Fantastic Worlds

One of my favorite literary discoveries over the last few years has been old science fiction. Some of it comes from authors who are still well known—from H.P Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith to Marion Zimmer Bradley and Leigh Brackett—while other authors I’ve discovered are more obscure, such as C.L. Moore and Edgar Pangborn. I found many of these authors courtesy of John Michael Greer, both through his deindustrial science fiction column, “Deindustrial Futures Past,” published in early issues of Into the Ruins, as well as in his introduction to the old solar system writing contest he put on along with Zendexor from the website Solar System Heritage. That contest sought out new stories set in the old solar system shared world from vintage science fiction writing: that imagined solar system of wild and habitable planets—the great deserts and canals of Mars, the lush jungles of Venus, the inhabited moons of Jupiter, and so on.

These classic tales of science fiction have been a discovery because, for the most part, I did not grow up reading science fiction. From the young adult writer Christopher Pike to the well-known Stephen King and Dean Koontz, among plenty of others, my choice of reading veered more toward horror and suspense then science fiction and fantasy, though the aforementioned authors and others I read certainly exhibited significant influences from the realm of science fiction and fantasy—and sometimes straight up wrote in them, as well. Probably one of the main reasons I never dove fully into science fiction and fantasy is simply that I wasn’t as exposed to it; that said, I also do not love the techno gimmickry found in so much science fiction. I care little about high-tech travel to the stars, nor the lifeless planets waiting out in our solar system. My father watched Star Trek but it never particularly grabbed me; I liked it okay if I had no other option, but it as often as not bored me.

When I did stumble upon science fiction, such as through the occasional dabbling by Christopher Pike (unsurprising, given where he got his pseudonym from), the elements focused on spaceships and the physics of space travel were far less interesting to me. The book of his that did grab me and that remains a fond memory to this day was his adult novel The Season of Passage, about a manned voyage to Mars gone terribly wrong, a story interwoven not just with the obvious science fiction elements but with fantasy and horror, as well. It was the horror element I most enjoyed as Pike wove vampiric lore into the story and crafted scenes of tension and suspense in the exploration of the red planet. Forget the spaceships and physics; I wanted the monsters.

I suspect this is why so much of the old science fiction I have found appeals: they are stories typically bounding with strange life. Their versions of Mars and Venus and other planets in our solar system are ones with atmospheres and alien species, wonderfully imaginative fauna and flora. Sometimes these elements are deployed in a bid toward raucous adventure, sometimes in a bid toward wonderment, other times in a bid for terror. I have largely loved them all. Regale me with fascinating tales of strange lifeforms and I am yours.

What I am not so interested in is lifeless planets and the vacuum of space, unless they are hiding monstrosities that will be jumping out at me in short order. (There is certainly something to be said for a planet that is supposed to be lifeless but that the protagonist discovers in a most gruesome manner is not.) Nor am I particularly interested in colonization of planets or in the grand conquering of the universe by humanity, with perhaps a few exceptions. (I did love the television show Firefly, after all, which features the spread of humanity and no alien lifeforms to speak of throughout the known universe. Still, that was modeled on old Westerns and tended to keep the shiny high-tech settings to a minimum.)

It was in that inspiration that I wrote “Exodus,” a story that will be featured in the upcoming Vintage Worlds 2 anthology. Set on Mars, the tale is one filled . . . well, perhaps not filled with alien life, such as in, say, the utterly delightful “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, but featuring a few different kinds of Martian inhabitants that I quite enjoyed discovering. The main character’s journey from Earth to the red planet is a slip of a remembrance and the real story is about her adventures on Mars and her encounters with its various life forms. That, to me, is where so many good tales reside.

