A collection of some of the best feature articles from Tor.com’s 10 year history as an online sci-fi/fantasy literature magazine. Read:
- An intimate moment under the covers that bloomed into a lifetime lived through sci-fi/fantasy.
- A fierce defense of fan fiction.
- The history of Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan, and the story of the reader who had her future rewritten in turn.
- A deeply unwise thought experiment that explains how centaurs eat.
- The story of one writer’s amazing day, starting out on her last dime and ending with her somehow hugging her idol, Terry Pratchett.
- And much more!
Rocket Fuel: Some of the Best From Tor.com Non-Fiction features essays from Seanan McGuire, Ursula Vernon, Jo Walton, Nisi Shawl, Kate Elliott, Becky Chambers, Kai Ashante Wilson, Sarah Gailey, Grady Hendrix, Judith Tarr, Lish McBride, Emily Asher-Perrin, Ryan Britt, Leah Schnelbach, Natalie Zutter, Molly Templeton, and more!
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
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Under the Covers with a Flashlight: Our Lives as Readers
By Emily Asher-Perrin
It was a sticky, scorching summer, made worse for the fact that I had been relegated to the third floor of my family's house: I had to give up my room for guests who had come to visit, and heat rises, as you well know. The pink room had sloped ceilings, but it was no bother because I was rather short back then. (Okay, I'm still short. I'm painting a picture of nostalgia, leave me alone.)
I was supposed to be asleep; my mom was directing a summer musical for kids and we started rehearsal bright and early every morning, so I had to be awake. But hey, I was on the third floor, and no one would be the wiser if I kept this light on for a little longer, right? I had to finish this chapter; Boba Fett was taking a team of bounty hunters to meet Gheeta the Hutt, and I just knew the job was gonna go wrong in a bad way. Sleep was not an option, not until I found out if my instincts were right.
My distinct memories from that summer are wrapped up in goofy costumes and musical numbers that I can still recall note for word, but also in staying up for hours after everyone else had gone to bed, reading the first installment of the Bounty Hunter Wars Trilogy while I ignored the discomfort of late night summer heat. They are special memories, ones that I can recall with alarming clarity — the scent of the book's paper and ink, how badly I stuck to myself when I tried to shift positions, how low the light was coming from the old lamp on the bedside table.
I believe, more often than not, that where and when we read something has as much relevance as what we are reading. We associate certain tomes with different times in our lives, the same way we commonly do with music and types of food, scents, and people. We can mark off chapters of our own stories based on the things we learned in the books we read, the friends or family members we read them with. For instance, when my aunt read James and the Giant Peach to me, I remember how the whole world got a little more magical — and was equally devastated when she couldn't finish it before her visit ended, as my dad just couldn't mimic her voices for the characters.
When I was ten years old, I sat on my bed at home and finished The Illustrated Man, my first Bradbury book. As I closed the back cover on a long exhale, I had a sense, then and there, that my perspective on the world had somehow shifted in ways that I wasn't ready to understand. I can remember causing my mother so much grief for wanting to stay inside during our vacation: I was having plenty of fun on my own, thanks, learning all about the Improbability Drive and the reasons why I should always carry a towel with me. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was essential to my existence, and she couldn't stop me from finishing that book by nightfall. Sunshine and beaches were for other people.
Of course, what we read as children has a profound impact, but I think this relevance continues into adulthood. That novella you read when you caught the plague at work and couldn't move for two weeks. The collection of short stories you read with a good friend and the talks you had about it afterward. The book you read to escape a tragedy in your life. They connect you to your past in a powerful way, sometimes better than any pictorial or video evidence you have at hand.
When I was studying abroad for my junior year of college, I spent spring break traveling around Europe. I began Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in Istanbul and finished it in Rome, the first and last destinations of my trip. That book will stay with me in ways that others cannot, and I'm sure that part of my affection is wrapped up in the simultaneous journey I was taking with the characters. Jonathan Strange lived a great adventure and so did I, at the very same time, in fact.
We were even in Venice together, a kind of magic that is nigh impossible to duplicate.
