A Conversation with Rodger Turner

Rodger Turner is the editor of SF Site, one of the most prominent online sources for reviews and information about the world of science fiction and fantasy. In the past, SF Site has been nominated for a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award, and is this year once again nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

I've been writing off and on for SF Site for a few years now, and it has been a great pleasure to work with Rodger and the rest of the SF Site staff. For a while now, I've wanted to know more about the site, its origins and operations, and so I asked Rodger if he would be willing to talk about it all, and he was.

How did SF Site begin? What were you hoping for the site?

In 1996, John O'Neill put together a proposal for a science fiction and fantasy (both in print and media formats) web site that he presented to me and others. All of us met and kicked around a number of ideas on how the proposal could be brought to fruition. We worked on a number of choices and, after some analysis, discovered that book reviews were our most popular pages. We did a redesign of the site to focus on reviews and to use an issue format. It became the format we still use today. You can see that first issue of that format for June 1997 at http://www.sfsite.com/home11.htm. After a few years, John decided to publish Black Gate and moved away from participating in the site.

How many other people work on the site?

Wayne MacLaurin is the site engineer, tweaking the server and handling its software, Neil Walsh manages the books and organizes the post and I do the web site and answer the email. We have a breakfast meeting every Saturday where we kick around the active issues.

We have a varying number of contributors. A quick count of my email folders says there are 32 active and 65 inactive contributors. But I see emails from our inactive contributors every so often so those counts change every week. We keep everyone on our distribution email list unless they ask to be removed or their email address bounces.

How do you find writers for the site?

They come from everywhere. Sometimes it is an unsolicited email. Or it might be a recommendation from one of our contributors. I've asked people I know to send something. I've been stopped at conventions asking if they could send something. Folks I've met through doing other sites have wanted to become a part of the site. I could name five other ways and a new one will pop up tomorrow. We ask them all essentially the same thing: send us 2-3 samples, read our review guidelines and, if the conditions are agreeable, we'll read them, discuss the samples and let you know.

What were your goals for the site when you began, and how have those goals changed over the years?

When I asked Neil and Wayne about this question of yours, we agreed that they haven't changed much in the last nine years. It is to promote science fiction and fantasy; to increase its popularity and to help publishers to sell more books. One churlish wag said to us one day that we should change the goals to get free books and to sell the site for a lot of money. We thought this had some merit but it would be awkward to reword it in a positive fashion, so we thanked them and said we'd pass.

If a goal is to help publishers sell more books, does that affect how writers review for you?

Nope. We have guidelines for reviews which every contributor reads. We ask for balance in tone and if someone doesn't want to do a review, for whatever reason, we suggest they toss the book into a corner and move on to another book. Experience has taught us that there are many more books published each month that we can review. In general, about all we ask is that the review isn't rude and contain anything that might get us sued. To date, I've only had to refuse two reviews (one for being rude and the other for libelous content) and ask that a handful of others to change their slant (which they did after I pointed out why I thought it was in the review's best interest). I figure that's not a bad ratio for over 3,500 reviews(books, movies and other media) we've posted since mid-1997.

Neil, Wayne and I have always preferred to post positive reviews. I imagine that there are always others happy to wallow in scathing attacks. The point is to find books that people are going to enjoy; the hidden gems, so to speak. If people aren't going to read the book because of a negative review, we are better off highlighting what we think is a good book and just ignore the bad ones. Life is too short for bad books.

What are some of the areas of SF Site that casual readers might not have discovered yet?

When I read this question, I was stumped for awhile. The site is designed to have no web page more than two links away from the front page or the site index. It was designed to be flat rather than deep. I had to navigate around to see if this was the case (and see how to answer this question). I found a few (and they'll be fixed soon).

One area they might not know is the series of pages done where we list the winners of awards and links to our reviews for the British Fantasy Awards, British SF Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Hugo Awards, Philip K. Dick Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Aurora Awards and, of course, SF Site's own Best Read of the Year.

Another is the series of topical lists, some of which include links to our reviews. They include the Night Visions Anthologies published by Dark Harvest and then Subterranean Press, Golden Gryphon Press, PS Publishing, 10 Odd SF Classics, Orion Fantasy Masterworks, Orion SF Masterworks, Ace SF Specials, Fedogan & Bremer Publishing, Sidecar Preservation Society, Carcosa Press and Mark V. Ziesing Books.

