The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #22: Breakthroughs

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 162, Summer, 2004.

MIKE: You’d never know it to look at the science fiction section of a bookstore today, but we’re a pretty innovative field. I know it’s hard to believe, but really and truly we are.

The late John Campbell was fond of saying that Doc Smith gave us the stars, and that we’re still waiting for the next breakthrough.

The late John Campbell was dead wrong, of course. We’ve had many major breakthroughs, both conceptual and stylistic. And maybe now—when the novel to which there are not at least two sequels and a prequel can be considered an endangered species—might be a good time to consider them, if for no other reason than to prove that such things are considerably less rare than hen’s teeth and that there is no reason to assume that there aren’t dozens of them stacked up in a holding pattern, just waiting to be born.

And since I’m a gentleman of the old school (i.e., I’m still thinking about it) I shall graciously let you be the first to argue the historical import of a breakthrough of your choice.

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BARRY: Nothing but breakthroughs, at least in the Good Old Days (which for me ended circa l959; you may have a somewhat different fix and for most of our readers you might want to move that bar 20 or 30 years). Asimov codifying the Laws of Robotics, an ethical modus operandi for AI. Sturgeon’s short story, “The World Well Lost” (l953), which through its narrative of two alien invaders who were deeply loving members of the same sex was perhaps the first explicitly affirmative portrait of homosexuality in science fiction. Bester’s dazzle and enchantment in the great run of short stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the l950s, which proved that stylistic innovation was as easily workable in science fiction as in the literary quarter and which virtually created the style-driven (rather than content-or character-driven) science fiction story. Bester’s The Demolished Man which soldered the psychological suspense novel to science fiction, showed that this conflation was not self-contradictory but could increase the power of both genres. Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, a year after The Demolished Man, doing the same for the classical detective novel. Ballard’s “impacted novels” of the l960s which looked upon the contemporary technologically-sophisticated political world as science fiction itself and embodying a weirdness and exotic landscape which went deeper (and ranged further) than any of Van Vogt’s cardboard Weapon Shops. Kuttner’s anti-technological short stories all through the 40s and 50s indicating that an enhanced technology would only enhance betrayal and despair. Goes on and on. Silverberg’s shattering run of novels from Thorns through Shadrach in the Furnace which, like Bester’s short stories, applied the full ordnance of contemporary literary technique to science fiction themes. I do not find nearly as much of it nowadays but this is probably more a chronological observation than literary judgment. (I did think that the story of emergent human destiny for which David Brin won a Hugo in l984 was as astonishing and original a vision as anything from the Golden Period.)

That Campbell quote on E.E. Smith is famous, everybody cites it, but when you think it through it’s kind of silly (of course this was delivered from the floor of a Convention at which Smith was Guest of Honor; Campbell might well have been trying to make the old man feel good). Smith gave us the stars? Campbell himself had been writing of the stars from the early l930s; his early work, certainly influenced by Smith, is more innovative and goes further. Olaf Stapledon in The Star Maker had been way ahead of Smith and that novel had been published before most of Smith’s work. I’ve always found that quote puzzling; taking nothing from E.E. Smith (l890-l965), what is so terrific about putting transplanted adventure stories into a galactic canvas? Bester and Ballard weren’t transplanting anything. Their great work could bond material, style and background tightly.

The innovators may never have gotten the kind of money or audience which the capitalists did but they were, at least until recently, encouraged in science fiction, their work was gladly taken. This is to science fiction’s credit if anything is.

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MIKE: I think you’re going a little overboard here. Somebody had to be first at just about everything, but while I’ll certainly argue that Phil Farmer’s “The Lovers” was a seminal story and destroyed the tallest of barriers, I’ll argue just as strongly that Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost,” while it was a minor thematic breakthrough, was hardly seminal. You didn’t see a bunch of gay stories following it, you didn’t see (figurative) walls crumble the way they did when Farmer’s story appeared.

