and he has to decide what to do about it. The plot is thus quite straightforward, but it’s the world building that makes this story an interesting one. As mentioned, it focusses on an alien society – probably living in Jupiter – and aside from the alien biology, the aspect Bear gives most attention is that of reproduction. Who gets to reproduce and with whom, and at what cost (…literally) is absorbing Stormchases, and therefore the narrative. And it is indeed different enough to cast a rather fascinating light on humanity’s own tendencies in those realms.
Bringing the anthology back closer to home (… again, literally) is James SA Corey’s “Drive”, a story that unfolds along two different temporal tracks: in one, Solomon has just taken off from Mars in his souped-up space craft; the other follows Solomon from his first encounter with Caitlin and their subsequent relationship. Like Cadigan, Corey envisages a solar system that is as uneasy with differentials in political power as it is with access to, and production of, resources. This provides much more of the narrative tension for Corey than it did for Cadigan; Earth’s attitude to Mars has an immediate impact on Solomon and his life. I’m excited to see stories like this one, despite its melancholy tone, because it puts the idea of colonising Mars squarely back into the realm of the possible, at least from an SF perspective. There’s no suggestion that it will be easy – quite the contrary – but at least humanity is there, reaching beyond our own troposphere. Somehow the idea of being out on Europa or Titan isn’t quite the same, even though the colonisation of Mars is generally a prerequisite of that further expansion.
Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey deliver “The Road to NPS,” similar to “Drive” in that it focusses on the issue of transportation – bringing to mind Samuel Delaney’s Nova, and the suggestion that once a civilisation expand beyond the solar system, transportation becomes the most important issue. For Rahiti, this presents a challenge he cannot leave alone – despite the threat, and very real danger, inherent in doing so. Rahiti is one of few antagonists of this anthology that I did not particularly connect to. I think this is partly because his motivation seemed to be entirely commercial – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply did not work for me. And he just didn’t seem like that nice a guy, overall.
The first AIs turn up in John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh,” where, intriguingly, AIs are therapists. For humans. Which is about the most unlikely role I’ve ever read them in. This is one of the most complex stories of the anthology, narratively speaking. The “I” is the AI, and the narrative follows multiple threads. First, and appearing sporadically throughout, is the narrator’s own musings on its own capabilities – specifically the difference in subjective time that it and its human interlocutors experience. It draws a comparison for one of the humans: that “the ratio of [its] cycles of information processing per second to theirs is about the same as theirs to an oak.” In response to which, very sensibly, the human (eventually) asks what an oak would think about… which doesn’t seem to be the point, but perhaps from the AI’s point it is. Anyway, the story is a fascinating glimpse into what that sort of processing power might do (brain the size of a planet, and so on). The rest of the narrative involves the AI musing on its interactions with two humans it has counselled. Laura and Tyward see the AI for different reasons – Laura because of Ty, Ty because of an ant (a mechanical one). Their relationship, shown through the AI’s interactions with them as individuals, is poignant and realistic, even though I think the conclusion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, I’d like to point out how hard it was to write this without referring to the AI as ‘he’. I think this was because its character came across so strongly, and as humanly flawed rather than a remote perfect artefact, that it seemed wrong for it to be genderless. As for ‘he’ – well, yes. Aren’t all robots male? (sigh)
Paul McAuley’s “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” wins for longest title. It, as a title, also covers the most important things that Mai Kumal learns about when she travels to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, on the occasion of her father’s death there. Overall this is a less a narrative, really, than a rumination on what humanity might do Out There, so far away from the safe little blue ball. Colonisation; extreme adventure sports; secretive colonisation; and outrageous, lavish works of art. This is definitely one of the more overtly optimistic pieces of the anthology. While it’s a bit sad that Mai and her father were estranged, this is set against a glorious back drop of humanity’s potential, both in terms of relationships and Grand Achievements. And I think it’s a wonderful dream, for that.