As I continue to develop my own voice, I have come to realize that it is the natural world—or perhaps the natural alien world, not to mention the natural fantastical world—that most captures my own imagination. A story without non-human life to go along with and impact the human characters is not nearly so interesting to me. What form that life takes . . . well, there is a flexibility there. It may simply be, such as in “An Expected Chill,” that the main character is a farmer, thus providing me the opportunity to wax poetic about soil and vegetables, or a chilly morning at the edge of a cultivated field. Or it may be that the story is fraught with odd creatures and critters, some of them not of this world. Or it may be that the story is set in a wild location, with a tale told of a human woven within the overgrown darkness of a forest. But I have minimal tolerance for writing a story too focused on just the human world, even if human relationships often still serve as the drivers of the tales I want to tell.

Why note all this? To be blunt, I need a framework. It has proven hard to write an introduction to this new website of mine. Unlike other blogs I have started and eventually abandoned, this one does not have a specific theme outside of . . . well . . . me—as an author, as a teller of tales. Previously I have written about politics, about art and culture, about farming and gardening and homesteading. But this here is not about any one of those subjects but about the ways I weave stories and essays as a creative synthesis of those subjects and more—at least, if I am doing my job right. This site is an outlet for my own creativity and, with luck, a place for conversation and interaction. It’s a place for me to share my stories with the world and to see what you all think.

What that will look like is a work in progress, but my initial ideas are taking form. I will have stories and essays here. I will have entries on this blog as an ongoing conversation. I may yet write stories or novellas or novels in installments. I plan to make announcements when my writing is published and available, such as whenever Vintage Worlds 2 is released and when the final issue of Into the Ruins—which will be featuring a new deindustrial science fiction story from me—graces the shelves of its subscribers and readers. And I plan to add digital editions of stories, essays, and other writings of mine as I am able, making downloads available for sale for those who want to support and own my writing. (The first one, a digital edition of “An Expected Chill,” is now available through my Stories page for those who have not read it or want to support my work through a purchase.) Eventually, as I build up the amount of material I have, I intend to publish collections and novels—assuming all goes well in the coming years—through Figuration Press.

It’s an ambitious plan and has to fit around the already full contours of the rest of my life. But as ideas begin to flow about stories to tell and ideas to mull, I hope to find the time and energy to weave these new worlds for those of you who might find them of interest. I expect them to be of all kinds and to span across multiple genres, even as recurrent themes will no doubt emerge. But all of them I expect to be fantastic in one way or another, with the vast majority—perhaps them all—finding their moments and opportunities to transcend the human world into something less known, whether that be plant or animal, monstrous or alien, corporeal or non-, or something stranger yet.

And on this blog? Well, we will be talking more about fiction, about other genres, about who I am as a writer and what you can expect from me. But we will also be talking about the world at large, human and non-human. Expect my occasional thoughts on some subject of the time—but not politics; let’s just leave that out for now—and perhaps more often my reflections on the natural world around us. Expect the occasional short essay that may become something longer, more complete, for eventual inclusion on the Essays page. Expect some very short fiction and, eventually, installments of something longer. And expect some experimentation and evolution and adjustments as I discover the best way to make this site into what I want it to be.

Want to follow along? I would love to have you. If you haven’t already you can sign up for my email list to stay in the loop about new blog posts, stories, essays, and other updates to this website. I won’t pester you too much but will let you know of all the latest.

And as always, please consider leaving your comments below. Thoughts about old science fiction (or new!), about favorite authors and genres, about the non-human world, or about whatever else this post may have brought to mind? Let me know. Otherwise, stay tuned, as I plan to have more updates soon.

I hope you all are healthy and well. Take care.

5 thoughts on “Fantastic Worlds

  1. Hi Joel.

    Glad to see you are writing some stories and that more will be coming down the pike.

    I love science-fiction, but like you, I haven’t been as interested in “hard SF” with perhaps a few exceptions. I prefer the SF that deals in concepts, with a particular love of parallel world stories and “portal fiction”, and also those that are focused on sociology, language, and psychic phenomena or the nature of reality as in many Philip K. Dick stories and novels. I’m also a big fan of what has sometimes been termed the “New Wave SF” authors as well as the cyberpunks. The cyberpunks brought a gritty noir, and well, punk, element into the genre that was missing from some of the optimistic “boy scouts in space” type stories. That dark underbelly they showed hit closer to home for me.