As for the Three Laws, they were clearly a breakthrough— though according to Isaac, they were written by John Campbell, who claimed they were inherent in the story Isaac had sent him. (I would also argue that they became invalidated the first time a smart bomb sought out and hit its target, though that has nothing to do with the effect of the Three Laws on the field.) After awhile those laws became quite a handicap, to the point where Isaac himself felt compelled to create a Zeroth Law and to turn a robot into a bicentennial man.

Anyway, I would argue that the first major breakthrough once the field was a clearly defined category was Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.” Prior to that story’s appearance, we had no end of good aliens and bad aliens, of physically weird aliens and physically familiar aliens—but they all thought pretty much the way we did, and wanted pretty much the same things (although why scantily-clad spunky girl reporters appealed to them is quite beyond me). But what Weinbaum gave us were alien aliens, totally consistent and yet incomprehensible beings who were so different from us that terms like good and bad, moral and immoral, simply could not apply to them. He gave us Tweel, the most memorable of all his aliens, and in “The Lotus Eaters” he gave us Oscar, a sentient plant that made Einstein look retarded but possessed absolutely no sense of self-preservation. Without Weinbaum, we’d probably have had another decade of dragon Lensmen and sub-zero Lensman and 15-foot-tall Thark Jeddaks who all thought and sounded and behaved exactly like human sidekicks of Kimball Kinneson and John Carter.

Another major breakthrough was the form of humor Robert Sheckley was creating all throughout the 1960s, which reached its still-unmatched zenith in 1968 with Dimension of Miracles. There’d been humor before, of course—Henry Kuttner, Fred Brown, even (honest!) Robert E. Howard—but Sheckley used the tropes of science fiction to create a literate, cerebral humor that could only work as science fiction. Prior to Sheckley’s work of 40 years ago, you wrote a funny story and then set it in a science fiction background, just like earlier writers could take a horse opera and turn it into a space opera. But after Sheckley, the forms and possibilities of humorous science fiction became limitless.

A third major breakthrough (try not to blush) was your work in what has come to be known as recursive science fiction. Before you saw its possibilities, most recursive fiction was what I would call “in-group parlor games,” stories—and this is not to detract from their quality—like Fred Brown’s What Mad Universe, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky, and Phil Dick’s “Waterspider.” But it remained for you to use the form of science fiction as a vehicle for criticizing science fiction itself, most notably in “A Galaxy Called Rome,” “Corridors,” Herovit’s World, and Gather in the Hall of the Planets. Of course, it made you the most reviled science fiction author of the 1970s among fans—you are not, after all, allowed to attack the dream—but that in no way detracts from the work’s brilliance. In a way, you might even say the howls of pain confirms it. (Well, I might say so. You’d probably rather not have had the hate mail.)

Anyway, the three above examples are what I mean by true breakthroughs. I notice you mentioned Ballard’s impacted novels. They were an interesting experiment, but I’d hesitate to call them breakthroughs. Yeah, no one had done them before . . . but almost no one did them afterward either, including Ballard. They were an experiment, it would be difficult to show that the influenced many (if any) writers, and the creator himself walked away from them after a brief time. Fascinating, yes; breakthrough as I define it, no.

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BARRY: Well, I wasn’t quite the first science fiction writer to “attack the dream”; Fred Brown’s What Mad Universe, published in l948 eviscerated science fiction fandom and his l954 novel, Martians Go Home presented as a key character a drunken reprobate of a science fiction writer who functioned in utter cynicism. And Damon Knight’s “A Likely Story” in Swank in l956 was a merciless ,em>roman a clef of a science fiction convention and his prologue to the novelette A For Anything, also published that year, was as ungiving a depiction of a fanzine editor’s mimeograph and smudge marks as ever reached professional print. I might have extended the form and because at the time I wrote the two fans novels my experience with fandom had been limited to two hours at the l967 World Convention my approach might have been considered more anthropological than expose. Anyway, all of this is a long time ago even if the late Ted Pauls wrote that the author of a novel as contemptuous as Gather In The Hall Of The Planets ought to be run out of the field. Blame Donald Wollheim for most of it . . . Dwellers of the Deep was my idea, sort of, but Wollheim was the one who wanted Gather In The Hall Of The Planets and even gave me the plot.