But my favorite memory of reading is probably the night of July 21st, 2007. That's right, the final installment of the Harry Potter saga. I should begin by explaining the situation: my home town had a habit of transforming one of our main avenues into Diagon Alley when each book was released. Restaurants sold butterbeer, Hogwarts house colors were worn with pride and everyone partied in the street until it was time to get in the long line and wait for your coveted copy. That year, one of the churches had agreed to turn their basement into Azkaban prison. (Yes, you read that exactly right.) The high school theater department handed over some of their lighting and set pieces, three costumed actors were hired to play Bellatrix Lestrange, and Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, and my friends and I were called in to be "prison guards" and give tours to kids and families.
We each adopted a different accent (I was the Irish guard #x2026; it's a long story) and did continuous tours for five straight hours, going hoarse before we realized that it was nearly midnight and we needed to split quick. I went to the local independent children's book shop and ended up with a shorter wait because I hadn't pre-ordered my copy of the book — the pre-order lines were a nightmare. Reuniting with my friends, we adjourned to Sarah's backyard, where her parents had been kind enough to put up tents and equip them with lamps (like real wizarding tents!) and enough food for a full-on battalion. We settled into sleeping bags and started Deathly Hallows together. Sarah, also the fastest reader of the group, frequently gasped and demanded that everyone let her know when they had reached this or that page. We grimaced and bemoaned her speed, desperately trying to catch up until we all finally succumbed to our drowsiness. The sun woke us in the morning and it was a beautiful day.
Each and every one of us has moments like these, times when a book becomes more than a book. It is a touchstone and the stories between the pages are reflections of us. They remind us of who we were, who we are now and how we got there. The next time you have a bout of nostalgia, I encourage you not to pull out the old photo album. Head to your bookshelf instead, and see what surfaces. I guarantee it will be more than you think.
The pen is mightier than a lot of things. The sword was just the first one down.CHAPTER 2
Sometimes, Horror is the Only Fiction That Understands You
By Leah Schnelbach
"I don't trust people who look back on high school with fondness; too many of them were part of the overclass, those who were taunters instead of tauntees. [ ... ] They are also the ones most likely to suggest that books such as Carrie and The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace be removed from libraries. I submit to you that these people have less interest in reducing the atmosphere of violence in schools than they may have in forgetting how badly some people — they themselves, in some cases — may have behaved while there."
–Stephen King, Vermont Library Conference's Annual Meeting, 1999
Stephen King has a long and twisty relationship with censorship and book banning. During the 1990s, four of his books turned up on the ALA list of most banned books: Cujo at #49, Carrie at #81, The Dead Zone at #82, and Christine at #95. In 1992, a middle school in Florida pulled The Dead Zone and The Tommyknockers from their library's shelves, prompting King to write a response in The Bangor Daily News.
King begins by speaking directly to the kids, telling them not to bother fighting, but instead to go to the local library and read the banned book.
"Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don't want you to know. In many cases you'll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition. It doesn't hurt to remember that John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and even Mark Twain have been banned in this country's public schools over the last 20 years."
Only after he has that out of the way does he turn to the parents and educators of the town, saying that "controversy and surprise — sometimes even shock — are often the whetstone on which young minds are sharpened." And while he adds that some books (he mentions Fanny Hill and American Psycho specifically) shouldn't be included in school libraries, he ends on a great rallying cry: "As a nation, we've been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn't approve of them."
In 1999, about a month after the Columbine shooting, King gave the Keynote Address for the Vermont Library Conference's Annual Meeting, and publicly wrestled with his identification with Harris and Klebold. He talks about the anger and desperation of the teenage underclass, and he talks about his own time in high school:
"I sympathize with the losers of the world and to some degree understand the blind hormonal rage and ratlike panic which sets in as one senses the corridor of choice growing ever narrower, until violence seems like the only possible response to the pain."
By the end of the speech, though, he's talking about his decision to censor himself. There had already been three school shootings that strongly resembled the events in Stephen King's early novel Rage, which was published under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. After the fourth troubled boy turned his anger on his classmates, King asked his publishers to pull the book from publication in future editions. He said that while he didn't want to draw a direct connection between the book and the shooter's motives, "... the point is that I don't want to be a part of it. Once I knew what had happened, I pulled the ejection-seat lever on that particular piece of work. I withdrew Rage, and I did it with relief rather than regret." But he never suggests that he shouldn't have written Rage.
