In the Beginning

Before there was ‘major talent’, there was ‘complete unknown’.

It’s not hard to assume in today’s world of tomorrow that our best and brightest always appear to us first in novel form (and if you don’t find imagining your favourite author as a a small block of compressed wood pulp to be at least a little bit novel then you have a far wilder imagination that I will ever aspire to). I doubt matters are quite so cut and dried, that at least some currently well regarded authors served a short story apprenticeship before entering the dominant ecology of the paperback novel, but even so such an apprenticeship no longer seems to be de rigueur.

Of course aspiring authors of the 40s and earlier had little choice but begin in the magazines. But even as recently as the 60s, the decade when the science fiction magazine finally went underground, it remained common for new authors to scuttle about in the short fiction undergrowth like small mammals as they built sufficient reputation to tempt a paperback editor into taking a risk on them.

It is a pity that this lost world didn’t have some sort of science fictional David Attenborough creeping through the publishing undergrowth to breathlessly describe everything and anything he encountered. However, we do have on occasion the next best thing, that being the contemporary reviews of an emerging author’s earliest published works.

Contemporary reviews are always worth comparing with the way the work of a particular author is later viewed. When we read an early story by a somebody who has gone on to bigger and better work we tend to do so with our perceptions coloured by everything that has come since. A contemporary review of that story on the other hand is unencumbered by reputation and what somebody back then has to say about the early work of an author who today has a significant reputation can be surprising to say the least.

Take for example consider the following comments by US fan, Earl Evers, who reviewed the contents of the April 1964 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination in his fanzine, Zeen #2 within weeks of it hitting the shelves. In the process of reviewing this magazine, story by story, he had the following to say about what was one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s earliest published stories:

Le Guin

And just in case you find the scanned text a little difficult to read:

‘The Rule of Names by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Tolkien imitation and as such a type of story I think we could use more of. Not that anyone can successfully imitate Tolkien, but even imitations short of the mark are better than anything else around. This story doesn’t really capture the Tolkien spirit though it uses most of his devices of language, naming, plotting, etcet. As a matter of fact, some of these copies are a little too close for my taste – the hero takes the pseudonym of ‘Underhill’ and the dragon is identical with Smaug and his compatriots. The surprise ending spoils what effect has been built up throughout the story – any Tolkien imitation requires a sense of Fate and a mythic awareness; a surprise ending always kills them. But I hope the reception to this slightly botched Tolkien imitation doesn’t sour the editors on the type.’

Now I don’t know about you but I certainly never expected to find a phrase like ‘slightly botched Tolkien imitation’ to be used in connection with the author of the Earthsea books. However, while it’s a blunt assessment I can see why Evers thought what he did and I can’t really disagree with him. On the whole it was certainly for the best that Le Guin didn’t continue writing about Earthsea in this way. On the other hand, given some of the fantasy trilogies which were to come in the 80s I have to shudder slightly at the hope for more Tolkien imitations.

Oh, and in regards to the interlineation in the scan above, according to my research smog is a term that dates back to at least the early 1900s it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Smaug is a pun based on the term. I rather doubt it though as Tolkien’s etymology of Middle-Earth is, or is as far as I’m aware, based on far older languages and words. Still, was an interesting guess.

Taking Care When Biting the Bear

Some days you might bite the bear…
But take care or the bear may bite you…

Bear Eating

It has often been said, and rightly so, that there is little value in an author complaining about what others say about their work. No matter how wrong-headed an author might think such opinions, in the normal course of events complaining about them rarely does the author much good. The problem for any author who feels slighted is that we all form opinions about everything we experience and few of us will happily accept being told our opinions are worthless. Thus when an author uses the argument ‘that X did not understand what I was trying to do’ most of us feel our hackles raise in empathy with the critic.

To argue about anything but clear errors of fact (as Jack Vance once did in response to James Blish) is risky business for this very reason.

Now, true as this might be there remain lines best not crossed. None of us can afford to pontificate in a thoughtless manner if we value our hides. If pride goeth before a fall then such arrogance goeth before a public stoning.

Even offering up an ill-conceived but otherwise relatively harmless review can be especially fraught with danger. No author cares to sit still and be told their work is flawed if the party doing so cannot present a well thought out explanation as to why this is so. Consider the following review written by somebody hiding behind the childishly rude pseudonym of K.U.F. Widderershins (really, only a young teen would think that name clever). Harmless as this well meaning but exceptionally clumsy review is it’s hard to fault the author in question, a notoriously touchy individual as it happens, for making reply. The initial review appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #5, (published by John Bangsund in December 1966):

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the revamped Impulse* is Keith Robert’s series of stories set in an alternative England. Admittedly, apart from the first issue of the magazine, they have appeared in lacklustre company, but even by themselves the Pavane stories are pleasant reading.

The stories would never have been published in Unknown. The trouble is that although Roberts has gone a long way to construct a believable England, he hasn’t quite reached the standard of logical necessity which Campbell, for example, would have required. Although the author says that the Church has good reasons for suppressing inventions, none of these reasons emerges from the stories. Accepting this fault, however, we can investigate what Roberts has to say.

Pavane itself simply reveals something about the world Roberts dreams of. The Guild of Signallers is a good idea, but one obviously worth expansion to novel length, as perhaps are many other ideas in this series. For no apparent reason, Roberts uses a flashback technique which only serves to confuse the reader slightly. The end of the story is not at all clearly resolved, with two entirely contradictory endings appearing consecutively. Doubtless this has something to do with the unexplained ‘people’.

The other stories – The Lady Anne, Brother John, Lords and Ladies and Corfe Gate – deal with an episode in the history of Robert’s England. They cover a couple of generations, and each of them suffers the fault of appearing to be truncated; for each the resolution is unsatisfactory. It is as though the author himself didn’t really want to finish off the story. Sometimes, as in the case of the original ‘Anne,’ the character is removed in a subsequent story in a way entirely at odds with the character’s previous behaviour. This makes the overall impression rather unsatisfactory, too.

The last story, Corfe Gate, is obviously intended by Roberts to be the best, with characters overflowing with life and reality.

As the series now stands, many questions are unanswered: who are the ‘people’? is Brother John the same man as Sir John the seneschal? (and if not, why not?) We may never discover now the secrets of Cordwainer Smith’s world, but let us hope that Keith Roberts will reveal, in time, just what makes his delightful world tick.

As you can see this is a review which was meant to be a positive one, but with certain reservations. Trouble is the various comments Widdershins offers are too little fleshed out to be useful or even to always make much sense. Widdershins repeatedly commits the sin he accuses Roberts of in that each of his points is truncated to the point of being unsatisfactory. For example Widdershins write that the Guild of Signallers is an idea that deserves a novel-length treatment. Which would be all well and good except he doesn’t go on to explain why he thinks that or if this means Roberts failed to use this idea properly. So Widdershins’ comment feels like nothing more than a random musing left hanging. All in all this review reads like some semi-coherent notes which Widdershins had made in order that he might write a proper review at some future date.

It is hardly surprising then that an acerbic reply appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #9, (published by John Bangsund in April 1967). Before reading the following letter from Keith Roberts I suggest you put on some sarcasm proof goggles:

I’d like to take this opportunity of thanking you for sending me the various copies of ASFR in which my work has been discussed; I’ve found them informative and excellently produced and thoroughly enjoyed reading them through. BUT, I feel I’ve just got to take exception to the Widdershins report, or review, or whatever he calls it, of Pavane in issue five.

Whoever is lurking behind that noxious pseudonym really should have his head immersed in a vat of treacle, or sheepdip, or whatever bizarre fluid comes most readily to hand Down There. I’ve read bad reports of my work and I’ve read downright vindictive ones but I’ve never come across such an absolute masterpiece of misunderstanding; I’m well aware that widdershins traditionally go backwards but this is really too much. I’ll stress I’m in no way miffed, the thing’s too daft to be taken seriously, but I would like to straighten the poor confused chap out just a bit.

Taking his points in the in the excitingly random order in which he presents them, I’ve said quite clearly at umpteen places in the book just why my postulated Church behaves the way it does. I could I suppose arrange some critic’s copies where a little light comes on or a bell rings when the reader gets to the Author’s Message, but I this might be going a little far. The novel has a post-nuclear setting, embodies the elderly notion of repeating time-cycles, and poses the even more hoary question of the validity of scientific progress; see Brave New World, &c &c &c. Maybe it would have helped Maybe it would have helped Mr. Widdleskin if I’d hyphenated some of the longer words. I’m sorry the stories wouldn’t have been good enough for Unknown, whatever that is, but as I didn’t write them for it I’m not as distressed as I otherwise might be. As a matter of fact I don’t think the quarterly journal of the Ear, Nose and Throat Practitioners of Kuala Lumpur would have gone much of a bundle on them either.

