Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Interview: Steven H Silver

As promised here is my interview with Sidewise judge Steven H Silver, the first person I ever interviewed who has a Wikipedia article about himself:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Beyond being a reader, I’ve been active in various aspects of science fiction since the mid-1980s.  I spend my time writing, reading, running conventions, publishing the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus, writing for other fanzines, and maintained various websites. I founded the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History in 1995 and since 2008 have been the SFWA Events Coordinator. There are probably other things I’ve forgotten.  

What book(s) influenced your life the most?

The first science fiction I remember reading were a series of children’s books by Jerome Beatty, Jr., focusing on the character Matthew Looney.  I wouldn’t say that my enjoyment of science fiction necessarily comes from those books, but they were the first I remember reading.  Tony Simon’s The Search for Planet X helped fuel my interest in astronomy and led to a five year correspondence with Clyde Tombaugh. Gardner Dozois’s The Year's Best Science Fiction 6 would rank up there because it is the first time I was aware of reading one of Harry Turtledove’s works (I had previously read his translation of The Chronicle of Theophanes).  It led to an eventual friendship with him, and of course a lot of other reading.

Which writer(s) would you consider a mentor?

Several authors have offered encouragement, perhaps first among them the late Joel Rosenberg.  Gene Wolfe has shown an interest in my writing ever since I took a class he taught.  William Sanders, Julie Czerneda, and Kerrie Hughes have also been very helpful to me over the years.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I think it is natural for someone who is interested in science fiction and history to find their way to alternate history.  Several years ago, I was on an alternate history panel at Rivercon in Louisville and when we threw the panel opened to questions, one of the audience members commented that he never really considered alternate history to be science fiction.  However, our discussion made him realize that it used the same technique of postulating a change and then trying to trace the effects of that change, so maybe it really was alternate history.  The audience member who said that was Hal Clement.

How did the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History come into being?

Back in the mid 1990s, there was a nice boom in alternate history going on.  It appeared it might be the next big thing, like cyberpunk.  Not only was Harry Turtledove publishing his World War series and Kim Newman was publishing Anno Dracula novels, but Mike Resnick and Greg Benford were both publishing numerous alternate history anthologies.  I had gotten to “know” Evelyn Leeper and Robert Schmunk over Usenet (the web, itself, was barely on anyone’s radar, Netscape was founded the same year we were having these discussions) and proposed the idea of the award to them.  They liked the idea and we hammered out the specifics (it was almost called the Backmaker award).

Did alternate history ever become the next big thing?  Sometimes it appears even more obscure than cyberpunk and other sub-genres of science fiction.

It never did break out, although a lot of it gets published, frequently without any genre labels (see Sidewise winners Resurrection Day, Making History, or The Plot Against America).  A lot of it is published as something else…Steampunk is, in many ways a subcategory of alternate history.  I think the reason that AH hasn’t been able to make it big is because in order for it to really hit, readers need to know (and care about) the real history and the general population tends to be historically illiterate, as shown in numerous polls over the years.  They know the Civil War and they know World War II, which, you’ll notice, are the two most covered areas in alternate history.

What is the nomination process for the Sidewise Awards?

We try to read everything published.  So pretty much the nomination process is to make sure we know the book or story is available.  Even better is to arrange to have copies sent to the six judges.

What criteria do you and the other judges use when choosing a winner?

Each judge brings their own criteria to the process.  Some of the judges like straight alternate history without any hints of time travel or magic, others have various levels of tolerance towards more speculative aspects of alternate history.  One of the debates we often have is whether a work should be considered NAH, or Not Alternate History.  Usually this happens when there is something minor in the background that indicates it isn’t our world, but isn’t germane to the plot or setting. It also happens when we feel something is a Secret History, where it happening wouldn’t affect the world as we know it.  For me, the story has to succeed on multiple levels to rank highly.  I have to like the story as a work of fiction and I have to find the alternate history aspect plausible.  If one or the other aspect fails, I’ll downgrade the book.

How did the other Sidewise judges get on the project?

Generally when the judges decide that we need new blood, or when someone retires from the jury, we look around and think about who would be good.  I’ve known Jim Rittenhouse for years and he was the founder of the APA Zine Point of Divergence, so he was a natural when an opening appeared.  Karen Hellekson and Nick Gevers, neither of whom are still on the panel, both have written academic works on AH.  For a while we had thought about asking an author to join, but Stephen Baxter approached us with the idea of adding him to the jury.

Worldcon will be in Chicago next year, are you involved in the planning at all?

I’ll be one of the vice-chairs for Chicon 7 with the programming and publications divisions reporting directly to me.

What are you reading now?

Three books by John Bengtsen on silent films: Silent Echoes, Silent Voices, and Silent Traces; Steven Brust’s Tiassa; Bill Fawcett’s Exiles: Clan of the Claw; Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; Scott Miller’s The President and the Assassin; and Panverse 3.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I’m not really sure how to define new authors since someone I consider new seems to be an established part of the landscape within five years these days. And, of course, someone who has just published their first novel may have been writing for magazines and anthologies for several years.  I’d point to M. K. Hobson, Ahmed Saladin, Howard Andrew Jones, Aliette de Bodard, T.L. Morgenfield, Ian Tregellis, Christopher Kastensmidt, as people who have been writing at various length who have debuted relatively recently as people to take a look at.

What are your current projects?

I’m currently working on three books for ISFiC Press, this year’s volume is a collection of short stories by Catherine Asaro called Aurora in Four Voices.  For Chicon 7, we’ll be releasing a collection of all of Mike Resnick’s Hugo-nominated short stories called Win Some, Lose Some.  Next November, we’ll be publishing a collection of stories by Seanan McGuire. Obviously Chicon 7 is taking up a lot of my time as a vice chair and I hope to publish a collection of all the stories written from the bid by a variety of authors.  If I can pull it together, that will be on sale in a hardcopy and readable format (as opposed to the hardcopy, 6 point font they were originally published in). Sometime later this year, the 2011 issue of my Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus will be published (and I published a special edition last month).  I have fannish writing appearing in Argentus, The Drink Tank, and the FenCon Program Book (where I’ll be a Guest of Honor in September).  I have a couple of anthology pitches out, one of which may actually become a book in time for Chicon 7, at least that’s currently the plan.

You sure a prolific reader and writer, do you have any advice for others on getting published?

Pretty much it comes down to writing and submitting.  Getting your stories out there until you find the editor who believes in your work and feels it is a fit for their readers.  And remember that writing doesn’t require specific tools.  I’ve been in writers groups where if someone’s computer was down, they couldn’t write.  Writing can be done with a computer, tablet, on a cell phone, or using pen/pencil and paper.

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