He instead stops mocking "prudes with highlighters" and begins to point out that we all need to deal with a culture that glorifies violence and allows easy access to guns, rather than continually blaming video games, movies, books, online culture, etc. for each new national tragedy. He focuses on what he thinks is the largest underlying factor — the way that poverty and class affect the American psyche.
Stephen King, perhaps better than many people writing today, understands poverty (the physical kind and the intellectual kind) and he realizes that it is the bedrock of much of the violence in society. A large part of his talk in 1999 is about the anger and desperation of the teenage underclass, and he talks about his own time in high school in extremely negative terms:
"My stories of adolescent violence were all drawn, in some degree, from my own memories of high school. That particular truth, as I recalled it when writing as an adult, was unpleasant enough. I remember high school as a time of misery and resentment."
While he was still in high school he took on a job at the local mill in order to save money for college. His mother was determined to send him off to school, but not just because she wanted him to get a solid education — poor boys who didn't have college classes to attend were getting sent over to an as-yet-undeclared war in Vietnam. So during his last year of high school, he was attending classes until about 2:00 in the afternoon, heading out for an eight-hour shift at the mill, and then heading back to school at 7:00 am after a few hours sleep. He worked at the University library while getting a teaching degree, but when he graduated there were no teaching jobs to be found. He and his wife Tabitha lived in a series of trailers, writing while their kids were asleep and they weren't too exhausted to think. Tabitha worked the counter at Dunkin Donuts; Stephen found a job at an industrial laundry that only paid a little more than the mill had. And from the sound of it, the work was even worse:
"The greater part of what I loaded and pulled were motel sheets from Maine's coastal towns and table linens from Maine's coastal restaurants. The table linen was desperately nasty. When tourists go out to dinner in Maine, they usually want clams and lobster. Mostly lobster. By the time the table cloths upon which these delicacies had been served reached me, they stank to high heaven and were often boiling with maggots. The maggots would try to crawl up your arms as you loaded the washers; it was as if the little fuckers knew you were planning to cook them. I thought I'd get used to them in time but I never did."
Even after he found teaching work, he didn't make enough to get by. Tabitha had to stay at the donut shop, and they were still living the hand-to-mouth kind of existence that destroys creativity: a kid's ear infection means the car doesn't get repaired that month. Repairing the car the next month means the electric bill gets paid late, or not at all. You can't live in Maine with children and not have heat, so the heating oil bill has to get paid, no matter what else happens. But then one of the kids breaks an arm. Then what? Rinse. Repeat.
It wasn't until the sale of Carrie catapulted him into the upper middle class that they were able to stop worrying, but King's focus remained on that struggle, and has continued to play out in his writing. He does write about doctors and lawyers occasionally, but far more of his memorable characters — good and evil alike — are nurses, struggling writers, electricians, poor moms, kids who don't have enough money to fit in at school. There are also many small stories of thwarted artists, or writers whose dreams of literary high-mindedness are subsumed in the need to write pulp to pay the bills. While many of King's books work as explorations of addiction, or as exorcisms of the worst fears of parenthood, they also very often serve as class critiques. I think that this is a key factor in why he's censored, and also why his work is so important to younger people. Even though he doesn't really spring to mind as a YA author, he is widely read by middle and high school students, and in between all the zombie cats and killer clowns and broken-foot-removals, he's honest about class, about power, about violence, and about how all of these things intersect. He understands real poverty, and the desperation and anger it can breed, which allows him to empathize with violent kids in a way that I think most people shudder away from.
It was this honesty that I responded to when I read him as a kid. It's King who taught me how to write. And it was King who got me through middle school, even before I discovered Heathers and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and all the other things that gave me a way to channel my anger away from my own body.
Most specifically, it was It.
In middle school my best friend was crazy. I don't mean funny-crazy, like, we had such wild times, I mean that she had actual mental illnesses — several of them — layered over what I choose to believe was her real personality, like a cronut. Occasionally the real personality would come out for multiple days, or even weeks, and we could have fun together like other friends; other times she would lash out with threats and paranoid accusations, or try to hurt herself, or try to hurt me. She wasn't officially diagnosed (bipolar, OCD, schizoaffective) for another year, so at this point everyone tried to shrug off her mood swings as teenage hormones — it was easier for everyone, especially her desperately poor mother, to believe that her pain was just a phase she'd grow out of. Actual mental illnesses meant therapy and medication and terrifying hospitals — and there was simply no money to pay for any of that.
