Did you ever hear that story about the young boy who doesn’t have any parents? He lives in a place that he hates and dreams of doing something more with his life. One day, an older figure intrudes into his life and reveals a secret: the boy has powers that he didn’t know about. The mentor takes the boy to a place where he can learn more about his power. He makes friends who eventually help him out on his ultimate quest: to restore the balance between good and evil.
Can you identify the story?
If you said Harry Potter, I would tell you that you are wrong in an effort to confuse you and to make you think.
If you said Ender’s Game, I would do the same.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey…even The Hangover. To some extent, these are the same story.
No, friend, there are very few original stories. The great challenge for the writer, then, is to devise a new way to tell old stories. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of “borrowing.” Nothing at all! In fact, every single writer does it, but few have done it as well as Stan Lee, the living legend who created (or co-created) characters that have made approximately eleventy trillion dollars at the box office.
In Stan Lee, Bob Batchelor tells the story of the remarkable man who started out wanting to write the great American novel and ended up creating a universe instead. (Purchase links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the publisher.) Mr. Batchelor takes a standard approach to the structure of the book; he begins with a prologue scene that represents the turning point of Mr. Lee’s life and then rewinds to the 1920s, when little Stanley Lieber (later Stan…Lee) entered the world. From there, the author engages in a linear description of Mr. Lee’s life, from his New York City upbringing to his Los Angeles second act.
Mr. Batchelor had a couple pretty big problems. First of all, the details of Lee’s life are fairly well-known. He’s been a celebrity for fifty years and has given about a million interviews. Second, Stan Lee’s life is fascinating and historic in relation to comic books and superheroes and modern mythology…but unless there’s something I don’t know, Mr. Lee was a pretty boring guy. In a good way. He was married for several decades, he and his wife had two children (one of whom lived to adulthood) and he wrote comic books and outlined comic books for others. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Lee is like the rest of us and has made some big mistakes, but it’s not like he was an evil scientist ninja or drove monster trucks from state to state in between liquor store robberies.
How did Mr. Batchelor tell a story that all comic book aficionados know in a new way and how did he make a comfortably mundane life interesting? The author took a step back from the protagonist of the biography and described the world and conditions that shaped Mr. Lee, allowing the reader to explore their own understanding of the character. The son of Romanian immigrants, Mr. Lee was part of a wave of Eastern European Jews who came to the United States in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. These people were amazing; they were crucial to the development of musical theater, standup comedy, and comic books. What about his origin story helped Mr. Lee become what he did? How did his experience as a child of financially insecure parents shape him in later life, and how did it shape the X-Men and Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Fantastic Four? Mr. Batchelor compensates for the relative mundanity of Mr. Lee’s life by hinting toward a greater, grander story about the combined nature of culture and creativity.
There are a lot of flashy and interesting moments in the Marvel universe and in Mr. Lee’s life, but Mr. Batchelor devotes a lot of page space to the everyday necessities of life that constituted the bulk of Mr. Lee’s days. We can all relate to the events around Marvel’s beginnings:
- The tightwad boss who somehow manages to have enough money for himself
- The young, ambitious kid who may or may not have screwed the established co-workers
- The desperate desire to keep up with marketplace trends
- Unnecessary governmental and societal intervention
- The conflict between ambition and the desire to put food on the table
Mr. Batchelor offers us a book worth reading because he does more than distill Mr. Lee’s many interviews. Stan Lee teaches us that powerful writing comes out of adversity. Without the restrictions and worries that surely influenced Mr. Lee’s work, our shared cultural heritage would be different.
Perhaps most importantly, the author doesn’t skimp on the parts of Stan Lee’s life that you really want to know about. We get detailed tellings of the creation of the Fantastic Four, of Mr. Lee’s working relationship with Jack Kirby, and his somewhat unfocused later years. (Where do you go when you become a living legend by your fifties and live into your nineties?) Whether or not you’re a comic book person, Mr. Batchelor’s book is a worthwhile chronicle of a writer’s life and offers other writers the opportunity to see what it’s like to have your creative dreams come true in ways you didn’t expect.