However Mr. Ditherspin successfully confuses the whole issue, with I must admit great skill and economy, before moving on to What I Have To Say. (Armed, one imagines, with deerstalker, calabash and king size magnifying glass.) His first conclusion emerges with lightning-like rapidity; The Signaller is not a novel. This would seem to be a fatal flaw. It could, he growls, have been Expanded. Well, I’m sorry; but sometimes I write novels, sometimes short stories. Authors do that sort of thing. This is exactly the type of critical remark that drives one to a clucking fury; if Mr. Withershin had devised an apparatus for, say, polishing the outer husks of Bomongo nuts, he would be quite justified in losing his temper if I turned around and pointed out that it wouldn’t whitewash pigruns. Signaller was devised as a short story, part of an interlocking set; I never wanted it to be a novel, it never will be a novel; can’t he be more constructive than to pick at it for the thousand and one things it isn’t? He also becomes disturbed at my use of flashback; this, I learn, leaves the reader slightly confused. While manfully repressing the suspicion that Mr. Diddleshin started out just slightly confused, I would still like to know how in the name of ten thousand devils can a death-dream, which is what the whole thing is, flash in any other direction but backwards? If he would lay out for me, in detail, the more logical and polished treatment he no doubt has in mind, I promise to study it with fascination.

To cap it all I discover the story is not after all clearly resolved, with “two entirely contradictory endings appearing consecutively.” Here is the one point at which I rally could emit short bursts of steam from the ears. Does Mr. Hitherthin actually imagine I was so vapid and so totally idle as to be unable to finish the piece? That I – and my editor – simply stuck on a pair of likely ends and left the reader to choose for himself? Did it not cross his mind, even briefly, that he might have missed out somewhere, that he hadn’t in fact understood the first damn thing about the story? The rest of his remarks merely verge on the cretinous; that crack is downright bloody impertinence. He has of course shown himself unable to grasp the central point of The Signaller at all, though I would have thought it was crystal clear; I don’t frankly see how I could have underlined more firmly the parallel between the death of the god and the half-sacrificial death of the boy. Possibly he has never heard of the Baldur myth; that’s fair enough, but I did put down a full version within the story to sort of help him along. Maybe he missed that bit. I would suggest a short course in comparative mythology, kicking off with the Epic of Gilgamesh, working through Venus and Adonis, &c &c, and not missing out on Christ. It wouldn’t take more than three or four years.

And the rest of the stories were unsatisfactorily truncated because I’d got fed up with them. Well, I just couldn’t have realized how bored I was when I was working on them; funny how one can never appreciate one’s own state of mind. I thought I was enjoying myself. And, oh dear, I never did get around to explaining about the People. That’s just my whole trouble, Mr. Sniddlepin; always leaving nuts and bolts off things. But didn’t you ever believe in fairies? Not even when you were a little moron? What a horrid dull life you must have had, I’m so sorry. I’m afraid you sound a bit like a chap I once knew who sent Picasso a ruler and compasses so he could get his lines straighter. And though I’m really pleased you find my little world delightful I’m not going to tell you what makes it tick, I positively decline. You’ll just have to sit out somewhere with an icepack and a nice cool drink and fret about it. I will give you one tiny clue though, since you were really quite nice and jolly about everything. Brother John isn’t the same as Sir John the seneschal.

Why the blue hell would he be, you nit!

Yes, I will admit that Mr Roberts overreacted, his letter clearly reads as more annoyed than he initially claimed to be (or perhaps he found putting the boot into Widdershins too much fun to hold back) and went on at far more length than the review deserved. (“Oh, you don’t say. Thank you for pointing that out,” reply the more sarcastic readers.) However, because the review in question is so frustrating incomplete the normally self-defeating argument ‘that Widdershins did not understand what I was trying to do’ made by Roberts fails to raise reader hackles for once. I imagine most bystanders would be content to stand back and watch Widdeshins being mauled.

However there are worse sins than merely writing a clumsily and carelessly worded review, much worse. Let’s consider the case of James Blish, writing as William Atheling Jr., in Sky Hook #16, (published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53). In an installment of his column which appeared in that issue Blish commented on (among other things) an Isaac Asimov novel which had just been serialised in Astounding:

The conclusion of The Currents of Space leaves us with another reasonable but dull Asimov novel on our hands, the three installments of which coincided with the three months under review here.

Blish then spent the rest of that paragraph explaining that while The Currents of Space was a very solid novel he, and unnamed others, still felt let down at the end. Naturally Blish has a theory as to why this should be so:

The main reason is stylistic. Asimov is a highly circumstantial writer, sharing with Heinlein and Norman L. Knight the ability to visualise his imagined world in great detail, so that it seems lived-in and perfectly believable. He does not, however, share Heinlein’s lightness of touch; instead, he more greatly resembles Knight in writing everything with considerable weight and solidarity, turning each sentence into a proposition, a sort of lawyer’s prose which is clear without at any time becoming pellucid.

This kind of style is perfectly suited for a story which is primarily reflective in character, such as Asimov’s recent robot yarns. It is also just what is required for a story in which history is the hero and the fate of empires is under debate. What Asimov has been writing lately, however, beginning with Tyrann**, has been the action story, to which he seems to have turned more or less at random after his long Foundation project reached its culmination. And the action story cannot be written in that kind of style. Why? Because a style that ponderous, that portentous, constantly promises to the reader much more than even the most complex action story can deliver. The tone of The Currents of Space justified any reader in expecting that in the last installment Asimov would at the very least rend the heavens in twain. The plot provided no such encouragement, but the style did. Instead, Asimov blew up one sun under circumstances which could hurt no one but one man who wanted to die, and we are left wondering why this very workmanlike novel “somehow” didn’t satisfy us, why it “let down at the end.”

Now while I don’t agree with James Blish as to why The Currents of Space is a rather dull novel (and I have to wonder just what he meant by calling Asimov a ‘circumstantial writer‘), I can’t fault him for expressing the opinions quoted above. Describing The Currents of Space as ‘dull‘ may seem harsh but whether you agree with such an assessment or not Blish does go on to defend his assessment without getting personal. Reading these comments may be a bitter pill to swallow if you happen to be called Isaac Asimov but nobody could say that Blish has been dishonest in regards to what he wrote.

So far, so good but then in a subsequent installment of the William Atheling column (which appeared in Skyhook #20, Winter 1953/54) Asimov receives another mention, but not in regards to a newly published story. While writing about a Randall Garrett parody of the executioner’s song from The Mikado that had appeared in the November 1953 issue of F&SF Blish has this to say about Isaac:

Garrett can, of course, do absolutely nothing for about writers like Asimov, who are (1) too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word to profit by any sort of criticism, and who are (2) still being solicited by editors to carry on their series projects, even in the face of the evidence that the readers have had enough, and even that the writers have had enough, too…  My point #1 was intended to apply primarily to Isaac, who is one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe; why, I couldn’t say, but there’s good evidence for it.

While I find Blish’s second point a contentious claim it’s obviously the first one that concerns me here. Regardless of whatever he knows about Asimov, or believes he knows, to make such a claim without presenting supporting evidence to back it up is at the very least both reckless and tactless. Even with clear evidence personal attacks such as this rarely reflect well upon the accuser, so to make such an accusation and back it up with no more than a claim that good evidence exists, but then not present any of it, is little more than cutting one’s own throat.

Of course the wisest response to such calumny is none at all but if the victim must reply it’s best to seize the moral high ground. Something which Asimov, with the support of Anthony Boucher, does to excellent effect. Let’s see how these two gentlemen respond to the Atheling accusation of literary haemophilia.

First Boucher:

I must protest Atheling’s description of Isaac Asimov as “too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word of criticism…one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe.” As a professional reviewer I know the type described, and have a by no means little list of people with whom my personal relations will vary according to the tone of my last review. Asimov is emphatically not among them. I have disliked a number of Isaac’s books in front of (according to the latest ABC figures) 585,725 people, and carried on a perfectly friendly correspondence with the author all the while. I have personally ribbed him about infelicities and received good-humored replies; as an editor I’ve torn a story to shreds and got back a long and sincere thank-you letter. Conceivably Asimov may have displayed irritation at some imperceptive remark of Atheling’s; this, after all, could happen to anybody. But in my own records he goes down as an unusually well-balanced and tolerant professional.

Then Asimov:

I feel sadly moved to answer William Atheling’s statement that Asimov is “too likely to bleed at the slightest harsh word of criticism” and that Asimov is “one of the two or three most easily hurt people in our universe.” I say “sadly” because it seems obvious that argument with Atheling is a losing proposition.

Concerning Randy Garrett’s satire “I’ve Got a Little List” which criticises me, among others, and which Atheling fears can do nothing for me because of my objections to criticism – may I say that when I toastmastered the Philcon on Labor Day eve 1953 I referred to that very poem with great approval, and sang it in full, as well. Several hundred people were there and will bear witness, I have no doubt, that I did not bleed.

As for criticism in general: Mr Atheling’s criticisms are pretty small beer, after all. Now I’ve had comments from gentlemen like Campbell, Gold, and Boucher-McComas, whose barest word of criticism sometimes means the loss of a thousand dollars because it comes in the form of a rejection. I hereby, with the greatest of respect, offer these gentlemen as character references. I will rest my case, sound unheard, on what they have to say concerning my attitude toward criticism. I understand that Mr Boucher has already, of his own unsolicited free will, seen fit to make comments in this matter.

Then why do I bother to answer Mr Atheling if I am not sensitive? Oh, but I am sensitive. Not to literary criticism, to be sure, but to personal criticism on the part of people who do not know me and can scarcely form proper judgements.

Blish is lucky this all happened before the Internet. If such an exchange occurred today I’ve no doubt there would be an impressive dog-pile and I suspect that most of those piling on would be on the side of Asimov.

