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by Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories
Things change. I’ve been getting a heavy dose of this lately, not because of the health issues, but because last month was the 30th anniversary of the release of MIDI 1.0—the industry-standard Musical Instrument Digital Interface—and my inbox has been filling up with related email. Some messages are from old friends I haven’t talked to in years, wanting to reminisce about the glory days. Others are from reporters or grad students, hoping to cadge an interview.
Did I mention that thirty-some years ago, I was on the design team that developed MIDI?
There are many things I don’t talk about but perhaps should, because they helped lay the foundation upon which Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories are built. For example, I didn’t set out to become a writer. I intended to make my mark on the world as a musician, and for many years worked very seriously at it. Before I started writing this editorial I went out to Wikipedia and took a deep dive into the section on Contemporary classical music, intending to write a proper article that puts it all into historical perspective.
But, no. Some other day. The editorial I started to write quickly deteriorated into a series of shout-outs and name-checks. Yep. Knew him. Knew her. Worked with him. Was there. Did that. Did that, too, but would rather not admit it.
I wish I could say there was some epiphany, some brilliant and unforgettable moment when the skies parted and the Minor Gods of Creativity thundered in antiphonal chorus, “No, thou shalt not be a musician! Thou wast meant for a greater calling! Thou shalt become...a science fiction writer!” It would make for a more dramatic column if I could describe that moment.
If it had happened, I would, but it never did. Instead there were only years of slop and overlap, spent in hard work on projects that went off in six different directions simultaneously and therefore never really went much of anywhere, with many tiny points of change that taken together still don’t add up to even one decent low-budget epiphany. Somewhere in there I discovered I was not cut out to sell my soul for rock ‘n’ roll, and that watching my friends who were made to live that lifestyle self-destruct and die young wasn’t much fun. Somewhere else in there I discovered that while I really did like theater (and if you’re at risk of taking me too seriously, you may take a moment now to imagine me in full pancake makeup and period costume, singing and dancing in the chorus line of a production of Mame), I wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle either, and watching my friends who were cut out for it self-destruct and die from AIDS wasn’t any better fun. Somewhere in there I learned to play the arts grants and commissions game well enough to succeed at it, but in the process lost most of my respect for the game itself. Somewhere else in there it became clear to me that my hopes of getting into major recording studio and soundtrack work were about as realistic as my chances of becoming a starting center in the NBA, and eventually—
Eventually I realized that for me, the clear and obvious career path was to keep playing the arts grants and commissions game, pick up an MFA on my way to a PhD, and in time end up in a tenured position on the faculty of some podunk community college, where I could spend the rest of my life writing music for an audience of one, except during those semesters when I could unleash my Inner Vogon and force students to attend my performances and appreciate my work by holding their grades hostage.
So I took a job in software development with a synth company instead.
I have never been one to take the clear and obvious path. I am by nature an explorer, a tinkerer, an experimenter, and a nascent engineer. I love to take things apart and figure out how they work, and then try to figure out how to make them work better. I love to try to find a different—no, a better—way to do just about anything. I hate to repeat experiments other people have already done so many times before that the outcome is certain beyond all possible doubt; to perform pieces other people have already performed so definitively that no other performance will ever be as good; and most of all, to repeat myself. While I am fully capable of being in the audience and really enjoying something like the Happy Together Tour, I also think that must be a special form of Hell: to be trapped in spending the rest of your life out on the road, performing the same damned songs you first performed 45 years ago.
[Hmm. Note to self. If you ever get back to work on that updated rewrite of Inferno, include that bit: the circle of Hell populated entirely by old rock stars forced to spend eternity living on tour buses, eating lousy truck-stop food and forever re-performing their one big hit single. Make sure you include that crappy motel in Appleton as one of the tour stops.]
So what does all this have to do with Stupefying Stories and SHOWCASE?
In my view there are two basic ways to go through life: you can either follow timidly in the footsteps of those who have gone before or strike out on your own and try to discover something new. Now, I won’t lie. Striking out on your own always involves the risk of ending up face-down in the dirt with arrows in your back, while there can be very good money to be made in following slavishly in someone else’s footsteps—especially if you pick just the right well-worn path to follow at just the right time. I mean, take Terry Brooks. Please.
But if you’re not content to take life at a conventional, predictable, unadventurous plod...
Ergo, Rampant Loon Press is an experiment. Stupefying Stories is an experiment. I don’t need to be doing this. Sure, it’d be great if Rampant Loon Press grows to become a viable and self-supporting company that I can pass on to my children and grandchildren, but I don’t expect or need to have this happen. (And to be honest, my children and grandchildren might well have other ideas about what they want to do with their time.) Nor am I out to become an Important Editor Who Forever Changed The Face Of Science Fiction As We Know It—in fact, I really dislike the terms “science fiction,” “SF/F,” “spec fic,” and all the other little intellectual straitjackets people keep trying to force storytellers to wear.
And I most definitely am not out to parlay this experience into a job as an editor at a major publishing house. I know what editors make. I couldn’t afford the pay cut.
No, at the end of the day what this is about is conducting experiments, to gather empirical evidence to either support or disprove three propositions:
- That there are potential readers out there who have dropped out of the market, because their interests are not being served right now
- That there are writers out there who are doing brilliant work, but who can’t get through The Way Things Work In This Industry well enough to find their potential readers
- That using emerging technologies it is possible to connect these writers with these readers, in a way that makes economic sense
Accordingly, when we launched Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories we decided we were free to write our own definition of success. If these experiments turn out to be the launchpads from which five or six writers and two or three editors begin careers of some significance, we will have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Pretty crazy, huh?
But remember: thirty-some years ago I had the good fortune to be part of the leading edge of a technological revolution that completely changed the music industry.
I’d like to think I’m not done just yet.
Bruce Bethke probably needs to update his professional bio one of these days...but this is not that day.