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A Workshop Lexicon: The "RevolutionSF" Iteration
© Bruce Sterling (originator), Doug Potter (illustrator)

Literary Freeware: Not for Commercial Use

People often ask where science fiction writers get their ideas. They rarely ask where society gets its science fiction writers. In many cases the answer is science fiction workshops.

Workshops come in many varieties -- regional and national, amateur and professional, formal and frazzled. In science fiction's best-known workshop, Clarion, would-be writers are wrenched from home and hearth and pitilessly blitzed for six weeks by professional SF writers, who serve as creative-writing gurus. Would-be sf writers can receive actual academic credit for this experience.

But the workshopping experience does not require any shepherding by experts. Like a bad rock band, an SF-writer's workshop can be set up in any vacant garage by any group of spotty enthusiasts with nothing better to occupy their time. No one has a copyright on talent, desire, or enthusiasm.

The general course of action in the modern SF workshop (known as the "Milford system") goes as follows. Attendees bring short manuscripts, with enough copies for everyone present. No one can attend or comment who does not bring a story. The contributors read and annotate all the stories. When that's done, everyone forms a circle, a story is picked at random, and the person to the writer's right begins the critique. (Large groups may require deliberate scheduling.)

Following the circle in order, with a minimum of cross-talk or interruptions, each person emits his/her considered opinions of the story's merits and/or demerits. The author is strictly required, by rigid law and custom, to make no outcries, no matter how he or she may squirm. When the circle is done and the last reader has vented his or her opinion, the silently suffering author is allowed an extended reply, which, it is hoped, will not exceed half an hour or so, and will avoid gratuitously personal ripostes. This harrowing process continues, with possible breaks for food, until all the stories are done, whereupon everyone tries to repair ruptured relationships in an orgy of drink and gossip.

No doubt a very interesting book could be written about science fiction in which the writing itself played no part. This phantom history could detail the social demimonde of workshops and their associated cliques: Milford, the Futurians, Milwaukee Fictioneers, Turkey City, New Wave, Hydra Club, Jules Verne's Eleven Without Women, and year after year after year of Clarion -- a thousand SF groups around the world, known and unknown.

Anyone can play. I've noticed that workshops have a particularly crucial role in non-Anglophone societies, where fans, writers, and publishers are often closely united in the same handful of zealots. This kind of fellow-feeling may be the true hearts-blood of the genre.

We now come to the core of this piece, the SF Workshop Lexicon. This lexicon was compiled by Mr Lewis Shiner and myself from the work of many writers and critics over many years of genre history, and it contains buzzwords, notions and critical terms of direct use to SF workshops.

The first version, known as the "Turkey City Lexicon" after the Austin, Texas writers' workshop that was a cradle of cyberpunk, appeared in 1988. In proper ideologically-correct cyberpunk fashion, the Turkey City Lexicon was distributed uncopyrighted and free-of-charge: a decommodified, photocopied chunk of free literary software.

In September 1990 I re-wrote the Lexicon as an installment in my critical column for the British magazine Interzone. When Robin Wilson asked me to refurbish the Lexicon yet again for his book Paragons in 1996, I couldn't resist the temptation. Now I've raked it over once more. I'm always open to improvements and amendments for the Lexicon. It seems to me that if a document of this sort fails to grow it will surely become a literary monument, and, well, heaven forbid. You can email me about it: I'm bruces@well.com.

Some Lexicon terms are attributed to their originators, when I could find them; others are not, and I apologize for my ignorance.

Science fiction boasts many specialized critical terms. You can find a passel of these in Gary K Wolfe's Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A
Glossary and Guide to Scholarship
(Greenwood Press, 1986). But you won't find them in here. This lexicon is not a guide to scholarship. The Workshop Lexicon is a guide (of sorts) for down-and-dirty hairy-knuckled sci-fi writers, the kind of ambitious subliterate guttersnipes who actually write and sell professional genre material. It's rough, rollicking, rule-of-thumb stuff suitable for shouting aloud while pounding the table.

The Lexicon:

Native Texan Bruce Sterling sold his first science fiction story in 1976. His solo novels include Schismatrix (1985), Islands In The Net (1988), Heavy Weather (1994), and Holy Fire (1996). In 1986 he edited a genre-defining collection of cyberpunk short stories entitled Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. His three collections of short stories are Crystal Express (1989), Globalhead (1992), and A Good Old-Fashioned Future (1999). In 1990 he and William Gibson published their collaborative 'steampunk' novel The Difference Engine

1992 saw the appearance of Sterling's first nonfiction book, The Hacker Crackdown: Law And Disorder On The Electronic Frontier, a work of investigative journalism exploring issues in computer crime and civil liberties. Sterling released the entire text of the book on the Internet as non-commercial "literary freeware," and maintains a long-term interest in electronic user rights and free expression. Other nonfiction work by Sterling has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Whole Earth Review, Details, Mondo 2000, bOING bOING, and Wired

He has also written SF criticism for Science Fiction Eye and Monad, and regular columns for Interzone and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He has been a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America ever since Salman Rushdie was condemned by religious fanatics. 

In addition to these activities, Sterling also founded the Dead Media Project, a mailing list and discussion group dedicated to studying the "life and death" of now-defunct media. In 1999, he began the Viridian design movement, which advances environmental consciousness through revolutionary art and design.

His latest novel is Zeitgeist.

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