Taking quite a different tack, one of the narratively most straightforward stories is “Safety Tests.” Here, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes a very normal, albeit still dangerous and necessary aspect of humanity + machinery – the idea of needing a licence – and explores it. In space. Using spaceships. Around an inhabited space station. Over the course of a single day, Devlin must deal with six quite different applicants for public piloting licences. Things progress from there about as Devlin appears to expect every day to progress. That is, poorly. There’s not much extra world building built into this story, but it’s the sort of situation one can imagine fitting into most any space-faring story (imagine Ellen Ripley or Han Solo going for their licences. I dare you).
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” is my favourite story of all, so thank you very much Gwyneth Jones. Set very briefly on Earth, the focus is on four Remote Presence devices, operated by humans on Earth but physically located on the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Thanks to a solar storm, the link to those devices is severed, but the software agents… well. They continue to exist, and to operate, if in rather different ways from what their designers and operators would recognise. These manifestations are wonderfully thought out – how such software, designed to be intelligent and run programmes, might react to apparently being abandoned by their makers, and how they might interact after that happens. (It does make me wonder somewhat about the poor old Mars landers and rovers….) Sophie, on Callisto, is the focus of the story: she is both an array collecting data of the Jovian system; and a memory, or a remnant, or an avatar of the Sophie back on Earth. Of the four devices, she is the only one who both accepts this reality and thinks that getting back in touch with Earth is actually important. So this is the only story that does not imagine humanity having literally spread out through the solar system – yet, anyway; it’s also the story that feels temporally closest to Now. Sophie is delightfully engaging, and her concerns entirely realistic (within the bounds of the story, naturally).
Following a theme of Hannu Rajaniemi work in Jonathan Strahan anthologies (… that would be two from two, so maybe not a theme yet; the other one was “The Server and the Dragon,” in Engineering Infinity), “Tyche and the Ants” is the most magical-seeming of these stories, while – as the reader suspects throughout and has confirmed by the ending – having a very solid science fictional basis to everything; it’s the perception that lends the magic, not the action. It also comes close to the Jones story as being my favourite. Tyche lives on the moon, dividing her time between the Base, where she’s meant to stay, with only the Brain for company; and the place through the Secret Door, where waits the Magician and various other creatures. Her seemingly happy life is, however, disturbed the day the ants come to the moon. On one level this can be read as a poignant almost-fairytale; it’s sweet, if combined with some rather sad moments because of Tyche’s confusion. However, Rajaniemi does that wonderful thing of suggesting an enormous background to the story, without ever overwhelming the immediate story – and I now really want a novel set in this universe. Please. Because there are all sorts of ideas about humanity that are suggested at but not fully developed.
The main narrative thread of most of these stories so far (the Barnes is perhaps the exception) has encompassed a relatively short timeframe. Not so Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk.” Beginning with the arrival of Wei Binglin on Mars, as he pilots the Sunflower in after a very difficult voyage, the story follows the next several decades of Binglin’s life as he adapts to Mars, deals with the brash American Bill Kendrick, and both watches Mars develop and assists in that happening. Binglin is an interesting character through which to explore this; he feels a great deal of guilt concerning the Sunflower, and he’s unconvinced, early on, about living planetside. His growth as a character works overall, and I can absolutely agree with how Baxter imagines Mars bootstrapping itself. And the fact that he imagines it as a largely Chinese endeavour is certainly believable, although there’s not a whole lot of Chinese-specific culture to be seen. However, I was troubled by the way Baxter dealt with Xue Ling, Binglin’s adopted daughter. The role she plays seems largely superfluous; certainly the apparent pull she exerts on both Binglin and Kendrick is not required to get them to do what they do. Rather she sometimes seems like an excuse. Her actions at the conclusion of the story were especially problematic, seeming not to fit in at all and feeling instead like gratuitous sentimentality on Baxter’s part, or as if there needed to be some big dramatic Thing to impart some sense of occasion to the story. It was unneeded and I think actually undercut the rest of the story.
Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory” is another story that uses two temporal tracks. In the first, Loti Hung is confronted by Vanya Ingvar, and asked some uncomfortable questions about her interactions with a certain Skanda Abrud; while the second is essentially Loti remembering exactly that interaction. While many of the central characters throughout this anthology have been engineer or science-y types (although not all, Tyche in Rajaniemi’s story and Mai is McAuley’s especially), Loti is quite different: she’s an artist. Specifically, a rock artist – someone who carves rock on a massive scale – we’re talking asteroids here. And I love the very idea of a science fiction story that focusses on the possibilities for art in the future, in these far-out locations humanity may find itself in (McAuley does a similar thing). The story is about one of Loti’s commissions, and it not turning out to be quite what she thought; and Ingvar investigating just exactly went on with it. The interaction between the two women is understated and believable, as is that between Loti and Skanda. Again, this quite personal story is set against a much larger backdrop of solar system colonisation, the arrogance of wealth, and questions of justice.
While transportation may be one of the major issues of solar system colonisation, as shown in “Drive” and ” The Road to NPS,” solar system habitation is going to be greatly impacted by something that already affects large swathes of Earth: access to water. In “Water Rights,” by An Owomoyela, this issue is front and centre after an explosion interrupts the water supply for many of the near-Earth colonies. This is of immediate interest to Jordan Owole because, as the owner of an orbiting hydroponics outfit – which naturally has a large reservoir – she’s now become of great interest both to the authorities and to independent orbiting homesteaders. Which is an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least. While this sounds potentially depressing, Owomoyela pulls a beautiful turn at the end which nearly brought tears to my eyes, and makes it amongst the more obviously optimistic of the anthology.
The ultimate story in this set is from Bruce Sterling, and a weird one it is. “The Peak of Eternal Light” is set on Mercury – a Mercury with incredibly restrictive and quite bizarre gender restrictions, especially when it comes to marriage. There were moments when I, as a woman, found reading this story actively unpleasant; while Sterling may not (probably does not) accept the ideas presented here as worthy, and does indeed go on to critique them to some extent, it was still not an enjoyable experience. There are a number of instances where he veers very close to existing stereotypes that, in a futuristic setting – even with outre accoutrements intended to suggest perhaps that this is new and weird – were depressing to imagine continuing beyond the confines of Earth. Marriages are entirely arranged and intended to be endured, nothing more; couples spend time with one another in strictly regimented ways, and the women appear to live in the equivalent of a harem. The central couple, who refer to each other as Mr and Mrs Peretz, do begin to question some of the limitations placed on them; and I did enjoy the idea that the bicycle, which was indeed a revolutionary form of transportation in its time for women, would find a new lease on life on Mercury. This questioning, though, did not compensate for the overall image of life on that planet. I do not want Sterling’s vision of the future.
Overall, this is an awfully good anthology. And it’s very exciting indeed to read an anthology entirely dedicated to science fiction, and science fiction of what might be called the medium term future; not the immediate collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, nor the humans-spanning-the-galaxy stories (which I do adore, I’ll be honest). It’s an anthology that spans ideas, planets, concepts, personalities and the future of humanity. What’s not to like?
Jonathan Strahan has been luckier than any one person has a right to be. Happily married with two lovely daughters, he has edited or co-edited more than fifty books, has been the Reviews Editor for Locus for ten years, is the producer and co-presenter of more than a hundred episodes of The Coode Street Podcast, and a long time ago he once worked on a magazine called Eidolon. He is a recipient of the World Fantasy, Locus, Aurealis, Ditmar, Atheling and McNamara awards, and is a six-time Hugo Award nominee. Although his Twitter profile says he dreams one day of being covered entirely with jam, this is not entirely true.
It’s true that I do tend to have a number of projects going at any one time, but Under My Hat has always been special. About three years ago I was having a conversation with my youngest daughter, who was about eight years old at the time. We were talking about what it was I did for a living, and at one point she asked me if there was any of my books that she could read. That really struck a chord with me, and I became determined to do a book that would really appeal to both her and her sister.
As it happened, both girls grew up loving witch stories, and when visiting the US to attend World Fantasy Convention each autumn I would search through stores for wands and hats and witchy stuff to bring home for them. A witch book seemed perfect. The title came to me when reading one of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, and the whole thing seemed inevitable.