A third is the series of opinion pieces we have posted such as the Close to My Heart series (books that change your life), Michael M Jones's Schrodinger's Bookshelf (reviews of short fiction and young adult/children's fiction), Rick Klaw's Geeks With Books (essays on working in a SF bookstore), Georges T. Dodds's British Children Have More Fun (YA titles from the past), Scott Danielson's Vox: SF For Your Ears and Matthew Peckham's Sequential Art.

There is much more and http://www.sfsite.com/map3.htm will take you there.

Are there any particular accomplishments with the site that stick out in your mind as high points so far?

After talking about this with Wayne and Neil, we thought a couple of recent events rated a mention. A teacher told us that all of the school's computers have SF Site set to be one of the default bookmarks. A librarian for another city told us the same thing for all of their computers and went on to ask if they could use our lists for their printed promotion. Periodically someone stops us to thank us for recommending a really fantastic book. It is events like these that give us the impetus to continue doing the site.

Does your own interest in science fiction go back to childhood?

Yes, it does. It was one of those defining moment's in a person's life, like the death of JFK or the cancellation of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. I was 10 years old, in grade 7, and I had just read one of Homer's books for school book report. I thought maybe other books on that shelf would be as good as that of Homer. I picked up Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet and I was gobsmacked (a British term that perfectly describes my feelings during the reading of that book). I was hooked.

What were books and/or stories that particularly captured your imagination?

I looked for any other Heinlein title and then any other science fiction I could find. I tried Arthur C. Clarke (too dry -- I've read maybe 5 Clarke titles since), Isaac Asimov (liked the Foundation stuff but the rest didn't give me a buzz), John Brunner (cool ideas but he must have been a strange guy), Philip K. Dick (couldn't get enough and his ideas on what it means to be human still haunt me today), Marion Zimmer Bradley (loved the early Darkover but soon left a bitter taste in my mouth -- whaddya want? I was a teenage boy) and Harlan Ellison (is there a better living writer? Nope.) Most of this reading was courtesy of Ace Books and their Doubles/Singles series.

I also found the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Its editor, Lin Carter, swept me up into places science fiction never took me. The worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell and Evangeline Walton gobsmacked me once again. In Canada, we didn't get the pirated Tolkien titles but the series did change my life. Mind you, I was just one of many who were changed.

I went through high school and university riding a crest of science fiction and fantasy. I didn't read anything else but for those books required for my English courses.

Has Heinlein's work held up for you since you first read it?

Some of it has. I read the revised/unedited version of Red Planet when Del Rey published it some years ago. They also did a number of his other titles which I dipped into to see how they compare. About the only positive thing I could say about that venture was that they should have sent his original editor a portion of the royalty cheques for the terrific job done on them. Later, I reread the earlier editions to flush the brackish memories. I was dancing like a bunny upon finding that they were as good as I remembered.

Do you ever go back to things you haven't read since those early years to see how you'd react now from a different perspective?

Often. I read a lot of books. My usual pattern is to give a book 50 pages or so. If it doesn't make me want to continue reading instead doing one of all the other distractions life has to offer, I set it aside (or toss them in a corner, if I never want to see it again) with the intention of coming back to them if I see something that piques my interest. If I find I'm going through too many unfinished books in a row, I panic and begin to question whether I've lost my love of SF and fantasy. That's the time I go back to a title that was magic for me the previous time around. If that book doesn't do it for me, then I know it is me, not the books, and that I need a vacation from reading SF. Then I go to my small pile of hard-boiled mystery novels and read a few of them. As yet, this routine hasn't failed.

I have a three level rating system: zero-not worth reading, one-worth reading once and two-worth reading at least twice. When I retired from my government job in 1999, I vowed to read all of the unreread 2's in my library. In retrospect, that was a stupid thing to do and I haven't completed the reading as yet. But I did read many books I hadn't looked at in a number of years. Most remained as 2's.

Read any good books recently?

Today, I'm reading Tim Powers's Three Days to Never. Yesterday, I read No Dominion by Charlie Huston (it'll be out later this year and is even better than Already Dead). Recent books that'll be 2's for me include Jeff Ford's The Girl in the Glass, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 9Tail Fox, Justina Robson's Keeping It Real, anything thus far by Charles Stross (particularly The Merchant Princes series), Charles de Lint's Widdershins or his book The Blue Girl and the new Stephen King book titled Lisey's Story (out later this year and unlike most everything he has written).

Is it true that all Canadians are wonderful, friendly, intelligent people?

No, it isn't. We have our share of goofs, fools and knuckleheads. We just don't give them as much attention as they covet. Like many countries, we have many events that cause us to be ashamed, wince with embarrassment and generally wish we could forget. We just try to learn from our past and hope that we aren't doomed to repeat it.

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