John Joseph Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in addition to being the editor for the post-apocalyptic anthology, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse published by Night Shade Books, with two other anthologies, Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer of 2008) and The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, Fall of 2008) soon to appear in print.
He writes genre essays, book reviews, and interviews for a variety of magazines, including Kirkus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Locus Magazine, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Publishers Weekly, and Science Fiction Weekly. He also reports for Sci Fi Wire.
Rumor has it he walks on water while juggling it all. Remember, you heard that here first.
Sean Melican: Why did you choose post-apocalyptic fiction as opposed to another sub-genre?
John Joseph Adams: I’ve been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction for a long time, though curiously my fondness for the sub-genre was developed from video games, not literature, at least not initially. My first exposure to it was a computer role-playing game called… Wasteland. (If your next question was going to be “Where did the title come from?” well, then I guess that answers that.) Several years later, I got hooked on another RPG called Fallout (and then Fallout 2), which was one of the best games I’ve ever played.
So I’ve been a big fan of that sub-genre ever since, and I once wrote an article-an extensive bibliography of post-apocalyptic fiction—so I’d already done tons of research on the subject.
During my research, I noted that there was a distinct lack of anthologies of post-apocalyptic fiction. There was only one original—After the Fall edited by Robert Sheckley, which was a humorous look at the genre—and one major reprint anthology—Beyond Armageddon, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Walter M. Miller, Jr. Beyond Armageddon collected the best post-apocalyptic fiction published through 1984; I put Wastelands together as a spiritual sequel to Beyond Armageddon—I basically picked up where it left off. As I fine-tuned the table of contents, I added a few stories that came before 1984—things I felt may have been overlooked—but for the most part, Wastelands includes stories published after Beyond Armageddon was released. I also purposely refrained from reprinting anything in Wastelands that already had been reprinted in Beyond Armageddon; it was recently reissued by Bison Books, so it’s readily available, and I didn’t see the need to reprint “A Boy and His Dog” yet again, even if it is a great story. If I’d had a bigger book to work with, maybe I would have picked what I thought was the best of those older stories and included them too, but I was more interested in seeing what had come after, and how the sub-genre had evolved in the meantime.
SM: Of the authors on the front cover of Wastelands, Gene Wolfe stands out, as he is, as far as I know, not a household name within the genre. Or has that changed?
JJA: I would have thought he is a household name within the genre. He’s probably not quite as popular as the other authors on the cover, but he’s about as critically-acclaimed as you can get, and he’s won a slew of awards—both peer awards and fan awards. I don’t know if his name on the cover drives sales or not (I didn’t choose which names went on the cover). I assume that his name on the cover is a boon. It would be for me, as a reader. Michael Swanwick once said “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today.” Whether you agree or not, anyone who gets praised like that obviously is something of a draw.
But if Gene Wolfe isn’t a household name, not even within the genre, there’s something seriously wrong with the world. I mean, my god—The Book of the New Sun alone is brilliant enough to make him a legend, but on top of that he’s got scads of other similarly brilliant works.
SM: Do you have other particular favorite sub-genres or styles?
JJA: Remember that bibliography of post-apocalyptic fiction I mentioned earlier? Well, I wrote two other ones as well: one on dinosaur SF, and one on Mars SF, so those are two favorite genres as well. I’d think about doing an anthology on one of those subjects, except each has several anthologies devoted to it already.
On my blog, I once posted a meme about the sort of tropes I like to see in stories, and I came up with the following: skyhooks/space elevators, dinosaurs, post-apocalyptic wastelands, super-smart animals (intelligence-boosted/evolved/uplifted chimps, gorillas, kangaroos, dogs, mice, etc.), and near future explorations of our solar system. So all of those topics are of particular interest, but I read widely and like lots of different sorts of things. Which comes in handy when it comes to thinking of anthology ideas—part of the fun of putting together a reprint anthology is hunting down all the stories on the theme, and discovering stories I hadn’t come across yet.
SM: How did you come to be a speculative fiction fan? What are your first memories of science fiction stories or films?
JJA: Growing up, I’d always been a reader. Not the hardcore reader you might expect, but I always was in the middle of something. The very first speculative fiction I can remember reading was probably A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid, unless you count those Beverly Cleary Ralph S. Mouse books.
I never truly identified as a SF reader until much later in life, though. The trouble was, I liked genre stuff, but I never went to bookstores and picked out my own books. I always had books given to me, mostly by my sister. At some point she started working at a B. Dalton bookstore, and so she continued to supply me with books. Because of her I read all the Piers Anthony Xanth books, Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide books, the Robert Aspirin Myth novels…. I read other stuff too, of course, but that’s the stuff that stands out in my memory.
It wasn’t until I was 18 or so that I seriously started reading SF, and discovered that that was the section in the bookstore where the stuff I really wanted to read was. Although I was a big fan of Star Trek and Star Wars, and lots of other media SF, for some reason I thought that print SF would be too hard for me to understand—I had the mistaken perception that it would be like reading a technical manual for technology that doesn’t exist (yet). So I kind of started off with Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins, and after cutting my teeth on those, moved onto bigger and better things.
Around the same time, I’d been reading a lot of medical thrillers, for which my sister is also to blame—she’d given me a Robin Cook novel called Blindsight, and I became fascinated with that genre and read all I could. That led me to try Michael Crichton, and at the time I loved him, and he suddenly became my favorite author. I still remember several of his novels fondly, though I don’t know how well they’d hold up to my scrutiny now. (I’ve tried some of his newer novels and didn’t like them much at all.) But anyway, after I read through Crichton’s backlist my sister’s then-husband suggested I try some real SF, pointing out that if I could follow the science in Jurassic Park, I could follow anything in an SF novel, which was true enough. And Crichton is responsible for teaching me to read in marathon sessions and to read a paperback without creasing the spine. Well, not responsible exactly, but it was with his books that I learned to do those things. The first book I ever read in one marathon session was A Case of Need, a—you guessed it—medical thriller written by Crichton, originally under a pseudonym. (I would later make myself proud by once reading three books in one day, though I would point out that I didn’t get a lot else done, and one of the books was very short, 170 pages or so, with large type—the other two were legit, though, I’m sure.)
