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James Frenkel

Working With Vernor Vinge: Thirty Years On

About a month ago I realized that today’s publication of The Children of the Sky will not only mark the eighth book of Vernor Vinge’s that I’ve edited, it will also mark thirty years that I’ve been working with this talented writer. If we’re going to be picky, I have actually been working with him for slightly longer, but the first book of his that I worked on was a Binary Star double-novel book that included his short novel “True Names,” which was published in February of 1981.

We lived in a different world in 1981. I hadn’t yet started using a computer for word processing, no less for communicating on the internet. And the science fiction publishing world was a very different place as well. I — as is true of many colleagues both at Tor Books and elsewhere, could go on and on about how publishing has changed over the past thirty years or so. But I will refrain. In this blog post I will limit myself to talking about what the title suggests.

When I first read Vernor Vinge’s work, it was in the pages of Galaxy and Analog magazines. I particularly remember reading Grimm’s World, first the novella, then the novel. I was struck by the . . . I believe I would have said “nifty” world he had created. Like many SF readers, the notion of a world that had an SF magazine publishing company on a boat was nothing less than cool. It’s a tribute to his ability to evoke a sense of wonder in his readers.

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Still Waters Run Deep

Jeffrey A. Carver is a writer I’ve worked with longer than perhaps any other. He’s a nice guy, and someone who has been active in the field since the mid-1970s. He’s one of the writers who to me exemplifies the fusion of hard science fiction adventure and humanistic literature in the best of his works. He’s been a Nebula Award finalist, published on three continents, and translated into a number of languages.  He’s given me and others many hours of reading pleasure, and he’s one of those writers who often challenges himself and his editor by writing in an intuitive fashion…without necessarily knowing how his story will end up until after he’s written it.

When I became an editor I thought—and I suspect most editors feel this way when they start out—that editing manuscripts is fairly straightforward. Before you start editing books, the only real experience you have with books is as a reader of the finished product. I have interns in my office from the University of Wisconsin, and they’re all English majors, as I was. They’ve been reading lots of the classic literature written in the English language (including Middle English) for two or three years before they come to intern for me, and they’ve never seen book manuscripts that haven’t already been published.

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Mile High Worldcon…and old Worldcon memories

I haven’t counted how many Worldcons I’ve attended, but I sure remember my first one. It was St. Louiscon in 1969. I was still in college, and with Sharon Kennelty, I was representing the Stony Brook Science Fiction Forum.

Looking back now, it was such a different age. For starters, air travel was so much easier. If you were in college, there was American Airlines’ “Youth Fare,” basically half-price travel if there was room…and there tended to be room in planes. So it cost, I’m pretty sure, $50 one-way to St. Louis from New York. Youth Fare was truly incredible—a couple years earlier, at the end of final exams, I’d hitched rides to Syracuse to visit Joel Raphael, a high-school buddy who was in college there, and since I was tired of hitchhiking by the time I got there, on the way back I flew from Syracuse to La Guardia. Eight dollars…and they put me in first class, with all its perks, because they needed to balance the plane. Eight bucks! Even then, that was ridiculously cheap. And of course, there was no airport security. No ID checks, no restrictions on fluids, no x-raying of carry-ons; no TSA people rummaging through your checked luggage. No “allow two hours” to get on your flight. It was easy.

St. Louiscon was the biggest Worldcon there had ever been up till that point. 1600 members—an astounding number. To me it was simply a big con, only my third or fourth, with amazing things happening. I knew this was a special weekend before I got on the plane. Lin Carter, at that point one of the most important people in fantasy publishing, was on my flight. He was everything I might have imagined a fantasy figure to be: impeccably trimmed and shaped goatee, impressive eyebrows, ornately carved cane; flowing cape trailing behind…I was too young to consider that perhaps this costume was not intrinsic to his position as the consulting editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. Years later I would get to know and work with Lin, but the moment I saw his august presence at La Guardia Airport, I only knew he must be going to Worldcon, and I was convinced that this weekend would be something incredible.

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The Guest of Honor was artist Jack Gaughan. Harlan Ellison was the toastmaster. Fan Guest of Honor was fan artist Eddie Jones. And there were other artists there. I knew few people there. Sharon, my roommate, left the convention on Saturday. She’d gone to the zoo across the street from the con hotel, the Chase Park Plaza…and at one point while she was walking around the zoo looking at the animals, some guy…well, a guy apparently placed a hand on her shapely bottom. This was extremely upsetting to her, so much so that she decided then and there that this trip had been a horrible mistake, and she had to leave—NOW. Which put me in a quandary, because I really couldn’t afford to pay for the room all by myself.

