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Jack WomackI
Posted on Friday, February 21, 2003 - 11:45 am:   

Thanks to Ellen Datlow and Jeff VanderMeer, here I am. Where to start? I suppose I'll follow the lead of my old pal Jack "Ack" Dann and post a bio -- this one Grove Atlantic had me write up for their website a year ago. Their website is finally up but no author bios yet -- well, let's get it on out there.

Jack Womack is the author of Ambient (1987), Terraplane (1988), Heathern (1990), Elvissey (1993) Random Acts of Senseless Violence (1994), Let’s Put the Future Behind Us (1996), and Going, Going, Gone (2001). All are available as trade paperbacks from Grove Press.

Let’s Put the Future Behind Us is set in Moscow, city of opportunity, around 1994, and while once contemporary is now a historical novel. The other titles are set, mostly, in two different New Yorks: one never was, but could have been; the other will never be, but may yet at moments seem as if it might. These six books make up a single, interrelated narrative called by some the Dryco, or Ambient cycle; although the author always called it, solipsistically, WomackWorld.

The books can be read independently, but (at this point) are best read, or re-read, in chronological succession. Random Acts is the first novel in the series; the action of Heathern takes place roughly 6 months to a year later; Ambient, 12 years after that, Terraplane, 6 years after that, Elvissey, 15 years after that; and Going, Going, Gone, the concluding volume, 14 years after that, or 48 years after the events of Random Acts. Read in this order, the larger shapes should arise in the eyes of the reader.

Womack’s short stories, which are few, have appeared in anthologies edited by Kathryn Cramer (Walls of Fear, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”), Ellen Datlow (A Whisper of Blood, “Lifeblood;” The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, various reprints [1991, 1994, 1997], and Little Deaths, “That Old School Tie,”), and Don Keller/Ellen Kushner/Delia Sherman (The Horns of Elfland, “Audience”); as well as in Omni (“A Kiss, A Wink, A Grassy Knoll.”). He has published articles or reviews in Spin (for which journal he covered Pat Buchanan’s New Hampshire campaign in 1995, and the 1996 Russian presidential election), The Washington Post Book World, Artbyte, Science Fiction Eye, Fantasy and Science Fiction, New York Review of Science Fiction, and Suddeutche Zeitung and he was, further, a contributor to Amok: Fifth Dispatch. He wrote the afterword for the current Penguin edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. He has both written for and appeared on BBC 1, 2, and the World Service, as well as Radio Bavaria. His novels have been translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Japanese, Czech, Polish, Greek, and Norwegian. He has no idea how he sounds, in these languages.

He is a co-winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and has twice taught writing at the Clarion West workshop, in Seattle.

Womack is employed as Senior Publicist for all science fiction and fantasy titles at HarperCollinsPublishers (US), including books from William Morrow and Eos. He is always happy to hear from his readers, but as he reads numerous manuscripts as part of the duties of his day job, don’t send him yours. Although he is happy to sign any and all copies of his books or articles in whatever way their possessors would wish to have them signed, he is wise to the ways of modern first dealers and collectors and thus now threatens to add “Dear [so and so], hope you beat that nasty crack/child porn/malt liquor/being whipped with birch twigs while wearing diapers habit” or something along those lines whenever people bearing large paper bags filled with multiple copies of his works demand that he add “signature only.”

His favorite fiction writers are Ambrose Bierce, Michael Bulgakov, Anna Kavan, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy, and Vladimir Nabokov. His favorite non-fiction writers are A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and Luc Sante. His favorite writer, and greatest influence, is Charles Fort. He realizes that his favorite comic strips, “Krazy Kat,” and “Pogo,” have played a larger role in how he learned to maladjust the English language than did "Ulysses."

