All I really need to know I learned from science fiction and fantasy stories

While There's No Place like Space may be great for kindergarten students, everything I really need to know I learned from the science fiction and fantasy genre.

While There's No Place like Space may be great for kindergarten students, everything I really need to know I learned from the science fiction and fantasy genre.

A short essay hangs on the bulletin board in the break room at work. The essay's printed on age-brown paper and taped to a yellow sheet of construction paper, the kind kindergarten students cut with safety scissors. A totally appropriate paper choice since the essay is titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Written by Robert Fulghum, the essay formed the basis of his bestselling 1988 book of the same name. It’s possible the essay has been posted on my work’s bulletin board for more than a quarter century, silently offering life suggestions to impatient employees jostling for the water cooler or coffee pot.

Among Fulghum’s kindergarten suggestions are “Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess.”

It’s easy to see why an entire generation of workers kept the essay on the bulletin board. After all, it’s a nice fantasy to believe that taking a nap every day and holding hands not only makes the world a better place but keeps everyone happy.

Humans have long been attracted to basic rules of living, rules which appeal to humanity’s sense of fairness and also resonate with our cultural norms and beliefs. The most basic of these rules — commandments found in different religions such as “Thou shalt not kill” or “Do not lie” — seem obvious and easy to follow. Other rules vary across human cultures, such as norms on interpersonal contact and communications.

But even very obvious rules and norms turn out to have a lot of moral ambiguity. Every culture in the world supposedly believes that killing is wrong. Except they all have exceptions to that rule, such as allowing killing in cases of self defense. Or if you’re a soldier. Or if society decides someone should be killed. Or if the profit model of your business depends on indirectly killing people.

And rules against lying are bent even further, with very few humans being absolutely honest when describing their feelings and thoughts to other people.

Suddenly “Thou shalt not kill or lie” isn’t so “thou shalt not.” Which is how most absolute rules in life go, with the rules being good ideals but attaining more flexibility in day-to-day exchanges between people. Sometimes this flexibility is good — as in telling a white lie to spare a friend’s feelings — and sometimes it’s bad, as when the tobacco industry aggressively sells a product killing millions each year.

Maybe Fulghum’s kindergarten essay is so popular because it moves beyond the hypocrisy of how most human act with regards to rules and norms. Fulghum’s kindergarten rules take us to a supposedly simpler time in our lives. To an idealized past where all of us knew right and wrong and acted in the proper manner.

Of course, not everyone learned the same rules as a child. In my case, for example, everything I really need to know I learned from science fiction and fantasy stories.

I read SF/F stories from a young age, first in the Golden Age magazines my grandfather owned then in novels I tracked down at bookstores. I still read SF/F stories with an almost religious fever. I sometimes think reading and writing SF/F is the only thing which keeps me going. That SF/F stories give meaning to my life by showing me the deeper truths underlying our existence.

For example, from Arthur C. Clarke I learned that the ultimate destination of all humans is extinction. Even if some parts of humanity transcend reality, as in Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, humanity as a species is destined to eventually disappear from this universe.

From Isaac Asimov I learned that even if our ultimate fate is to disappear, humanity can have an amazing ride while we exist.

From Ursula K. Le Guin I learned that culture shock can be both a way to awaken you to new intellectual horizons and to kill you.

From Octavia E. Butler I learned that we must fight to better the world, even if the fight to better the world often destroys us.

From Harlan Ellison I learned of outrage at the world as it is, even if outrage sometimes eats us alive.

From Philip K. Dick I learned to look behind the curtains of life and never be shocked by the depths to which humans go to ignore the truth about ourselves.

From Samuel R. Delany I learned that the worlds we create within ourselves can be far more amazing and unique than anything in our already amazing and unique universe.

Science fiction and fantasy stories teach us the rules for reaching beyond what humanity is at this time and place. In our hearts, humans yearn to move past what we know. We are our world’s ultimate star gazers. We want to see beyond the distant horizon, both in the physical world and in our inner, mentally created worlds.

Humans are by necessity limited in what we can do and know. Even if we experience every aspect of life out there — and even if we read SF/F stories every waking moment of our lives  —  there will still be countless experiences and stories we’ll never know.

But that’s okay because we exist within the location and time frame of our bodies and knowledge and beliefs. Even the most open-minded humans are unable to experience everything that is experienced by the billions of people currently living on our planet. Or the experiences of the hundred billion or more humans who have existed since the dawn of our species.