I’m pretty sure the first real SF novel I read in what I think of as my modern era of reading was Mars by Ben Bova, and the reason that was the first is an odd one, but makes sense in light of what I’ve just explained—I read that one because I was told that it was basically a medical mystery set on Mars (and it is). But while I enjoyed that aspect of it, it was the rest of it that blew the doors off my mind—that good ole sense of wonder.
After that, I binged on Bova, discovered Robert J. Sawyer (again, because of the medical thriller connection—his novel The Terminal Experiment has a medical thriller element to it), and started exploring a bit more. For most of this time during my modern era of reading, I was working at a Waldenbooks, so I was being exposed to hundreds of new books every day I went to work.
And it was because of my job there that I discovered what became my favorite novel, The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. It had just come back into print at some point during my tenure there, and though we didn’t receive any copies in our regular stock, several customers placed special orders (this was before Amazon was big), and I became curious about it after seeing it arrive. So I checked it out for myself, and was forever changed—it completely redefined for me what SF was capable of, and I became more than a little obsessed with trying to find other works that would do for me what that book did.
SM: Three thoughts. One, what a curious idea, that a much older novel would “…completely redefine… for me what SF was capable of…” than more recent novels. Two, it does bring up the issue of the weight of genre fiction. Much of current speculative fiction relies, to a greater or lesser degree, on the reader’s familiarity with previous genre works that I have heard (rightly or not) that budding genre readers sometimes feel as if they are in a strange land without a map. (Apropos, I think, as many novels provide maps to orient the reader to imagined worlds.) Three, what stories or writers have done for you what The Stars My Destination did?
JJA: As to your first point, you have to remember that at that point I hadn’t read a huge amount of SF at that point, and also remember that classics are usually classics for a reason—there’s usually something really special about them that makes them stay with readers. As much as I liked some of the SF I’d read by that point, nothing had come close to the brilliance of The Stars My Destination. At that point, much of what I’d read wasn’t all that different than the medical thrillers or Crichton I’d been reading, so that’s part of the reason Stars was such a revelation. It’s like if the SF I’d been reading was a 5 on a scale of 10, then Stars would have been like cranking it up to 11. Nothing wrong with 5, but when you dial it up like that, it’s bound to make an impact.
I think accessibility is an important attribute in SF. I know what you’re saying about new readers feeling like they’re strangers in a strange land. The stuff I started off with was very newbie-friendly, so it was never much of an issue for me. But even now, with my extensive experience with the genre, I still stumble across books or stories sometimes that seem impenetrable to me—or if not impenetrable, at least difficult enough to access that I don’t feel like bothering. There are some authors—like Charles Stross for example—who are writing great stuff but tend to be right on that edge of accessibility and incomprehensibility (to new readers). On the one hand, core genre readers want to recommend such stuff because it’s New and Exciting, but to me it seems like there’s a lot of modern SF that’s not quite accessible enough (in general), that a new reader would need more context to really appreciate it. Every reader’s different, of course, though, so mileage will vary.
I don’t know if there’s anything that’s done what Stars has done for me—partially because you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There have certainly been other stories and books that have astonished me. “The Deathbird” by Harlan Ellison and “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes always immediately come to mind.
And sometimes there are books that just immediately spring onto your all-time favorites list. Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan is one of those books for me. It might not go down in history as a classic of the genre, but it really pushed all my buttons as a reader.
SM: So you missed out on David Hartwell’s golden age: the notion that age at which science fiction is encountered and embedded is twelve… and yet here you are anyway. You’ve talked about specific writers. Would you expand (or expound) on what about genre fiction attracted you more strongly than, say, mystery (which you mention above), mainstream, or romance?
JJA: I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in my teenaged years, and that, perhaps more than anything, is responsible for my path, despite all the abovementioned reading. That had me thinking about the genre quite a lot, even if I wasn’t reading books in it at the time.
D&D is also what really fired in me a desire to create. At first, I tried running a campaign myself, but I found I didn’t enjoy the running of the game as much as I enjoyed planning out the adventure beforehand. So the natural thing to do seemed to be to write out adventures, but outside of the D&D setting—in other words, write fiction.
Curiously, given my impetus to write, the first thing I ever wrote was not an epic-style fantasy—it was a militaristic space opera sort of thing, probably influenced, more than anything, by John Steakley’s novel Armor and The Stars My Destination. This story, the first thing I wrote, turned into a novel. Yes, I actually wrote a whole novel. And man, is it terrible.
I sometimes still think about going back and revising it, and maybe I will someday. I think it’s got something going for it, even if overall it’s a mess; in college, I adapted the novel into a screenplay for a class I took, and later that screenplay got optioned. Though the fact that it got optioned might say more about how production companies will spend money on almost anything more than it does about the quality of the material.
But anyway, I guess what really attracted me to speculative fiction rather than the other genres was the sense of wonder. SF/fantasy is really the only place to get that. Also, to some degree, it was the escapist factor—I liked being able to immerse myself in a strange other world, and to forget about the real one for a while.
SM: There are some writers who would give their right lobe to have a screenplay optioned. One of the criticisms that sometimes surfaces, usually in a generic form (and often by an SF aficionado as an example of a hypothetical mainstream critic’s critical response to SF) is that SF is only escapist. While much is escapist (particularly in films), F&SF, among other magazines, also regularly publishes fiction confronting current issues—from the stark “Osama Phone Home” to the wild “Kiosk” to the Socratic dialogue “Pervert.” Is SF in a unique position? Elsewhere, in reviewing Wastelands for example, I’ve argued (as have others) that SF underutilizes its extrapolative capabilities. What are your thoughts on the disingenuous dichotomy between so-called serious literature and SF?
JJA: Well—for the readers who don’t know this—having a screenplay (or novel) optioned kind of means they rented the rights to it for a year, during which time they would be the only production company with the option to buy it. So I wouldn’t exactly say it was self-mutilation-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, I was elated. But we’re not talking major bucks here. And actually this company didn’t even pay me the full option fee—I only got half of it, and the half I got was only after I got the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America grievance committee to go after them. They still technically owe me the other half of the payment, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for it. Needless to say, they didn’t exercise the option, so the rights reverted fully back to me.
