Influences

At the start of every year, I buy six calendars. I use them for various purposes, mostly to keep track of my reading or my exercise or my writing. I use the calendars on my phone, which I synch with my computer, to keep track of my appointments and deadlines.

But I still buy a wall calendar because I can't imagine my kitchen without one. This year's, Asgard Press's Vintage Sci Fi 2011 Calendar, is turning into one of my favorites. It presents the covers of old sf magazines in their entirety, reproducing the art in bold vivid colors. I just turned to the month of April and found the cover of Thrilling Wonder Stories from October, 1946.

As usual, the cover presents a scantily clad woman (1946-style) in some kind of peril. Pretty as she is, she didn't catch my eye (although her pointy bra-shirt-thing did strike me as painful). What caught my eye was the name of the cover story, “Pocket Universes,” by Murray Leinster.

I recently read my first Murray Leinster story last summer, as I prepared to write an article on alternate history for a British textbook. I decided I had better read the classics of that subgenre which I had missed. Leinster's story, “Sidewise in Time,” appeared in a 1934 issue of Astounding, and had a huge impact on the budding sf field.

My reading experience was fascinating. The story was dated—the characters flat, the style dry and didactic—but it had power. I still remember it months later (which is rare, considering how much I read), and the concepts in it seem fresh, even now.

I haven't read “Pocket Universes.” I didn't even know it existed until I turned the page on my calendar, but I'm intrigued. I said to my husband, “How many subgenres did Leinster start?”

My husband, the writer Dean Wesley Smith, knows more about sf history than almost anyone I know. He had no idea how many subgenres Leinster started, but Dean did surprise me with another comment. He walked to the calendar, touched the surface, and said, “Wow. Keith Hammond and John Russell Fearn.”

Those two men were also named on the cover, so I could guess that they were both science fiction writers. But I was astounded that Dean knew who they were. I asked him about it.

He said, “They were major names in their day.”

Major names that I, someone who dabbles in sf history, hadn't heard of. (Later, Dean told me that Hammond was one of the many pen names for Henry Kuttner, whom I had heard of.)

I'm not surprised by the fact that I haven't heard of some of sf's early major names. I started reading sf seriously in the 1970s. My family actively loathed the sf genre, so in our book-filled household, the only sf novels were mine. (Conversely, I have read at least one book from every major bestseller in all the other genres from about 1900 forward, just because those books were lying around the house.) The librarians pointed me to Asimov, one of my favorite lit teachers pointed me to Clarke, and I discovered Andre Norton on my own. But the older names mostly missed me, primarily because the libraries didn't stock the pulps or sf collections, and I wasn't allowed into used bookstores (they were filthy, according to my mother, the neat freak).

Still, after forty years of reading the genre and thirty years of working within it, you'd think I would have heard of all of the big names of various times. After all, sf is a young genre. When I came into it, it was still possible to read every sf book published in a given year and still have time to read widely in other genres.

Yet I know that, if I ask my friends who've been active in sf longer than I have, they have probably heard of Keith Hammond or John Russell Fearn. These friends might even have read the Murray Leinster “Pocket Universes” story, and could quite probably tell me if it was one of his important, genre-shifting tales.

Even with the deluge of material published in the pulps every single month, sf readers could read everything. Because sf readers formed groups and shared their collections, newcomers to the genre could find classics or important works, even if those works hadn't been reprinted somewhere else (not that there were a lot of reprint venues back then. Publishing was very different). The small size of the community was both protective and informative.

It actually got smaller by the time I started reading. There were only a handful of magazines and some very important anthologies. The novels were scarce as well. When sf people got together, they could argue about the important works of the year, and be confident that most fans had read (or tried to read) them.

When I quit editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1997, I had burned out on reading sf short fiction. I continued to read Gardner Dozois's best of the year volumes to keep my hand in, but I didn't really try to keep up. After the burnout faded, I came back and was able to keep up relatively well until about six years ago.

Online magazine started and, startlingly, best-of volumes became a cottage industry. One year, I believe there were as many as five in sf alone (and I also read fantasy, mystery and mainstream best-ofs. Romance, my other favorite genre, doesn't have enough short stories to sustain a best-of volume). I started to get overwhelmed.