All we can do is follow our own limited paths through life. To help us travel these paths, humanity creates rules and norms and beliefs. We’re a fool to ignore these rules and norms and beliefs. We’re a fool to follow them too closely or not try to change them.

That’s one reason I love the truths I’ve learned from science fiction and fantasy stories. These truths both expand my understanding of life and ground me in the world as it exists. SF/F rules and norms are both a cry against the ultimate fate of humanity and a demand that we experience life as only we can live it.

In the end, that’s all any true SF/F lover can hope for.

Deadpool and the death of believing genre works are only for kids

I remember the moment my love of science fiction and fantasy became unacceptable. I was in ninth grade and checking out new SF books at my school’s library. The librarian was an old friend. While working years before at my elementary school she’d encouraged my love of genre fiction by pointing out new books to read.

But on this high school day, the librarian looked at my books and sniffed, “Aren’t you a little old to be reading that?”

Because naturally SF/F is only for kids. Because naturally new worlds and a sense of wonder and dreams of the future and things which will never be must stay within the realm of kids.

The librarian meant well, but so did generations of readers and critics and a general public who for decades looked down on SF/F as being “kids’ stuff.” That same attitude carried over to other storytelling formats which were also declared to be only for kids. Like comic books. And video games.

Woe be to any responsible adult who dared embrace anything genre.

Thankfully, this attitude has changed. Today mainstream literary authors like Michael Chabon and Junot Díaz regularly write and associate within the realms of SF/F, with Chabon winning the Nebula Award for his alternate-history novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union while Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is essentially a love song to genre fandom. In addition, genre writers like Terry Pratchett and George R.R. Martin are world-famous celebrities while authors like Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany are embraced by the high-literary world which once disdained them.

An even bigger change has happened in the visual storytelling mediums, with SF/F and comic books inspiring films and video games and TV shows which rank among the highest grossing works of all time. In fact, it seems like genre works and adaptations support everything Hollywood and the other visual industries create these days, as opposed to decades ago when Hollywood executives feared the original Star Wars film would bomb with audiences who, the executives assumed, only wanted to see realistic movies.

But even though genre culture is ascendant, traces of the old attitudes remain, as witnessed by the reaction to the successful Deadpool film. In the run-up to the Golden Globes, in which Deadpool had been nominated as best Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, I heard disdainful sniffs from a number of people that this superhero movie didn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breathe as La La Land.

Well la-dee-da to that attitude.

I wasn’t surprised by Deadpool’s record-breaking box office haul — the film had been on the radar of both myself and my teenage son over a year before it was released. Like millions of other people, my son and I ate up Deadpool’s not-safe-for-work trailers and previews, which showed that the film would remain true to the violent, wise-cracking Marvel Comics antihero we loved.

But on par Hollywood’s traditional lack of faith in ground-breaking genre works, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment refused to believe a comic book movie aimed solely at adults could succeed. As a result they forced the Deadpool film to be created for only $58 million, a tiny amount in blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood. But audiences had more faith, resulting inDeadpool becoming one of the most profitable movies of all time.

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than anything else it’s making money. So already the pundits and executives in Hollywood are saying Deadpool proves the world needs more adult-focused comic book adaptations. Which is both good and bad.

This is good because Deadpool’s success may finally put to death the lingering belief that genre works are only for kids. But it’s also bad because Deadpool’s success will cause Hollywood to misunderstand the reason audience loved the film in the first place.

The truth is that Deadpool is a labor of love, or as much a labor of love as any big budget Hollywood film can be. The film spent nearly 15 years in development hell, with different movie studios arguing about and backing out of adapting this beloved-but-not-for-kids comic book character to the big screen.

The only reason the film was eventually made is because star Ryan Reynolds and other people working on Deadpool believed in their film. They leaked test footage online to wide acclaim and viral view rates, which convinced the studio to greenlight the film. They personally promoted the film to the world through quirky trailers and YouTube videos which both poked fun at Hollywood and showcased how Reynolds was a natural to play Deadpool.

In short, their enthusiasm for what they created became infectious.

That’s the real reason Deadpool was successful — the people who created it were excited and determined to tell a specific story which resonated with fans. Deadpool’s success as the highest grossing adult-oriented film of all time is almost an afterthought to the enthusiasm which birthed the film in the first place.