I think you’re right that SF—or at least most SF—doesn’t do all that it can with its extrapolative capabilities. But it’s not always about that; sometimes it’s just about telling a good story, and trying to get too fancy will only bog the story down. It’s a case by case basis, but, like you, I’d love to see more SF that really explores the frontiers of science. I’m hopeful that more stuff like that will come about because of the mundane SF movement, though I really wish they’d come up with another name for it.
Is SF’s position unique? I don’t know. I expect you could do some of the same things in mainstream literature as SF does—and if I thought hard about it I could probably even come up with some examples, or things that come close—but most of it doesn’t. I guess this all really comes down to where the boundaries of SF and mainstream are. If you write a contemporary story with lots of cutting edge science in it, is that SF, or mainstream? SF’s position may be unique, at least in my eyes, because I’d label—at least in my mind—anything that does what SF does as science fiction.
As for the dichotomy between capital-L Literature and SF, well, that dichotomy really only exists in the minds of those who disdain SF without really knowing anything about it. SF is capable of producing great works of Literature, such as some of the examples I’ve discussed above.
SM: Okay. Everyone knows you’re a metal fan. How ’bout first memories of heavy metal?
JJA: Again, I didn’t really identify as a metal fan until much later in life, though I actually remember really liking Billy Idol as young as 6 or 7. Sure, Idol isn’t so much metal as he is hard rock, but it’s pretty close. The first band I remember liking that was definitely classified as metal was Quiet Riot. I definitely had one of their albums—Metal Health—which had this great (to a 7 year old) cover of a guy in a sort of cool-looking straight-jacket and a metal mask. Another early metal or metal-like favorite was Whitesnake.
But the modern era of metal for me began with Metallica. A friend of mine—my ex-step-uncle, actually, though at the time he was my step-uncle—was really, really into music, so much so that he went to the Full Sail school for a music production degree, and when he would come to visit and we’d drive around, he’d always play an assortment of music. He was really into Genesis and stuff like that, but he liked some harder stuff, and it was in his car I first heard Metallica. I became a huge Metallica fan, starting with …And Justice For All, which I played relentlessly. It took a while for me to seek out other metal, as I didn’t know much about it, and wasn’t sure how to find it—they didn’t exactly play it on the radio. Eventually, probably through my step-uncle, I got into Pantera and White Zombie, and on my own discovered Biohazard-strangely enough, because of a rap song: I really dug the instrumentals they provided on the Onyx song, “Slam.”
Speaking of Biohazard and Onyx—they have this great post—apocalyptic, dystopic song called “New World Disorder.” The rappers from Onyx provide some guest vocals. So there’s several different guys singing the different verses, and they’re all describing this fucked-up world. One’s talking about how he’s suffocating because he can’t pay his oxygen bill, and another’s talking about the ruin of Earth and an escape mission to Saturn.
But these days I listen to mostly melodic death metal (a/k/a Gothenberg metal) and metalcore, and lately I’ve been digging some folk metal bands I discovered, which isn’t as odd a pairing of terms as it might sound. It was really only in the past 8 years or so that I really started developing a real knowledge of metal and doing a lot of exploring.
SM: All right. You must explain folk metal. Killswitch covers the Kingston Trio? Metallica meets Joni Mitchell?
JJA: Folk Metal is, according to Wikipedia, a fusion of folk music and metal. I don’t really know much about folk music, so that doesn’t help me much, but I do like the results. The bands I’ve been listening to—Enisferum, Korpiklaani, Turisas, and Wintersun—are all from Finland. Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure why these particular bands are labeled folk metal, as most of it doesn’t seem that dissimilar from a lot of the other metal I listen to, but exploring bands in that sub-genre has worked out for me so far, so I’m going to continue to do so. They sing about Vikings a lot, and swords and battle, that kind of thing. If the “folk” referred to “folklore,” that would make sense, but typically in folk music I don’t think it does necessarily.
One of the bands—Korpiklaani—definitely uses some instruments typical of folk music, like the violin and accordion. Bet you didn’t know you could play an accordion in a metal band. Korpiklaani to me seems to be the most “folk” of all the bands I’ve mentioned. Their music, the tempo of it, the beats, it feels like folk to me, whereas the other bands that’s not as true. Turisas has some very epic sort of songs, like “Miklagard Overture”; it makes me think of like, Wagner or something. I could see their album “The Varangian Way” being put on as an opera—it probably jumps to mind not only because of the operatic quality of the music, but also because it’s a concept album: a story is told via the lyrics of all the songs.
SM: Returning to fiction… outside of the genre (including science fiction, fantasy, and horror), do you have favorite authors or story types?
JJA: Outside of SF/fantasy/horror, my favorite genre is mystery, and I’ve read extensively there as well. As I mentioned above, I’ve read tons of medical thrillers, and while that eventually led me to SF, it also led me to mystery. That started with Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner mysteries, and from there I started reading other non-medical mysteries.
Either Lawrence Block or George Pelecanos is probably my favorite mystery writer, and so by default, probably my favorite out-of-the-genre writer. I’d have to give the edge to Block, as I’ve read a lot more of his stuff (and, well, he’s written a lot more stuff). Some of his Matthew Scudder novels are among my favorites.
My love for mysteries extends to film and television as well. I’m a huge fan of The Wire (which Pelecanos writes for) and, as I’ve said on my blog recently, I think Showtime’s Dexter is the best show on TV right now.
SM: On to Wastelands… I’m curious as to how Jerry Oltion’s story came to be the only one original to the collection.
JJA: Several years ago, I tried shopping around an original post-apocalyptic anthology, but got no takers. While the project was active, Jerry heard about it and asked if he could send me something for consideration—it was something he’d already written but hadn’t sold.
Well, that original anthology didn’t sell, but when I sold Wastelands, it occurred to me that maybe I could include an original story, and I thought about Jerry’s story, which I liked quite a lot, especially for the way it merged the science fictional apocalypse with the biblical apocalypse—something which I thought made it unique among post-apocalyptic fiction. Night Shade was fine with me including an original story, and Jerry was game, so there you have it.