Call a novel bad and you will certainly get an argument, but unless your opponents are dishonest in their views (and I will grant that such types are hardly uncommon) they will concede that you have a right to your opinion, no matter how wrong-headed they may think it is. Make your comments personal on the other hand and soon enough every hand will be raised against you (well unless you have acolytes willing to defend any and all of your pronouncements, and again I will grant that such are common enough) because any honest third-party will recognise that making personal attacks is hardly playing on a level field. If I were to besmirch the good name of George R.R. Martin by describing him as a theodolite, a coelacanth, a kakemono you would be entirely justified in thinking less of me for making such claims. For how can you know if the inestimable Mr Martin is really any of these things, or if I know the gentleman well enough to make such claims? Simply put, you don’t, and will rightly resent being asked to accept such claims without good and adequate proof. So even if I truly believed George R.R. Martin to be a theodolite, a coelacanth, a kakemono it would be unfair of me to bring such claims into a review of his work. (For the record, I do not think George R.R. Martin is any of these things. Furthermore I will admit to being myself, a coelacanth. However I doubt this will much surprise anybody already familiar with my writings here.)

However, such suicidal behaviour need not be confined to personal criticism. Sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy, especially if it means being honest about practises that are difficult to defend. In Cry #184, (published in the mid-September, 1969 by Vera Heminger, Elinor Busby, and Wally Weber) there appears a report on the 1969 worldcon, the St Louiscon penned by Wally Weber himself. At one point Webber described a Saturday afternoon panel on editing that took a wrong turn:

The conversation was drifting towards prose anyway, so a new panel convened consisting of Lester del Rey (who moderated immoderately), Terry Carr, George Ernsberger, Don Benson, Ejler Jakobsson and Ed Ferman. Both the panel and audience behaved very well until the subject of how much rewriting an editor should be allowed to do on another person’s story. The editors suddenly became politicians, mumbling about “improvements” and cleaning up minor errors in grammar and spelling, and “suggesting” changes to authors. Then Lester made the unfortunate admission that while an editor should never rewrite, he must often shorten or lengthen a story to fit the number of pages the story must fill in a magazine’s format. He referred to a 10,000 word story he had lengthened to 15,000 words for this purpose. From the audience came a bone-chilling moan previously never heard outside the torture pits of hell. That terrible sound had come from Bob Silverberg and it set the mood for what may become known as Lester’s Last Stand.

I have seen Lester in many debates, but never have I seen him fall apart and be so mercilessly inundated with abuse. Authors rose from their seats and shook their fists and screamed through their beards. Lester’s pleas about what must be done in the line of duty and how writing in another author’s style is the most difficult work in the universe only increased the new waves of hatred focused upon him. I suspect that he was even being attacked by the author within himself. Even Harlan, who you must admit has listened to some pretty awful things and believed them, said, “I hear all this in disbelief and horror.”

This was madness.

Most jobs have a downside. Usually it’s merely a matter of soul-destroying tedium but sometimes it involves unsavoury practices best not talked about. Nobody wants to hear about these unsavoury practices. How many lovers of bacon want to dwell on where their sliced pig comes from? Or even that it involves pigs being sliced up? Of course not, most people don’t want to hear about the nasty stuff, even if not knowing is to their detriment.

I suspect most of the stories Lester del Rey was slicing up as per editorial need were by unpublished authors, innocents so thrilled to receive a cheque in return for their work that it never occurred to them to closely examine the published story. And even if they did and noticed that their work had been altered they were unable to do much about it other than send Lester a letter of condemnation rather than any further manuscripts. A gesture unlikely to bother a thick-skinned editor like Lester del Rey.

Unsavoury as this practise is, given the magazines Lester had been editing I doubt he had much choice but to do as he did due to the twin problems of limited budget and a set number of pages to fill. I don’t want to absolve him of all blame but I do want to make the point that if he felt he had no choice but to do this then common sense surely dictated that he do it as little as possible and be very discrete when he did.

If your job involves practices that other people might not look upon favourably then surely it’s obvious that you not tell them about them. For an editor like Lester del Rey to reveal his worst professional sins to a crowded room full of published and would-be authors makes no sense whatever. Lester didn’t just invite the bears to have a nibble, he lathered himself with honey and tried to crawl between every set of jaws that he could find.

Sheer. Utter. Madness.

In conclusion, while there may be little value in an author complaining about what others say about their work, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can write as we like. We do not perpetually hold the high moral ground. Poke the bear too hard my friend and you’re on your own.

* Impulse was a science fiction magazine published as a companion to New Worlds.

** Later retitled as The Stars Like Dust.

 

The Next Big Thing

Had we but world enough, and time.

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Eternal Champion

Even though I was never an avid follower of Game of Thrones I still couldn’t help but be aware that this particular Next Big Thing had drawn to a close. So while the vast majority of you mourn an absence of dragons in your lives I’ll try to cheer you up by writing about what I’d like to see be the Next Big Thing.

Now while I believe there are a number of Game of Thrones spin-offs planned I will confidently predict that none of them will be anywhere near as popular as the original series. That curious beast, the general public, doesn’t like to graze in the same place for too long. For example I’ve been assured by a number of people that the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, is a great show. This may be so but as far as I can tell it has never reached the Must Watch level of popularity that its progenitor enjoyed.

Given the fickle tastes of the general public it surprises me not in the least that no two Must Watch shows of recent years have been alike in setting. Series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad which have taken up the Next Big Thing torch have certainly had aspects in common. All of them have been gritty shows about the dark underbelly of society and the currency of violence that fuels it. On the other hand each series employed quite different setting and and casts of characters which in turn has ensured the plot dynamics of each show be not quite like the others. Superficially the criminals portrayed in each series might resemble each other but try to turn a typical episode of one into a typical episode of another and you will find it much harder than it might seem at first glance.

This is why Game of Thrones, which on the surface seems an unlikely successor to the likes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, managed to grasp the Next Big Thing torch. That the story had a fantasy setting rather than being set in the real world didn’t matter since it was still all about what the ruthless will do to satisfy their lusts. The fact of the matter is that dynastic struggles are very like gang wars and the sort of terrifying people we have an eternal fascination for watching from a safe distance invariably become players in both.

What I’m getting at here is that if the coming Next Big Thing is to be a fantasy or science fiction epic it has to have a number of attributes in common with what has come before. First of all there needs to be a story big enough to fill multiple seasons of plot. For example Lord of the Rings is a big story while The Hobbit is not. The former easily filled three films with material left over while the latter was not able to repeat this feat. The story needs to, at the very least, partially focus on the dark underbelly of society and do so in a visceral manner. Mad Men not withstanding boardroom style drama is no longer as popular as it was back in the days of Dallas and Falcon’s Crest. Audiences are more interested in seeing characters get down and dirty in the streets with guns and knives than as grey suited executives attempting to manipulate each other from behind desks. It should not require expensive locations or settings, or at least these should be mostly kept to establishing shots. The source material needs to be capable of being tailored to fit modern sensibilities. I would assume this is not a concern in regards to recent fiction but since I’ve not read much of recent vintage I couldn’t honestly say. On the other hand hand I do know older stories would need tweaking to a greater or lesser extent. However, it should be noted that such tweaking isn’t always due to older material containing problematic attitudes. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding problematic modern features such as excessive darkness of plot, excessively gritty world-building, gratuitous nudity, and that visceral violence I mentioned earlier. And finally a potential Next Big Thing should not feel too much like what has come before. Bit of a tall order, eh?

Of all the requirements listed above clearly it’s the first one which is the most difficult to satisfy. I can think of a great many science fiction or fantasy stories that would make a great movie but which simply could not be stretched to fill multiple series of a TV show. For example, I’m certain that The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers could be made into an extremely interesting film but I don’t think the novel contains sufficient material for anything longer. (Also, unfortunately, I suspect this and Powers other novels aren’t the sort of stories which have sufficiently wide appeal to even be considered by film studios.)

I’m not sure that even book series such as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga would work (even though I’m sure many people would be excited if they did, I’d certainly like to see the latter). Though both series consist of multiple novels I don’t think the stories contained within each individual book are linked together sufficiently to work as a multi-season TV show. Besides which I think the central characters are a bit too noble and nice to carry a TV show attempting to emulate Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Plus, the major threat in McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, the thread, lacks something as a threat. The thread, being in essence a non-intelligent natural disaster, doesn’t allow for the same degree of dramatic tension a conscious, reactive threat poses.

So after much thought I’ve only been able to come up with a single collection of novels which might work if translated into television terms, this being Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion universe.

Mad God Amulet

At this point I imagine those of you familiar with Michael Moorcock’s work have already raised your eyebrows and begun to frame a series of objections. Foremost among these I suspect being whether Moorcock would allow his work to be turned into a big budget TV show at all. However, since this is an article of speculation I think we can safely set this argument to one side.