Unfortunately, Hollywood now believes that extreme comic-book violence and off-color jokes are the key to superhero box office success, so expect to see plenty of films along those lines in the next few years. And when most of these films bomb with audiences, Hollywood will probably again say that Deadpool was the exception which proved the rule that comic adaptations, and by extension all of genre culture, is mainly for kids.

But that’s nonsense. The stories which truly resonate with people are stories created with a sense of passion. When an author or artist or director or actor or any creative person throws themself into something with an all-driving passion, people notice. And if the stories they create turn out to be good, it doesn’t matter what genre or medium the stories exist within.

It only matters that people react to a story's passion with their own passion.

I’m glad our culture has moved beyond its once idiotic dismissal of all thing genre. Now any story which is created with passion can be enjoyed — with passion — by anyone.

But don’t expect corporate Hollywood to ever understand the passion which leads people to create great stories in the first place

2016 novel and short fiction recommended reading list

I read a ton of fiction this year, including classic stories and stories I'd missed from a few years ago. But I tried to focus my reading on works which appeared in 2016. While it's impossible to read everything our genre published, I sought out as much as I could.

Below are my recommendations for the year's best science fiction and fantasy novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories. This list will form the basis of my nominations for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

I'm still reading young adult novels for the SFWA Norton Award, so I left those off my list.
 

2016 Recommended Novels

  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor)
  • Arabella of Mars by David Levine (Tor)
  • Breath of Earth by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager)
  • City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway Books)
  • I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas (Night Shade Books)
  • Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones (William Morrow)
  • Stay Crazy by Erica Satifka (Apex Publications)
  • The Devourers by Indra Das (Del Rey)
  • The Fireman by Joe Hill (William Morrow)
  • The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • The Race by Nina Allan (Titan Books)
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
  • The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (Small Beer Press)

2016 Recommended Novellas

  • A Fair War by Taiyo Fujii (Saiensu Fikushon 2016, Haikasoru)
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor)
  • Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor)
  • The Coward's Option by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog)
  • The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler (Apex Publications)
  • The Liar by John P. Murphy (F&SF)
  • Under the Stone by Karoline Georges (Anvil Press)
  • What We Hold Onto by Jay O'Connell (Asimov's Science Fiction)

2016 Recommended Novelettes

  • Empty Planets by Rahul Kanakia (Interzone)
  • Fifty Shades of Grays by Steven Barnes (Lightspeed)
  • Flight from the Ages by Derek Künsken (Asimov's Science Fiction)
  • I Married a Monster from Outer Space by Dale Bailey (Asimov's Science Fiction)
  • Motherboard (A Tale from Somewhere) by Jeffrey Thomas (Interzone)
  • Project Empathy by Dominica Phetteplace (Asimov's Science Fiction)
  • Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
  • The Book of How to Live by Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde (Tor.com)
  • The Orangery by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Shores of Being by Dave Creek (Analog)
  • The Stone War by Ted Kosmatka (F&SF)
  • The White Piano by David Gerrold (F&SF)
  • They Have All One Breath by Karl Bunker (Asimov's Science Fiction)
  • We Will Wake among the Gods, among the Stars by Caroline Yoachim & Tina Connolly (Analog)
  • You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong (Uncanny Magazine)

2016 Recommended Short Stories

  • A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
  • A Non-Hero's Guide to the Road of Monsters by A.T. Greenblatt (Mothership Zeta)
  • A Touch of Scarlet by David Steffen (Intergalatic Medicine Show)
  • A Very Lonely Revolution by Simon Avery (Black Static)
  • An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition by Ken Liu (Saga Press)
  • Between Dragons and Their Wrath by An Owomoyela Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld)
  • Dare by Harmony Neal (Black Static)
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix by Jennifer Giesbrecht (Apex Magazine)
  • Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic by José Pablo Iriarte (Strange Horizons)
  • Lullaby for a Lost World by Aliette de Bodard (Tor.com)
  • Michael Doesn’t Hate His Mother by Marie Vibbert (Lightspeed)
  • My Grandmother's Bones by S.L. Huang (Daily Science Fiction)
  • Natural Skin by Alyssa Wong (Lightspeed)
  • No Matter Which Way We Turned by Brian Evenson (People Holding ...)
  • Rock, Paper, Incisors by David Cleden (Interzone)
  • Rooms Formed of Neurons and Sex by Ferrett Steinmetz (Uncanny Magazine)
  • Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
  • Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper by Douglas F. Warrick (Tor.com)
  • Sweet Marrow by Vajra Chandrasekera (Strange Horizons)
  • The Red Thread by Sofia Samatar (Lightspeed)
  • The Right Sort of Monsters by Kelly Sandoval (Strange Horizons)
  • The Secret Mirror of Moriyama House by Yukimi Ogawa (F&SF)
  • The Silver Strands of Alpha Crucis-d by N. J. Schrock (F&SF)
  • The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest by Charlie Jane Anders (The Starlit Wood)
  • The Sweetest Skill by Tony Pi (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The True and Otherworldly Origins of the Name ‘Calamity Jane’ by Jordan Kurella (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Unmistakable Smell of Wood Violets by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Marian Womack) (The Big Book of Science Fiction)
  • Things With Beards by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
  • Three Points Masculine by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed Magazine)
  • Two Small Birds by Han Song (translated by John Chu) (The Big Book of Science Fiction)
  • Unreeled by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimov's Science Fiction)
  • Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0 by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)
  • White Dust by Nathan Hillstrom (Asimov's Science Fiction)