SM: Do you plan to do more?
JJA: I certainly plan to do more anthologies—I’ve got a project I’m working on for Prime Books called Seeds of Change, which should be out sometime this summer, and I’m currently reading zombie stories for another reprint anthology for Night Shade, which is probably going to be called The Living Dead.
If you’re asking do I plan to do more with post-apocalyptic fiction—well, sure, I’d love to do an original volume of post-apocalyptic SF. It seems to be popular right now with both readers and writers. It’s been so popular with the writers, in fact, that I’ve joked that if we published all of the post-apocalyptic stories we’ve been receiving lately at F&SF, we’d have to change the name of the magazine to Mutants & Marauders Monthly.
SM: Really? Do you have any theories as to why its popularity waxes and wanes?
John Joseph Adams: Well, as I say in the introduction, I think it tends to wax and wane with the state of the world. It first came to prominence during the Cold War, when the threat of annihilation was a very real possibility. Now, the world is in a similar political climate, with the terrorist threat hanging over us. Between 1989 (when the Cold War ended) and 2001 (when 9/11 happened), there wasn’t a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction being published. Prior to that, there was, and now again, there is. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
SM: You’ve recently guest-edited a pirate-themed issue of Shimmer. How did that come about, and why pirates?
JJA: The folks at Shimmer decided they wanted to do a guest-edited issue of the magazine, at least in part as a way to publicize it, as a way to branch out to a new readership. (I’m guessing they were inspired by John Scalzi’s guest-editing of an issue of Subterranean Magazine.)
I’d had some reviews published in Shimmer; the first was something they’d asked if they could reprint from my blog, and then I had at least one other review run with them because they seemed like good people and I liked what I’d seen of the zine. So when they came up with the idea to do a guest-editor sort of thing, they’d emailed me asking me some questions about that process—how such a thing would work, etc. I don’t know if asking those questions was a way of sending out feelers, but as I answered them, I made a point of saying, “I don’t know who you were planning to get for this, but I might be interested…”
So anyway, they offered me the guest-editing gig, which I happily accepted. When we began discussing the theme, it didn’t go much farther beyond pirates. They had had the idea already that they might like to do a pirate-themed issue, and when they mentioned that I seized upon it—I love pirates myself, so if we all love pirates, why look any further? The idea was to publish the issue to coincide with Talk Like a Pirate Day. It ended up coming out a bit later than that due to production snafus, but I think it turned out rather well, and I enjoyed the process.
As it happens, I’d tried to sell an original anthology of pirate fantasies a couple years ago. After seeing the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and having witnessed the surge of people looking for pirate books at the bookstore after the movie let out, I thought for sure the time would be right. And at that point they were already talking sequel, so I thought it would be perfect: Do the pirate book now, have it ready to publish when the second film comes out. Alas, no one was interested. I was really baffled by that one. And I’m really kind of surprised there still hasn’t been a pirate anthology published. Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have one coming out from Night Shade Books next year, but still—I’m really surprised no one did one years ago.
My love for pirates goes back to video games as well, strangely enough. There was this fabulous video game—Sid Meier’s Pirates—that I played incessantly as a kid. Sid would later go on to make the greatest video game ever, Civilization (which I also played incessantly), but Pirates was my first love.
Also, The Princess Bride is my favorite movie, and has been for years, so there’s another pirate connection.
SM: You’ve said you’re a fan of the Oakland Raiders. Do you dress up like hard-core Raider Nation?
JJA: Sorry to disappoint, but no. I’ve got a Raiders wool cap, but that’s about the only Raiders gear I ever wear. I’ve got an old jersey around somewhere too—a Rich Gannon, #12—but I never wear it anymore. Or I should say I theoretically have a Raiders wool cap. I misplaced it around the time of the World Fantasy Convention and I haven’t been able to find it since. It may be in Saratoga Springs somewhere.
My love of the Raiders is the extent of my Oakland fandom. I’ve never been there, and I don’t follow any of the other sports teams from the area, though when I first got into basketball, I was rather fond of the Golden State Warriors, mainly because they had a cool name, but also because at the time Chris Mullin was one of their star players, and I’ve always been fond of three-point specialists.
SM: With F&SF, do you and editor Gordon Van Gelder ever strongly disagree?
JJA: Sure—there have been stories that I thought were brilliant that Gordon turned down, and he’s bought stuff that I didn’t much like. But I think that’s a good thing. If our tastes were exactly the same, my feedback wouldn’t be very useful to him; on the other hand, it’s important that my taste is similar to his, so that I can find the stuff in the slush that he’d be interested in looking at. I think we have a good balance.
Also, we can’t seem to agree on office temperature. At the office, in the winter I’m always cold and in the summer I’m always hot. There have been days when I’m all bundled up with longjohns and a big winter coat, I come into the office and find he’s got the window open. He’s like invulnerable to the cold!
SM: Do you ever experience slush exhaustion?
JJA: Nah. I mean, sure, sometimes I get a bit frustrated, but I wouldn’t call it exhaustion. I’m more annoyed by the stupid procedural errors people make; with the fiction, I know everyone’s trying their best with the stories they submit, so I cut them some slack—it’s not like they’re sending me bad stories on purpose.
I think one of the keys to surviving being a slush reader is to keep a healthy dose of good fiction in your diet. If all you read is the mostly bad stories in the slush pile all day, I think you’d go mad, or at least get completely fed up with it.
There’s a certain amount of good fiction I have to read—for F&SF, in preparation for interviews, etc.—but when it comes to reading for pure pleasure, that can be tough sometimes. Because I’m reading so much at work, when I’m at home, lots of times I don’t feel like doing more reading, even if it’s something I’ve been eager to dive into. I tend to watch a lot of TV to decompress.
SM: Between F&SF, SCI-FI Wire, and various reviews and interviews, you are in a rare position to have both a fan’s and an insider’s view of speculative fiction. How would you characterize the current state of the genre, both in print and visual media?