Bob Batchelor, Comic Books, Stan Lee
First things first. I hate when you can’t find the table of contents for an anthology. So here it is, with an assist from editor Jonathan Strahan. I’ve organized the stories in Volume 11 of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year in order of appearance.
Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
“The Future is Blue”, Catherynne M Valente (Drowned Worlds)
“Spinning Silver”, Naomi Novik (The Starlit Wood)
“Mika Model”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Slate)
“Two’s Company”, Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends)
“You Make Pattaya”, Rich Larson (Interzone 247)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay “, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 10, 5-6/16)
“A Salvaging of Ghosts”, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 01/03/16)
“Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, Daryl Gregory (The Starlit Wood)
“Number Nine Moon”, Alex Irvine (F&SF, 1/16)
“Things with Beards”, Sam J Miller (Clarkesworld 117, 6/16)
“Successor, Usurper, Replacement”, Alice Sola Kim (Buzzfeed, 10/26/16)
“Laws of Night and Silk”, Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 26 May 2016)
“Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 115, 4/16)
“The Great Detective”, Delia Sherman (Tor.com)
“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home”, Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld)
“Those Shadows Laugh”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF, 9-10/16)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit wood)
“The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan (Tor.com)
“Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest 125, 7/16)
“Red Dirt Witch”, N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy/PoC Destroy Fantasy)
“Red as Blood and White as Bone”, Theodora Goss (Tor.com)
“Terminal”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 04/16)
“Foxfire Foxfire”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2016)
“Elves of Antarctica”, Paul McAuley (Drowned Worlds)
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”, E Lily Yu (Uncanny 12)
“Seven Birthdays”, Ken Liu (Bridging Infinity)
“The Visitor from Taured”, Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, 9/16)
“Fable”, Charles Yu (The New Yorker, 5/30/16)
As Mr. Strahan points out in his introduction–and don’t you love the introductions to best-of volumes?–science fiction and fantasy are fields in the midst of a great number of changes. Science fiction was one of my early loves. I started very early with Asimov and Ellison and Bradbury and other giants of the genre and loved Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF. I loved the way that ideas drive the field. Great SF is all about the truly extreme WHAT IFs.
What if the Axis won WWII and each took possession of half of the United States? (Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.)
What if there were a medical procedure that could make you and your husband young again; you both undergo the procedure, but it only works on your spouse? (Sawyer’s Rollback.)
What if a little kid general were Earth’s only hope against hostile aliens? (Card’s Ender’s Game.)
Everything changes, unfortunately. (I don’t like change.) Over the past twenty years, it seems to me, science fiction and fantasy have evolved in the same direction as literary fiction. Less focus on plot, more focus on atmosphere. More emphasis on playing with language. Keeping the reader by inviting them to resolve the abstract.
There are, of course, many ways to tell a story and Mr. Strahan presents a volume of work that engages a wide range of protagonists, settings and ideas. I thought it would be interesting to compare two of my favorites to demonstrate how we can take different routes to the same destination.
Rich Larson’s “You Make Pattaya” announces itself in an interesting manner and establishes character, setting and tone in a felicitous manner. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph:
Dorian sprawled back on sweaty sheets, watching Nan, or Nahm, or whatever her name was, grind up against the mirror, beaming at the pop star projected there like she’d never seen smartglass before. He knew she was from some rural eastern province; she’d babbled as much to him while he crushed and wrapped parachutes for their first round of party polls. But after a year in Pattaya, you’d think she would have lost the big eyes and the bubbliness. Both of which were starting to massively grate on him.
What do we learn immediately and what do we love?
- There’s sex going on. Many people like reading about that sort of thing. (Subject matter)
- This is science fiction. There’s some kind of TV show playing in the mirror. (Genre)
- Nan or Nahm is a rural girl in the big city. She must be relatively poor and probably has found a lot of ways to make money, regardless of whether or not she’s being exploited. (Theme)
- Pattaya. City in Thailand. Where there’s lots of water and therefore lots of boats. A place where, as I understand it from Law & Order: SVU, there are slightly different attitudes about the connection between sex and money. (Setting.)
- Her bubbliness “grates” on him. Dorian isn’t the world’s sweetest guy. (Characterization.)