Top genre magazines from the Tangent Online 2016 Recommended Reading List

Over the weekend Tangent Online released their reading list of what they consider the best science fiction, fantasy and horror stories of 2016. Tangent pulls together recommendations from all of their reviewers (in this case, 19 people) and places all of these stories on their list. Stories are then ranked within the list from zero (lowest) to 3 stars (highest).

I was shocked to land four stories on the list, including three stars for my Beneath Ceaseless Skies novelette "Blood Grains Speak Through Memories." This made my day!

The Tangent Recommended Reading list is proof of how much great short fiction is being published each year. This year there are 379 stories on the list, made up of 296 short stories, 65 novelettes, and 18 novellas.

I did a deep dive into the reading list to see which magazines placed the most stories. Below are my results. Note I didn't include any anthologies in this ranking, only print and online magazines. Also, these are the picks of one group of reviewers. Obviously other year's best lists, like next month's Locus Recommended Reading List, would feature vastly different results.

Here are the magazine rankings based on stories in the Tangent reading list:

  1. Asimov's Science Fiction: 42 stories
  2. Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 32 stories
  3. Analog: 31 stories
  4. F&SF, 26 stories
  5. Clarkesworld, 21 stories
  6. Tor.com, 21 stories
  7. Galaxy's Edge, 18 stories
  8. Lightspeed, 16 stories
  9. Flash Fiction Online, 13 stories
  10. Apex, 12 stories
  11. Uncanny, 12 stories
  12. Strange Horizons, 10 stories
  13. Nightmare, 9 stories
  14. Compelling SF, 7 stories
  15. Weirdbook, 7 stories
  16. IGMS, 6 stories
  17. Shimmer, 6 stories
  18. Diabolical Plots, 5 stories
  19. Fantastic Stories, 5 stories
  20. Black Static, 4 stories
  21. Aurealis, 3 stories
  22. Interzone, 3 stories
  23. Sci Phi Journal, 3 stories
  24. The Revelator, 2 stories
  25. SQ Mag, 2 stories
  26. Daily Science Fiction, 1 story
  27. Mothership Zeta, 1 story

My first novel Plague Birds is now finished

Art by Hugo Award winning artist Jim Burns for the second Plague Birds story "The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues." See below for more artistic interpretations of my Plague Birds universe.

Good news for fans of my Plague Birds stories: I've completed my first science fiction novel and it's set in that far future world of genetic manipulation and god-like AIs.

For those who haven't read these stories, the first one — "Plague Birds" — was published in the acclaimed British magazine Interzone, where it won the magazine's annual Readers' Poll. The story was subsequently translated into a number of languages (including Czech and Chinese) and was the subject of a well-received podcast on Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine.

The following year I wrote a sequel called "The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues," which was also published in Interzone. Translations of this story were published around the world while its podcast edition was named a finalist for the 2012 Parsec Awards.

My new novel is also titled Plague Birds and includes the original story (but not the "The Ever-Dreaming Verdict of Plagues," which functions as a stand-alone tale in the universe).

I'm now querying agents for the novel. So if all goes well you'll be reading about Plague Birds in the near future.

The original publication of the first "Plague Birds" story in Interzone. Cool art by Ben Baldwin, although there are artistic liberties. (Meaning no red leather skin-tight suits in my story or novel. Sorry.)

Artwork from the Chinese edition of the original Plague Birds short story. And no, the main character doesn't let her shirt fly up like that in the original story or the novel. Definitely artistic liberties at work again.