There are other reasonable objections to to using the Eternal Champion universe of course, the foremost among these being the books themselves, or at those of them I’ve read, being on the short side. I have to admit that if a novel like The Hobbit doesn’t have enough enough meat in it for three films then the slender volumes in trilogies such as The History of the Runestaff or The Chronicles of Count Brass are hardly going to stretch any further. However, according to John Clute, writing in The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy (edited by John Clute and John Grant), Moorcock ‘…constantly revises and retitles his texts and because he habitually reshuffles the order in which those texts appear…’ which suggests to me that even greater liberties could be taken with pre-existing plots and characters of the Eternal Champion universe without incurring any more than the standard level of outrage. (I was going to describe this as viewer outrage until I realised that waiting to view the completed project is hardly necessary when it comes to outrage).

So what do I mean by taking even greater liberties? Essentially choosing one avatar of the Eternal Champion and expanding their story so that other avatars, and perhaps parts of their own stories, can be introduced into the chosen plot. There’s already precedence for multiple avatars coming together to perform a task in The Quest For Tanelorn so that’s clearly not going against the rules of the universe. Admittedly I don’t recall the various characters interacting with each other much but if it’s permissible for multiple avatars to perform some task together then I don’t see why there can’t be some (by which I mean a great deal of) drama between them. There is the problem that as far as I recall the majority of the Eternal Champion avatars are a bit on the bland side, being primarily sword-wielding action heroes, but a little tweaking of personalities should solve that. Again, there’s precedent for this in the form of Elric of Melnibone, who is already an introspective, treacherous, angst ridden individual who’s also in thrall to his soul-drinking sword, Stormbringer. Now if the other avatars could be made half as interesting as that we might have something.

Count-Brass

Which brings us to the question of in what part of the Eternal Champion universe should our story begin? Well, I think that’s obvious, it has to start with Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Coln. The books about Hawkmoon are set in an alternate science-fantasy version of Europe which is under threat by the insane warriors of Granbretan. This choice has a number of advantages as I see it.

For starters the warrior tribes or clans of Granbretan would make an excellent evil threat as they’re always described as being a bit on the insane side. Which I believe means they have the potential for every sort of scenery-chewing possible (and perhaps a few not yet invented) ranging from cold, sneering contempt to incoherent rage, with a bit of Brian Blessed style exuberant bellowing in between. In short the Granbretan leadership should be able to reduce Europe to rubble by force of their over-the-top acting alone.

Secondly the Europe of Dorian Hawkmoon is set in world that I would describe as science fantasy. (Just as an aside I’ve seen these books described as steampunk, a term which I consider inappropriate here. There seems to be a tendency to label any story which mixes technology with anything else as steampunk. As far as I’m concerned this is stretching the definition of steampunk too far. Steampunk as a term should be reserved for non-magical worlds where technology has been developed in advance of the rest of society.) What this means is technology exists in this world but is present in a far from universal manner and that it’s not always clear whether a particular piece of technology operates using science or magic. Thus the Granbretan army has helicopters but not rifles and that some of the weapons used by their opponents are almost certainly magical. All this adds an exotic flavour to the familiar, so that for example we might see what looks like the Eiffel Tower being built in the alternate Paris only to discover that it is intended as a platform for Granbretan helicopters.

Moorcock used a particularly baroque style of visuals which would make a TV version of it particularly interesting. For example the warriors of Granbretan all wear helmet-like masks designed to look like whichever animal each tribe uses as a totem, wolf, boar, etc. Their helicopters are also designed to look like insects, prey-mantises as I recall, which would look impressive on TV.

Finally, every avatar of the Eternal Champion has been chosen by fate to help maintain the cosmic balance between law and chaos. However, Dorian Hawkmoon, unlike many of the other avatars of the Eternal Champion clearly can’t defeat his enemies without significant help so the idea of assembling a team to save his homeland seems reasonable. In the books he went searching for the Runestaff in order to do this but it wouldn’t take much tweaking to add a few fellow avatars to Dorian’s shopping list. The advantage to this change is that it would ensure there were two competing teams, with endless drama plaguing both. On one side the leaders of Granbretan would be in disagreement as to how best to hunt down and eliminate Dorian Hawkmoon and his companions. Meanwhile relationships between the various avatars of the Eternal Champion would be strained to say the least given most don’t understand their role in the universe and would resent the burden of it if they did. Dorian Hawkmoon would find them a very difficult group to keep from each other’s throats and focused on his goal.

With any luck the end result would be a weird mix of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Dirty Dozen. I’d certainly watch that if somebody would care to make it.

 

Tales Too Good To Forget #4

Precious story manuscript,
How I wonder who has it.
I sent it out for lasting fame,
But where it went I cannot name.

Printshop

I’m sure that anybody familiar with the history of science fiction publishing knows that in the USA the rise of the paperback steadily occurred during the 40s and 50s. Prior to about 1955 most science fiction was still first appearing in magazines dedicated to the genre but after that the science fiction magazines steadily declined in importance.

However, even if you are aware of all this I wonder if you have ever really considered the implications of this piece of history. Between 1926, when Amazing Stories first appeared, and 1955 there were a lot of magazines published which were wholly or partly devoted to printing science fiction. Secondly, for reasons I won’t go into today the the majority of this fiction was composed of shorter stories rather than novels. There were quite a few novels serialised in the SF magazines over the years but that total is still dwarfed by the number of shorter pieces published (it should also be noted that a good many stories that were described on magazine covers and title pages as novels were really too short of deserve the description). Last, but certainly not least, all these published stories began their lives as manuscripts which had to be physically delivered to an editor for consideration, either by the post or by hand. So what this implies is that at any given time there were thousands of manuscripts in circulation between authors and editors. That may seem a lot but keep in mind only a small fraction of those manuscripts ended up being bought and published. For every story published there were probably scores of never to be sold efforts clogging up post offices around the world.

Now the obvious question to ask then is, was this a perfect system? And the equally obvious answer is that no, it was not. If nothing else the sheer quantity of manuscripts in circulation ensured that some of them went astray. This is not to put the entire blame on the postal services either. Even if they did manage to lose some manuscripts on their own initiative, I doubt getting every item of mail to the right address was the easiest of tasks in the era of hand-written addresses (and that’s not even considering how many of those addresses had been copied down incorrectly in the first place).

However, sometimes problems occurred even after the postal services had successfully delivered a manuscript. Consider this extract from Rich Elsberry’s column, Nothing Sirius:, which appeared in Odd #8 (a fanzine published in December 1949 by Duggie Fisher Jr):

Some time ago, Poul Anderson sent a story in to JWC, Jr. A short time later Poul received a check for the story. Everything seemed fine till two weeks later when he received the story back from Standard Publications with a rejection slip. It was easy to deduce that something was fouled up somewhere. The story hadn’t been sent to Merwin. How did he get it? And how did it get out of JWC’s office? Poul decided to wait and see what would happen. It didn’t take long. Comes a letter from from JWC asking Anderson if he can send along the carbon, he’s lost the original somehow. Poul sent the original back to JWC but he still didn’t know how it got into Standard’s office. Noel Loomis had an answer tho; he’d had the same thing happen to him once. He figured that an agent must have come to JWC’s office and left a bunch of scripts for Campbell to look at. Later when he came back to pick up the slush pile, Poul’s story must have gotten mixed in accidentally. Later, when Merwin found the Anderson manuscript on his desk he probably checked with the agent and found out that he wasn’t handling Poul. Since it wasn’t his he must have had Merwin send it back to Anderson. While it still isn’t certain that this is the way it happened, JWC must have been pretty happy to get his story back.

The JWC, Jr. mentioned here was of course John W. Campbell, long time editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, which was generally considered to be the leading science fiction magazine at this time. Merwin was Sam Merwin, Jr., who was editing Thrilling Wonder Stories & Startling Stories for the Standard Magazines Group. By this point it’s generally considered that Merwin had raised Thrilling Wonder Stories to a level just below that of Astounding. I think it can be safely assumed that John W. Campbell was a competent editor not normally given to losing important pieces of paper within the confines of his office. So you can see that sometimes even the best had trouble with their paperwork.

However, the detail I find most interesting in regards to this story is that Noel Loomis, an author whose fiction appeared in the magazines nearly 30 times during the 40s and 50s, had experienced something similar happening to him. It certainly makes me wonder how often manuscripts went astray in the various editorial offices. Not a daily occurrence I’m sure, but given it was normal practise was for a title page containing only the names of the story and author to be attached to the front of a manuscript I suppose it would be easy for somebody to mistake one sheaf of paper for another. In which case it’s possible that in the average busy office manuscripts went missing several times a year. Now there’s a thought to send shivers down the spine of any old-time author.

No doubt you will be thinking well good riddance to that then. In today’s world of tomorrow we don’t have to send our manuscripts out as bulky bundles of paper in order to lose them, we can lose them much faster digitally. The upside to that being how much easier it is (and I’m assuming here) to locate stories sent digitally that somehow went astray. Now that’s all well and good but sometimes there are mistakes made that I suspect even the highest of hi-tech can’t thwart.

Consider for example the mysterious error described below by August Derleth under his H.H. Holmes pseudonym. This appeared in Rhodomagnetic Digest V1 #2 (published in August 1949 by George Blumenson for The Elves’, Gnomes’ and Little Men’s Science-Fiction Chowder and Marching Society). Just how the following error was made I can’t imagine but I do wonder if this makes early copies of Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction especially collectible:

The Monster From Everywhere
by H.H. Holmes

In the last number of these proceedings, Dr. J. Lloyd Eaton pointed out that the story, The Monster From Nowhere, by Donald Wandrei, reprinted in Groff Conklin’s The Best of Science Fiction, does not in the least resemble the story, The Monster From Nowhere, in The Eye and the Finger, the Arkham collection of Donald Wandrei short stories, and added an explanation from Wandrei via August Derleth that the Conklin version was “an old, discarded draft.”