Womack was born on January 8, 1956, in Lexington, Kentucky. His forbears, especially on his mother’s side, were an excitable bunch who had mostly though not entirely managed to eliminate themselves by the time he came along. He attended Transylvania University in Lexington, briefly, before moving to New York City in 1977, where he has since resided. Womack is married to Valeria Susanina, a C.S.W, who immigrated to the US from Moscow in 1981. They own a chihuahua named Lulu, and live in Morningside Heights, in the same apartment he has occupied for twenty-three years. They are presently expecting (around May 1) their first child, a girl, who shall be named Lillian. On Sunday mornings, the sound of the bells of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine fill their rooms. Womack once smoked a lot, but has learned his lesson and does so no longer. His parents, as of February 2003, are still alive. He tries to be kind to friends and family. The variety of multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis with which he came down in 1997 ordinarily, he was told, has a 70 percent mortality rate but he managed to pull through and is now in fine shape.

His large collection of books of eccentric thought and deed is well regarded by the cognoscenti, and his expertise in these fields is occasionally called upon.

Womack remembers New York when every car was dented and every building sooty. He remembers when the forearms of candy store owners sometimes bore tattooed numbers, and when the crick in one’s neck was chronic from forever glancing over one’s shoulder at whoever might be coming up from behind. He remembers when the fires in the Bronx reddened the evening skies, and the jump seats in Checker cabs, and how the West Side Local barreled into the 110th Street station as a blurred rainbow of graffiti. He wishes he could still go into Bonwit Teller, and Gimbel’s, and Scribner’s, and Louis Lichtman Pastries, and Abercrombie & Fitch (the one that sold elephant guns, not the current model), and Charles & Co., and Chew’N’Sip, and the Lionel Train store on E. 23rd just off Park. He hopes that the ghosts of Rollerina, and the woman who used to sing opera at Christopher and Seventh, and the little old man who sold comic books in front of Bloomingdale’s, are at peace. He finds it hard to remember, precisely, all the places in New York from which the Trade Towers were visible.

The New York in Womack’s science fiction novels is the New York of 1977, updated in accordance with the spirit of the time.

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Ellen
Posted on Friday, February 21, 2003 - 03:06 pm:   

Hi Jack,
Glad to see you here.

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Jonathan Strahan
Posted on Friday, February 21, 2003 - 10:15 pm:   

Hey Jack

Just read the bio and...wow, a baby girl is coming? Wonderful news. We've had two girls in the past two and half years and it's an experience. I hope it all goes very smoothly, and that you bring pictures to World Fantasy. I guess this is the place to ask when we, as eager readers, might see a new book?

Best
J
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Jack Womack
Posted on Saturday, February 22, 2003 - 05:39 am:   

Jonathan, am in the early part of a new one now. Going much too slow, though, both the writing and the narrative, and am getting ready to take a hard look at it. May do a children's book though involving our little chihuahua Lulu and the new baby. Seriously.
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Jonathan Strahan
Posted on Saturday, February 22, 2003 - 07:29 am:   

Jack

You definitely should do the children's book! I'm torn on whether you should wait till after you've survived the first months of new parenthood or not (I suspect these things may be better approached without firsthand knowledge), but regardless I suspect that the adventures of the young Mademoiselle Womack and her intrepid chihuahua Lulu would be irresistible.

Jonathan
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Saturday, February 22, 2003 - 11:34 am:   

Valeria mentioned the children's book idea today and I think that's great. You can photograph all the sibling rivalry <g>
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Keith Ferrell
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 08:59 am:   

A child of a non-smoking Womack! Hope for the world, after all. What a wonderful spring this will be.
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jack womack
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 12:04 pm:   

Hello Keith, long time no see. When are you getting to NY again?
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Keith Ferrell
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 12:15 pm:   

Hey, Jack -- I'm tempted to say that I'll be back when publishing once more grows healthy and adventurous... but I know better than that, nor do I care to wait that long.
Hope to be back in the spring -- maybe my brother and I can coax you out for some serious skewered proteins to get your strength built up before Lillian arrives.
But just a hope -- have had my hands full down here from various directions, and am still juggling juggling juggling.
Sorry to run on so long on your board, but don't have your e-mail to hand.
A baby!!!!!!
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liz hand
Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2003 - 12:42 pm:   

Jack! A Womack kids book! Sign me up! See if you can get Tony Ditterlizzi to do the pictures!