JJA: It seems to me like print SF is experiencing a kind of golden age—there’s just a wealth of great stuff being published, so much so that it sometimes pains me that I don’t have time to read all of this great stuff that’s coming out. Both in short fiction and in novels. It’s frustrating that some the stuff that I think is more deserving doesn’t get the attention that a bestseller does, but as far as I can tell, that’s how it’s always been. I do find myself in a position in which I can actually help the authors I like though—whether it’s by publishing their stories in anthologies or getting them coverage in SCI FI Wire or other places.
As for visual media, well, I’m always happy to see a new SF or fantasy film do really well at the box office, but I can’t say that I’m very impressed with most of what comes out on film. There’s almost always something good about them, but overall they’re just not good movies. For instance, the new Will Smith version of I Am Legend. Great visuals depicting a post-apocalypse New York, great performances by Smith and his German Shepherd companion, and the first 2/3rds of the movie are really quite good. And then it all abruptly falls apart. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, but suffice to say something really, really dumb happens and then a bunch of action movie clichés are inserted for the big climax. So disappointing. Also? Those CGI vampire-mutants were totally lame.
But anyway—it’s very rare for me to find a good SF or fantasy film or television show. I even seem to rarely like stuff that critics and other genre fans embrace. So to me, visual SF seems to be a bit of a wasteland. But I guess I’m in the minority on that; a lot of those movies are raking in millions of dollars, so more power to them. I only wish those popular SF films would convert more SF viewers to SF readers.
SM: Any truth to those rumors of an interoffice romance (and their love child) between F&SF’s publisher Gordon Van Gelder and assistant publisher Barbara Norton?
JJA: I don’t know anything about any interoffice romances, but when I showed up at the office one day, Gordon did have a baby with him. I don’t know where he got it, or what the story is there—I don’t like to pry.
For a while there, whenever he had her in the office, she’d just stare at me. I took this as a compliment, as I’d read somewhere that babies tend to fixate and stare at beautiful people. I liked that better than Gordon’s theory anyway—that because I’m bald, she thought she was looking at a giant baby.
SM: Bald is beautiful, baby!
They say anyone can have a child these days—|
Anyone who’s passed the test,
Proven nurturing nature, competence, patience, desire to teach—
The old virtues. Compassion is nice,
But not required. More important
To show stability, self-worth, respect for others.
Anyone can have a child,
They know what colors the flowers will be,
Twisting dark on a cloudy day—
That the brightest minds have chosen the brightest source,
With master’s degrees in English and library science, C. A. Gardner has been the editor at a private maritime museum and currently serves as cataloger at a public library. Thus far, twenty-three stories, over a hundred poems, and thirty-two drawings and photographs have been published in venues such as Best of the Rest 2, The Doom of Camelot, Gothic.net, Horror Garage, Not One of Us, Talebones, and Twisted Cat Tales. In 2004, Gardner attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop. For more information, visit here
I write fiction as well, and have planned several stories about clones. While reading up on the issues—both scientific and ethical—I couldn’t help thinking about some of my husband’s arguments against our having a child, based on our genetic inheritance. Visiting a local arboretum a few weeks later completed the connection in my mind.
For the life of me, I can’t remember when I first met Vale. I can’t recall a moving van or any awkward introductions. We didn’t play together as toddlers, ignoring each other until, by chance, we became playmates. It just happened—first, she wasn’t in my life…then she was.
My earliest memories of her are all the same: “Okay, Stephen,” she’d say, brown hand crooked on slender hip. “I’m Queen and you’re my faithful servant. Let me sit on my throne so I can knight you.”
I always smiled and said, “Okay.” I don’t think there was ever a time when I played King and she was my servant. I just never considered it.
In my boyish mind, Vale’s backyard spread out like a vast green lake, dotted with the occasional island of flowers. Against the back fence stood a single tree; it could have been maple—maybe oak. The trunk rose solidly for three or four feet, then split off into six slimmer trunks: wide enough for a child to scramble through, close enough to shield him from prying eyes. We pulled ourselves into the mossy interior and side by side we crouched, peering up into the leafy canopy. It was the perfect treehouse—our crowntree. That was our name for it.
In the middle of her backyard lay a concrete ring about fifteen feet in diameter. It could have been a paved border for a flowerbed, but for all the years I knew Vale, it only held grass, carefully maintained as the rest of the lawn.
Aaron, Stephanie and I sat on the ring and made up stories about it. “Maybe it’s a circus ring, and that’s where all the acrobats and animals perform.”
“Naw, you’re lyin’. It’s where they gonna put a swimming pool!”
“You’re both wrong. It’s a launchpad for aliens and if they catch you, they take you away for a long, long time and when they bring you back, you’re the same age you’ve always been, but everyone else is old and gray.”
Vale never said what the ring was for. In fact, she never even touched it.
I saw Vale’s mama, once. It happened early one morning, when dew still covered the grass, sparkling in the dawn’s weak light. I woke to a silent house and slipped out on some whim.
Vale’s house stood directly across from mine in a cul-de-sac made of several houses forming a tight ‘C’. Something pink flashed in her backyard. I thought it was Vale, but instead, it was her mama. Wearing a sheer pink nightgown, she rocked on her hands and knees in the center of the ring. She stared up at the sky, tossing her dark, curly head and moaning as if something cut her deep.
I must’ve made some sound because she gasped and scrambled to her feet, clapping her hands over her ears. When she saw me, she smiled—oddly, her hands stayed where they were. “Oh, you’re Vay-lee’s friend.” she said in a soft, breathless voice. “She’s asleep right now. Can you come back later?”
Vay-lee. I never heard Vale’s name pronounced like that before. We always called her ‘Vell‘. “I just wanted to sit in the crowntree for a while.”
“Crowntree?” Vale’s mama raised her eyebrows, thin and delicately arched. Everything about her seemed fragile, like a figurine made of spun glass. She looked at the tree and her laughter tinkled into the air. “Why, it does look like a crown, doesn’t it? I never thought of it like that before. I keep forgetting children see things differently. I must tell the others.”
She dropped her hands—her ears looked fine to me; I don’t know why she’d covered them earlier—then, gathering up her nightgown, she skipped effortlessly out the ring, avoiding the concrete. She came over to place a hand atop my head. I barely felt her touch through my springy hair. “Of course you may wait there, child. You may wait for her as long as you like.”