Luckily, I’d met a bunch of Bozos already. Weird cats from Minneapolis, who had a “bid suite” that was their headquarters and crash space for the bunch of them, the “Minneapolis in ’73” worldcon bid. One of my new friends, Fred Haskell, told me that if I chipped in a buck a night, I could crash in their suite. Best offer I ever had!

With that problem solved, I checked out of the room Sharon and I had booked. I don’t think the hotel minded. They resold the room right away, as I was standing there at the registration desk. And I started experiencing the con in earnest. There were a bunch of young artists—Vaughn Bodé, Jeff Jones, Larry Todd seemed to be a clique that was just a friendly bunch of people. Vaughn and his wife welcomed me to hang out and eat dinner with them one night. Such friendly folks. I started to feel more at home at this massively attended con.

I discovered the horrible truth about Missouri hotel elevators. The hotel wasn’t very new, and the elevators weren’t very good. They were constantly overloaded; they were slow; they broke down. This was, I discovered later, a long-standing tradition.

Then there was the Hugo Awards Banquet. I had saved money to make sure I could afford the banquet. Of course, I didn’t have a bunch of people I was going to sit with, so I got on line and ended up at a table with a bunch of old farts, or so I thought. Turned out to be Robert Bloch—when I realized I was sitting with ROBERT BLOCH I got much quieter for a while…and I had been pretty quiet to start with. And David Kyle, and Ken Moore, and other people whose names have faded in the mists of time. But Bob Bloch was so friendly, so funny, such a great dinner companion that I soon felt as if I actually belonged at this table. We had fun. Especially when Harlan Ellison was doing his toastmaster duties. Bob Bloch couldn’t resist making “short” jokes about Harlan, who was at the far end of the room, up on the dais. It was pretty safe to laugh, that far away.

And there was the fateful moment when the Worldcon Emergency Fund was established. During the masquerade, some guy with a sword had managed to find a seam in the big movie screen that nobody retracted while costumed people tromped across the stage. $1500 worth of damage to the screen ensued. So Harlan suggested that we all chip in a buck to help fix the screen. With 1600 people there, that would work. And it did, eventually. Of course, it’s hard to make sure there’s EXACTLY enough money for the purpose. There was, in fact, more money passed to the dais. What to do with the extra money?

Harlan suggested that it be donated to the very new Clarion Writers Workshop. He was (of course) an eloquent advocate for this cause, a workshop devoted to fostering the SF writers of tomorrow. Sounded good to me…but not to everyone. That was when Elliot Shorter, a bookseller, a New Yorker, a very, very tall, imposing man of color whose bulk rose more than a full foot over Harlan as he stood up and said, in his surprisingly high-pitched but at that moment quite audible aand angry voice, “Now wait just one darned minute, Harlan.” There followed a rather dramatic moment in which Elliot advanced on Harlan, and many in the room held their breath…

Elliot quite reasonably pointed out that people had sent their dollars up to the dais to fix the screen, not to support Clarion, and it wouldn’t be fair to simply take the excess for a different purpose without first asking the assembled multitude if this was what they preferred. After a certain amount of fannish discussion it was finally decided to use the extra money to establish the Worldcon Emergency Fund, for things like emergency screen repair and other possible Worldcon needs. This has come in very handy on occasion, most notably when a Worldcon in the early 1980s wound up with a significant financial shortfall.

But I digress. It was Worldcon. 1969. I met, briefly, the young, beautiful Astrid Anderson, daughter of Poul and Karen Anderson. She and her mom were amazing in their masquerade costumes. and Howard DeVore, in the dealers room, told me he thought Astrid was a really nice girl, and I should get to know her. Well, I was young, and pretty shy, and intimidated. Some things don’t work out…and that’s o.k. Eventually, we both met (diffrerent) SF writers, got married, had kids…it’s worked out pretty well all around, I would vouchsafe.

I had no idea there could be a room with so many people selling so many different things. So many books, for starters. Yowza. Hank Luttrell, I remember, was a leading light of the hucksters (dealers) room. He still is. And of course, as worldcons have grown, so have the dealers rooms. But at the time, it was truly astounding (Amazing? Fantastic? fannish humor never ends) to wallow in a sea of books. I couldn’t have cared less about the other stuff there, but the books! For someone who’s always loved reading, it was challenging to hold onto what little money I had, in this wonderland of sf and fantasy.

There was a lot of other stuff going on at the convention—I remember a cartoon slam going on in the con suite after the banquet, with Jones, Gaughan, and other artists taking turns drawing on the spot. And there were lots of panels, and sundry other activities. I did and saw as much as I could. It was altogether wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating. It made me more determined than ever to pursue my lifelong goal of writing the Great American Science Fiction Story. Okay, that lifelong goal ended up changing once I got into publishing.