That's an awesome idea. And wonderful to have another place to keep track of what you & V. are up to down there in the big city.

Thinking of great kids' books, have you ever read Daniel Pinkwater's BORGEL? I'm reading it aloud, for the second time, to Tristan. One of the funniest books around. Lulu (and la belle enfant) will love it.
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jack womack
Posted on Monday, March 03, 2003 - 09:30 am:   

Hi Liz, good to hear from you too. And Keith, definitely give a holler when you get up here next time.

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Vera Nazarian
Posted on Tuesday, March 04, 2003 - 05:50 am:   

Hi Jack!

So, Valeria immigrated from Moscow in '81? Great! I immigrated from Moscow with my parents around '75.

*waves to Valeria, fellow Russian expat*

:-)

Vera
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jack womack
Posted on Tuesday, March 04, 2003 - 12:09 pm:   

Hello Vera,

Yes, she and her mother & grandmother all came here in 1981, following a short period of time in Rome, in-between. She was 17. We have a photo of her taken the year before, during a visit to Odessa, standing with a cousin & great-aunt, and a photo of her taken the year after she reached the US. In the former she looks like a druzhina-in-training (and the photo of course looks like it was taken in 1927), and in the latter she looks like she just escaped from a disco in Long Island.
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Christopher Rowe
Posted on Thursday, March 06, 2003 - 03:43 pm:   

Hi Jack!

It's taken me several years to get used to a non-smoking Jack Womack. Then there were the different, um, textures of the apartment pre and post Valeria's most welcome arrival on the scene. Now a baby. And a children's book. Okay.

Have you ever brought Valeria here to Lexington? I know your visits are infrequent, but please do let me know if you're ever in town. We're on High Street now, and can walk to a good bar, a halfway decent coffee house, the Kentucky Theater and the library. If you squint, it's almost like living in a city.
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Jack Womack
Posted on Friday, March 07, 2003 - 06:10 am:   

Hi Chris,

You'll definitely hear the first time we get down there, which will probably be sometime next spring (04, that is to say, not 03). Haven't been to Lexington since December 1998 and V has never been. Was very sad to hear about the ice storm taking down so many of the trees, as the greenery in Ashland Park, along Richmond Road, etc. was about the only thing left that looked as it did when I was growing up.
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Saturday, March 08, 2003 - 09:56 am:   

Hi Jack. I was reading your bio and I've never read Anna Kavan. I went and looked her up and want to read her. Would you recommend starting with ICE?

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Jack Womack
Posted on Monday, March 10, 2003 - 11:16 am:   

Hi Maureen,

Definitely start with ICE. A beautifully subtle book, wonderfully written, very sad. Better than any other writer I've come across (including Burroughs and some of the other expected suspects)Kavan, a long-time heroin addict, artistically projects that particular altered state (or rather, the circumscription of one's life in reaction to always being in the altered state)into a fictional world slowly growing ever darker and colder. Pretty much anything she wrote is worth reading, needless to say.
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Keith Ferrell
Posted on Monday, March 10, 2003 - 11:55 am:   

Lovely to see Kavan being discussed. Like many others, I suspect, I first encountered her through the efforts of Brian Aldiss, and whose writings about her are themselves touching and heartbreaking. She lingers in the memory, growing and changing there, in that way that the best writers do.

She herself changed and grew, of course, and did so out of, as it were, one of her own her books. The Kavan name, as I understand it, having been the name of a character in one of her early novels, which she -- nee Helen Ferguson, I believe -- later assumed. It seems as well that Kavan was more than a by-line. A persona, I suppose, which became her, and which she became to the end of her life.

Have you, Jack,with your bulging shelves, ever seen one of the Helen Ferguson novels from the 30s?
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Jack Womack
Posted on Monday, March 10, 2003 - 12:32 pm:   

Keith, I haven't, actually. Tell more.
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Keith Ferrell
Posted on Friday, March 14, 2003 - 01:28 pm:   

Jack --

Sorry for the delay in getting back here: I actually had a coupla days' work (for what turns out to be a coupla hours' pay!