I think I’d maintain that you are in a way taking too simplifying a view of “breakthrough.” A breakthrough work can be as useful in defining what is a dead end, what cannot be explored further, as it can be in opening the way for many others. Ballard’s “impacted novels,” I quite agree, were much imitated in New Worlds for a while and they had an enormous influence upon much writing in the l970s but Ballard, as you say, abandoned the form pretty early and so had his imitators by the end of the decade. It was a dead end; an illustration of a technique which when pushed to its furthest point leaves nowhere else to go. A work can be just as useful for making clear what cannot be done or taken further than the reverse and those impacted novels clearly left their author at the edge of his vision. Ballard turned into quite a different writer after Crash or Concrete Island, possibly in response to his own exploration.

It’s also true that “The World Well Lost,” published in l953 in one of Ray Palmer’s successors to Other Worlds, certainly a bottom-line magazine, did not open the way to a flood of homosexually-oriented stories. I’d submit that one reason for this was that the subject was no less charged after “The World Well Lost” than before. It would be many, many years (perhaps in Dangerous Visions, which had a few stories dealing overtly with the theme) before the theme was risked again and that was not in the science fiction magazines or the mass market. Other writers must have taken note as well of Sturgeon’s struggles selling the story anywhere and his complaint that in the wake of the story there were many who felt that Sturgeon had been writing of his own sexuality.

So there are many ways of looking at a blackbird; a “breakthrough” can be defined in many ways and in demonstrating a subject or narrative technique which is fraught with difficulty (as did “The World Well Lost” or those impacted novels) the innovative function may have been no less properly served.

That said, works like “The Lovers” or “Mother” or The Demolished Man demonstrated clearly that it was possible to write science fiction in a certain way or on certain subjects which had not been previously glimpsed. Certainly those were works which changed everything which came after them. One of my problems, however, is that I do not see in contemporary science fiction the kind of innovation—in the l950s it seemed almost monthly—which was so clear decades ago. Is this age and disassociation? Am I missing something? Are contemporary writers capable of breakthrough in the way that we have discussed? Or is the field just too old, too exploited, too fragmented and disparate to make this possible. I don’t think anyone would quarrel that Neuromancer was indeed a breakthrough and that the wild extrapolation of a Charles Stross or Paul Macauley are intensely provocative. But Neuromancer was published twenty years ago and those two writers I have mentioned don’t have the central place that Sturgeon and Bester and Farmer found fifty years ago. Part of that has to do with the sheer sprawl of science fiction, the loss of a common language, and what I would call the Star WarTrekization of it all—but is there more? Am I missing anything significant?

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MIKE: Where to start my answer? At the beginning, I suppose. I’ve said this to you often enough: What Mad Universe? and Martians, Go Home were humorous novels, not devastating attacks on all that science fiction holds dear. (If you think not, look at the field’s reaction to them, as opposed to the reaction to Gather in the Hall of the Planets and Herovit’s World.)

And yes, breakthrough is an elastic word. To paraphrase Lewis Carroll (with whom I collaborated on a novella, but only after he was dead and unable to claim his half of the money), it can mean whatever I want it to mean. And I want it to mean something that substantially changed the field. To me, it’s not a breakthrough if you storm over the top of a barrier that no one else has been able to assail, only to find it’s on the edge of a cliff and you are now plunging to your death.

There are stylistic breakthroughs that work, that show the way to future generations of writers (and since a word can mean whatever I choose it to mean here, I will define a future generation as coming along about every five years). Certainly Heinlein showed that you can approach science fiction as the mainstream fiction of the future, at least in his glory years. Bradbury, more than any of his contemporaries (and earlier than most of them) brought the sheer poetry of language to the field. Bester’s finest work, almost all of it written in the 1950s, reads like it’s still five years ahead of where we are today, in 2004. Gibson defined cyperpunk as no other author in this field has ever defined a literary movement.