Which brings me back to the present, to Denvention 3. It’s been a pretty cool convention. Nothing at all (for me) like St. Louiscon, where I had no idea that I actually would become a professional editor, and where I knew virtually nobody. Early in this convention I met Patrick Rothfuss’s partner, and this is her first-ever SF convention. I can’t speak for her, of course, but I can only imagine how strange and overwhelming an experience this worldcon must be for her. It has to be different from the “first-con” experience of most people, since she’s here with Pat, who has become one of the hot young talents in a very short time. And Pat has been to a bunch of conventions, so he knows a lot of people, and she’s likely to meet and forget the names of hundreds of her future best friends over these few days.

For me, it’s a little strange being here in Denver for the first time since 1981, a year when I had just gotten laid off by Dell Books; my wife, Joan D. Vinge, was seven months pregnant with our first child…and won the Best Novel Hugo for The Snow Queen. In 1981, by the time we got to Denvention 2, I was already starting a publishing company, Bluejay Books, but was still collecting unemployment insurance—I had to check in at the Denver office to make sure I would get my check. Joan isn’t here at the con this year; she’s home, doing physical therapy for an injured knee, and working on her new novel. It’s weird being here without her. And to make things more time-bent, I got a cellphone call from our daughter Jessi, who was here, but hadn’t yet made her first appearance yet in 1981, yesterday, while I was in the dealers’ room. I mentioned to Jessi that she had been here, but…well, she couldn’t remember it.

This con is really spread out, not just in the convention center, but also among the various hotels. There are other conventions here this weekend, so Denver’s not completely a fannish camp. But we are pretty strong. Wherever I’ve been to eat, there have been fans, and usually, some who I know. We’re just one big family, still, after all these years.

My brains are slightly fried, partly from the hectic schedule of the con and such, and partly the effects of the congestion that has made my voice a strange whisper since the day I got here. Yes, anyone who has heard me on a panel must have wondered why my voice has had the funereal flatness of someone close to one side of death. Whenever I have tried to speak on a panel, I’ve been startled by the sound of my own voice. I don’t doubt that if there were birds present, they’d scatter, startled, and babies no doubt have begun to cy upon hearing the dry, rasping croak of my amplified whisper.

I’ve been doing what I can do improve my voice, but I suspect it won’t really recover until I’m home and have had a chance to rest it for a couple days, and ply it with salt-water gargling and other therapies.

I missed the Hugos last night, but have found out that Michael Chabon won for Best Novel. Which is great. It was a wonderful book. And Ted Chiang won for best novelette. Terrific story. But I still am partial to Daniel Abraham’s entry, which was second by, I heard, a mere nine votes. And of course, Connie Willis won for best novella. This is never a surprise. I’m beginning to get concerned for Connie. Where will she find space in her house for yet another Hugo. Nice problem to have!

There’s lots more of course. It has been an amazing few days, like all worldcons. Still amazing; still full of surprises; still fun.

SDCC: Training Day at Comic Con

I didn’t expect my first post on the website to be about Comic Con, but I didn’t get a chance to post sooner, and Comic Con in San Diego is something I can’t not write about.

I’ve been going to science fiction and fantasy conventions–as well as other cons–for, I shudder to admit it–forty years. Of course, I was a small child (okay, I was in college) when I attended my first Lunacon in New York, in 1968. I’ve been to bigger events  than Comic Con, notably the Frankfurt (Germany) International Book Fair, which attracts more than 350,000 people.

But Comic Con is different. I’d been warned; I’d heard talk; I’d seen figures, pictures, the faces of Comic Con veterans. Huge, packed, the evidence all said; unlike anything else. And yesterday I discovered that it’s all true. In Frankfurt, the 350,000 people are spread over ten buildings, big buildings. If you go to the German building (or “Halle”), where the German attendees of the  book fair, the “Buch Messe” can see new German popular fiction and non-fiction, it’s crowded, and that’s probably as close as I’ve ever seen to what I experienced last night at Comic Con in San Diego’s convention center. But in Frankfurt, the German Hall (actually, one of two huge buildings with German publishers’ booths; the other is occupied by booths of German scientific publishers, a whole other universe) is open to the teeming throngs for only three of the five main days of the Fair. The other days, only professionals are allowed in the hall. At Comic Con, there are hours when the public doesn’t come in, but from what I saw last night, just three hours, from 6 PM to 9 PM, Comic Con is much more intense than Frankfurt.

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