The book was actually a dream to work on. I sat on the idea for a while, busy with other projects, but then one day I did the calculations that made it clear the girls would only be the right age for the book if I did it now so I really got my act into gear. It sold quickly to Random House in the US – my editor Jim Thomas has been a dream to work with – and the book itself has come together quickly and easily. Everyone got the idea immediately, and everyone seemed to love it. The final book is one I’m really happy with. One of the nicest things about doing it was working with my daughter, who actually read some of the stories in the book and provided editorial opinions on them that I sent to the authors. It’s been a real family affair.
Speaking of themes, over the last few years you have brought out four anthologies in the Eclipse line, which is a consciously non-themed set of anthologies. How different is it to solicit and edit for non-themed rather than themed anthologies? What has it been like to see the Eclipse ‘brand’ develop over the last four years, and how have they been received?
It’s both similar and quite different. Obviously with a theme anthology you need to solicit stories within quite a narrow range. They have to address the theme, but not be repetitive, and while you have scope to control the feel of the book the direction is pretty much set. With an unthemed project like Eclipse you have almost total freedom, at least at the outset. You’re only limited by what you and the publisher have agreed, and by the stories you can find. I revelled in that freedom, and really tried to reach out to a broad range of writers whose work I loved.
As happens, though, over time the series evolves its own character, which I think became most clear with Eclipse Three. It really is quite a wide-ranging book, and it has quite a diverse range of writers and subjects, but they all never quite lose touch with genre or story. The books have been received incredibly well, with stories winning many awards and the books themselves either winning or being shortlisted for awards. I’m very, very happy with and proud of the series, and am even now contemplating its future.
As well as original anthologies, you’ve also been involved in putting together collections, particularly of Jack Vance. What do you regard as the value in collections such as these, and how are they different from anthologies to work on?
I’ve been remarkably lucky to collaborate with some wonderful people at Subterranean Press and Night Shade Books on collections by Jack Vance, Bruce Sterling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joe Haldeman, Fritz Leiber and others. Probably the heart of them are the seven books of Vance stories I’ve co-edited with Terry Dowling, and probably my favourite is the Robinson book.
The value of these books is that they either preserve an important piece of genre history, or they present a chance to look at a writer’s body of work through a different lens. I think that’s what happened with the Robinson book, which really highlighted the variety and strength of the short fiction he’d done over a long period of time.
The main difference between editing single author collections and anthologies, the obvious one of there only being one author to deal with aside, is that you do get to go into a different sort of depth. You’re balancing styles, approaches, flavors while also trying to remain true to the historical perspective on the author. It’s a challenge and a delight and I hope to do many more.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I don’t read as much at novel length as I’d hope to these days, so I’ve only read a small number of novels by Australians over the past decade. The most interesting and exciting of those that I have read was Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle, which I came to quite late in the piece, but loved. At shorter length, Margo Lanagan’ continues to amaze, and the stories in her short collection Cracklescape are simple terrific. I also spent some time recently taking a second look at Deborah Biancotti’s Bad Power, which I enjoyed a great deal, and would happily recommend Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Love and Romanpunk.
Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian speculative fiction scene?
When I started to think on this my initial reaction was to back away from the question a little. I think a lot has been happening in Australian SF, but initially I wasn’t sure how transformative it was. On reflection, though, I think there have been changes. The most obvious one, from a personal perspective, is the rise of podcasting. Before Aussiecon 4 it was a side event, but now it’s an important central part of Australian SF and we contribute significantly at an international level, with two of them (he notes immodestly) currently up for the Hugo Award. I think the small press has also been invigorated. Perth’s Twelfth Planet Press has been undertaking a series of really ambitious projects and publishing some very fine books, and Ticonderoga Press has really emerged from a long quiet period with some terrific books. That change has to be good for the field. I also think there is some potentially important change with our major publishers. I’m not sure if a publisher like Voyager would have published Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle five years ago. They seem, perhaps, willing to take more artistic chances, and that can only be a great thing.
All in all, the the nearly two years have proven really vigorous and adventurous and I’m optimistic for the future (though I’d still like to see some more SF being published <g>).
This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 1st June to 8th June and archiving them at ASif!: Australian SpecFic in Focus. You can read interviews at: