Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tor Books Editor Moshe Feder Talks With Us About Books, S/F & Food Authenticity

We all know that behind every great book is an editor that beat it into a pulpy perfection. So in my wildest dreams I couldn't have imagined a better assignment than to peek into the mind of one of the great editors of the science fiction and fantasy genres (thank you, CIR!).

Moshe Feder has been a consulting editor with Tor Books since 2004 and was recently nominated for a Hugo award in the Best Editor (long form) category. I am also excited to announce that Moshe will be a guest editor at this year's Gold Conference in September.

Since I have an unusual name that people stumble over, I am sensitive to the issue of pronunciation.

Moshe: A sensitivity I share, so thanks!

Tamela: For people who may want to introduce themselves to you at the RMFW Gold Conference this September, please tell us how to pronounce your name.

Moshe: Well, some folks may remember the Israeli general with the eye patch, Moshe Dayan, so I'm tempted to just say that it's pronounced the same way as his first name, but that may be of limited utility to younger folks or those not familiar with middle east history.

So how about this: it's two syllables, pronounced like "Moe" + "sheh" [i.e., the name of the leader of the Three Stooges, plus the word "shed" without the final "d"].

My friends familiarly shorten it to a single syllable, as if the "e" were silent and just there to make the "o" long, so it becomes something like "Mowsh" (with the vowel sound of "mow," as in "mowing the lawn") and that's fine too.

Moshe is actually a very common Jewish name, since it's the original Hebrew form of "Moses."

Tamela: Thank you for helping us with the pronunciation as well as a bit of the history!

Well, according to your bio, you have been a science fiction professional since 1972. I love that term—science fiction professional.

Moshe: I used it because we also have long had a very active community of "science fiction fans," some of whom eventually develop into pros (and was true in my case). Prominent examples include such masters of the field as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diane Duane, Jo Walton, Greg Benford, Michael Moorcock, Christopher Priest, Robert Charles Wilson, etc. etc. All these folks started out attending clubs, writing for fanzines, going to conventions, and so on before they sold their first stories.

Tamela: Being such a professional gives you a wonderful perspective on how science fiction has changed and grown over the years. What trends are you seeing in the genre today? What would you like to see in the future?

Moshe: The most important trend in my professional lifetime has been the remarkable growth in the acceptance of SF and fantasy by the mass public, for which we can thank the A-bomb, NASA, "Star Trek," and "Star Wars" primarily, along with the continuing long-term influence of fantasy classics like the Lord of the Rings. It's not unusual now for SF and fantasy to appear on hardcover best seller lists, but I can remember when that was practically unheard of.

On an everyday basis, the striking thing to someone like me who can remember the way it used to be, is the extent to which the imagery and basic concepts of the fantastic genres have become familiar parts of the cultural landscape and common currency in conversation.

For example, I doubt there's anyone in the developed world who doesn't know that the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty." refers to teleportation and that the destination of that transfer is a starship capable of interstellar travel at faster than light speed via a technology called "warp drive." There was a time when only the readers of pulp magazines knew of such things, and anyone else hearing of them dismissed them as junk and nonsense. As a result, we have a much broader potential readership now and, for good or ill, the SF/Fantasy world isn't nearly as insular or as cozy as it used to be.

Within the field, the most important commercial trend has been the reversal of the former hierarchy of popularity. When I started out, there was much more SF published every year than fantasy. These days, fantasy far outsells SF, as the Harry Potter books demonstrated so remarkably, or as you can see by looking at the Times bestseller list as I write this, where all the volumes of George R.R. Martin's great fantasy epic simultaneously appear in multiple formats.

Another important trend, and a very good one in my opinion, is that SF/Fantasy writers aren't all white males any more, with an every-increasing number of talented women and people of color joining the field. It's the women who have been primarily responsible for another important trend, the revival and growth in popularity of what has now come to be called "urban fantasy."

Taking the broader view, SF and modern fantasy are really still relatively young fields, going back in their present form only about 150 years. So what I'd like to see in the future is their continuing growth and maturation.

Tamela: Is there a type or style of science fiction and fantasy that you would recommend aspiring writers pursue or avoid? For example, are there topics that are overdone or ones that you think need greater exploration?

Moshe: Both SF and fantasy are replete with tropes that are used and reused over and over. That's as true for us as it is in the mystery or romance genres, or in general fiction for that matter.

As in those fields, the mere use of familiar ingredients per se isn't fatal, what's important is how you use them. Of the two fantastic genres, it's a paradox that while fantasy is theoretically limitless in scope, almost all of it relies on a very few kinds of settings and characters. As an editor, I certainly appreciate writers who can ring new changes on those or even invent completely new ones. My author Brandon Sanderson is a great example of that.

I'd certainly advise most new writers to avoid trying to patently imitate Tolkien or Robert Jordan, but in the end, almost anything can work if the world-building is vivid enough and the story-telling gripping. Those George R.R. Martin books I mentioned earlier are a good example. They're essentially a recasting of the War of the Roses in an imaginary world. There's actually only a little magic in them (although yes, there are dragons), but what makes the books work is not just the detail with which George has imagined his landscapes and his politics, but the genius with which he's built his huge cast of characters, so many of them so very memorable and real. It makes perfect sense to me that HBO chose those books for their first venture in epic fantasy.

SF, of course, is a field that particularly values novel ideas, but it's only gotten harder to come up with those, as all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked in the decades since Verne and Wells began the harvest, and as science has progressed to ever more esoteric realms.

Increasing sophistication in using what we have has compensated to some extent, as has growth in SF's ability to compete with what we genre folks call "mainstream" fiction in such basic literary values as the quality of prose and the depth of characterization. It will be interesting to see if climate change and population growth lead to a revival of the cautionary ecological SF that was so prominent in the 60s.

My personal interests remain in the farther future, real physics, the science of consciousness, and in the challenge of imagining the alien and conveying it in a way that is both convincing and comprehendible.

Tamela: What catches your attention when reading a manuscript? What makes a one stand out over another?

Moshe: The first thing I respond to is the quality of the prose itself. If it's sub par, I'm not likely to read very far. If it's at least adequate and the work has other virtues, then the door stays open. What will finally make a manuscript stand out will be either the author's storytelling ability or his or her ideas, or both.

Tamela: What do you wish writers would pay more attention to when they are writing? ex. character development, world building, plot etc.

Moshe: Characters we believe in and can care about are essential in ALL fiction. You can't do too much or work too hard where they're concerned. Aspiring writers should try to be astute observers of both the human behavior right around them and in the wider world and also consciously study how the great writers of the past made text portraits on paper come to life.

World building is peculiarly important to SF and fantasy. In a way, the imaginary landscape is the fantastic's defining characteristic. In the best SF and fantasy, the world itself is practically another member of the cast of characters. This is not just a matter of inventiveness, but of hard work in making a world self-consistent and plausible in its own terms.

Clever plotting is great if that's your forté, and I really do appreciate it and love being surprised, but I tend to think it's really the least important story element. Consider, for example, how many of Shakespeare's plots were borrowed.

Tamela: What are some of your favorite books? I'm talking about the books you loved so much that they are dog-eared and tattered.

Moshe: That's a hard question to answer, since there are so many. As it happens, NPR is collecting nominations for a list of 100 great works of SF and fantasy (see, so I guess the 15 books I've posted there so far will be as representative a list as any.