Mr. Larson gets the narrative off and running very quickly and packs all of the elements of our writers’ toolbox into as few sentences as possible. The story speeds along nicely, while still allowing the reader to enjoy the setting and the technology.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I’ll be circumspect. It’s clear that Dorian feels great lust for Nahm. He also understands how hard she has worked to provide for herself; he’s a scammer, too. (He skims personal information from the unprotected devices tourists carry around.) The story takes place over a short period of time and drops the characters into a taut, compelling plot: Dorian and Nahm are going to team up and engage in a lucrative caper. (Capers are so much fun! Things happen! There are big stakes!
I also admired that Dorian and Nahm are not pushed into straitjackets and forced to act according to their…”demographics.” Sure, Nahm’s English is accented. That makes sense. But accents don’t mean as much about a person as their actions, right? Instead of writing Nahm to be a cartoonish virtuous victim of circumstance and economics, Mr. Larson allows her to be good and bad. Just like real human beings.
Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Visitor From Taured” is an interesting counterpart to the Larson story. A character named Lita tells the story, split into a number of different sections. Lita’s tale takes place over the course of several decades and is really about her relationship with Rob Holm, a handsome rogue who devoted his life to astrophysics. Lita, you see, is one of the rare old-fashioned people who goes to college to learn about those archaic, non-interactive narratives that people called “books.”
This story is not a whiz-bang caper. The narrative covers a massive amount of time in only twenty-four pages and a lot less actual stuff happens. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the plot is not as big and flashy, the author must simply make sure that he or she offers the reader something else in return. How did Mr. MacLeod keep my attention, even though there wasn’t as much plot as a Star Wars movie?
- Lots of book and English grad student talk. I guess this won’t work for everyone, but it did work for me because I could relate so well.
- Romance! We all love romance. Lita tells us very early in the story how handsome and temperamental Rob is. My study of Hugh Grant movies has convinced me that is the magic combination to win over the ladies.
- Seeds are planted and allowed to grow. Humans love beginnings, middles, and ends. Lita convinces Rob to try reading one of those confusing paper-based books. He soon likes books. His tastes evolve and change. Literature becomes a way for them to relate. See how this development can keep the reader’s attention?
- Consummation. It’s pretty clear how Lita feels about Rob–and why she’s telling us the story in the first place. It’s altogether fitting and proper that she and he come together.
These two stories are, in a way, romance stories, but they’re helpful to us because of their differences. We can take our time with a narrative or we can zoom along, but we must always serve our specific characters and plot in a manner that will keep the audience’s attention.
Mr. Strahan has assembled a diverse roster of stories and seems to have taken great pains to search beyond the Big Three magazines. I’ve always thought of the O. Henry collections of literary short stories as the literary, experimental cousins of the slightly more staid Best American series. Perhaps Mr. Strahan’s collections are where you can turn when you are more in the mood for poeticism than plot or in a time when you have a hungrier heart than mind.
Fantasy, Jonathan Strahan, Science Fiction
When the great Rod Serling sat down to write a second pilot script for a TV program he was calling The Twilight Zone, he heaped a big problem onto his shoulders. The episode, you’ll recall, finds a man meandering through a small town. He’s utterly alone. Not a person in sight. There are hints of habitation–a burning cigar, a ringing telephone–but no people. The man finds clues for twenty-plus minutes, but for all but a few minutes of the episode, he has no idea where he is or what is happening. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the story for you.)
Serling really complicated matters for himself. So much drama comes from two or more characters interacting. “Where is Everybody” is a one-man show. The restraints we place on ourselves, of course, force us to write our way around them.
In Luna Rising, Selene Castrovilla‘s titular protagonist isn’t exactly a loner. She has friends (including the enjoyably drawn Sunny), family, and a succession of boyfriends to keep her company. Still, Luna begins the (third person) book very much in her own head. Her husband has freshly come out of the closet. This complicates her life, along with that of her two sons. Luna is only thirty-eight. She’s still a woman and still has the requisite needs. Unfortunately, finding love in her situation is not the easiest thing to do.