Meanwhile the situation has been further complicated by the appearance of Gnome Press’ collection of Nelson Bond stories, The Thirty-First of February, which contains a story, The Monster From Nowhere, by Nelson Bond – word-for-word identical with the story in the Conklin anthology.

Mr. Derleth now writes, “Crown wrote us for permission to reprint Wandrei’s tale in the Conklin Best, and paid us on receipt of permission and the copyright form to be used. The book came out with Bond’s story under Wandrei’s name. I queried Don, saying that the story was entirely different. Without looking at the book, he concluded that somehow Conklin had got hold of an earlier discarded draft of the story, which had been lost in editorial New York, and used it. It was only later that Nels discovered his tale with Don’s byline, and Crown made the necessary adjustment.”

One trembles at the thought of the financial complexities implied in the three last words. Late printings of The Best presumably carry the correction; collectors please note this as a “point.”

I have forwarded a copy of this note to Mr. Conklin, and hope in a later issue of the Digest to reveal his explanation of what brought about this most chaotic mystery of modern bibliography.

The Donald Wandrei story appeared in 23rd November issue of Argosy while the Nelson Bond story appeared in the July 1939 issue of Fantastic Adventures. Now I understand some confusion is possible when both stories have exactly the same title but even so how does a mistake like this happen? I would assume that when Groff Conklin drew up a list of stories to be copied out for the printer to typeset he included the titles, author names, and where each story was originally published. Did Groff Conklin misremember the source and list the wrong magazine? I can’t see how whoever physically assembled the manuscript would even know the wrong story existed and include it otherwise. Unfortunately the next issue of Rhodomagnetic Digest I own is the fifth issue so if Mr Conklin tendered an explanation I don’t have access to it.

There is another layer to this mystery by the way. I’ve checked The Internet SF Data Base and not only is the Wandrei story not listed as appearing in The Best of Science Fiction but the Bond story is. Did Conklin end up sticking with the mistake because fixing it would be too hard? I assume August Derleth is to be trusted when he states that the Wandrei story was the one suppose to be in that collection so why does ISFDB claim otherwise? Could it be that whoever entered in the relevant data did not know about this mistake? If so and if the ISFDB entry was composed by somebody working from an early copy of The Best of Science Fiction then all is explained. After all, who in their right mind is ever going to question something like this without good reason to. I’m sure it’s not a mistake any of us expect editors or publishers to make.

Publishing, apparently more complicated than the word suggests.

Ray Bradbury & The Unguarded Moment

I shot an arrow into the air. Where it fell, I know not where.

It’s true that in this modern world of today the Internet and social media have elevated the social gaffe to unprecedented frequency. However, there’s nothing new under the sun and thus, even before people had Twitter and Facebook to help get them into trouble, it was possible to offer up an opinion and only then pause to consider whether it was something you truly wanted on the record.

I’ve already written about how unexpected the results can be when an author decides to kick off their inhibitions, “You want to know what I really think? Well here you go, bucko!” However, what follows here isn’t in quite the same category as the Philip K. Dick article I previously posted about . Regardless of how surprising his opinions might be to somebody not familiar with the man, Dick was still consciously writing for publication. Regardless of what the article he gave to Terry Carr for publication contained, and regardless of whether he truly believed what he wrote (rather than just messing with us) you can be sure it contained nothing he wasn’t comfortable with sharing with the whole wide world.

On the other hand the subject for consideration here and now is an article titled Ray Bradbury Speaks, which was published in a fanzine called Guts (the magazine with intestinal fortitude). The piece in question appeared in the fourth issue which was published in September 1968 by Jeffrey & Robert Gluckson. At first I wasn’t entirely sure that the piece was even by Ray Bradbury. Not only did it jump erratically from topic to topic with each new paragraph, something which seemed unlike the typical Bradbury article, but many of the individual sentences struck me as too poorly constructed to be the work of an author of Bradbury’s reputation I did hope however that it was genuine though as various of the opinions expressed in it are unguarded to say the least.

Luckily that good fellow, Denny Lien, pointed out to me that Robert Gluckson was still contactable. So I wrote and received confirmation that Ray Bradbury Speaks was in indeed by Ray Bradbury. According to Robert Gluckson the article was assembled from an interview granted to him and some other teenagers in 1968. Apparently Bradbury had asked to review his material before publication, but the editors of Guts were in too much of a hurry to publish and didn’t allow him the opportunity. The fact that Ray Bradbury Speaks is a transcription of off-the-cuff answers to various questions asked him by the boys, questions they did not choose to include in the article for some reason, certainly explains the disjointed nature of the piece. It also explains the general clumsiness of the prose because few of us, Bradbury included, can speak as well off-the-cuff as we can write.

More importantly I can see now why some of Bradbury’s comments were more than a little unexpected. In an informal setting it’s not surprising that Bradbury might make a few unguarded observations, in the heat of the moment as it were. Which would be why he asked to review the interview before publication. I imagine that if Bradbury had been given such an opportunity some of his statements would be toned down or altered as he thought better of them.

That he wasn’t given the chance to do this is all for the best as far as I’m concerned. Crotchety ol’ Ray Bradbury is more fun to read than any other kind.

Now, before I go any further I need to mention that I’ve only quoted the more interesting replies and rearranging their order to suit my own train of thought. Given the source material is a series of answers to undisclosed questions rather than an article in which the parts make up a greater whole I don’t think this alters Bradbury’s opinions in any way.

So let’s start with something that’s not too controversial but does nicely illustrate my own view of Bradbury as an author:

The movie The Cat & the Canary scared the hell out of me. I love being scared – we all do. Every kid I’ve ever known loves to be scared. So I wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes to do what? To scare the hell out of myself. I knew if I could do that, I could scare all the kids; and if I did, I’d have a classic on my hands. And it’s turning into that. A lot of kids are really getting scared – and I love it.

This makes sense to me because I prefer to think of Ray Bradbury as more of a writer of horror stories who occasionally made use of science fictional settings than an author of science fiction who also wrote a couple of fantasies as he has generally been portrayed. I would argue that even a classic SF novel like Fahrenheit 451 is as close to having a classic horror plot as it’s possible for pure science fiction novel to do. Even some of his best known and loved short SF; The Veldt, A Sound of Thunder, & There Will Come Soft Rains all strike me as being essentially horror stories that could easily have been written by Robert Bloch and published in Weird Tales. (Incidentally, according to The Collectors Index To Weird Tales by Sheldon Jeffery & Fred Cook, Ray Bradbury had no less than 25 stories published in Weird Tales between 1942 and 1948, so the horror connection isn’t as unlikely as you may be thinking.)

On the other hand I don’t put much faith in his sweeping generalisation that ‘kids’ want to be scared given he completely fails to specify what age group or level of fear he’s referring. I can’t speak for anybody else but I can assure you that as a thirteen-year-old I discovered a number of horror anthologies in my high school library. Out of curiosity I read a couple of these anthologies (which included The Small Assassin and The Foghorn by one Ray Bradbury), but decided to swear off doing so when I begun to have vague but disturbing dreams every night. Something Wicked This Way Comes I will concede contains an appropriate level of scare for younger teens but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for adult Bradbury.

So let’s get a little controversial:

I’m not a big Batman or Superman fan. The difference them and Prince Valiant is Valiant is human, and I really believe in him. In other words, if he gets into a fight, he has to get out of it through his wits, or his talent, or his imagination. But Superman and Batman get into a fight, and really, there’s no context. Everything is pre-ordained, and it’s no fun. So who cares. You know Superman can always out, but you know if Prince Valiant gets into such a situation, he can get beat up pretty bad, and almost die. If he gets into a situation with a witch, giant, or an ogre, he will then find a way to terrify, in turn, that giant or ogre by disguising himself as a bat – suspending himself by a rope in an ancient castle. It’s all beautifully illustrated, and very logical. The things that he does, you and I could do, if we wanted to spend the time on it – if we wanted to train ourselves. There’s nothing done in Prince Valiant that most of us couldn’t do if we trained ourselves as Valiant did. We’re superman in different words.

Again, an interesting but hardly controversial opinion, but perhaps only because it’s one that I agree with. On the other hand fans of superhero comics/movies might not be so sanguine. I think Bradbury is right on the money when he suggests that everything was pre-ordained in regards to the Superman and Batman of the 40s and 50s. Characters such as those were such power fantasies that they simply over-matched their opposition with inevitable regularity. However I would add that it wasn’t the inevitability of victory that was the real problem. As Bradbury himself implies Prince Valiant, and characters like him, could also emerge victorious time after time. It is after all difficult to build a continuing series if the main protagonist keeps being defeated. (Actually, I believe that in one of the British anthology war comics there was a series of stories featuring a German soldier who served during WWII. Given the inevitability of the Germans losing every encounter in a British war comic I can’t imagine he was an easy character to write for, or that serving with this fellow was anything but a suicide mission for his comrades.)