I watched Vale’s mama head towards the house. Maybe it was the rising sun dazzling my vision, but her steps were so airy and light, her bare feet hardly sank into the grass.
You could tell what mood Vale was in by the color of her eyes. When she was happy, they stayed a serene green. When she was sad, they turned to a deep blue so mournful it made your own eyes water. When she was mad, I swear, they changed to an odd shade of purple, bordering on fiery red. It made her special since the rest of us only had normal brown eyes to go with our normal brown skin.
Some weeks after I saw her mama, Vale brought out a bucket of pastel chalk. She said that we could draw anything we wanted to on the ring. Aaron drew cars and trucks. Stephanie had some flower princess thing going. I couldn’t think of anything artistic, so I mostly drew spirals and arcs.
Vale didn’t join us, but watched with meadow eyes from the center of the ring. When every inch of gray was covered, she stood up and hopped lightly across, her feet barely brushing our drawings.
“Hey, Vale,” I asked, “how come you never walk on the ring? You jump in and out of it, but I’ve never seen you walk on it.”
Those eyes twinkled like sunlight off a brook hidden deep in a forest. “You really want to know why?”
We leaned forward.
“It’s a game we play. My family and I. If you touch the ring…”
We held our breath.
She smacked Stephanie on the shoulder and bounded off, her long legs flashing in the sun. We chased each other, leaping in and out of the ring at first, then around the backyard and out into the cul-de-sac. After Aaron tagged me, I spotted Vale crouching in the bushes beside her front porch and ran up to her. “Found you, Vay-lee!”
Her whole body went still, so perfectly still that she blended into the bushes. Without saying a word, she pushed past me and went into her backyard. Aaron, Stephanie and I followed behind, trying to figure out her stony silence. She gathered the chalk back in the bucket, carefully plucking each piece up without her fingers touching the ring. When she finally looked at us, I stepped back, startled by the brooding storm clouds of her eyes.
“Don’t ever call me that again.”
Her flat words stung, so I tried stinging her back. “Why not? Your mama called you that!”
She paused at her back door, the storm clouds lightening to a misty fog. “She only calls me because she knows I hate it.”
The next day, I came back to see her squatting next to the ring, her curls hanging down so I couldn’t see her face. Our chalk drawings had already begun to fade into misty, indistinguishable marks.
“Sorry I made you mad yesterday.”
She sighed deeply, not looking at me. “It won’t matter, I guess. You’ll forget this anyway.”
“All this,” she spread her hands out. “Playing here. Sitting in the crowntree. Acting like queens and knights. One day, it’s going to stop. You’ll forget me.”
“No, I won’t,” I retorted. “I’ll come here every day, even when I’m a grown-up. We’ll get married and live here, and every night we’ll sleep in the crowntree and you’ll be my Queen and I’ll be your knight.”
At that, she raised her head, her eyes the cobalt of an ocean, fathoms deep. “Let’s go to the tree.”
I shrugged and said, “Okay.”
Aaron started playing basketball more. He liked to point out the faint line of hair above his lip. Stephanie traded her dolls for double-dutch and eyeing the guys playing kickball in the street. My voice developed a sandpaper roughness that scraped on my larynx. I had a harder time squeezing into the crowntree.
On the outside, Vale never changed. She looked just the same as I always knew her. But as we grew older, she became moody and distant. She spoke less about queens and knights; when she did, her words were flat, listless. Sometimes, she didn’t talk at all—just sat in the tree, gazing up at the leaves far overhead. I told most of the stories now, resorting to stuff I knew: swimming, the new school year, that girl in fourth period English who kept staring at me…
She leaned against me and let me talk. And as long as she let me sit in the crowntree with her, I was happy to oblige.
A few days after my twelfth birthday, Vale asked nonchalantly, “Wanna come to a party?”
“My folks are throwing a party next week. They said I could invite you.”
“Really? All right! I always wanted to meet your folks. Wait ’til I tell Ma—”
“No!” Vale grabbed my arm. Her eyes had gone black, a complete absence of color. “Don’t you dare tell your mother or father! I’m supposed to invite you and only you. No one else can know!”
My mouth dropped open. I clamped it shut, but it dropped open again on its own accord. “Uh…okay…I won’t tell.”
On the night of the party, I told my parents I was going to Aaron’s. Nobody was around when I stepped outside—strange for a Saturday night. Usually everyone would be trying to get in one last game before being called in. Instead, the streets were empty and the other houses squatted dark and silent. Even my own house became hazy and indistinct the further I moved from it. The only things that felt solid were me, Vale’s house, and up in the sky, a surprisingly fat taffy moon.
Cars crowded in front of Vale’s house and around the perimeter of the cul-de-sac, even askew on her front lawn. Every light in her house beamed from the flung-up window shades and music pulsed out, a piping melody interlaced with percussive beats too deep to be bongos. I felt its vibrations pulsing through my sneakers, tugging me onto the front porch. I knocked on the door and it opened, spilling yellow light and warmth and laughter.
“Stephen! How good it is to see you!” Vale’s mama stepped out, wearing the sheer pink gown I saw her in before. This time, I became conscious of her body sketched within. “Vale’s inside—why don’t you come in?”
I started forward when Vale herself came out, wearing a shorter version of her mama’s gown. “Actually, let’s go around to the back. It’s too crowded in here.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me off the porch. I looked to see her mother still standing there, the light behind her casting the expression on her face in shadow. “Aww…but I wanted to see the inside of your house—”
“I’m sorry,” she explained, “it’s just that, if I let you in the house…it’s better out here. You can meet my father and all my cousins.”
The whole backyard had been transformed. Little twinkling lights swayed and danced on invisible electric cords strung about the yard. In the farthest corner, opposite the crowntree, the source of that strange music revealed itself as a small band playing flutes, drums, guitars and some instruments I didn’t recognize. And the people! Laughing, eating, talking to each other, some dressed like Vale and her mama, others in fabric so thin it appeared to float off their bodies. One lady seemed clad in nothing but bright purple flowers. A tall, angular man—Vale introduced him as her father—wore a tunic made of green leaves. It felt like a costume party, though Halloween was still a few weeks away.
