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Perhaps a story collection should be allowed to speak for itself.
That was my original intention; I submitted this book to Toni Weisskopf without a foreword. The basic plan was simple: to gather all the short stories I've written that aren't already collected in User Friendly (Baen 1998), with a little bit of nonfiction for lagniappe. So the assembly process was not onerous. Basically I pulled manuscripts from the trunk, glanced at their titles, nodded nostalgically, and added them to the pile. Deciding their order was a no-brainer: begin and end with a Hugo-winner, and in between those, alternate humorous and serious stories. Writing a foreword seemed superfluous.
Then a few days ago the galley proofs arrived, and I sat down and read them through, and here I am writing a foreword after all.
I have not written short fiction for some time now. Novels pay so much better that, without consciously planning to, I just stopped getting short story ideas a few years back. So I hadn't read any of those stories particularly recently. Some I had not read in twenty years or more. As I rediscovered them now, unexpected patterns emerged.
I'd begun the galleys firmly resolved to do nothing but correct typos. I was determined to make no retroactive improvements to these storiesto let them stand as they first came into the world, flaws and all. But I found I kept wanting to push dates forward. I was rather startled to realize how many of these stories are now chronologically outdated. Written, in some cases, in the early 1970s, they tended to be set in the "distant future" of twenty or thirty years later. I'm most comfortable in that range: the further ahead into the future I speculate, the less confident I am about my own guessesand if I'm dubious, how am I to convince a reader? But history has begun to overtake me.
I was not dismayedor even surprisedat how often my guesses about the future had turned out to be dead wrong. I've never claimed or wished to be a prophet; I write about possible futures, and strive for plausible ones.
But I was somewhat surprised at just how my speculations were wrong: over and over, it seems, I was too optimistic. I don't mean that all the stories you're about to read are upbeat, by any means. But most of the futures I imagined were, in retrospect, at least a little better than the one we actually got. At least more technologically advanced.
I find I'm proud of that.
I only pray I can manage to sustain that attitude of positive expectation, that tendency toward benign delusion, through the next quarter-century of tumult and shenanigans. And infect as many other people with it as possible.
Because unconscious expectations are so important. We need all the Placebo we can get. It's been shown again and again: if you introduce a new teacher to a perfectly average class of kids, and tell him they're the Advanced group, by the end of the year they will be. This real year 2000 may not be quite as advanced as some of the ones I envisioned for entertainment purposes . . . but it is, I think, a far nicer one than most average citizens living in the 1970s or 1980s would have believed possible. (Just for a start: no Cold War.) Optimistic science fiction may just have had something to do with that. As my friend Stephen Gaskin once said, "What you put your attention on prospers."
Case in point: the title story of this book.
It was, if memory serves, the third story I ever tried to write for money. I'd sent my first one to the most popular magazine in the field, Analogtalk about irrational optimismand miraculously, it sold. But the second, set in the same tavern, had not sold there . . . or anywhere else. Then from somewhere came "By Any Other Name," and I just knew this one was going to sell. Perhaps it's weird to call it an optimistic story, since it posits the total collapse of technological civilizationbut it also suggests that humanity will ultimately survive just about any collapse. In any event, it was a much more complex and ambitious story than anything I'd ever tried before, and I certainly sent it off with high hopes.
It was bounced by every market in science fiction.
More than a dozen rejections, beginning with Analog and ending underneath the bottom of the barrel. The last editor on the list lost the damn thing for several months . . . then rejected it . . . then lost it again. (I was so green, the only other copy in existence was the handwritten first draft.)
By the time I finally got it back, I had written several other stories, and not one of them had sold, either. I suspect the only reason I even took the manuscript out of the envelope was so it would burn better in the fireplace. But my own opening sentence caught me. I ended up reading the damn thing all the way through one more time
and by God, I still liked it. All thirteen of those editors, I decided on the spot, were wrong.
So I rejected the rejections. I mailed the story, unchanged, to Ben Bova at Analog a second time. It was a perfect act of irrational optimism, of benign delusion.
You guessed it: he bought it this time.
But it wasn't just a sale. "By Any Other Name" was my first Analog cover story. (Jack Gaughan's splendid painting for that cover hangs in my home today; God rest his generous soul.) It won my first AnLab, the monthly Analog reader's poll. A year later it won me my first Hugo Award from readers worldwide. It was a career-maker. It became the nucleus of my first novel, Telempath. Most important of all, it was one of a pair of stories which persuaded a young woman named Jeanne, in spite of her better judgment, to let me court her . . .
So maybe that's one reason why I'm optimistic by policy. It seems to be working for me.
(Epilogue I can't resist: over a decade later, I got up the nerve to ask Ben if he realized he'd rejected a Hugo-winning story the first time he saw it. Oh sure, he said, I had tono choice. How come? I asked.
(He gave me a pitying look. "Spider, that was an election yearremember? And then you expect me to buy a story where the alien villains are basically giant killer farts, named `Musky'?" He shook his head emphatically. "Nixon that.")
In that spirit of reckless optimism, I've adulterated this collection of short fiction with a pinch of non-fiction.
One evening in 1996 Jeanne and I were strolling through town with our friend Shannon Rupp, then the dance critic for Vancouver's alternative weekly The Georgia Straight, and as is my custom, I was shooting my mouth off. An airliner had just fallen into the sea, and all the media believed it had either been terrorist sabotage, or just possibly a covered-up accidental missile launch from a U.S. Navy destroyer. I was pontificating on why both theories had to be hogwash . . . and Shannon interrupted. "Write that all down," she said. And do what with it, I asked. "Send it to The Globe and Mail," she said. "I'll bet they buy it."
Well, that was just silly. The Globe and Mail was Canada's national newspaper, its journal of record, the Grey Lady of the North. What would they want with the unsolicited opinions of an American-born science fiction writer who lived about as far from Toronto as a Canadian resident can get, and whose most recent journalistic credentialslame oneswere almost thirty years old?
But Shannon finally bullied me into trying it. And Warren Clements bought the piece, and asked for more, and that's how I became an Op-Ed columnistlike nearly everything else I've accomplished in my life so far: by accident.
I've provided herein some samples of the column that ran in The Globe and Mail every three weeks from 1996-99 under the running title, "The Crazy Years." If you don't care for factor at least, for opinions about factswith your fiction, by all means skip over them. If they do catch your interest, as of this writing I'm still producing a column a month for The Globe and Mail, and two columns a month for David Gerrold and Ben Bova's new cybersite Galaxy Online (www.galaxyonline.com).
And now on to the fiction. After all this talk of optimism, naturally the first story in line, which won the 1983 Hugo for Short Story, is one of the gloomier prognostications I've ever made. Oh well. The year "Melancholy Elephants" is set in has not arrived yetmaybe this time the real future will turn out brighter than the one I dreamed.
One can hope . . .
18 September, 2000
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