The real difference between a Superman and a Prince Valiant was the suspense created by not knowing how the inevitable victory was to be achieved. With Superman and Batman back then there was little suspense in this regard. Their abilities were well known and how they could use them to steamroller any opposition. Of course what Bradbury fails to mention is that such characters can still be made interesting by giving them problems to solve that can’t be overcome by sheer brute strength. To be fair to Bradbury though he was speaking in 1968 when Superman and Batman were perhaps still being featured in less nuanced plots (I was never into superhero comics so I have no idea how much Superman and Batman had evolved by the late 60s).

And now for some real controversy:

I have one tempera I did which is travelling around the country with a benefit for cerebral palsy, called the Halloween Tree. It’s a huge tree filled with cut pumpkins; I’m writing a film on this too. It’s going to be a cartoon, by Chuck Jones, who did The Grinch, and has done Road Runner cartoons for years. A wonderful man to work with. It’s a history of Halloween in cartoon form. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun, and it’s going to be much better than The Great Pumpkin show by Charles Schulz. I thought The Great Pumpkin was just dreadful. So mean. It was so dreadfully mean, to anticipate The Great Pumpkin arriving for a whole half hour, and when it was all over , my kids sat there, and they were depressed. And so was I. We finally got angry, and we wanted to kick the set. I thought it was just dreadful for Mr. Schulz not to know that you can’t build up this kind of need in people, to see The Great Pumpkin, and not have him show up, one way or the other.

I was more than a little surprised by Bradbury’s reaction to this TV special. I don’t think Bradbury grasped what Charles Schulz was trying for when he created The Great Pumpkin. To me Linus’ belief in The Great Pumpkin is all about Schulz introducing the idea of faith to his readership. If the Great Pumpkin makes an appearance then this would sabotage Schulz’ promotion of faith because faith isn’t necessary when there is clear physical proof that the thing you believe in actually exists. I’m quite surprised that Bradbury couldn’t see that.

And then we have further evidence that Bradbury wasn’t really a science fiction author:

I’ve never been a predictor of the future. I’ve left that to other people. The easiest thing you can do is predict certain developments in the future. You think of one machine, and think of what it’s going to be like in thirty years. You could’ve predicted, in 1910, that the country would be full of automobiles to the point where it would start to destroy the entire country. The automobile is our biggest problem, and it is at the center of our culture, dominating it. Ten years from now, L.A. will be totally devastated. It’s so easy to predict this. We’re doing nothing to prevent it. New York is being destroyed by the automobile. We’ll have to ban the car. Downtown in L.A. looks like Hiroshima right now. This is so easy to predict – it’s no fun. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say.

It was wise of Bradbury to deny he was ever in the prediction game given how his claim that the automobile was about to destroy city life has turned out to be a big swing and a miss. However it wasn’t so wise of him to claim that predicting the future was so gosh darn easy given how his claim that the automobile was about to destroy city life has turned out to be a big swing and a miss. (Well, okay, you can make a case for the automobile degrading, and thus ‘destroying’ city life, but my impression is that Bradbury meant that the car would make cities uninhabitable, and that has manifestly not come to pass.) In an answer to another question (an answer not included here) Bradbury mentioned recently witnessing an accident in which a pedestrian was hit by a car and I suspect this coloured his response more than a little. Even so I suspect his claim that cars were destroying everything was more wishful thinking by an author in love with the idea of small town life than well considered prediction.

Back to the controversy:

I’m much more interested in moral attitudes. I’ve never predicted, I’ve only expressed myself in moral situations. Given television as a fact of life: how do we raise our children; how do they raise us; what does this do to personal relationships; how does this change our lives? What does it do to the family; what does it affect? Will it destroy us? Will it weaken the bonds in the family – or will it strengthen them? What will it do to our reading habits? Well, we find out it’s increasing them. Librarians were all worried when TV came out. They were all running around and bleating like a bunch of chickens, afraid that libraries would close down, books wouldn’t sell any more, people wouldn’t read. Well, the reverse has happened. The doomsayers were wrong. The TV has only made us more curious about the world. If there could be only a little texture… we need books to tell us what we really must know, because TV can’t give it to us. It can only give us pictures, and this is the beginning of knowledge. And then we have to move on from there.

Now I was under the impression that Ray Bradbury had a low opinion of television based on quotes such as this; ‘The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.’ For that matter I thought he had a high one of librarians based on quotes such as this; ‘Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.’ Perhaps given when he said all this it’s possible he was still positive about TV and only grew more negative later on. More inexplicable is his negative comment about librarians. Bradbury is noted for his support for and identification with librarians so to find him saying this was more than a little unexpected.

But wait, it gets better:

There’s a strange story behind R Is For Rocket and S Is For Spaceship – I wrote those two books to go into libraries. The librarians of America are too dumb to take my books from the grown-up section and move them over into the children’s section of their libraries. The kids have to go over to the adult section to get my books. Librarians are too dumb to know that kids are hungry for certain books. So I was forced into writing these two books which are nothing more than stories from some of my adult books. I get a few pieces of mail over the years saying that I am a fraud, a cheat, and a liar. The thing is. They shouldn’t blame me, they should blame the librarians. If they would just bring my books over to the children’s section, I wouldn’t have to do this. I have to put out S Is For Spaceship and R Is For Rocket, which say on the “For Young Readers”. Then they have enough brains to put them on the shelf. I have this sort of nonsense with librarians so often, it drives me up a wall. That is why the two books exist.

Wow, just wow. So much for Ray Bradbury, friend of librarians, eh? I guess his high regard for the office of librarian depended on them falling into line with his desires. Again, it would also help if Bradbury had been a little less vague in his terms. What age group was he referring to when he mentioned ‘kids’ and just which stories of his did he think they should be reading? Given my previous comments about encountering Bradbury as a young teenager I think that on the whole I’m with the librarians in this matter.

And now here’s my favourite Bradbury response to a question:

Look at all the imitations of the Martian Chronicles that have come out – it’s still holding its own. I find that I write a number of stories in a number of fields , and they manage to stick around anyway. The bad stuff vanishes after awhile – it’s just not good enough. There’s a guy named Bradbury writing books over in England, and having them published. They’re science fiction-fantasy, like John Carter – Warlord of Mars; and a whole series of Martian books by a guy named Edward P. Bradbury. I know his publishers are hoping that people will mistake him for me. It doesn’t work that way. He’s not good enough. If he were better, I’d be in trouble; but I’m not. I think excellence finally wins out. The really good writers will stay around – Sturgeon, Arthur Clarke, Heinlein, Fritz Leiber; and eight or nine others, and myself. We’re good. We’re very good. That’s the first thing you learn: how to tell quality from something that has no quality. You’re not going to get any false modesty from me. I don’t believe in modesty. I don’t believe it’s a virtue. I believe you know what you want to do, and that you should grab onto it, and run with it, and have a ball with it, and have great fun, and love it very much. Then you’ll do good work. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

To properly appreciate the above you need to know that Edward P. Bradbury is a pseudonym of Michael Moorcock. Now as it happens Moorcock was, and possibly still is, a big Edgar Rice Burroughs fan who had for some years as a teenager edited Tarzan Adventures, a Burroughs themed magazine. As far as I’m aware the Edward P. Bradbury trilogy was a tribute to Burroughs, in particular his Mars series. Now while I’ve never seen any explanation as to why he chose the pseudonym Edward P. Bradbury I doubt it was a deliberate attempt to leach off Ray Bradbury’s fame. If nothing else these books were Burroughs imitations and nothing about their packaging ever hinted at a connection with the author of Fahrenheit 451. If the the blurb writer had claimed ‘In the tradition of Something Wicked This Way Comes‘ I would concede that Bradbury had a point but as far as I recall the British paperbacks at least screamed Burroughs. As to why Moorcock decided to use a pseudonym at all, well I suspect he didn’t want the Edward P. Bradbury books to be confused with the various series set in his ‘Eternal Champion’ universe as those books had a very different tone and somebody expecting Elric of Melnibone style adventures might be disappointed by a Burroughs tribute.

This also raises the interesting question of whether in 1968 Ray Bradbury knew Edward P. Bradbury was a pseudonym, and if so who the pseudonym belonged to. It’s quite possible that he had no idea at the time because I’m not sure he was moving in science fiction circles much outside of Los Angeles. Still, even if he was aware perhaps it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I have no idea what Bradbury thought of Moorcock’s fiction (assuming he had even read any in 1968) but it wouldn’t surprise me if he hated characters such as Elric of Melnibone and Jerry Cornelious and wasn’t adverse to giving their creator a hotfoot with his Edward P. Bradbury comments.

And in conclusion:

I’ve often said, if some young man wanted , one hundred years from now, to take out his chalk and mark on my tombstone, I would like him to mark on it “Here Lies a Teller-of-Tales”. That’s a good honorable thing. I’ve always been intrigued with stories that I’ve heard about Baghdad, ancient Persia – the market places. Even today, if you go down a side street in some of these small, Mid-Eastern, dessert towns, you’ll find magicians and the tellers of tales. It’s an ancient heritage, and a very wonderful one. I belong on the street of the tellers of tales – and that’s the only place I want to be. I’ve no more pretension than that.

