SF as a genre has been defined by it’s editors. In the beginning there was Hugo Gernsback, who essentially invented SF, followed by John W. Campbell and a bunch of others. I think that the when the dust settles the editor that will be most remembered for carrying SF forward in the last quarter of the 20th Century will be Jim Baen. This great piece has a good portion of the reason why.
Baen formed his own publishing house, Baen Books, with Doherty as a partner, and began to publish his particular brand of science fiction. Over the coming years, they would pull in a number of familiar authors: C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, David Drake, James P. Hogan, Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton, Jerry Pournelle, and Timothy Zahn, who were producing the type of fiction that Baen was most interested in: adventurous, escapist, and fun. It worked, too: Baen steadily became one of the genre’s most prolific publishers, and along the way, acquired a dedicated and loyal group of fans.
In his book, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered The World, Thomas Disch noted that the Baen/Pournelle style of fiction that catered more towards conservative fans with a heavy focus on military science fiction and alternate history, exemplified by the publication of authors such as the Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1995. The publisher effectively tapped into the longer strains of science fiction promoted by authors such as Robert Heinlein and John W. Campbell Jr, and demonstrated that the popularity of these stories had not gone away with science fiction’s more liberal ‘New Wave’ movement.
Baen was also an incredibly innovative publishing house. Recognizing the importance of the internet, Baen set up a community forum called ‘Baen’s Bar’ on their website, which allowed for readers and authors to interact with one another: this innovation, while commonplace now, shows a keen level of understanding on the importance of community within the science fiction genre, something which Hugo Gernsback recognized when he began his science fiction league. The forum resources allowed Baen to coalesce its fanbase into a loyal collective that remains in place today.
Baen didn’t stop with a community forum, however: in 1999, he became one of the first publishers to promote their books on the internet, creating the Baen Free Library, where readers could download a wide selection of the publisher’s offerings, free of charge, and became a pioneering publisher when it came to producing and selling eBooks. The library was mainly an experiment to determine how viable online offerings were, and whether or not they would cannibalize paid sales. They did not, and the Baen Free Library remains in place today, where readers can download hundreds of books, free of charge, and remains an enduring experiment in online publishing.
I’ve posted about Jim Baen before. Very few people have had as big an influence in my life. I would like to think that Jim made an impact on a lot more lives.
One thing that made Baen different from the rest of SF was Jim’s embracing of new technologies rather than running from them. One would think that any SF editor or publisher would be eager to embrace the challenges that computers and the internet brought to creators. Events have proven otherwise.
Rather than exploring new frontiers, SF these days has retreated to trying to be just like all the rest of publishing and producing the gray goo that permeates so much of society these days. Jim may have wanted to publish Del Monte stuff that people actually read, but he never published grey goo. He did publish new wave and more Progressive stuff, from the likes of Fred Pohl, John Varley, Or Roger Zelazney in Galaxy. The stuff that came out of Galaxy, though tended to be mind blowing. At least to me as a 16 year old. The thing that made Jim different was how diverse he was. As well as John Varley, Baen also had Jerry Pournelle. Here’s some random Galaxy Covers from the Baen years.
From what I’ve been able to tell, Jim never played any favorites as far as story went. As an editor it was the story that mattered and right from the Galaxy days the stories were almost always great. Galaxy always had mind blowing stuff in it. Heady stuff for a troubled teenager in high school.
One thing Jim tried to do throughout his career was have a magazine. I think that Jim wanted to keep his had in with magazines even though he knew how much time they took. I also think that he thought of them as incubators for ideas and new talent. Here’s some covers from his three magazines that he printed as books.
These magazines were full of wonderful stuff. As I was scanning them I was rereading some of the stories. Where else would you find a story about cyberized nuclear bomb? Or a young man resurrecting General Electric? Or why a mercenary fights? This is the sort of stuff that you just don’t see very much anymore.
The problem with SF today is that so much of the wow has been drained out of it. Wow was never a problem with Baen. One thing he was always looking was insights into new technologies. He was very good about making sure that he shared what he found by publishing stuff from the very people doing that cool stuff. HTML? The Web? laser spacecraft? SDI? Delta Clipper DC/X? I got my first look at all that stuff because of Jim Baen having the insight to create books and magazine articles about all of it.
It’s no surprise to me, at least that when the web started to become popular that Baen was one of the first ones on it. After all, Jim had been doing related stuff and talking to Jerry Pournelle for about the potential of connected small computers for years. It’s easy to do things when you’re already there. Thus there was Baen.com and especially the Bar, right from the start. If Jim has no other legacy than the Bar, then that will be enough for any body.
It’s impossible to overstate the Bar’s influence. That free library? First suggested on the Bar. Non DMCA ebooks. An experiment suggested on the Bar. The Kindle? We were discussing just what an ereader should look like on the Bar for years before the Kindle showed up. And that’s just some of the stuff that came out of the Bar that I can remember.
The sad part is that Jim’s innovations may be why Jim never got a Hugo. The politics of the Hugos were too tied to traditional publishing and simply by existing Jim rubbed their nose in traditional publishing’s business model conservatism. Which is a shame, because if anybody deserved the Hugo, Jim did.
Eve worse is what’s happened to the genre after Jim’s passing. somehow bit by bit, SF has turned from the genre of grand visions to the genre of, gender transformativeness. It’s gone from huge ideas to very small ones. Which is a shame because quite frankly because right now big ideas are in short supply.
Adam Savage brought up this article recently.
Dan Novy: One might assume that there would be many science fiction fans at the Media Lab, since many future and futuristic technologies are being created here daily. And yet we found this not to be the case.