The main love interest in the book is an older man named Trip. Will they end up together? Will they go their separate ways? Read for yourself, but remember: the course of true love never did run smooth.
So Luna feels a little lonely. That’s understandable. While she has a support system, she understandably doesn’t know how she is going to handle the changes that are shaping her new life. One of the ways to chart a character’s thoughts and to release exposition is the use of a confidant. There’s so much more you can do with a character and a scene if the character is not alone. Here’s an example: the gravedigger scene from Hamlet:
How different would the scene be if there were no “I knew him, Horatio?” There would be no reason for Hamlet to talk to himself. (I know…not that it stops Hamlet from doing so at other times…) And seeing as how Hamlet is dead at the end of the play, there would be no one to share the sad story of the ill-fated prince of Denmark.
Ms. Castrovilla gives a slightly lonely character a confidant: an imaginary friend named Jiminy. (Yes, after Pinocchio’s buddy.) Here’s how Jiminy is introduced in the first chapter of Luna Rising, before the narrative takes a trip to the past:
Jiminy is a useful character/device in the book because it allows Ms. Castrovilla to do the same work as can be done in a scene with an additional character. Luna certainly can’t tell Trip what she is thinking or how she feels–what a boring romance story that would be–but she can think what she is thinking and have an internal dialogue with Jiminy, who appears in the book a great deal.
Ms. Castrovilla did something very interesting with the characterization. Let’s look at how she introduces Luna’s ex-husband:
So she goes from straight third-person prose into a kind of profile divided by sections. Isn’t this an interesting choice? Ordinarily, exposition and characterization are released in straight narration or in dialogue; the author did something a little different here. It reminds me of the bare-bones exposition of the G.I. Joe profile cards that were on the back of the action figure packages.
As we all know, the value of a choice is determined by the effect it has on the work. On one hand, it could be considered inconvenient to drop such a big exposition bomb so close to the beginning of the book. Maybe Ms. Castrovilla really doesn’t need to tell us that the ex dislikes tomato seeds. Maybe she could release the necessary information in other, more felicitous ways. On the other hand, this is a fun romancey-type book. We’re reading this for enjoyment and to have fun. The bolded profile structure gives us a mental image of Nick very quickly. Ms. Castrovilla suggests other scenes (what it was like when Luna discovered Nick’s activities on the gay site!) and is clear about what Nick looks like. Looks are very important in romancey-type novels. Just the way it is.
So if we put all of this information on a scale, I think that the author made the right choice. She offers similar lists for the other characters in the book when appropriate, and they have the same effect.
Ms. Castrovilla imbues the book with a great deal of pathos and deals with it in much more comprehensive terms than you might find in straight-up romance novels. (The “heat meter” is also lower.) These choices make Luna Rising a novel that has a bigger emotional impact. Instead of chronicling how one finds passion, Ms. Castrovilla illuminates how people negotiate the minefield of love. I suppose it’s easy for two incredibly hot people to fall into bed for a night. This book is much more about how we build deeper feelings and appreciation for the people in our lives, from neglectful parents to our kids and especially the man or woman we love, even if their snoring makes us want to smother them in their sleep sometimes.
Romance, Selene Castrovilla
What does it mean to be an “American writer?” A “Chilean poet?” A “Martian poet?” (I wrote a short story about that last one.) I don’t really know. I think that these delineations are as fuzzy as they are useful. Americans, Chileans, and (future) Martians have virtually everything in common; they’re human beings. We all feel hunger, love, and fear. We all seek to address these feelings in similar ways.
On the other hand, culture is influenced by climate and geography and food and a million other factors that add spice to the human experience. Why wouldn’t there be some kind of cultural flavor baked into the poetry a person creates? It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure, judging a poet on the basis of such a label.