Our families lived at either end of a trashy beach neighborhood in Central Florida, back when those existed, before that area was nothing but multi-million dollar condos in various pastel shades. My family was in the front half of a duplex, renting out the back half to try to make the mortgage payments so we'd own the whole building eventually. There was a crack house one block over. The rental units next door had a constant turnover of addicts, working single moms, and middle-aged men with anger management issues. My friend was in a concrete house with few windows, and that type of grainy industrial fabric designed to give rugburns. Her stepfather's metal shop was upstairs.
There was not much entertainment for two predriver's-license kids, so my friend and I would either walk around aimlessly all night (in that part of Florida it only drops below 90 degrees after 11:00 o'clock) or we'd sit on the phone in our respective houses, hiding from the heat, and she'd tell me about Stephen King books. I mean this quite literally: she'd start at the beginning, tell me the entire plot, read me some dialogue, the whole thing. Sometimes we'd spend a whole afternoon that way and when we met up after dark, she'd still be talking about the book. She loved King, she read all of his interviews, and her mother always obliged her obsession by buying her paperbacks of his books when she could, and when she couldn't, we'd walk to the library and check who was at the desk. If the friendly younger lady was there, we could pick his stuff up with no hassle. If it was one the two seething older women (the two who kept re-shelving the sex-ed books to try to keep the kids away from them) we'd be lucky to escape with Dean Koontz.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rocket Fuel"
Copyright © 2018 Bridget McGovern and Chris Lough.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface - Bridget McGovern,
Under the Covers with a Flashlight: Our Lives as Readers - Emily Asher-Perrin,
Sometimes, Horror is the Only Fiction That Understands You - Leah Schnelbach,
The Bodies of the Girls Who Made Me: Fanfic and the Modern World - Seanan McGuire,
Writing Women Characters as Human Beings - Kate Elliott,
Meet My Alien Family: Writing Across Cultures in Science Fiction - Becky Chambers,
So How Does a Centaur Eat, Anyway? - Judith Tarr,
Fantasy, Reading, and Escapism - Jo Walton,
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (and Why You Should Read It) - Leigh Butler,
Robert Jordan: The American Tolkien - Michael Livingston,
The Trial of Galadriel - Jeff LaSala,
Good Idols: Terry Pratchett & the Appropriate Hug - Lish McBride,
Orwell and the Librarian, a Love Story - Alex Brown,
Beloved: The Best Horror Novel the Horror Genre Has Never Claimed - Grady Hendrix,
The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror and the Intuition of Women - Emily Asher-Perrin,
What Rape Apologists Need to Learn From Jessica Jones - Natalie Zutter,
In Defense of Villainesses - Sarah Gailey,
Queering SFF: Writing Queer — Languages of Power - Brit Mandelo,
Sleeps With Monsters: There's A Counter In My Head - Liz Bourke,
Apologize to No One: V for Vendetta is More Important Today Than it Ever Was - Emily Asher-Perrin,
Five Books about Loving Everybody - Nisi Shawl,
Safe as Life: A Four-Part Essay on Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle - Brit Mandelo,
The Complete American Gods Mix Tape - Bridget McGovern,
Rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Far Beyond the Stars" - Keith R.A. DeCandido,
The POC Guide to Writing Dialect In Fiction - Kai Ashante Wilson,
Homecoming: How Afrofuturism Bridges the Past and the Present - Tochi Onyebuchi,
Nobody Gets Mad About Hamlet Remakes: Why Superheroes Are the New Cultural Mythology - Ryan Britt,
Sowing History: A Gardener's Tale - Ursula Vernon,
Not Saving the World? How Does That Even Work? - Jo Walton,
Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" Defies Genre - Gabrielle Bellot,
Soon I Won't Know What the Future Looks Like - Chris Lough,
Bouncy Prose and Distant Threats: An Appreciation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (or Sorceror's) Stone By Mari Ness,
Joy, Sorrow, Regret, and Reassurance: The Singular Beauty of The Last Unicorn - Bridget McGovern,
One Day You Wake Up and You Are Grown: Fairyland and the Secrets of Growing Up - Molly Templeton,
Preparing Myself for Death with Joe Versus the Volcano - Leah Schnelbach,
About the Authors,