    Besides a deep love for the aforementioned PKD, some of my favorite authors in the genre overall are Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany (one of my favorite writers period), J.G. Ballard, Alfred Bester, Rudy Rucker and Kim Stanley Robinson (this last one of my concessions to hard SF). And that’s not even bringing in those who write fantasy, which is I suppose a different conversation.

    I guess that is it for now… happy reading and writing. There is always more to read and always more to write.

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  2. Hi Justin,

    Yes, with luck I’ll have more writing up soon. I started work on a new story the other day that I am feeling pretty excited about at the moment, and which hopefully won’t hit any significant snag. Assuming not, I’ll eventually have it up here as an original publication. And I’ve got some ideas for other writings.

    I still need to really round out my science fiction reading, to be honest. For instance, I have yet to read any Philip K. Dick! In terms of current authors, I’ve enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi’s work and I did really enjoy Aurora from Kim Stanley Robinson. I started New York 2140 that you so kindly reviewed for Into the Ruins but for whatever reason it didn’t totally work for me and I never did finish it. Perhaps I’ll return. I also am intrigued by his California trilogy and may yet tackle his Mars trilogy, as well.

    I’ll have to look up some of the authors you’ve mentioned. I’m familiar with Ballard and have enjoyed his work and certainly know of Ellison, though I have somehow not yet read him. So much to catch up on, though of course now is a fantastic time for reading. (Though it always is, so far as I’m concerned.) Sometimes it worries me that my dabbling in various genres of writing should not be done too lightly, without familiarizing myself with said genre’s legacy, but I suppose I will just keep plugging away and let it all evolve. Hopefully I won’t come up with anything too embarrassingly overdone and obvious before I have chance to read enough to recognize such a faux pas!

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and suggestions. I’ll do some follow up on suggested authors!

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  3. Hi, Joel –
    One of the wonderful things about science fiction is that it’s so wide-reaching that we can come at it from different “portals” (if you will) and find a common admiration. I read scifi from grammar school on up, starting with Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm and others who wrote YA and then reading almost anything.. except horror/suspense (I had too much of that at home; I needed to avoid adrenaline surges ;-} ) I enjoyed an author’s ability to create a world and make it real to me, and to make characters who were “alien” but I could relate to. I love Damon Knight’s short stories with their often-funny plot-twists at the end, and for a while I read space-series like Pournelle & Niven’s… while the hard SF was still written by “amateurs” and not every detail had to be explained, I enjoyed the star-bound stories (I did love the original Star Trek; never watched the others). But once the real scientists and meticulous researches got into hyper-detail, I lost interest. Characters were always more important to me.
    I look forward to seeing what you post here. Sorry for this short comment, but there seems to be so much to do in this crisis that I have less time for posting. But I’ll be watching!

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  4. Cathy, Le Guin is certainly a favorite (I’m reading her essay collection Words Are My Matter right now and have the second Earthsea book to dive into shortly) and I’ve only read a half dozen or so of her books, so I have plenty more to work with! In fact, I have another one of hers on the way from Powell’s as we speak to help add a little freshness to the reading list since the library is closed. (Very hard for Kate and me!)

    Kate Wilhelm I’ve never read, or Damon Knight. I’ll have to take a look. Agreed on the characters–I really could care less for super in depth technical detail. I don’t mind there being some of that if it helps smooth our or move the story along, but I’m not there for the detail itself. Whenever “Exodus” hits, that will probably be obvious; my explanation of how the main character ends up on Mars is brief and more about politics than technology.

    I’ve got two new stories currently started to go along with the one I’m wrapping up for Into the Ruins. Hopefully I’ll be able to debut one or both here on the blog before too long, though sometimes they take longer to write than I originally think! They both probably have shades of horror (partly the result of my current reading of a collection of Caitlin Kiernan’s, no doubt) but I feel like my definition of horror more just skews toward weird and dark and maybe a bit unnerving–not so much the blood and guts, etc. It will be interesting to see what people think.

    Hope you’re doing well and getting lots of gardening in. It’s going to be a pretty great week for it!

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