Consequently, I thought it time to post my guest editorial from the prior issue, number 11.
And here it is.
THE WORLD DOWN A WIRE
I no longer work alone.
For centuries now, since the birth of writing as a full-time professional trade, a writer’s life has traditionally been quasi-monastic or hermit-like—at least during working hours. (We know the deserved reputation writers have as wild off-duty revelers, a counterbalance to their enforced concentration and seclusion. That’s why you’ll find me each night in my pajamas, pen and notepad in hand, reading whatever book I have to review next, a cup of chammomile tea to hand.)
Oh, sure, there were always cafes to write in, and writers who claimed to produce imperishable and copious wordage in such environments. Color me doubtful. One could even, as Harlan Ellison was occasionally wont to do, write in store windows, for the maximum in public exposure and interaction. But the vast majority of the world’s books, fiction or non-fiction, got composed in isolation, the product of many laborious hours characterized by writerly butt plunked down firmly in chair, blinds drawn (or sun flooding in), in silence (or with music blasting), in a wooded cabin or in the middle of a city, but in all cases uninterrupted by the continuous and/or frequent presence of other living humans.
Nowadays, because the majority of writers compose directly on their computers (I can name only few who still don’t), and because the majority of the world’s computers are connected to the internet and perpetually online, there is always somebody in the room with me as I write.
A whole world of somebodies, in fact, and also the equivalent of a million, million library shelves.
I deem this wonderful.
With just a few flicks of my fingertips and a couple of clicks of my mouse, I can be in near-instant contact with friends and strangers around the globe, can summon up facts and opinions galore, get breaking news faster than through any other medium, and “publish” my thoughts and responses.
Well, it’s not 1991 any more. I don’t need laboriously to tout or describe the wonders of the web to anyone. But what I would like to do is examine how the life of the average writer—me—has changed due to this phenomenon and, more vitally, how literature itself (with an emphasis on science fiction) seems poised to be further transmogrified.
It is, naturally, essential to find an outlet for one’s work, if one wants to have an impact. How much harder that used to be!
When I embarked on a full-time freelance career in 1982, my knowledge of markets for my work was limited to five sources: a variety of annual guides in book form from the Writer’s Market people and their ilk; a small handful of trade publications such as Locus and The SFWA Journal (I was even the Market Reporter for the latter zine for a couple of years; I got all my information by snail-mail surveys of publishers); the occasional national news item of writerly import; the indicia of any actual fiction magazine, new or old, that I could lay my hands on; and word-of-mouth from fellow writers.
Obviously, the timeliness and completeness of such an juryrigged and imperfect system left a lot to be desired. Opportunities to sell one’s wares went begging, stories got mailed (snail-mailed!) to dead markets, and response time could be measured in weeks and weeks, if not months.
Today, of course, myriad extensive and regularly updated online compendia of markets exist in realtime, queries go out instantly and are answered almost as fast, and many venues take e-mailed submissions. Publishers often broadcast calls for submissions. Fellow writers pass on news instantly. International borders are as naught. It is a heavenly, painless, easy-going way of operating which I could not have dared dream of twenty-five years ago.
And even payment rituals have changed a bit for the better, with PayPal and EFT playing a growing part.
But, you might object, this is mere mechanics, just superficial changes. We’ve become accustomed to trends which bring us speedier transportation, tastier, more exotic foodstuffs, wider entertainment options, faster computers. Why should we be surprised the infrastructure of writing has experienced similar progress?
True. But we’ve barely begun to look at how the psyche of the lonely writer has benefitted. And here’s where the discussion will inextricably shade off into the future of the literature we love, since fiction derives from the mind-states of creators.
Back in 1982, I had an expanding web of friends connected mainly by snail-mail. (I was never much of a phone fiend, although live conversation by phone figured to some extent as well—when money allowed for long-distance charges.) Letters passed among us all regularly, at roughly weekly intervals. And then there were fanzines and conventions. By such rituals did one stay in touch and feel part of a fraternity, deriving commiseration, approbation and other emotional support.
But the arrival of letters and zines, the attendance at conventions, constituted the tiniest percent of each day, brief joyous moments followed by a re-immersion in solitude. A solitude often welcome and essential to creativity, but one that could not be broken by choice at any given minute, should one wish. Often, feelings of isolation and being out of the loop (imaginary or real) would swamp me.