I've almost got a handle on Kavan/Ferguson's bibliography, but will preface that with an extended passage from another wonderful writer.

In his autobiography Brian Aldiss writes of Kavan that when he met her in the late Sixties she:

"...was lame, tired, in her late sixties or so. She lived in a house she had designed herself, just off the Bayswater Road in West London. One ascended to her living quarters up a stair encased in glass, outside which greenery raged within the smallest of stone-walled gardens, a small slice of an imprisoned Botswana, or maybe Gondwana.

"We talked and talked. Like most authors, Anna had fallen in her old age on hard times, and was delighted to be regarded as a science fiction writer. She said it made her feel modern again: she was of that generation for whom 'modern', 'fast' and 'pneumatic' were key words of praise. Imagine, in the late sixties, it was a fashionable thing to be a science fiction writer!

"...her books. Asylum Piece speaks of mental instability. The theme, along with that of addiction, drifts below the surface of her writings, a medusa waiting to sting. My Soul In China, the title of a novella, is a way of speaking of personal isolation.

"Anna was a dedicated writer. She never enjoyed any great success; her books contain a strangeness and coldness which guarantee her status as a cult figure, but are caviar to the general. She worked with Cyril Connolly on Horizon, and had a grudge against him because he would not help her in some way or other.

"... [her] heroin habit of many years standing -- thirty and more; she is a successor to the great Thomas De Quincey. I was so taken up with Icethat I tried to persuade my publisher at Doubleday to interest himself in the novel.

"Margaret and I had a plan to induce Anna away from her painting-lined nest, to stay with us at Heath House for a weekend. She wrote me a little note to say that she was feeling too inhuman to move. Forty-eight hours later she was dead.

"After a week or two I received a letter from Larry [Ashmead] the benevolent editor at Doubleday, to say he would publish Ice if I wrote an introduction to it...

"Anna had a good friend in the novelist Rhys Davis. He wrote a novel about her, Honeysuckle Girl... He was then living in a hotel room near Russell Square, and from under his bed in the cramped room, he dragged a trunk full of paintings, gouache and watercolor. All were Anna's work. He presented me with three pictures. They hang framed in my study. One shows two naked bodies, conjoined but without a head, another a similar scene, , where the bodies float in space, and the third a woman slumped naked in a chair, having masturbated or given herself a shot. They are uncompromising gouaches. To bad that an exhibition was not arranged. The public never knew what a good minor painter Anna was.

"...my obsession with Anna Kavan. What I admired about her was that she was so individual and non-commercial. With success I felt I was becoming too commercial; it ran against a basic socialist instinct...

"Certainly my imagination was captured by that hard little crippled woman. Her ghost appears in several stories I wrote in the early seventies. In 1990, I edited and introduced a selection of Anna's writings, My Madness, for Picador Classics. It quickly sold out.

"Suppose she had taken not to the ice, the heroin, but to something less self-indulgent, prayer? Would she have been a happier woman, a better writer? The questions are unanswerable."


Sorry to have quoted Aldiss at such length, but I think it's an interesting account and -- as you know of me -- I've never been able to resist his prose (commas upon commas, and all.)

Interesting and insightful, I think, that he compares her to De Quincey rather than Burroughs.

This quoted, I'm drawing together what I've got on her identity-shift in the thirties, and will post that next.

But while I'm here -- I know that you guys will, by the time of arrival or at least of the arrival's becoming ambulatory, have baby-proofed the apartment, but how are you gonna baby-proof all that dangerous content on all them shelves!

all best as always,

Keith
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Keith Ferrell
Posted on Friday, March 14, 2003 - 02:16 pm:   

Jack --

Below, I've pasted what seems to be the best Ferguson/Kavan bibliography I've come across -- and came across it on, of all things, the Web (teach me to say such terrible things about the Internet as I did in last month's USAirways magazine!)

