Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aliens Have Entered Mainstream's Orbit

After joining Warren Lapine's Fantastic Books imprint as an acquisitions editor1, a bit less than a year ago, the first book I acquired for reprint was Judith Moffett's novel Pennterra. This was her first novel and had been out of print since 1993. In an email to Warren on February 27, 2009, in which I introduced Judy (virtually speaking, that is) to him, I described her as follows:

...Judith Moffett is not your typical sf author! She is an award-winning poet with a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, a couple of Fulbrights under her belt and grants from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also a world-class translator of Swedish poetry, and presented at the 1998 Nobel Symposium on Translation of Poetry and Poetic Prose held in Stockholm.
Now I know that when Judy reads this, she'll be all "Aw, shucks," and the like, but how many science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream -- hell, even mainstream fiction -- authors do you know with this kind of street cred? Just check out all her awards and recognitions on Wikipedia and then come back here and leave me a comment if you're not totally knocked out!

What influenced my decision to blog about Ms. Moffett and her fiction was a recent online review of Pennterra. The review is by Sam Kelly on a blog entitled Cold Iron and Rowan-Wood. But first, a bit about the novel itself: A group of Quakers colonize a planet -- Pennterra -- already inhabited by the alien hrossa. In order to live in peace and harmony with both the planet and the natives, the colonists are restricted to a single valley, and they must limit their population and forsake all heavy machinery in their building and farming. Not exactly what they had in mind when they left a devastated Earth for a new home amongst the stars. Without the use of machinery, the colonists' days are completely filled with exhausting, backbreaking work, and consequently they have had little time to study the hrossa -- until now. A small group of scientists are sent to live with, and study, the natives, and this is detailed in a large section of the novel through the use of field notes and personal journals; the hrossa have a very interesting set of sexual mores, which has a direct impact on the scientists themselves (sorry, no spoilers here). There is a particularly fine "first contact/coming-of-age" story arc involving the son of one the scientists. The main conflict arises in the novel when another colony ship arrives on the planet and these folks are not so inclined to limit and forsake.

Now, what makes Sam Kelly's review of Pennterra interesting is that he makes little mention of the aliens, but he does comment on the Quaker religion portrayed in the book: "Moffett does a good job of showing us how they find the nature of the planet out...making no distinctions between biological research, botanical studies, practical anthropology, and conversation between friends. At the same time, we see the characteristic painful Quaker honesty about themselves and their reactions to their work. The pacing of discovery is good, without playing I-know-something-you-don’t-know tricks on either reader or characters; it might have been good to have seen the author coming down less heavily on the Quaker side, but then I may well be seeing more of that than is there as a Quaker myself." [Note: I believe the reviewer is sensing more of the Quakerness of the story than a typical reader (myself) would.]

All of this, of course, is to encourage you to read Pennterra. Judy and I spent approximately two weeks copyediting the page proofs, discussing each and every correction during very lengthy (two to three hours) telephone conversations. The Fantastic Books edition of Pennterra is indeed the most accurate text of the novel and thus the author's preferred text. However, copies of earlier editions are available through secondary markets, or you can purchase the Fantastic Books edition directly from the FB website, or via Amazon or other booksellers. (And yes, I'm shilling books here; what can I say...)

There was a time, quite some time ago, when I actually had the time (all of this "time" is intentional!) to read science fiction and fantasy magazines for my own personal enjoyment. Particularly Asimov's Science Fiction and Fantasy & Science Fiction -- every story, review, editorial, and nonfiction piece; literally from cover to cover. I did most of my reading in the evenings and on weekends; and being a somewhat slow reader (a terrible affliction for an editor), I typically completed the current batch of magazines right about the time the next month's issues arrived. Reading story after story, I soon discovered that, if I was lucky, possibly one or two stories at most, each month, stayed with me.

One such story was "Tiny Tango" (Asimov's, February 1989) by Judith Moffett. In this story, a graduate student has an affair with one of her professors -- and then discovers that he has given her AIDS. Consequently, instead of accepting a stressful assistant professorship at Cornell, she accepts a low-key college teaching position. She tries to live as stress-free as possible -- her health being most important to her; she eats organically, lives a clean life with hopes of staving off full-blown AIDS. The "world" of "Tiny Tango" is an alternate U.S. -- anti-AIDS riots occurred in 1999, during which a multitude of gays died by the hands of others; an AIDS vaccine was finally discovered, but it was only effective for those who had not as yet been infected with the disease. Eventually, the number of surviving AIDS patients decreased steadily worldwide since few new infections occurred, and those with the disease died. In his blog The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney included "Tiny Tango" among his personal list of "mindblowing" science fiction stories, and he added: "'Tiny Tango' is a story I read when it first appeared in Asimov's, and it completely blew me away and broke my heart. I was young and just learning what science fiction could do, and it was one of the key stories in showing me the breadth of emotional and conceptual possibilities." "Tiny Tango" was a finalist for both the 1989 Nebula Award and the 1990 Hugo Award in the novella category, and I became a fan of Judith Moffett's fiction -- the long, and the short of it.

This brings me to 2008 and my attendance at ReaderCon, an sf/f convention held just outside of Boston around July 4th every year. I don't attend this particular convention as often as I would like; I think it had been a couple years since last I was there. Upon arriving at the con, and reviewing the list of panels and panelists, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Judith Moffett would also be in attendance. Judy and I had communicated in the early 1990s2, but I wasn't involved in the editing and publishing end of the business then, as I am now. As I wandered the convention areas in the hotel, I made a point to check out the freebie tables, and thus discovered a small pile of bookmarks promoting The Bird Shaman, the new novel -- and the final volume in The Holy Ground Trilogy -- from Judith Moffett. Volume one being The Ragged World (St. Martin's Press, 1991) and volume two Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream (St. Martin's Press, 1992) -- both New York Times Notable Books!

Upon seeing this bookmark, the question that immediately came to mind was: Why has it taken more than 15 years to publish the final book in the series -- or any new novel for that matter? I was determined to ask Judy this question. And the best time to do that was one-on-one, during her autographing session. So I purchased a copy of Bird (David Hartwell fortunately had copies available at his table in the dealers room!), waited until the author was finished signing autographs for those in line, then I approached her at the table, introduced myself, and asked my question. To which Judy responded: "So, you're that Marty Halpern!" [More about Judy's response in a bit.]

What I learned then during our all-too-brief conversation is that The Bird Shaman didn't take 15 years to write and publish. What did take nearly 15 years were the exigencies of life -- living life, and all that it demanded, and the passing of life, too. And then, finally, the determination to write the final book in the trilogy and see it published.

Now, as to why Judy responded as she did upon learning my name and who I was: In 2007, when I was an acquiring editor at Golden Gryphon Press, Judy had planned to contact me regarding her short story collection. She was a friend of Gregory Frost, whose collection Attack of the Jazz Giants and Other Stories was published by Golden Gryphon, so Judy was aware of the quality work released by Golden Gryphon. Judy had actually composed a query letter addressed to me; about the collection she wrote:
A number of stand-alone stories from the first and third books -- eight in all -- have appeared, or will shortly appear, in Asimov's Science Fiction (four) and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (four). Three were selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. "The Hob" was on the Nebula ballot for its year; "Tiny Tango" was a finalist for both the Nebula and the Hugo.

It strikes me now that these stories, arranged chronologically according to the events of the trilogy, form an exciting, engrossing, and highly readable collection.

But then, before emailing the query letter, she learned from Greg that I would be leaving Golden Gryphon at the end of the year. Consequently, she rewrote the letter and sent it off to a different editor, who responded a short time later: "My main complaint is that the stories are a bit mainstream, in that they tell the tales of the people that interacted with the Hefn [the alien race benignly running Earth]; good, solid ecological stories, which were well-researched and relevant in this day and age."

When I hear that an editor is complaining because these are "solid, ecological stories" that are "well-researched and relevant" yet "a bit mainstream" I tend to scratch my head and wonder how any story about ALIENS could ever be considered mainstream? When did "mainstream" and "aliens" ever appear in the same sentence. Isn't that like an, umm, oxymoron? Now, had this editor used the word "literate" instead of "mainstream" then I wouldn't have been as perplexed. And I promise not to digress into that staid diatribe about the ghettoization of science fiction -- well, maybe a little... We, as sf/f editors and publishers, do it to ourselves -- that is, ghettoize science fiction; we don't need mainstream's help. Here is a collection of literate, character-driven, ecological-based science fiction stories about a benign alien presence on Earth -- and the stories are too mainstream for science fiction. WTF? But, wait a minute...! Maybe I am being too harsh about the use of "mainstream" here; I checked out the review of Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream in the New York Times Book Review, and here's what Gerald Jonas had to say: "More to the point, it breaks new ground in the successful integration [my emphasis] of science fiction and the mainstream novel." So, I guess my point is: If "mainstream" media can accept the "science fiction," why can't "science fiction" accept the "mainstream"? Ah, but I digress...

And, unfortunately, since I was not in a position to acquire these stories at the time for publication by Golden Gryphon Press, this collection is still looking for nice a home. [This is a blatant hint, if there are any acquiring editors and/or publishers reading this.]