Science fiction is often derided as too fanciful or not rigorous in thought. There is still a stigma against those who read it, and yet if you look at the great advances in science and technology during most of the 20th and 21st centuries, they are often preceded by descriptions in works of science fiction written decades before.
Just a few concrete examples are Arthur C. Clarke’s description of Geostationary Satellite Communications in 1945; the invention of the TASER used by law enforcement worldwide (“TASER” is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle); and Winston Churchill’s attempt to create a “Death Ray” (“a staple of scientific and horror fiction during the 1920s and 1930s”) to knock enemy planes out of the sky, which led to RADAR. With the help of MIT, the latter invention was responsible for winning the Battle of Britain.
The number one goal of the class is to expose students to the genre, and hopefully affect the way they think and create. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Media Lab, often says that if industry could eventually build an idea you’re working on, you’re not being ambitious enough and should stop. Science fiction illuminates a path to following Nicholas’s advice.
Sophia Brueckner: Science fiction is incredibly relevant to the work going on at the MIT Media Lab. The Media Lab is made up of many different research areas like Biomechatronics, Tangible Media, or Fluid Interfaces, for example. Each of these groups has a corresponding subgenre of science fiction, often whose authors have explored related topics for decades. These authors do more than merely prophesy modern technologies — they also consider the consequences of their fictional inventions in great detail.
DN: Some great Media Lab projects were inspired by reading science fiction stories. I have a project called the Narratarium, which is a context-aware immersive environment. It began as an idea from a brainstorming session with one of the members of the Lab, but I quickly realized that I was building a mashup of the immersive environments from Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” and The Young Lady’s Primer from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. The Narratarium environment surrounds you, but also takes input from you and alters the environment as you tell a story or experience a narrative.
My realization about the science-fiction precursors made developing the Narratarium easier, and even suggested new features. This isn’t a direct relationship; I didn’t set out to build the exact video technology of the Veldt or an exact copy of the Young Lady’s Primer, but they informed and guided the design process. And that’s the relationship we’d like to see in projects in the class. No one knows exactly how Philip K. Dick’s Empathy Box operates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I think it would be great to see eight or nine different students’ interpretations of it.
SB: I also am in the middle of building a kinetic sound sculpture inspired by J. G. Ballard’s short story “The Singing Statues” published in 1971. With incredible foresight, he imagined a world where art merges all the senses, is highly interactive, produces visual and sound compositions using algorithms, and even responds to the thoughts and feelings of its audience in real-time. I am trying to realize the concepts described in the story using computer programming and other technologies that are now available.
Overall, we want students to get an appreciation for the genre and be exposed to a large variety of authors and styles while focusing on books that discuss devices and other technologies that could inspire Media Lab projects. We are hoping to inspire the students to build functional prototypes of either ideas directly out of the books or encourage them to take their current research and combine it with more of a science fiction context.
The thing is that all the titles she mentions are ones that have been around since I was young. In many ways this was the stuff that was the canon for geeks in the 1980’s. Even if we hadn’t read them, we knew about them and the who the authors were. Like Gary Gygax’s Appendix N, this was the center of the stuff that we knew.
Back when I was growing up, the shelves of available SFF was rich and deep. There were titles for every taste and a broad selection of the old and the new. Back then you could find just about everything that was out there if you waited long enough. I know now that much of that was also Jim Baen’s doing when he was at Ace and Tor. He brought out stuff from the likes of James Schmitz and H Beam Piper and so we had Little Fuzzy and The Witches Of Karres. How can you connect with the classics of SF if you can’t find them?
All that’s available in print and media Is stuff based on the same old tropes. It’s cookie cutter SFF without knowing the right recipes. Let alone what it takes to make a new recipe. All that’s left is rewinding the same old tropes.
That’s been the real problem in SFF for some time now. I don’t really know why, but it seem that between the bookstores only stocking the newest and best selling and the Traditional publishers not keeping the classics in print, the new kids just don’t have the access to the canon of SFF that my generation enjoyed. That’s a sad thing.
That’s something that needs to change. Of course the powers that be in SFF have proven terribly resistant and reactionary. Rather than admit that they have lost the vision and attached themselves to a bunch radical PC activists who howl and scream at any deviation from the current PC nonsense they will go to any lengths to attack those who try to make the changes that SFF so desperately needs.
The problem is that without vision where is the next generation going to get the inspiration for the next big ideas. If all they see is stuff like last years Hugo Awards and scientists being dragged through the mud for not being PC enough, false accusations of sexual harassment and taken to the woodshed for wearing the wrong shirt how are they going to know the joys of discovery and creation? Without stories of people doing stuff, how will they know that they CAN do stuff? What have we lost for the sake of PC purity?
This was science fiction in 1930. In 1942, Aircraft carriers equipped with CIC’s started the long path to Tokyo.
Another SF thing, the atomic bomb, ended the war.
In order to get to the kind of vision that was once so prevalent in SFF the way things are needs to change. The reason that that vision existed in the first place was the peculiar combination of American optimism, a literate country and the fact that nobody really expected to live their lives in little boxes. Today it seems like far too many of the powers that be want everything in nice little boxes. We should ask ourselves if that is the Tomorro that we want.
I don’t know that I ever told Jim Baen how much he meant to me. the several times I had that opportunity is was more than likely too shy to speak up and tied up in my own self concerns. But that doesn’t diminish Jim’s importance. Maybe the stuff in his magazines and books didn’t happen, but that wasn’t because Jim didn’t try hard enough or did enough. In those dark days of the colorless 1970’s he was the rare light that young teenagers like myself needed. In the wild 1980’s he was the guy saying faster, faster. We should have listened.