Does this make them the four best stylists we’ve ever had? No. There will be advocates for Leiber, Sturgeon, Zelazny, Delany, and a dozen more, all willing to put forth their candidates. But while I won’t argue their artistic merits, I’ll argue that those first four were clearly responsible for major stylistic breakthroughs.

As for conceptual breakthroughs, certainly Weinbaum and some others created important single breakthroughs—but for creating them by the carload, one name stands out far above the others. So far above them, in fact, that I would submit that conceptually there is no one remotely in his class—not Wells, not Heinlein, not Clarke, not anyone. And of course I’m referring to Olaf Stapledon. I would imagine that no less than 90% of all science fiction writers in the last two-thirds of a century have used one or more concepts created by Stapledon. Everyone swipes from him, knowingly or far more often unknowingly. Even Freman Dyson, in his autobiography, admitted that he got the notion for Dyson Spheres from Stapledon.

On the flip side, you have a genius (and I use the word advisedly) like the late R. A. Lafferty. Here was a man so unique that if you were writing one of those “If you like Asimov try Clement” books for beginners, you’d have to say “If you like Lafferty go find more of his books, because there’s no one remotely like him.” But as far as I can tell he never created a movement, never seriously influenced another writer, never managed to keep his work in print. I visited his house once when I was a guest at a convention in Oklahoma, and he showed me a stack of 18 unsold books in one of his closets. I doubt that he sold as many as 3 of them before his death. Brilliant? Absolutely. Unique? No question about it. Responsible for a breakthrough of any proportion at all? Not a chance.

And as I scan down your last statement, I think we may be coming to the crux of it. The 1950s were filled with your definition of breakthrough, and had at least a few that fit my definition. You’d need a magnifying glass and a couple of detectives to find any in the 1990s or 2000s—at least any that were defined by other than economic criteria. Why?

The easy answer is that we’re a big-money field these days and publishers won’t take a chance on something that won’t sell. But that won’t wash. Hell, three-quarters of the thousand or so books that get published in this field each year don’t sell.

Is it the editors? The corporate blockbuster mentality? I don’t think so. No one ever accused Gardner Dozois or Stan Schmidt of selling out to the corporations, and most innovations have historically taken place in short fiction.

Is it the writers? That would be the easiest answer of all; after all, you can’t publish what isn’t being written. But there are more writers than ever before, and despite the fact that an awful lot of them are starving these days, there are enough markets that the writers who are capable of breakthroughs will find a home for their work.

Is it the readers, raised on television, demanding unchallenging repetition of the same simplistic story over and over again? As a writer, that’s who I’d like to blame. But that’s a cop-out, too; when innovative stuff hits the market, someone buys it, if not quite in the quantities that they buy Trekbook #861 or Wookiebook #273.

Uh . . . I’m running out of culprits. Time to hide in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and pretend I’m lost in thought. Take over, pal.

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BARRY: Well, make it a strong cup of coffee. We seem to be coming to the crux of the matter. “Science fiction? Oh, that is a finished thing,” Norman Spinrad in an essay a couple of years ago wrote, quoting a Parisian friend. It was a form of literature—now I am paraphrasing—associated with the industrial revolution, its expansion and the breakdown and reformation of social institutions in its wake, but all of that was the business of the 20th Century, the middle decades of the 20th Century to be specific, and now the central premise of the literature is gone. Science fiction will either turn into Stars Wars or Trek—dumbed-down cartoon versions—or become arcane and decadent, work increasingly narrow corridors and byways.

John Clute, on several Convention panels (I was on one of them) and in his essays, has made a similar point: Science Fiction as it evolved and reached a kind of cultural centrality in the 20th Century is now used up. Just as the Symphony—according to Clute—was a l9th Century German thing, all of its predecessors essentially leading the way toward Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mahler as a kind of apotheosis—so science fiction is uniquely a 20th Century thing, associated with all of the issues of that century. “There were a few years in there,” Clute said in a filmed interview (with Eric Solstein) “when science fiction seemed to be in the saddle, absolutely directing and riding the culture. But that’s lost now.”