And then there was the matter of research. Solitary trips to various libraries and bookstores, resulting in frustrating trawls through dozens of volumes for one or two key facts.
Today, I have a minute-by-minute Worldcon going on continually in front of my eyes, and a near-instantaneous answer to almost any question I can conjure.
You might quibble that virtual friends are not identical to meatbag ones. I’d be the first to agree. But the digitial presence in my lap, so to speak, of all my pals is infinitely more agreeable than the paper connection of yore. Being online conveys a constant sense of camaraderie, a real intuitive connection and sense that hundreds, thousands of other people are out there doing what I’m doing, suffering the same setbacks, glorying in the same triumphs, striving for similar goals. My sense of being part of a vibrant community has been magnified a hundredfold.
As for matters of research—well, let’s not raise silly objections about so much of the world’s written historical material remaining non-digitized. That’s all too true, and will ensure that libraries and archives continue to remain vital. But every day more and more comes online. And whole encyclopedias—including the wonderful Wikipedia—are ready to give up their information, as well as the arcane sites of any hobbyist or amateur savant you can imagine.
Finally, in terms of disseminating one’s opinions and reactions and one’s most idle thoughts or lucubrations in the manner of a zine writer of yore, blogs offer a speed-of-light forum. (You’re invited to check out mine, http://community.livejournal.com/theinferior4/, a group affair shared with Liz Hand, Lucius Shepard and Paul Witcover.)
A writer today, then, leads a life which would be almost unrecognizable to his or her peers just a few decades ago, and that’s inescapably going to affect his or her fiction. Bound up in an invisible but consequential and flexible matrix of ever-changing information and co-worker and fan feedback, the writer of 2007—seemingly still alone in a room—is in reality as much a social creature as any honeybee, rather than the lone wolf of yore.
But what does this new mode of creating actually mean for literature in general, and SF in particular?
First, but perhaps least dramatically, comes new levels of accuracy. As Thomas Pynchon remarked in the preface to his story collection Slow Learner way back in 1984, there’s really no excuse now for not getting one’s facts rights, when they’re all just “a few strokes of the keyboard” away. Greater narrative verisimilitude also will result from access to audiovideo and textual riches. Want to describe a place you’ve never been, an accent you’ve never heard from living lips, or a past milieu? The information is out there and easily grabbable for your creative use.
Second, new movements in the genre should finally begin to blossom, after the long drought of such, following the nova of cyberpunk. New movements are vital to the genre. They help us map hitherto unexplored territories in storyspace.
Aided and abetted by the networking powers of the web, by a mad proliferation of wild-eyes screeds and speculations and feelings, writers who mutually feel a set of impulses and affinities will be able to cohere better and to express themselves communally. We’ve already seen this a little with the burgeoning school known as “interstitial fiction” (http://www.interstitialarts.org/). But did you realize that after a few bloggers began to tout “clockpunk fiction” (SF that focuses on technologies older than steam), a spontaneous anthology of such fiction began to cohere, wiki-style?
Expect more such transient or longer-lasting and influential movements.
Massive reader feedback is another paradigm shift. On his blog (http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/), Rudy Rucker posts snippets of his work in progress and assimilates valuable suggestions into the finished product. This method of working isn’t for every writer, but it definitely affects and will affect much fiction of the future, producing stories that are true expressions of a tribe.
The speed of the internet is another new factor in the composition of stories. As the news-cycle of realworld events spins faster and faster, fiction must keep pace, and the internet allows for more timely incorporation of realworld developments into stories. It’s an R. A. Lafferty “Slow Tuesday Night” kind of world these days. The Clutian “real year” of SF is always as now as possible, and being online allows for better topicality.
And of course, we all know about the still-developing effects of the internet on the dissemination and selling of fiction, as books or files, an area still so much in flux, and not capable of being more than alluded to here.
The internet is hardly a mixed blessing. Distracting, intrusive, containing misinformation and madness, a time-sink, conducive to flame wars and groupthink, and a devil’s playground for idle hands, it can sap a writer’s productivity as well as increase it.
But go back to 1982? To being all alone?
I’ll take the world down the wire and into my study any day over that!