And finally here we have Bradbury trying to be humble in the same interview that he claimed not to be humble or modest. You need to pick one Mr Bradbury, either you’re one of the elite band of excellent authors or you’re a humble teller of tales with no more pretension than that. I don’t think you can lay claim to both.

And this gentle ready, is the danger of the unguarded moment. I don’t think Bradbury said anything irredeemably offensive but yes, I’m pretty sure if he had seen the transcript there are a few comments he would have been happy to tone down or qualify.

You know what the road to Hell isn’t pave with? Second thoughts. Something we could all do with remembering before pressing enter.

John Brunner – The Writer In Black

Perfect freedom is reserved for the man who lives by his own work,
and in that work does what he wants to do.

I think it was in an installment of his Noise Level column that John Brunner made the claim that when science fiction authors got together they mostly talked about money. Now I’m not about to disagree with a statement like that given Brunner wrote science fiction for a living and was certainly in a position to know what his fellow authors said and did. Even so I do have to wonder if his views were biased by his own preoccupations. He certainly did write about the financial aspects of being a published author more than any other SF professional I’m familiar with.

I suspect this obsession with financial success was in large part due to his origins. The Brunner family started a company called Brunner Mond way back in 1873 (this company later on merged with a number of others to form ICI) so they were reasonably well-to-do, though perhaps not as well off as they had been by the time our Brunner was born in 1934. There are claims that despite the family having money none of it was passed on down to John Brunner once his school fees had been paid. Why this might be so I can’t say for certain though it’s possible the family disliked his lifestyle and/or politics. John Brunner was quite left-wing in many of his views, in particular he was quite anti-nuclear and vehemently opposed the war in Vietnam, opinions which might not have sat well with people who earned their living from a chemical company like Brunner Mond. It’s also possible that Brunner preferred to not receive what he may have perceived as ‘dirty’ money and became obsessed with achieving financial success without relying on his family.

Regardless of why he felt the need to do so I’m pleased he wrote about the financial side of the writing business as much as he did because the nuts and bolts of the trade fascinate me and I love reading descriptions of how the system once worked by those on the inside. As I assume I’m not the only one interested in such things I’ve reprinted one of the best examples of Brunner’s behind the scenes coverage here. It originally appeared in Australian Science Fiction Review #9 (published by John Bangsund way back in April 1967). It was a slightly updated version of an article that had already been published in Vector, the official journal of the British SF Association, a year or so before (just how much had been changed I can’t say as I don’t happen to own a copy of the relevant issue of Vector). To put this article into context I need to point out that Brunner’s professional career up until the writing of this article essentially fitted into what I like to think of as the transitory period of SF publishing.

This transitory period in SF publishing occurred when it became possible for an author to make appreciable amounts of money from magazine, paperback, and hardcover sales. Up until the end of WWII very few writers of science fiction were able to sell their stories to any market other than the magazines. Hardcover books were limited to the likes of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs until the rise of specialty hardcover houses such as Gnome Press, Prime Press, and Shasta Publishers in the late forties. Paperback science fiction didn’t become a force until well into the fifties at which point the amount of SF in softcover rose dramatically. This ushered in the transitory period during which SF authors could make a living by a careful combination of magazine, paperback, and hardcover sales. However the rise of the paperback corresponded with the decline of the fiction magazine and by the end of the seventies there were too few SF magazines left for sales to this market to be a significant portion of the average author’s income. During the period Brunner is writing about both authors and publishers were still feeling their way towards their part in the later paperback dominance of the industry.

To give everybody at least some idea of what all those sums Brunner quotes in the later part of his article might mean in current terms I’ve included estimates of what the money equivalent would be fifty years later (all figures are either in UK pounds or US dollars). Hopefully that will give you some idea of how well off the average author was back then. On the other hand I wouldn’t try to strain for a comparison with current conditions given how different the publishing industry is in this world of tomorrow. For example making those sort of comparisons won’t mean much in in relation to the earnings of anybody trying to make it as a self-published author.

I also like to reiterate Brunner’s comment about taking care when basing generalisations on this article. A lot of the minor details, such as a wife as who doesn’t want to go back to working or an author getting into a tangle with customs over the value of a manuscript, are clearly lifted from John Brunner’s own life (though, that said, I do recall another British author who mislabelled one of the manuscripts he mailed to the US and ended up in a ‘situation’ due to this). On the other hand the two Frishblitz children are complete fabrications as nothing I know about John Brunner suggests to me that he ever had, wanted, or liked children.

Given the length of this article and the many interesting details Brunner included I’ve interrupted him in a number of places to add some extra detail, or my own reactions to certain of his claims. Hopefully you’ll find these additions worth the interruption.

And now on with the show:

The Economics of SF
by John Brunner

“In an earlier instance the Meredith agency did sell the picture rights to a book then unwritten. That one, Evan Hunter’s Mothers & Daughters, has now been completed, and German rights have just gone to Kindler Verlag, in a deal closed with their representative here, Maximilian Becker, for a record $17,000 advance. Also, Corgi have just acquired British paperback rights on a £15,000 advance.”

Daniel J. Boorstin: The Image, p. 158)

It so happens that I’m represented by the Scott Meredith Agency which pulled this trick. Every now and again I feel tempted to photostat that excerpt and send it to Joe Elder, who handles my work, with a terse note asking what Evan Hunter has that I haven’t (apart from $17,000 and £15,000).

It’s small wonder that most people have an entirely false impression of what authors make, and this impression is distorted even further when one comes down to SF, a thoroughly anomalous field in other aspects than its content.

Let’s start by getting some of our perspectives straight. First, as to writers and their incomes in general: the British Society of Authors is conducting a survey at present which will clear up many misunderstandings when the findings are made public. Consider, meantime, that a reliable source (the Bulletin of the Authors Guild of America) has published an estimate that there are 250 full-time writers in the whole of the United States.

I’ll repeat that: 250. Out of a population approaching two hundred million. The remainder are at least partly supported by such jobs as magazine editing, reporting, permanent feature assignments involving non-writing activity, or hold down a professional post to which their writing is secondary. (Advertising is one of the current havens; it’s a bit like the jazz greats of the thirties who kept joining and leaving the Ted Lewis band.)

A young writer recently received tremendous acclaim from the British press. I’ve read the book he got it for, and allowing for slight exaggeration I think the praise was merited. I’ve lent my copy to somebody so I can only quote a sample from memory: “I doubt,” said one critic, “if there are half a dozen people who can match” Mr. X’s prose. He made the headlines recently when a publisher offered to pay him what amounts to a salary for the next two years, on condition they are given a couple of books they can publish. Amount of that “salary”? £800 (£13,803 in 2017). And he was probably glad to get it. Brother! Given a reasonable amount of overtime, he could probably collect more working on a building site!

Now the generous publisher isn’t buying his entire thinking time, of course. But he’s buying the cream of Mr. X’s output, and if Mr. X is halfway honest he’ll be turning down supplementary earnings which would infringe on the thinking time needed to create books reflecting his true abilities. Many – perhaps most – writers never stop working; everything they do from breakfast to bedtime, everything they read from advertisements to poetry, everything they see or hear or smell or touch or taste gets mortared into the foundations for their subsequent output. Isaac Asimov wasn’t joking when he said writing has the characteristics of an addictive drug. Once you’re hooked on it properly, your life revolves around it in the same way a junkie’s revolves around his next fix. It can be physically unpleasant to be deprived of the opportunity to write. (Believe me.)

What of the writer who , by misfortune, has a temperament inclining him towards SF? Well… I’m one, and a very atypical one, so most of the following remarks must be read as applying to me personally and generalizations should be made there from very tentatively indeed. Nonetheless, I feel they may be of interest as a kind of case-history cum guided tour of a thorny question.

Cardinal fact: SF is a minority taste, to the extent that hitherto one has been able to say it’s read by one person in every thousand of the English-speaking population. (I refer to habituated readers, and not to those who are exposed to an occasional freak best-seller serialised in the Saturday Evening Post.) For instance, I recall seeing Astounding’s public estimate at some 185,000 in a country of about as many million: similarly, the Atlas reprint edition used to sell about 45,000 in Britain.

There is a slow upward trend in these figures at present, due to such causes as the adoption of SF by “respectable” houses like Penguin and the discovery by literate readers that there are literate writers in the field. The impact of this has not yet been sufficient to alter much of the SF writer’s life. We will assign Arthur Clarke, John Wyndham, John Christopher and some few others to the stratospheric altitudes of the movie world (every writer dreams of selling film rights on every book he produces), and concentrate on the somewhat more mundane levels where the majority of the writers who appear in your Favourite Magazines float around.

(Doctor Strangemind: This article was originally written with a British audience in mind so it’s hardly surprising that he only mentioned British authors in this list. It’s also likely that Brunner didn’t want to include any US authors on the not unreasonable basis that he didn’t know enough to do more than guess at who might be earning enough to be added to his list. Even today, with all the advantages of 20/20 hindsight, I’d be hard pressed to name any US authors apart from perhaps Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as doing that well back in the early sixties.)

As pointed out, there is a three-to-one difference in the size of the audience for SF when you compare Britain and the USA. It’s reflected fairly accurately in the rates paid. To try to make a decent living by selling nothing but SF in Britain would be impossible. (John Lymington appears to have found a sort of solution to this, but I have no information regarding other earnings he may have.)