Everyone had the same kind of hair: ringlets as chocolate as their skin, pouring over their shoulders and backs. Looking at so many people looking so much alike, I wondered for the first time about Vale’s ethnicity. Was she black? Indian? African? We’d been learning about different races in school, but Vale didn’t fit the profile for any of them…and asking now seemed kind of rude.
A woman who could easily pass for Vale’s mama strolled towards us, bearing a tray of biscuit-like lumps with shredded cheese on top. I reached for one, but Vale grabbed my hand. “No, don’t. Here—I got some food for you over here.”
She pulled me over to the crowntree and pushed a sandwich and a can of pop into my hands. I scrunched up my face. “What’s this supposed to be?”
Nervously, she glanced over her shoulder to the people milling about. “This is gonna sound weird, but I don’t want you eating or drinking anything here unless I give it to you, okay? Even if my mom offers anything to you, don’t take it.”
“How come?” That stuff on the tray, whatever it was, looked really good.
“Because…well…you see…” She turned to face me. There was something odd about her face, something I couldn’t pinpoint. She bit her bottom lip, then spoke in a rush, “Because we’re leaving tonight.”
Stupidly, I asked, “Leaving? Where?”
She looked at me. Really looked at me, her twilight gaze sliding into night. “We’re going away. Far away. After tonight, we won’t see each other again.”
Suddenly, the party no longer mattered. The fancy food, the strange music, the exotic people—none of it mattered. I stared at Vale, trying to make her words fit in my head. “But why?”
Vale glanced into the sky. It hit me, then, that she looked older than usual. Maybe she wore make-up, like Stephanie started doing lately. But where Stephanie’s red lipstick and purple blush made her look like a plastic doll, the darkened planes of Vale’s cheekbones were sharper, her lips darker, fuller than what a child’s should be. And, as she looked at the party, her eyes caught the circling lights in the yard and gleamed, just like a cat.
What was Vale?
“I didn’t want you to find out like this,” she said. “I was going to tell you the other day in the crowntree. But my mom insisted you come instead. She likes you, you see.”
“I don’t get it—”
“No, and I don’t want you to,” Vale smiled, tucking a curly strand behind her ear…which looked pointier than before. “Wanna dance?”
My mind barely had time to grasp the sudden change of topic when she grabbed my hand and pulled me to the concrete ring, stepping right on it with her bare feet. “We can stand on it now,” she told me as I gawked at her, “But don’t take your shoes off. Whatever happens.”
I thought the band would play some familiar R&B, but they merely upped the tempo to their drumming and piping. Some of Vale’s relatives joined us, spinning and twirling, stepping on each other’s toes, laughing in each others’ faces. Despite the wild dancing, no one stepped into the grassy center. Everyone avoided it, kept their feet exclusively on the ring—the odd rules of Vale’s game reversed.
I looked down at my own feet to make sure I also stayed on the ring. To my surprise, I saw drawings etched below my feet. A lopsided flower. A car with wheels too big. I recognized my own childish scrawl of spirals, loops and circles. The chalk drawings we did when we were—what, nine, ten?—reproduced perfectly in fluorescent blues and pinks.
“How did—” but my words spun from my lips as we whirled faster. Vale’s hand was soft, but it gripped mine with a strength I couldn’t imagine from any other girl. Through our connection, I could feel the pounding of the drums, the music coursing through us like a never-ending lightning bolt. I threw back my head, gasping for air. The moon, large, yellow, fat, hovered above us like an ancient eye, unblinking.
More people joined us; their movements growing wilder, the music more frantic. I felt swept up in some powerful, giddy wheel. With so many people, there should have been tripping, stumbling. Our feet should’ve garbled the drawings into oblivion. But no one fell. No one touched the center. The drawings remained intact—in fact, they glowed even brighter.
Suddenly, Vale pulled on my hand, hard, and we stumbled out of the wheel of dancers. She steered me to the crowntree while I veered, dazed and unbalanced. My hands scrambled to find purchase on the trunks. Vale boosted me up with a push on my butt. “Get in. Hurry!”
Impossible to believe, but the entire party now revolved on the ring—even the musicians, their robes, instruments, and skin blurring together. The light from chalk drawings below illuminated their faces in bright, garish hues. Vale’s mama abruptly came into focus, her head thrown back in a shriek of glee—then, just as quickly, she was swept away.
My head reeled. “Vale…I feel funny…”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I told them you weren’t meant to see this.” Although most of Vale’s face was deep in shadow, I could still see her eyes, a swirl of riotous color reflecting the unnatural lights from the ring. “You’re safe here. They’ve taken the ring but…there’s enough of me in the tree to keep you safe. Enough for a while, at least.”
She stared entranced at the dancers as she said this. Through my tilting senses, a thought popped in my head: if there was enough of Vale in the tree—whatever that meant—then a part of her was also still in the ring, spinning to the wild music. It frightened me because it looked like she was starting to forget me, forgetting we were friends, forgetting her life here. I had no clue how to keep her anchored to me.
Until an idea came, formed out of desperation.
I pushed myself off the trunk and kissed her on the lips. They were softer than I thought they would be and sweet, like she had been drinking apricot juice. When I pulled back, she kept her eyes closed a heartbeat longer, then slowly opened them.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. Then she cocked her head and smiled.
It was the same smile she always gave, but now it looked so foreign, so mature, promising me things I had no business knowing. I suddenly wanted Vale with an ache that crushed the breath from my body. I wanted to pull her dress up, feel her stomach against mine…
At that moment, I think, my childhood vanished. It dried up and crossed me over into the adult realm before I even knew what happened. Before, I was happy just to be with Vale, but now I hungered for something more. There would be no more stories. No more pretending. No more knight and Queen. A deep, overwhelming sorrow rose in me and I buried my face in my hands.
For her part, Vale let me cry without touching me or saying a word. When I finally wiped my nose on my sleeve, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“I did want you to come with us, but you can’t.”
“I know,” I tried one last stab. “I won’t forget you. Really.”
Her laughter chimed softly as she turned away. “Oh, Stephen…grow up.”
