Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Speech I Just Gave at the Nebulas

Welcome, to the Nebula Awards, on this, the 40th anniversary of the founding of the SFWA. That's the Ruby Anniversary, for anyone wondering what sort of gift to give.

And forty years is a very short time in the life of a genre.

I suspect that if I had been given the opportunity to address a convocation of the most eminent writers of science fiction and fantasy when I was a young man -- say around the age of 23 or 24, when I was bumptious and self-assured and a monstrous clever fellow -- I would have a really impressive sort of speech prepared. It would have been impassioned and heart-felt. An attack on the bastions of science fiction, calling for the tearing down of a number of metaphorical walls and the building up of several more. It would have been a plea for quality in all ways - the finest of fine writing mixed with the reinvention of SF and Fantasy as genres. All sorts of wise things would have been said.

And now I'm occupying the awkward zone that one finds oneself in between receiving one's first lifetime achievement award and death, and I realise that I have much less to say than I did when I was young.

Gene Wolfe pointed out to me, five years ago, when I proudly told him, at the end of the first draft of American Gods, that I thought I'd figured out how to write a novel, that you never learn how to write a novel. You merely learn how to write the novel you're on. He's right, of course. The paradox is that by the time you've figured out how to do it, you've done it. And the next one, if it's going to satisfy the urge to create something new, is probably going to be so different that you may as well be starting from scratch, with the alphabet.

At least in my case, it feels as I begin the next novel knowing less than I did the last time.

So. A ruby anniversary. Forty years ago, in 1965, the first Nebula Awards were handed out. I thought it might be interesting to remind you all of the books that were Nominees for Best Novel in 1965...

All Flesh is Grass by Clifford D. Simak

The Clone by Theodore Thomas & Kate Wilhelm

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick

Dune by Frank Herbert

The Escape Orbit by James White

The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch

Nova Express by William Burroughs

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer

Rogue Dragon by Avram Davidson

The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream by G. C. Edmonson

The Star Fox by Poul Anderson

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

I love that list. It has so much going on -- SF and Fantasy of all shapes and sizes, jostling side by side. Traditional and iconoclastic fictions, all up for the same lucite block.

And if you're wondering, the 1965 Nebula Winners were,

Novel: Dune by Frank Herbert

Novella: "He Who Shapes" by Roger Zelazny and "The Saliva Tree" by Brian Aldiss (tie)

Novelette: "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" by Roger Zelazny

Short Story: "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison

... it was a good year.

Forty years on and we're now living in a world in which SF has become a default mode. In which the tropes of SF have spread into the world. Fantasy in its many forms has become a staple of the media. And we, as the people who were here first, who built this city on pulp and daydreams and four-colour comics, are coming to terms with a world in which we find several things they didn't have to worry about in 1965.

For a start, today's contemporary fiction is yesterday's near-future SF. Only slightly weirder and with no obligation to be in any way convincing or consistent.

It used to be easy to recognise SF written by mainstream authors. The authors always seemed convinced that this was the first novel to tackle Faster Than Light travel, or downloadable intelligence, or time paradoxes or whatever. The books were clunky and proud of themselves and they reinvented the wheel and did it very badly, with no awareness of the body of SF that preceded them.

That's no longer true. Nowadays things that were the most outlandish topics of SF are simply building blocks for stories, and they aren't necessarily ours. Our worlds have moved from being part of the landscape of the imagination to being part of the wallpaper.

There was a battle for the minds of the world, and we appear to have won it, and now we need to figure out what we're doing next.

I always liked the idea that SF stood for Speculative Fiction, mostly because it seemed to cover everything, and include the attitude that what we were doing involved speculation. SF was about thinking, about inquiring, about making things up.

The challenge now is to go forward and to keep going forward: to tell stories that have weight and meaning. It's saying things that mean things, and using the literature of the imagination to do it.

And that's something that each of us, and the writers who will come afterwards, are going to have to struggle with, to reinvent and make SF say what we need it to say.


Something that, after half a lifetime in this field and a lifetime as a reader, that I think worth mentioning and reminding people of, is that we are a community.

More than any field in which I've been involved, the people in the worlds of SF have a willingness to help each other, to help those who are starting out.

When I was 22, half a lifetime ago, I went to a Brian Aldiss signing at London's Forbidden Planet. After the signing, at the pub next door, I sat next to a dark, vaguely elfin gentleman named Colin Greenland who seemed to know a lot about the field and who, when I mentioned that I had written a handful of stories, asked to see them. I sent them to him, and he suggested a magazine that he'd done some work for that might publish it. I wrote to that magazine, cut the story down until it met their wordcount requirements, and they published it.

That short story being published meant more to me at the time than anything had up to that point, and was more glorious than most of the things that have happened since. (And Colin and I have stayed friends. About ten years ago, he sent me, without the author's knowledge, a short story by someone he'd met at a workshop named Susanna Clarke... but that's another story.)

So. Twenty two years ago.... Six months later I was in the process of researching my first genre book . It was a book of SF and Fantasy quotations, mostly the awful ones, called Ghastly Beyond Belief. [And here I wandered off into an extempore bit of quoting from Ghastly Beyond Belief, by me and Kim Newman, mostly about giant crabs. And space crabs too. I'm not going to try and reproduce it here, sorry.]

-- and I found myself astonished and delighted by the response within the field. Fans and authors suggested choice works by authors they loved or didn't. I remember the joy of getting a postcard from Isaac Asimov telling me that he couldn't tell the good from the bad in his works, and giving me blanket permission to quote anything of his I wanted to.

I felt that I'd learned a real lesson back then, and it's one that continues to this day.

What I saw was that the people who make up SF, with all its feuds -- the roots of most of which are, like all family feuds, literally, inexplicable --are still a family, and fundamentally supportive, and particularly supportive to the young and foolish.

We're here tonight because we love the field.

The Nebulas are a way of applauding our own. They matter because we say they matter, and they matter because we care.

They are something to which we can aspire. They are our way -- the genre's way, the way of the community of writers -- of thanking those who produced sterling work, those who have added to the body of SF, of Fantasy, of Speculative Fiction.

The Nebulas are a tradition, but that's not why they're important.

The Nebulas Awards are important because they allow the people who dream, who speculate, who imagine, to take pride in the achievements of the family of SF. They're important because these lucite blocks celebrate the ways that we, who create futures for a living, are creating our own future.

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