There’s that to consider. There’s also—and this is another way of saying the same thing—that 78 years after the first issue of Amazing Stories which is generally placed as the formation-point of the distinct American genre, all of the central material has been used and explored and re-used and recycled and there’s simply nothing truly innovative to be done. (Stross and Macauley, it could be argued, are truly innovative but they are difficult, they are effortful, they can only be read by those who have an enormously sophisticated reading background in science fiction, so arcane are their particular corridors, so sophisticated their voicing.)

In the l940s, with the first great flowering of Astounding, virtually every aspect of space and human interaction was unmarked territory which Van Vogt and Heinlein and Kuttner and Asimov and on and on, that first generation of science fiction writers truly influenced by science fiction, could explore. There was limitless territory. “Whee! Off to Mars!” Alice Sheldon once wrote me. “Whoosh! Telepathy and mutants and FTL drive! Wham! Rocket ships to Venus!” What a thrill it all was, she wrote, but by the time she came into the field in the late 60s the barriers had long since been surmounted and rearranged and it was impossible to write that stuff without strong acknowledgment that it had already been written. In the l950s Horace Gold had his own revolution—”Social Science Fiction,” which would explore individual and group response and reshaping to technology, “Galaxy/The Magazine of Psychiatric Social Fiction”—but after five or six years of that Galaxy was in fact wheezing toward decadence and most of its contents, “Man In The Jar” and so on, were acid burlesques parodying the uber alles dreams of the 40s Astounding. It became ever more difficult to find new approaches, new themes, that “fine, careless rapture” which Brian Aldiss evoked to describe the work of the early Van Vogt.

There was and still is some innovative stuff; I’ve made reference to it. David Brin’s story is awe-provoking, at least to me, in that l940s “By His Bootstraps” or l930s “He Who Shrank” fashion. But it is, within the current range of science fiction, anomalous.

Or—I have asked this before—is this a chronological statement? Are there l4-year-olds (and 24-year-olds) in the world reading Benford and Baxter and every new issue of Analog and having the same response you and I had fifty years ago? I would doubt that very much, but I have no empirical evidence, I don’t know any science-fiction-reading l4-year-olds. There are a scattering at Conventions—not as many as I would see thirty years ago—and they seem serious and intense but they also seem to be more involved with computers.]

Well, I don’t know. Have you had enough coffee yet? What do you make of this?

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MIKE: Damn. Here I thought I was going to agree with you, and the stars would stop in their courses, the universe would come to an end, and the Bengals would have a winning season—though probably not in that order.

Anyway, I beg to differ. As long as men wonder what tomorrow will be like, there will be a place for science fiction. It’s arcane and decadent only if the practitioners approach it in an arcane and decadent way. To imply that it’s served its purpose and it’s time for it to toddle off to history’s dust heap is as wrong-headed as closing the patent office a century ago because there was nothing left to invent. When we reached the moon and all the talking heads on TV smirked and asked if there was anything left for science fiction writers to write about, did any of us agree with them? There’s no reason to agree with them now. The world changes, and science fiction isn’t in the business of predicting those changes, but of analyzing how humanity handles them.

I might point out that 30 years ago nobody thought that 99.5% of what gets written today would not be written on typewriters. Or that we’d be at war with an enemy that is not a country and has no location on a map. Or that transplanting almost every organ below the neck would become almost commonplace. Or that you could not only identify a criminal or a reluctant parent by his DNA, but that the same DNA could identify his progenitors from a million years ago. Or that AIDS would come into being, still be incurable, and would do almost as much to change the sexual behavior of Americans as the pill did. But why go on? This—and a million other things, many of them hiding just over the horizon—are the grist of science fiction, they’re meaningful today, and when they stop being meaningful to the writers and readers they’ll be replaced by more things that are.