Anne Bradstreet is considered the first American poet. Though she died a century before Lexington and Concord, the sixty years of her life took place during the time when the ethos of the United States was still coalescing. Mrs. Bradstreet (she was a 17th-century Puritan…something tells me she would prefer “Mrs.” as an honorific) arrived in Massachusetts when she was 18 and spent her life in the colony. Her Puritanism definitely influenced her worldview and her work; as Charlotte Gordon asserts:
Anne Bradstreet’s work would challenge English politics, take on the steepest theological debates, and dissect the history of civilization. She would take each issue by the scruff of the neck and shake hard until the stuffing spilled out; no important topic of the day would be off-limits, from the beheading of the English king to the ascendancy of Puritanism, from the future of England to the question of women’s intellectual powers. Furthermore, she would shock Londoners into enraged attention by predicting that America would one day save the English-speaking world from destruction. Hers would be the first poet’s voice, male or female, to be heard from the wilderness of the New World.
Okay, enough of that stuff. What do we care about? Her writing and what we can learn from it! I was quite charmed by “The Author to Her Book,” a poem that I can reproduce here because it’s obviously in the public domain.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Notes for those who may not be comfortable with old-timey early modern English yet: I know. It looks weird. But the writing is almost 400 years old. Your writing will look weird 400 years from now, too. Some things to remember:
- Spelling was not yet standardized and words were assembled letter-by-letter by a compositor who built the movable type on the page. So when you see “joynts” or “hobling” instead of “joints” or “hobbling,” just go with it.
- Old-timey people would capitalize nouns, (as is the practice in German).
- The apostrophe in “caus’d” does the same work an apostrophe does now: it replaces a missing letter or letters. (In that case, the “e.”)
- Most of all, just go with it. This is not a complicated poem.
Okay, so what do we have going on here? Iambic pentameter. Rhymed couplets. Should we be surprised? Not really. Christopher Marlowe had popularized the use of iambic pentameter in poetry; Ben Jonson called it “Marlowe’s mighty line.” Bradstreet was born when Shakespeare was winding down and Jonson was still trucking along. (Marlowe was dead…or at least that’s what they want us to believe…) Mrs. Bradstreet did not reinvent the wheel. She made use of the conventions popular in poetry at the time. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. First of all, you can’t innovate until you understand how writing works. Second, you’re producing work that your audience can understand. Finally, working within a structure allows you to stretch out and do something different in a different area of your work.
Mrs. Bradstreet indeed tackles an “unusual” subject in her poem: authorship. (And authorship by a woman, which was uncommon at the time!) It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t see “authors” in the same way they do now. Copyright was a joke. There was no “Author! Author!” The aforementioned Ben Jonson was one of the first to write about the concept of the author. And look what Mrs. Bradstreet wrote decades later! A poem that oozes with a writer’s love for and regrets about her work! (It is also clear that Mrs. Bradstreet felt the same way about her work as we often do upon publication: we love the piece, but we still see its flaws.)
Importantly, this is not just a poem about poets. Mrs. Bradstreet keeps the poem relatable by making a comparison that we can all understand. Don’t we all think of our poems, short stories, essays and novels as our babies? Whether or not they have children of their own, non-writers can also relate to the comparison. See how this idea is useful, especially in a short poem like this? Mrs. Bradstreet did not overcomplicate things. I’d wager that if you could ask her about her poem, she would not say it was “about the incalculable search for understandingness in a worldrealm unfeeling to the now” or some such opaque twaddle. Remember; reading is not supposed to be homework. We do the reader a disservice when we encode meaning so deeply that the work is confusing and requires the reader to get out a pen and paper to chart what is happening in the poem.
Look at the world in which Mrs. Bradstreet was creating. This is a map of what the east coast of North America looked like around the time the poem was written:
Isn’t it amazing? Mrs. Bradstreet was in a world greatly in flux. Everything was changing and little was set. Childbirth was a real nail-biting experience and the elements were a real danger instead of an inconvenience. I suppose the biggest lesson we should learn from the author is that we should put aside the concerns of the day when we write. Authorship is our stab at immortality. It may not help the plants in your garden to grow or lure small game into your traps, but it is a reflection of personal identity in addition to national identity. Even though we all have a million problems on our minds and we’re trying to build our own figurative country (just as Mrs. Bradstreet was trying to build a literal one), the writing we do about ourselves and what we think and how we feel can matter a great deal.
Especially if we have something meaningful to say.
Anne Bradstreet, Independence Day