In no particular order:

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. LeGuin
The Book of the New Sun - Gene Wolfe
Nova - Samuel R. Delany
Snowcrash - Neal Stephenson
Gloriana - Michael Moorcock
Psychohistorical Crisis - Donald Kingsbury
Incandescence - Greg Egan
Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg
The Years of Rice and Salt - Kim Stanley Robinson
Little Big - John Crowley
The Dying Earth - Jack Vance
Brittle Innings - Michael Bishop
The Wreck of 'The The River of Stars' - Michael Flynn
Lady of Mazes - Karl Schroeder

And to add just a few more really well-worn ones (I don't approve of dog ears in books!):

Have Spacesuit Will Travel - Robert A. Heinlein
The Foundation Trilogy - Isaac Asimov
The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke
The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury
Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin
Flatland - E. A. Abbot
Last and First Men - Olaf Stapledon
A Fire Upon the Deep - Vernor Vinge
The Prestige - Christopher Priest
The Great Time Machine Hoax - Keith Laumer
The High Crusade - Poul Anderson

Well, obviously I could go on all day, but that should give you some idea!

Tamela: Are there themes from those books that you'd like to see explored from today's (or tomorrow's) perspective?

Moshe: They're such a diverse group that it's hard to single out any. What they have in common that new writers should strive to replicate is the genius of making the reader suddenly see the universe in a new way and/or a quality of total immersiveness. The best SF and fantasy really can be a time machine, a spaceship, or a magic carpet for the mind.

Tamela: You once wrote a blog post about using a wooden fan to keep yourself cool while on the subway. You commented that many people would fear to resemble a southern belle or a Chinese mandarin, but it didn't bother you because you'd rather be cool. You went on to say that the traditional science fiction reader had a personality that was willing to be considered eccentric if it meant having a practical advantage, but you were not sure the same could be said of science fiction readers today. Do you think the modern science fiction reader is a different animal? If so, how?

Moshe: There was a time when enjoying SF/fantasy automatically made you odd. If you kept it up, you had to be willing to tolerate ridicule and maybe even be a social outsider with an interest no one around you cared to talk about. Today's mass popularity and acceptance of the fantastic genres has made liking them completely "normal." So while I'm sure there are still oddballs and eccentrics and rebels who read SF and fantasy, the mere fact that someone does read them is no longer a shibboleth for those qualities.

Tamela: Has this change effected the genre itself?

Moshe: Maybe a little bit, around the edges, particularly with the SF and fantasy that is packaged and marketed by general publishers as mainstream fiction. (Think of Michael Crichton and his lesser imitators, for example.) But overall, not too much so far, probably because the people who write the stuff are naturally part of the hard core who always would have been SF/Fantasy people.

Tamela: You are a "foodie" with a fondness (some might say obsession) for pizza, lox, bagels, chocolate and ice cream. You seem to prefer traditional recipes over more modern ones.

Moshe: True enough. But those are all foods where I think authenticity is an essential aspect of quality. They are also all foods where interlopers have tried to fob off not just inferior, but fake versions on the public.

Tamela: You collect Coca-Cola memorabilia. Your musical taste runs to classical, jazz or folk. You are an avid New York history buff. I find it fascinating that a man who loves science fiction, a genre that promotes change, innovation and visions for the future, has this preference for the traditional or old-fashioned in his own life. Is this your way of honoring the past?

Moshe: Not consciously, no. Perhaps it's because in a deep sense, SF is a genre about history. The past deserves our respect since it's where we came from, but it shouldn't be worshipped. It should be a guide, not a template. History is the story of the changes that have already occurred. SF is the story of the changes that may yet come.

Tamela: Thank you, Moshe! I am sure that SF and fantasy writers and fans appreciated your insights into the genre.

You can see and ask questions of Moshe Feder during the editor panel at the RMFW Gold Conference this September 9, 10 & 11.


Chiseled in Rock said...

Lovely interview! Clearly, Mr. Feder is a fascinating man. Hopefully, I'll get an opportunity to chat with him at the Gold conference!

Gusto Dave

Karen Duvall said...

Great interview! I'm looking forward to meeting Moshe at the Colorado Gold in September! :)

Angela Parson Myers said...

Love that the first blog I read was about my favorite genre.