On March 7, 2005, I got an email from Sydney, Australia, from science journalist Wilson da Silva. He and his associate Kylie Ahern, plus scientists Dr. Alan Finkel (now Chancellor of Monash University) and his wife Dr. Elizabeth Finkel, were launching an ambitious new glossy full color popular science magazine, Cosmos. I was invited to join the editorial advisory board—along with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step onto the Moon, and other notables.
And incidentally, would I like to take on the role of science fiction commissioning editor?
Here was a chance to solicit and select original world-class stories on a regular basis. For which I’d be authorized to pay seriously more than was offered by the major sf magazines of the day.
So, well, yes, I would indeed like to do that.
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You don’t often get an opportunity to start something new, invited in at the top. When it does happen, striking you out of the blue, it’s both startling and exhilarating. At the time I was in San Antonio, Texas, a long way from my home in Melbourne, Australia, getting ready to fly to Florida as a guest scholar at the annual shindig of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. I sat down immediately and began emailing the Great and the Good in the US, Britain, Australia and elsewhere, inviting submissions of intense stories between 2000 and 4000 words long. Small but perfectly formed was what I wanted.
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Cosmos was launched at the Aussie winter solstice (and northern hemisphere summer solstice) on June 21, 2005. Wilson da Silva’s editorial for the second issue memorialized this glamorous event “in the 19th-century splendor of The Mint in Sydney’s Macquarie Street,” under the heading The Art of Everything. For its fiction aficionados, that’s highly significant and encouraging, because the subtitle of the magazine, understandably enough, is The Science of Everything.
The launcher, interestingly, was not a Nobel laureate scientist but the Shakespearean actor John Bell, who (da Silva notes) “quoted Prospero from The Tempest to convey to the assembled guests how the poetic and philosophical implications of science were an inspiration to him, and should be to all artists.” Bell told them:
Just as artists of the Renaissance were inspired by scientific advances and the discovery of the New World, so artists of today must be fired by science’s probing into outer space, to the bottom of the ocean, to the origins of our cosmos, and the beginning of time.
Wonder aplenty there! Science fiction itself, I think, locks into certain receptors in our brains/minds, activating the fabled “sense of wonder” as well as a sort of background glow of excited communion with its many other readers. That’s one reason science fiction and fantasy have generated a long-lived hive-mind of fans and their/our elaborate fandom, an alternative reality in itself.
So some of the drive to plunge into the many wondrous worlds of the imagination created by sf derives from a widespread unease, and its easing: that sf readers often begin as lonely, rather intelligent kids and teens (“geeks,” “nerds,” all the usual thuggish or patronizing slurs) who find through their shared love of this medium that they are not alone. Pamela Sargent’s Cosmos story “Not Alone” is an exploration of the neurological basis of spiritual experience, and I’ve adapted its title for this anthology. “You’re Not Alone” can be one of the heartening—and sometimes even life-saving—discoveries.
One of the first stories I got was the lovely piece “Angel of Light,” by my friend Joe Haldeman, included here. It speaks directly to the heart of every reader who recalls the shock and perhaps forbidden pleasure of stumbling on the lurid fiction of yesteryear, and it’s inflected with a nuanced awareness of the religious and cultural oppression that was already seething in the first decade of the 21st century.
I was eager to get fresh material like Pam’s and Joe’s unsettling stories, and you’ll find that exemplified in the fast, brittle, yet moving postcyberpunk pages of Greg Mellor’s “Defense of the Realm,” Karl Bunker’s “Under the Shouting Sky” (which collected $5000 as winner of the first Robert A. Heinlein Centennial Short Story Contest) and in particular Hugo-winner Mary Robinette Kowal’s equally poignant but edge-of-today’s-reality genetics story, “For Solo Cello, op.12.” Working with Mary on this story, her third professional sale, was one of the delights of my tenure at Cosmos. In her blog, she commented (to my considerable pleasure), that “Damien Broderick, the fiction editor, is a sweetheart and gave me a rewrite request on this story and then, bless him, had been willing to work with me during the rewrite process. It’s a much stronger story and that’s due to his insights.” Mary, who’s also a sweetheart (I say without ever having met her except in email), much later kindly wrote a Foreword to my 2011 collection The Qualia Engine, which reinforces my belief that in the sf community, You’re Not Alone.
Other early contributions were from both established and next-generation sf writers such as Gregory Benford, Charles Stross and Paul Di Filippo. Generally I haven’t greedily snatched up these pieces for this book, because I wanted to showcase more of the less well-known writers I found, or who found me.
Early entries included Liz Heldmann’s tour de force, “Echoes,” tracking the quantum multiverse and its political implications; the hilarious botched alien invasion story of a near-Singularity Earth, “Dogs of War,” by the sadly deceased Bruce Carlson; and the laconic horror story “Street of the Dead,” told in unapologetic Australian vernacular by Cat Sparks (who half a decade later took over the reins when I stepped down as Cosmos sf editor in 2010). Cat’s piece has the wonderful opening line:
“I’m driving round to Bob’s,” said Ern. “There’s UFOs in his chook house again.”
“Chooks” are hens, in rural and even urban Australia, and these UFOs are small, silvery, and—annoyingly—everywhere, even in and on the hen house. The disquietude of their increasingly ubiquitous presence is sensed more by us readers than by the doomed characters. This might have been an O. Henry story, had O. Henry lived in the Outback.
Irish writer and academic Val Nolan, in his whimsical and delightful tale “All the Wrong Places,” tells of the surprising discovery of the Higgs Boson—a jape that risked being undone by the march of science after its first publication. As Bob Shaw, another notable sf humorist from Ireland, once commented: “Nothing dates faster than an sf story which is scientifically accurate when written.” Luckily, it’s doubtful that Val’s preposterous account could be mistaken for scientific accuracy, and for that reason his good joke has outlasted its Nobel-winning refutation in the particle accelerators of CERN.
Cosmos comes out only six times a year, which means just seven sf stories annually (two for the December issue, like a Christmas present). That increased when the Cosmos website made possible the publication of some stories that we could not squeeze into the paper edition. Several of those online-only stories are here as well, and include such superb tales as the enigmatic, Gene Wolfean “The Dead Man’s Child” by Jay Lake, who died, alas, just before he turned 50, after a long, heroic and candidly blogged fight with cancer, in June, 2014.
I won’t annotate all thirty of the diverse stories here; some are heartwarming, some heartbreaking, a few are very funny, a few quite disturbing. All have at least a tincture, or even a heavy dollop, of science in the telling—if only metaphorically.
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Before you go to them, one final note: An aspect that pleases me very much is that this anthology contains an equal number of stories, all good and largely very different from each other, by women and men. That does not strictly reflect the published tally in the magazine (we didn’t get equal numbers of men and women contributors, although that is perhaps becoming less true under Cat Spark’s editorship), but the equal weight in this book supports my belief that the benighted days of gender bigotry in fantastika are well and truly behind us.
The future is open, and so is the genre of the future. For readers, there’s pleasure and insight awaiting. For writers, challenge as well. Go for it, says I: You’re Not Alone.