Best thing in the world is hanging in a bookstore with K. Tempest Bradford

What do writers do when they get together? They go to the bookstore! I spent the afternoon with K. Tempest Bradford, including hanging out at a Half Price Books.

One highlight was discovering the creepily titled Piers Anthony novel The Color of Her Panties, which Tempest has already posted about over on Facebook.

The other great part? Hearing Tempest critique a novel she read a while back, Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher.

Enjoy the video.

Never Never Stories released in China

My short story collection Never Never Stories has been translated and released in China by Douban Read.

The collection is being released as two separate books with similar but different covers. Here's the link to Never Never Stories Book 1 and here's Book 2.

In the near future Douban Read will release book editions of more of my stories, including "Blood Grains Speaks Through Memories," "Paprika," and "Mirrorblink." They've already released translations of my Nebula Award nominated novella Sublimation Angels and "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen By Their Rain." All of these works are listed on my Douban Read author page.

I want to thank my Douban Read editor Pei Liu for all the hard work on translating and publishing these stories. And many thanks also to all the readers in China who have responded so positively to my writing.

An alternate history of alternative histories

On one level or another, we all yearn for alternate histories.

Is there anyone who doesn’t wish they could redo something in their past? Not utter a cruel remark which destroyed a friendship? Not hurry through the last time you spoke with a loved one? Take the road never taken or the risk never risked?

To say nothing of the worst histories we share. Of world wars and slavery and genocides and hate and environmental destruction and so much more. If these events could be undone, wouldn’t the world we live in today be so much better? Or would righting historic wrongs result in even worse outcomes today?

Such questions are impossible to answer, except through the imaginative visions of alternate histories.

In my personal history I learned my love of science fiction from my grandfather, whose collection of Golden Age SF magazines and books fired my imagination. I also learned of my desire for alternate histories when my grandfather died when I was only 13.

I remember walking into his bedroom after his death to discover the last SF book he’d been reading, a paperback anthology of classic SF stories. A dog-eared page halfway through the book marked where my grandfather stopped mid-story, planning to return to the book when that day was over.

Instead, a heart attack killed him as he raked leaves.

I still have the dog-eared paperback as he left it, paused between the reading of one sentence and the next.

In an alternate timeline where my grandfather lived, I wonder about the conversations we’d have shared on science fiction and life. Would he have liked reading my SF stories? Would we have savored our extra days together or would we have impatiently frittered it away as humans usually do with our time?

Ironically, the last book my grandfather read was edited by Poul Anderson, one of our genre’s early authors of alternate histories. Anderson’s Time Patrol stories, where valiant time travelers ensure history stays on its “correct” timeline, are an integral and fun part of SF’s long tradition of time travel fiction focused on keeping history pure. He also wrote a famous series of alternate history fantasies called Operation Chaos, originally published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s. In these stories World War II was fought between completely different countries with magical creatures such as werewolves and witches.

Of course, Anderson’s stories of time travelers keeping the timeline pure and correct seem a little simplistic today, just as historical narratives today are far more complex than they were decades ago. I think this is partly because most historians now recognize how imprecisely history is recorded. History as it is written can even be called the original version of the alternate history genre, where the story we're told deviates from what really happened.

After all, history is written by the victors, as the cliche states. Which means much of what happened in the past is left out or altered before history is recorded. And even the victors don’t name all the victors and don’t celebrate all their victories and deeds.

Theodore Sturgeon famously said that "ninety percent of everything is crap.” This applies equally to history as we know it — including the history of the alternate history genre.

I say this last part because this is the point in my essay where I’m supposed to give examples of classic works of alternate history, and how these stories influenced everything that followed.

For example, Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis Powers won World War II, is everyone’s go-to title when discussing alternate histories. And for good reason. While The Man in the High Castle isn’t the first true alternative history exploring completely different timelines from our own, the novel was the first to make a major splash in the SF/F genre, winning the Hugo Award and inspiring generations of storytellers.

Another famous alternate history novel is 1990’s The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which almost single-handedly sparked the subgenre of steampunk. As with Dick’s novel, The Difference Engine truly rewrote the history of our genre, with everything that followed being completely different.

But while the importance of these two novels can’t be ignored in the history of alternate histories, there’s much more to the history of this exciting genre. Authors like Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Fritz Lieber and so many others wrote stories which helped establish the alternative history genre, yet their genre-defining works are only mentioned in passing these days.

Another example of an author whose alternate histories don’t receive enough credit for creating the genre is Harry Harrison. His alternate history novel West of Eden and its sequels opened my eyes to the full-scale revolution which could be wrought by changes in humanity’s timeline. In Harrison’s narrative of history Earth wasn’t struck by an asteroid 65 million years ago, allowing the dinosaurs to not only survive but to evolve intelligence and create a civilization which has lasted for millions of years, with humanity emerging in their shadow.

To me, West of Eden and the novel’s sequels contain the full power of what alternative history could and should be. But that’s merely my view. After all, everyone’s view of history is different.

What is certain, though, is that we are living in boom times for alternate histories. Must read works in the genre include many of the novels of Harry Turtledove (dubbed “the master of alternative history” for works in which the Confederacy wins the American Civil War, or aliens invade Earth during World War II). Other great works include Michael Chabon’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Yiddish Policemen's Union, about Jewish refugees founding their own city in Alaska; A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, a poetic tale which skirts the boundaries between pure fantasy and alternative history; Eric Flint's 1632 series, about a small town in West Virginia transported to 17th century Europe; and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which creates an England existing solely through the grace of magic.

And that short list doesn't even begin to count all the non-Western alternate history stories like Musubi no Yama Hiroku by Ryō Hanmura, which reworks centuries of Japanese history. I've long wanted to read Musubi no Yama Hiroku but the novel has yet to be translated into English.

I think alternative histories will always be with us for the simple reason that humans can’t stop thinking about alternatives to the lives we lead. We yearn to know what could have been. Of the roads not traveled, be they good or bad.

With alternate histories, even history itself isn’t a barrier to our imaginations.

The first step of every artist is to resist

I can't stop thinking of Greenpeace hanging the RESIST banner behind the White House. One of the best symbolic protests I've seen.

I’m thinking of RESIST as I write a new story and I wonder how many people truly understand that the first step of every artist is to resist.

Not mindless clichéd resistance like Hollywood’s Rebel Without a Cause or the mythic Campbellian BS of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Not even the adolescent white man-child resistance against everything and everyone Salinger popularized in Catcher in the Rye.

No, I mean resistance where the artist tries to truly understand the world. And then creates something to express their understanding.

An artist’s truest resistance is to understand life and then act. And there are many ways to act.

For me, as a writer, I write stories. Other artists act in different ways. Art is as diverse as all humanity, so there are countless ways to act on one’s understanding of life.

And all humans are artists in different ways. All humans can strive to understand life and act on what they discover.

So when I think RESIST, I think WRITE. When I understand RESIST, I turn to writing as my main means of ACTION.

Other people turn to different means of changing the world. But together we form a wave of understanding and action which can’t be resisted.

Because ultimately all our acts of resistance feed into one another. The end result is a power which no one can stop.

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.