Well, back to this story... Following that one rejection, Judy had to set the story collection aside in order to devote her time and energy to completing The Bird Shaman. The novel was released by Bascom Hill Publishing -- a self-publishing press -- just in time for its premier at ReaderCon.

Yes, Bird was self-published by the author. One "name" New York publisher was interested in the novel, but required that it be cut into two volumes; the asked-for text changes to allow for the segue between the two volumes were so drastic, the author felt the integrity of the original story would be lost. (Judy actually did try to bisect the manuscript, but ultimately felt that to do so would damage it unacceptably.) Then, too, there was Judy's absence from the field for nearly 15 years: her agent was no longer agenting, her editor had moved on, and at some point an author must decide it is time to move on, too, to other projects. But Judy, believing The Bird Shaman to be the best of her four novels, was determined to see the final volume of the trilogy published, and thus she went the self-publishing route.

When I learned all of this I was shocked, dismayed, disappointed, all of these, and all rolled into one. Having read Judy's fiction I found it difficult to believe that she was unable to find a publisher for her collection and her novel. Ideally, had I been at Golden Gryphon (or acquiring for another publisher at the time), I certainly would have jumped on the reprint rights for trade paperback editions of the first two volumes in the trilogy: The Ragged World and Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream -- both out of print for approximately 15 years -- and then followed these with the publication of The Bird Shaman, the conclusion to the Holy Ground Trilogy.

Again, I felt so bad that I wasn't even aware that this fiction (the collection and novel) was available, that I offered to assist Judy with some of the PR for her novel. Upon returning home after ReaderCon, I sent her an email with a dozen online resources to whom she could send an announcement of the book's publication. I also provided her with some contacts for possible book reviews. One such review, by Killian Melloy, appeared on EDGE-Boston: "...this is the sort of story you don’t just read -- you have to soak in it and soak it up, following Moffett far afield and back again to get the full range and depth of her message." Bird was also reviewed in Locus and the New York Review of Science Fiction, among other venues. If you are intrigued enough about The Bird Shaman, you can purchase a signed (and inscribed, if you prefer) copy directly from the author (see the right frame). [Note added 03/04/2014: Judith Moffett has posted Chapter 1 of The Bird Shaman online for your reading pleasure; please do give it a read.]

Since then, Judy and I have spent hours on the telephone reviewing Pennterra copyedits (as I explained at the beginning of all of this), and even more hours on email discussing our respective blogs/website, family, homes, gardening and its associated bugs and varmints, and more. I don't recall why we didn't chat longer at ReaderCon -- Did one or both of us have another panel to attend? -- but I do regret that we didn't plan to meet later during the convention, as there was so much more to talk about.

As a closing note, in addition to Judith Moffett's short story collection, the reprint rights to the first two novels in the trilogy are still available. And since Bird was self-published, the book has seen only limited distribution, and it's crying out for a new trade edition -- in a matching set with the first two volumes.
Praise for the Holy Ground Trilogy:

"Moffett brings to life the strangeness that is at the core of what we love about SF, and makes it walk among us. Her tales of the Hefn -- so cute, so cold, and so uncaring -- are destined to become classics of alien encounter SF."
-- Terry Bisson

"The Ragged World is a brave book, exhilarating and harrowing, a journey to the depths and heights of experience. Judith Moffett knows all the hard truths about life, death, and the human spirit, and writes of them with the sinew and clarity of a poet. The Ragged World is a triumph."
-- Michael Swanwick

"Moffett takes the traditional elements of the family plot and wrings them through as many changes as the pages will hold. Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream is a book that is thoroughly absorbing and seriously inventive -- Moffett at her best."
-- Karen Joy Fowler
Notes and Footnotes:
I want to thank author Judith Moffett for her input and for allowing me to quote extensively from our conversations and emails. And I wish to thank her, too, for her friendship over this past year and a half. I'm also hopeful that she won't be too put off with me for pimping her fiction in this blog post. Someone needs to do it! Her work should not be unpublished, or out of print.

1 In the year that I served as an acquiring editor for Fantastic Books, two of my acquired titles have been published. The second title is Paul Di Filippo's Fuzzy Dice. However, due to a number of professional as well as personal needs, I resigned my position as of the beginning of this month.

2 My prior communications with Judith Moffett was simply me being a reader and fan of her work. In fact, Judy was writing Homestead Year: Back to the Land in Suburbia at the time (1992), and I appear, so to speak, in a paragraph on "September 4" (page 258) in her journal; she refers to me as a "collector in California." Little did she know...

1 comment:

  1. I'll end up posting more Comments to my blog than will others!

    The Beth Fish Reads blog has been spotlighting Pennsylvania authors, and the most recent spotlight is on Judith Moffett. There are some nice pics, too, of Pennsylvania country included in Judy's post. Enjoy.

    - marty