But still -- the two best Web sites I've found about Kavan contradict each other in some ways (and contradict Aldiss in several ways) as well as varying from what few print sources of infor I've encountered over the years, generally in the basements of university libraries where I'd gone on other more pressing but ultimately less important business.

To get to the (distilled from divers sources) point -- she was seemingly born Helen Woods in Cannes of English parents in 1901,grew up in Europe, America, and elsewhere. Her father was a suicide when she was an adolescent; her own death, despite the heroin, was of natural causes.

Became Helen Ferguson upon her first (evidently horrid) marriage, kept the Ferguson as her by-line when she began publishing novels (in 1929; evidently she took to heroin around 1926 as anodyne to severe depression.) A second marriage was evidently no more successful than the first.

She became Anna Kavan (a name derived from her novel Let Me Alone -- but also because, according to Rhys Davis, of its proximity to Kafka.)

A good self-portrait and a Walker Evans photograph can be found at:

http://www.redmood.com/kavan/akbio.html

along with biographical information.

Variants of that information can be found at:

http://www.creative.net/~alang/lit/Anna-Kavan.sht

which is where I got the bibliography below.

Amazingly enough, she has a publisher, Peter Owen, who, one site claims, keeps much of her work in print but, to tell the truth in these drear days, I honestly haven't had the nerve to look in-depth and see if that's still true.

A few, though, are clearly in print and can be found at

www.peterowen.com

and specifically at

http://www.peterowen.com/pages/classic_km.htm

a link there will take you to

http://www.redmood.com/kavan/akbooks.html

which has images from many of the early editions of her work. There's a biography, as well, that I'm trying to get through (the myth of,lately) interlibrary loan.

Again, as I said a few days ago, it's so lovely to find Kavan being discussed. My copy of Ice is so old that it was published by Popular Library (!!) during the same season they were reprinting Captain Future! I bought it when it was brand-new (and so, come to think of it, was I!)

Sorry to have devoured so much space here, Jack. Feel free to return the favor in my folder with more arcana -- UFO fiction of Rafael Sabatini, perhaps, or the unknowne poetics of Ray Palmer.

big grin my friend,
Keith

KAVAN'S WORKS

Novels

Helen Ferguson

A Charmed Circle (London: Jonathan Cape, 1929)
The Dark Sisters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930)
Let Me Alone (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930)
A Stranger Still (London: Jonathan Cape, 1935)
Goose Cross (London: John Lane, 1936)
Rich Get Rich (London: John Lane, 1937)

Anna Kavan

Change the Name (London: Jonathan Cape, 1941)
House of Sleep (New York: Doubleday, 1947)
Sleep Has His House (London: Cassell, 1948)
The Horse's Tale (London: Gaberbocchus Press, 1949) with Karl Theodor Bluth
A Scarcity of Love (Southport, Lancashire: Angus Downie, 1956)
Eagle's Nest (London: Peter Owen, 1957)
Who are you? (Lowestoft, Suffolk: Scorpion Press, 1963)
Ice (London: Peter Owen, 1967)
Mercury (London: Peter Owen, 1994)
The Parson (London: Peter Owen, 1995)
Short Stories
Asylum Piece (London: Jonathan Cape, 1940)
I am Lazarus (London: Jonathan Cape, 1945)
A Bright Green Field (London: Peter Owen, 1958)
Julia and the Bazooka (London: Peter Owen, 1970)
My Soul in China (London: Peter Owen, 1975)
novella and stories
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Maureen McHugh
Posted on Friday, March 14, 2003 - 06:51 pm:   

Interesting that one web site has her in a list of writers including Djuna Barnes. Biographically speaking, she makes me think of Jean Rhys as well. Although I suspect her writing is much different. As soon as I get through the worst parts of this semester's teaching I'm going to get ICE.
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Jack Womack
Posted on Monday, March 24, 2003 - 09:10 am:   

Keith,

Was away for a few days, painting the girl's room and tending to other such domestic chores. Many thanks for all the Kavan material and links; I had no idea. Wonderfully informative...
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Cadigan, Pat
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2003 - 03:11 am:   

Hi, Dad

Sleep much?