Like most other art forms, science fiction is continually evolving. We can’t see that evolution today, because we’re a part of it—but it isn’t hard to look back and say that Edgar Rice Burroughs, the bestselling author of the 1920s, and Doc Smith, the most popular science fiction writer of the 1930s, couldn’t break into print today. Campbell’s guys could sell today, but they’d be pretty heavily edited, and sooner or later they’d have to write about people rather than just ideas if they wanted to keep selling. Conversely, I doubt that half of today’s finest writers could have sold in 1928 or 1937 or even 1949; what they write simply wouldn’t be recognizable as science fiction back then.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that you and Norman and John Clute were right about science fiction as it existed at the very the moment you made your statement—but it wasn’t true about science fiction today, and by the time it is true about science fiction circa 2004, it’ll be 2012 or 2027 and science fiction will have taken several giant steps ahead. We won’t know it because we’ll (hopefully) be part of those steps, or else we’ll be too artistically myopic to see them—but they’ll be there nonetheless.

The glass is half full, Barry. Honest.

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BARRY: I’m not “Sending science fiction to history’s dustheap.” I think very well of the old girl yet; get her false teeth properly aligned, give her a dose of meds, a body stocking and a dim light and there’s a dance in the old dame yet. It’s the culture I think that is doing the job. That replenishment of readers simply is not happening; most of the l4-year-olds who were pouring into science fiction in my time and for the decades succeeding now have video games, computers, MTV, joystick buzzers, a host of distractions. The broad readership base isn’t there any more.

Still, the new Locus reports that over 2000 new short stories were “published”—online and print media—last year, a staggering increase and the highest total ever . . . and that same issue’s yearly wrap-up indicates that there’s no dearth of science fiction even in a market which has seen it significantly overtaken by fantasy. Maybe it is not “a finished thing”. Maybe I am a finished thing and projecting my finishedness (“finishitude”?) upon dear old science fiction. I’ll leave this for others to judge.

Charles Brown interviewed me for that aforementioned Locus in 9/200l at the Philadelphia Worldcon, said that his take on the situation was that science fiction had been too successful. “We’ve won the war,” he said, “We’ve taken over the culture.” Since we live in a science fiction world there is now no intrinsic need for the genre itself. Like a victorious army (this was my figure of speech, not his) we’ve come home to a nation which really has no place for us. There’s no embarrassment like a bunch of old warriors who have no place anymore to warrior. (This is one of Poul Anderson’s great themes.)

Well, who knows? It was fun in the expanding universe; I missed it as a writer by about twenty years but did not miss it as a reader. But I had to come to understand as I said at a Convention last year, that as much as I loved Kuttner’s five Gallagher stories published in Astounding and collected as Robots Have No Tails I had to live by knowing that I could not be Henry Kuttner, I would never write those stories for John Campbell. I could only write my own work. I did the best I could. If others also do that maybe the outlook will not, after all, be so bleak.

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MIKE: Tastes change, styles change. A. E. van Vogt would starve to death today. Philip K. Dick, who is all but worshipped today, whose oft-rejected short stories regularly bring 6-figure options from Hollywood, damned near starved to death when he was writing all those classics. John Brunner used to cry on my shoulder that here he was, a Best Novel Hugo winner and a Worldcon Guest of Honor, and he couldn’t sell. Harry Turtledove had to hide behind a pseudonym once upon a time, and today Turtledove books fly off the shelves. The field is a living thing, and like all living things, it evolves.

There is just one constant, and that constant is science fiction. Like George R. Stewart’s Earth, it abides. And as long as men look at the stars and wonder, or look to the future and wonder, or look to either and worry, it will continue to abide.

And every now and then, in the future as in the past, there will come breakthroughs that will point new directions to the rest of the practitioners and bring new readers into the field. Sure, we never had to compete with DVDs and computers and video games in the past—but the field never sold this many books in the past, either.

Upon reconsideration, the glass is five-eighths full.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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