Now I'm back reading sf short fiction, and I seriously can't keep up with this month's material, let alone this year's. I am several issues behind on Lightspeed, haven't cracked an Analog for 2011 yet, and have only read two Asimov's. I am halfway through two of 2011's “important” anthologies, and haven't even purchased the other “important” books. I gave up and only ordered one best-of from 2010, because I never read 2009.

And now—now!—friends, former students, and my favorite writers, are starting to put up original stories as stand-alone e-books. I have five Steve Perry stories on my Kindle and had no time to read one. (Steve, known for his novels, is one of my favorite short story writers. I used to beg him for short stories when I edited F&SF and Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine.) Dean's doing a couple of stories per week, and at least I get to read those because I'm his first reader. Former students, whose work I love, are putting up stories in droves, and I can't keep track, let alone read them all.

This week, I managed to clear all of my immediate deadlines and realized that I still felt buried. It wasn't until I picked up my Kindle, saw all the stories I had purchased but not yet read, that I realized why.

That moment—and the appearance of Murray Leinster on my calendar—got me thinking. We have long since passed the days when the die-hard sf fan can read everything. We're moving into a time when the amount of material—good material—is so overwhelming that we won't even know it has all been published, let alone whether or not we want to buy it.

I used to flirt with the idea of coming back to editing by doing a best-of collection. Every year, at least one of the major juried awards asks me to sit on the short fiction committee or to give input as to the nominees. I usually decline because I haven't read everything.

Now I realize that reading everything just in the sf genre is impossible. Best-ofs are no longer the best based on one editor's opinion, an editor who has taken the time to read (or glance at ) every single short story published in a given year. Now the best-ofs are the best based on one editor's opinion of the stuff he managed to read in a single year. Locus Magazine, for some strange reason, has stopped reviewing Analog, the oldest sf magazine in the field. Maybe the reviewers at Locus are overwhelmed. Maybe they don't even try. I have heard from a few of them that Analog doesn't mail review copies. Which means, in this digital oversaturated world, Analog gets jettisoned from the discussion, not because Analog has ceased to publish good fiction, but because it gets lost in the amount of material published—and reviewers, often the first step toward getting noticed—simply don't have time to search out the magazine themselves.

Reviewers aren't more important in this world; they're less important. I've actually given up my Locus subscription because the news in it is months old when I get the magazine, the digital subscription price is ridiculous, and the lists of upcoming books/magazine are easily available elsewhere. I follow dozens of bloggers who do a better job of reviewing (and seeing the field) than all but one or two of Locus's reviewers.

I'm not picking just on Locus. It's tough for the nonfiction magazines (the trade magazines) of the publishing fields to stay current. RT Book Reviews struggled with this a few years ago and has become the most relevant print source for all genres, although its website isn't that great. Mystery Scene gives me bang for the buck because it stopped being a review/announcement magazine (although it still does that) and has some spectacular analysis pieces as well as great columns about the mystery field.

In sf, the most relevant nonfiction publications are now online. From SF Signal to Io9, I find my dose of sf analysis, reviews, thought-provoking articles online daily. I'm someone who prefers to read on a device or on paper, and yet I'm reading those sites all the time because of their fascinating content.

I think it's impossible now for a story to reach every single sf fan. I think there will still be books or stories that shake the genre, but it will take time for that bit of writing to have its impact. Rather than having a top story every month, sf might have stories that influence slowly. Word of mouth will make pieces much more important, filtering that story through the world of sf over the space of years rather than weeks.

I find it odd that in this quick-paced digital world, the influential stuff will hit us slowly. But I think the one thing this new world gives us is time. We have time to discover the story because it remains available. Digital sites have unlimited storage space, so stories we hear about in 2011 will still be easy to find in 2014. That story might not influence my writing in 2011, but it might when I read that story three years from now.

So might, say, Murray Leinster's “Pocket Universes.” When I finish writing this column, I'm heading to my Kindle to see if the story is available there. Many many older stories, things have been out of print for more than 60 years are now showing up in electronic format. So who knows? Influence is going to spread. Classics will get revived. Old stories, too advanced or outré for their time, might become new classics.

It's a great new world. As a reader, I find it overwhelming and marvelous all at the same time. I feel like that proverbial kid in the candy store. Only I don't ever have to leave, and more candy is being delivered all the time.

It makes doing best-ofs and awards lists nearly impossible. But that's a small price to pay for the wealth of great reading available to us now.

And I, for one, am quite pleased.

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