Love,

La Cadigan
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Bruce Chrumka
Posted on Thursday, April 22, 2004 - 01:05 pm:   

Hello,

One book of Anna Kavan's, one I'd read at least fifteen years ago, was entitled 'My Madness'. I recall that it had a Brian Aldiss introduction titled [I think] 'Franz Kafka's Step-Sister'. It was brilliant, poignant and frankly heart-breaking. I hadn't seen a mention of it above, hence this belated posting.

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chris nakashima-brown
Posted on Thursday, November 04, 2004 - 02:02 pm:   

I have been enjoying reading your redacted political commentary over at Mr. Gibson's blog, and thought I might try to stimulate some activity in this dormant corner.

Reading much of the commentary on this board, and the post-cyberpunk blogging of Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, and Rucker, it's apparent that our iconic authors (and editors) have a pretty coherent political consciousness.

So where's the political SF? Shouldn't there be more? Any thoughts as to why we don't see folks biting into the copper wire and expressing their political views more through their fiction?
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Lucius
Posted on Thursday, November 04, 2004 - 04:02 pm:   

Huh?

There's plenty of us who do...
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Gordon Van Gelder
Posted on Thursday, November 04, 2004 - 07:35 pm:   

Chris---

About 18 months ago, I made an effort to get more political stories for F&SF---I felt we were living in a period that rivaled the McCarthy era of the 1950s and I thought we should have stories that rivaled the best SF of that period (like Sturgeon's "Mr. Costello, Hero" or some of William Tenn's satires).

And to some extent it worked---Alex Irvine wrote "Peter Skilling," Brad Denton wrote "Sgt. Chip," and there have been some other stories with political edges to them.

But the main thing I learned is that 2004 ain't 1958. When you write satire nowadays, you run a real risk of having reality outpace the satire before you can publish the satire (check out Ariel Hameon's review of Charles Stross's collection in the last issue of NYRSF for a good example). Information flows much faster nowadays. An idea can surface in fifty different blogs and grow passe before one writer can transform it into a story.

And let me put heavy emphasis on the word "transform" there. Because as you surely know, there's a big difference between a political screed and a story. In fact, we got some letters about "Peter Skilling" complaining that it wasn't sufficiently transformed from political rant into fiction. I disagree with those readers, but I respect their opinions.

Also, it's tough from a commercial perspective to try to sell political fiction nowadays. I know a writer who put in a long time writing a black comedy centered on the Oklahoma City bombing (you probably know who I mean), only to find after 9/11 that no publisher wanted to go near a book that attempted to use a terrorist event for anything remotely comical.

And speaking of which, are you still working on MINT IN BOX, Mr. Womack? The chapter you read at KGB was terrific.

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MarcL
Posted on Friday, November 05, 2004 - 09:29 am:   

"...no publisher wanted to go near a book that attempted to use a terrorist event for anything remotely comical..."

Puppet cinema, on the other hand, jumps boldly into the fray.
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Ellen Datlow
Posted on Friday, November 05, 2004 - 02:09 pm:   

There's plenty of it. I've published a number of political stories in the past several months including those by John Grant, Daniel Abraham, and Susan Palwick (as someone pointed out on the SCIFI.COM BBs).
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gary gibson
Posted on Saturday, November 06, 2004 - 04:12 am:   

Some of the most famous sf of all is highly political. War of the Worlds is a political comment on British Imperialism. Orwell's 1984 is a closely observed commentary on the politics of the 1940's. It's probably a bit simplistic to say that sf primarily trades in political comment in the form of allegory, but it would be more accurate to say that writers can often write books that reflect the political atmosphere of their culture and time without necessarily even being consciously aware that they are doing so. So I'd say that there's plenty of political sf about - the necessary distinction being, is the political commentary involved overt, or subtle in a more allegorical sense? With Dick on the left and Heinlein on the right, I'd say there's a ton of politics in the genre.

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