Down below, the music built to a feverish pitch. The dancers and light bleared together, a whirling dervish, an out-of-control Tilt-o-Wheel. Vale braced herself between two of the trunks, leaning her lithe body out into empty air. “It’s time. No matter what happens, stay in the crowntree. It will protect you.”
She looked back at me, and her final word made no sense. She said her own name, tenderly, but with her mother’s pronunciation: “Vay-lee.”
Then she launched her body into the air, almost floating to the ground. She ran, her hair streaming behind her, and the swirling bodies engulfed her. She became lost to me among the hands and arms and legs and hips and breasts, and always, always the pealing laughter.
I could just step out, I thought, my foot poised to follow her. I could let myself drop, lose myself in the dance. I was ready to do it. The thought of being without Vale was agonizing, a loss too much to bear.
But just as my hands loosened from the trunk, just as my body tensed to jump, another sound broke through the music: a piercing, childish scream, full of wild joy and abandonment.
Vale had already forgotten me.
I tightened my grip on the crowntree, placed my foot down on the mossy undergrowth, and watched as the moon above grew more yellow and fuller than possible. Watched as our childhood chalk drawings slipped off the pavement and wheeled in the air like a drunken mobile. Watched as the dancers raised their arms, the music crashing in crescendo. Watched as the moon sank down, right there on the grassy center of the ring.
I don’t remember much of what happened next: just flashes of neon color and wild shrieks of laughter, almost howling like animals. But the moon—I definitely remember the moon, filling up my senses until I wasn’t sure if I’d swallowed it or it had swallowed me.
The neighbors found me late in the afternoon of the next day, fast asleep in the crowntree. I woke up just in time to be dragged home by my folks for the worst whuppin’ of my life.
Vale’s house stood abandoned, the front and back doors hanging open. Nothing was left, no furniture, no clothes, no food, not even dust on the floors. All the cars had vanished, the grass flattened and trampled, flowers and leaves scattered everywhere. In the backyard, the concrete ring lay warped and cracked—not a trace of chalk on its broken surface. The grass in its center had been blasted away, leaving behind bare, scorched earth.
Of Vale and her kin, there was no sign.
Weeks later, I snuck into her backyard. Ignoring the crowntree for once, I took off my shoes and socks and boldly stood on the ring. Between the cracked fissures of ruined cement, mushrooms sprouted like tiny white pebbles. My toes curled upon the cold stone, but nothing happened. I didn’t expect it to.
In college, while researching for my thesis paper, I stumbled upon Vale’s name. The way we had said it meant as it sounds: a valley or a dale. But there’s another meaning to her name, one that goes back to Latin roots. When pronounced as vay-lee, it meant ‘be strong’, which was another way of saying ‘good-bye…’
Another family lives in the cul-de-sac now, their children as normal as my daughter. They tore down Vale’s old house to build a larger one in its place, re-sodded the backyard, removed the concrete and put in a wooden playset. The father likes to sit in his backyard; he says it’s quiet and peaceful. The only thing that bothers him is a mushroom ring that pops up every single year. He tried pesticides, weed-killers, even went organic once, but the mushrooms keep coming back.
The crowntree is still standing, too.
It stands proudly, its leaves lush and green, a solitary guardian of the past. When I press my hands against its bark, I can hear Vale speak to me in fairy tales.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still taste her fruity essence on my lips.
I tell the stories to my daughter now, who listens silently, wide-eyed. When we visit, I bring her to the crowntree and lift her into it. She giggles, peering through the trunks. “Okay, Daddy,” she says. “Let’s play pretend. I’m Queen and you can be my faithful servant.”
And as she stands waiting, brown hand crooked onto slender hip, I press my head against the tree. “Okay,” I say and Vale’s voice echoes my own.
LaShawn M. Wanak has published short stories, essays, poetry, and is working on her first fantasy novel. She lives in Chicago with her husband and 3-year-old son, but is in the process of moving to Wisconsin. Her blog, the Café in the Woods, will remain firmly ensconced where it is.
The tree and the stone circle actually exists. I looked at it for the first time when I helped stuff 5000 Easter eggs for a church function. The tree looked just like the one my sisters and I played with in our backyard. Sitting on that stone circle with all those eggs to fill, “Crowntree” pretty much wrote itself.
This issue we’re taking a closer look at childhood and creation.
“Seer of Cities” by Nicole Kornher-Stace offers an in-depth look at a child’s imaginative play, while LaShawn Wanak offers childhood memories as a focus in “Crowntree.” L.C. Elder wraps our fiction up with “Children of Old Earth”, whose characters and problems are not at all childish.
C.A. Gardner, Jennifer Jerome, and Daniel Kaysen, our poets for this issue continue the theme with their respective poems: “Anyone’s Child”, “Expecting”, and “The Creationist’s Dream.”
Meanwhile, Sean Melican interviews John Joseph Adams.
I hope you enjoy this issue.
Vol. 7 Issue 1
“Seer of Cities” – Nicole Kornher-Stace
“Crowntree” – LaShawn M. Wanak
“Children of Old Earth” – L.E. Elder
“Anyone’s Child” – C.A. Gardner
“Expecting” – Jennifer Jerome
“The Creationist’s Dream” – Daniel Kaysen
John Joseph Adams – Sean Melican
He wakes and whispers “Chimps|
share almost all their genes with man.”
His fiancée, across the twin-bed
hotel room says: “What?”
He coughs. “Nothing. Just a dream.”
He keeps his eyes shut, realizing
His talk, the keynote conference speech, begins.
skin, scales on shin, on calf, on thigh,
tightens her hold, widens her legs,
There is an urgent murmuring in
The screen now shows the tree
and roots entangle human feet
is blanketed with falling leaves,
He presses on, keeping up momentum,
and wings and roots and tusks, and skin.
Each mates with its own, and
They have their prize—the damning fact
“Tell me,” she says. She’s not a prude.
so life is good.
She’s not a prude, but still. What would she think?
He blows a kiss.
She smiles, as the water runs down her body,
that happened then,
of broken breath,
Daniel Kaysen’s short fiction has appeared at Strange Horizons, ChiZine, and Ideomancer, among others. This is his first poetry sale. He lives in England, and his website can be found here.
The Creationist’s Dream was inspired by a desire to see life from another side.