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Working at Light Speed: Anthologist John Joseph Adams Goes to Mars and Beyond

John joseph adams headshot

How do you get to be the reigning king of the anthology world? For John Joseph Adams, it’s simple: put out a series of popular, critically acclaimed books that satisfy just about every reader’s taste in speculative fiction. A two-time Hugo Award finalist, Adams had edited a so many anthologies recently that it’s almost hard to keep track. They include Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, The Living Dead, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, and The Way Of The Wizard. Forthcoming anthologies include Epic (Tachyon, Fall 2012) and The Mad Scientist's Guide To World Domination (Tor Books, 2013).

Right now, though, Adams is focused on two very different anthologies: the all-originals Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures of Barsoom and Lightspeed: Year One, composed of reprints from his online magazine.

The Mars anthology is based on the popular Edgar Rice Burroughs series, and because of movie interest in Burroughs, Adams saw an opportunity to create an anthology on a milieu ripe for reinterpretation. “I’d heard that Disney was going to be adapting A Princess of Mars into a movie, and it sounded like--at last--the adaptation was finally going to happen…Being a fan of the original books, I was quite excited, and the idea of doing the ‘new adventures’ of John Carter sprang to mind. It seemed like…that would be a hell of a lot of fun, so I started putting together a proposal and recruiting authors for it. Once I started reaching out to people, the number of folks who were excited about it really reinforced my thought that it would be a great project, and luckily Simon & Schuster agreed.”

How does this new anthology “advance the ball”? According to Adams, “One of the things about the original Barsoom books is that while they still read as cracking adventure stories, a lot of the attitudes are dated and the prose is not generally up to par for today’s audiences, which is one of the reasons that many of us who fell in love with those books did so when we were younger and our reading tastes were not as sophisticated.”

Under_the_Moons_of_Mars

Under the Moons of Mars allows “readers with more modern sensibilities to experience the good of Burroughs’ creation without--hopefully--the bad. There really is a marvelous sense of wonder to be found in those books, and some very compelling characters and, of course, they’re chock-full of adventure. So in the same way that a movie, like Disney’s new John Carter adaptation, can update an old text and make it feel fresh and relevant to modern audiences, I hope the anthology can do the same.”

To give just two specific examples, writers Catherynne M. Valente and Joe R. Lansdale demonstrate in vastly different ways how Under the Moons of Mars manages to both honor Burroughs’ memory and serve as a corrective to the more antiquated elements. Valente’s story, Adams says, is “somewhat critical of Burroughs, and I wasn’t sure how that would play.” Much to his delight, “the story not only serves as a critique of some of Burroughs’s attitudes but also plays quite nicely in the Barsoom canon.”

Lansdale, meanwhile, “perfectly Lansdale captured the essence of Burroughs, both in the writing style and in the scope of the story,” if for a modern audience. “It really feels like a lost Burroughs story that Lansdale somehow secretly unearthed and published under his own name (but maybe polished up the prose a bit first).” While there isn’t much overlap between anthologies like Under the Moons of Mars and Adams’ work on Lightspeed, the magazine does give him additional flexibility. “If an author turns in a story that isn’t quite right thematically for an anthology, but it’s great regardless, I can take it for Lightspeed instead. It also, of course, offers me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of authors who I may not have actually worked with previously, and so it widens my ‘stable’ so to speak. I can also use Lightspeed to help promote the anthologies.”

Lightspeed 1

Under the Moons of Mars might be seen as a renovation of older science fiction and fantasy. Lightspeed, on the other hand, is squarely in the middle of the current field and often features new writers. About the current field, Adams says that it seems to him that “maybe writers now are relying less on the old, standard tropes of the genre, or at least they’re doing a better job reinvigorating them to feel fresh again. But it could be that I’m just seeing less of that because my magazine is new and not as well known, or maybe even just because I’m not reading the slush as much anymore (since I have a slush team). Or, it could also be that people are reacting to what I publish and are mostly sending me stuff along the lines of what they perceive my tastes to be.”

Adams is proud of his work on Lightspeed, as well he should be. The magazine has been nominated for the Hugo Award and has also had two Nebula Award finalists, a Sturgeon Award finalist, and more than half of the original fiction published by the magazine in 2010 was reprinted in best-of-the-year volumes.

“When I see that all pulled together into one volume, in the form of Lightspeed: Year One, that really drives home to me what an amazing run it’s been so far, and I look at the table of contents and can’t help but feel a little awe that I was able to facilitate something like that.”

“I find remaining unfocused seems to work best for me, actually. I like working on multiple projects at once because I can alternate working on them. Even just working on an original project and a reprint project can be refreshing because reading for reprints is often a different experience than reading originals because [otherwise] you can become too immersed in a single subject matter and lose perspective--you’ve got to sort of cleanse your editorial palette once and a while.”

In addition to working on new anthologies, Adams is currently adjusting to having taken over as not just the editor of Lightspeed but also the publisher. “I’ve learned a lot about publishing by working as an editor, of course, but once you move into the publisher’s chair yourself, it’s a bit of a different ball game, so I’m having to teach myself lots of new things and investigate aspects of publishing I’ve never actually been hands on with before.”

You can catch Adams on his podcast, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, which recently ended its run on io9 and is now hosted by Wired.com. Their first episode at Wired.com features an interview with William Gibson. You can also buy an e-book version of Lightspeed individual issues right here on Amazon.

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JJA has another forthcoming anthology, ARMORED, from Baen, with mech/powered armor fiction.

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