Example: Gollancz’s basic advance on a hardcover edition – to which royalties will be added after a very long lapse of time – is £100 (£1,725 in 2017). I received that for both The Brink, in 1959, and No Future In It, in 1962. Ace, not the largest or most prosperous of American paperback firms, would put down $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) for the same manuscript, or about £350 (£6,037 in 2017). As to magazines, I recall how pleased I was when Ted Carnell gave me a bonus on a story he published by raising my rate from two guineas to £2.5.0 per thousand words. Near as dammit, two guineas is $6 ($43 in 2017). As far as I know the lowest rate paid in recent years by am American SF magazine has been that from Fantastic at 1.5 cents per word – i.e. $15 per thousand ($108 in 2017), or 2½ times as much.

The highest rate is Analog‘s 4 cents a word, plus a cent a word bonus for topping the An Lab, or half a cent for coming second. The less pretentious of the men’s magazines go no lower than a nickel a word – a cent higher that the best offered by an SF magazine in other words.

It’s a minor miracle that there are so many writers in the SF field, isn’t it?

There are basically two ways in which you can keep afloat in SF without resorting to devious expedients like writing continuity for a comic strip (e.g. Jack Williamson for Beyond Mars, Harry Harrison and heaven knows who else for Flash Gordon) or beating your brains out on a TV serial (a common disaster among American SF writers, I gather, but not so popular in Britain).

The first is to get out of the United States, if that’s where you happen to be, and settle in some country where a phony exchange rate stretches your dollar earnings. I live in Britain but almost exactly 90% of my income is from America.

The second is to be prolific as possible, and that’s a matter of temperament. I’m lucky; I have a very high rate of output because I actually enjoy the physical process of writing, and get unhappy when I’m kept away from my typewriter. I’ve been writing about eight books a year lately, and banking on selling six of them to get me a decent living. But I cant keep that up forever; I was just about at the end of my tether when I started getting serializations in American magazines – something I’d previously failed to secure – and was able to contemplate reducing my schedule because of the extra income thus obtained from the same investment of effort.

(Doctor Strangemind: I do wish Brunner had been clearer in his description at this point because one possible interpretation of his comment about writing eight books each year and selling six is that he was failing to sell 25% of the novels he completed. Surely after a year or two of frenetic production which results in only a 75% success rate an astute author learns to recognise what is likely to sell and what is likely to be passed over? Surely by year three a reasonably astute author can spot unsaleable product in its formative stage and not proceed. Surely?

Anyway, checking the listings for John Brunner on the  The Internet Speculative Fiction Database doesn’t shed much light on the matter either. According to the listings there the Brunner SF novels published prior to the writing of this article amounted to the following:

1959 – 3into the slave nebula lancer 1968
1960 – 4
1961 – 2
1962 – 2
1963 – 6
1964 – 2
1965 – 6

Clearly this is well short of the 8 Brunner claimed he was writing each year, and indeed is even short of the 6 he claimed he was selling. So either he was exaggerating or he was turning out as much non-genre material as he was SF. I’ve certainly seen mention of a couple of early non-genre novels, The Crutch of Memory – Barrie & Rockliff (1964) & Wear the Butcher’s Medal – Pocket (1965), so who knows what else might be lurking out there in the great paperback graveyard.)

(There’s a third solution: to live on bread and cheese in one room, preferably in a warm part of the country to save on heating bills. Some people can stand it. I can’t. When I first moved to London from my home, my earnings as a writer averaged four pounds a week and I was renting a two-guinea room. I gave up and went to work for Sam Youd and it was two and a half years before I plucked up the courage to try freelancing again – by which time I was married and Marjorie was still working, so it wasn’t so risky… This suggests another solution I’s overlooked: marry an heiress. Difficult. So few heiresses appreciate SF.)

All this stems from some comments in Vector #32, where Ken Slater was explaining the facts of life to those of his customers who wanted to know why they couldn’t have the Ballantine edition of The Whole Man (Telepathist in the UK) instead of the Faber hardcover edition to be followed in about two years time by a Penguin.

Well it’s nice to know that so many people are eager to read my stuff… and I’m not even much hurt by the fact that they aren’t eager enough to pay eighteen shillings for the privilege of reading it now, this minute. Among my colleagues I’m regarded as something of a subversive for approving of original paperbacks – but why not? After all, there are few books you read more than once. A typical novel is likely to give you an evening’s entertainment at the speed most moderately literate people read. It seems reasonable to pay for it what you’d pay for a seat at the local cinema or a gallery seat in a theatre; say 3/6 to 7/6, the price of a current paperback.

But look at the matter from the author’s point of view. Look at it, specifically, from mine. Turning out up to eight books a year means that at least one of those books is going to be really good; the rest will range from competent to barely passable, or even lousy, and would benefit immensely from being put on the shelf in manuscript form until I have the time and the inclination to revise, polish, or perhaps scrap them.

If, out of a given book, I’m making only £350 (£6,037 in 2017) less the 10% which the agent takes (which is what happens if I sell it solely to an American paperback publisher who then markets his own edition in Britain), I have to keep churning them out. From the outside, I should perhaps explain, writing books looks like a cheap way of running a business, but I often find when making up my tax returns that my deductible expenses – i.e. those incurred directly in connection with my work – have used up 20% of my gross income.

(Doctor Strangemind: I do wish he had added a little more detail at this point. I’m very curious to know just what those deductible expenses were that using up so much of his income. I strongly suspect, given some of the anecdotes I’ve read about him, that he had a tendency towards extravagance, but perhaps I’m being entirely unfair and it was prosaic matters such as the posting of manuscripts across the Atlantic which was eating up his funds.)

The sales of that American edition in Britain add practically nothing to my earnings; the book comes in, months or years after its first appearance in the States, attracts no attention whatever, isn’t reviewed anywhere, and does no more than spoil my chances of selling the same work to a publisher in this country. As a matter of fact, British sales may well add nothing to my earnings because the American publishers simply want to get their back stock out of the warehouse to make room for newer items. This is called ‘dumping’.

(Doctor Strangemind: Now this part really confuses me. I was under the impression that there was was some sort of legal agreement in place to ensure US publishers couldn’t sell in Britain & the Commonwealth and visa-versa. However Brunner is clearly suggesting he was dealing with US publishers who were doing just that. A quick look on The Internet Speculative Fiction Database however shows that nearly all his early US novel sales went to Ace. The only exceptions I can find are these four:

The Dreaming Earth – Pyramid (1963)
The Whole Man – Ballantine (1964)
The Squares of the City – Ballantine (1965)
The Long Result – Ballantine (1966)

I can’t see any of these publishers participating in a practise like ‘dumping’ that seems to be, at the very least, on the edge of legality. I can only wonder then if the books he is referring to were the non-genre novels whose existence I was speculating about earlier?

Not only that but he seems to think it unfair that he saw no money from this ‘dumping’ practise he claims was going on. If any publisher were actually selling to the remainder market (which seems the most likely explanation if something was indeed going on) then why does Brunner think he might earn anything from the process at all? Again, as I understand it, books are only remaindered after a contract is terminated and I doubt a publisher doing something as dubious as selling any leftover copies on the cheap is going to be keen to give the author a cut and thus provide the author with hard evidence of this practise. It all seems rather curious.)

By signing a contract which confines distribution rights of the American edition strictly to territories outside the sterling area (the wording varies, but this is an example), I can hang on to the chance of additional sales. Suppose, as happened with The Whole Man, Faber buys the manuscript: I get, eventually, another couple of hundred quid in small chunks; I get the chance of a Science Fiction Book Club selection which adds a bit more; I get the chance of a paperback sale in Britain which adds a great deal more; over a period of about three to five years I’ve comfortably doubled the proceeds. I know it’s an awful nuisance to have to wait for the Penguin edition in 1968 or whenever before you can read this book that all your fan friends in Oshkosh or Walla Walla are raving about. But it contains a blessing in disguise: by 1968 I shall have put together my long-awaited epic, Soul Slaves of the Umpteenth Continuum, and its going to make all my previous work look like Kid-dee Com-ics. Up until now force of circumstance and the wolf at the door have conspired to make me postpone work on it.

(Doctor Strangemind: Brunner was clearly joking about writing the above named long awaited epic but on the other hand his four major novels; Stand On Zanzibar (1968), The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972), & The Shockwave Rider (1975) were just a few years in the future at this point so the comments above are far closer to the truth than anybody realised in 1967.)stand on zanzibar doubleday 1968

More seriously, here are some hard figures by which you can gauge the economics of the field as they apply to a competent, diligent writer of average output and adequate persistence. Let’s call him Theokurt Frishblitz in honour of some of my personal idols.

(Doctor Strangemind: No, I’ve no idea who these personal idols Brunner was alluding to when he named his character Theokurt Frishblitz, possibly nobody but Brunner would ever have any idea. Still, feel free to speculate as I’d be interested in any suggestions.)

In Year One of his career Mr. Frishblitz breaks through the hitherto impenetrable wall of rejection slips, revises his long-standing opinion of all editors as purblind nits, and sells a short story to Unused Planets, a British magazine with a high reputation and low rates, Proceeds: about £10 (£172 in 2017).

Encouraged, he stands the editor a drink and makes a note in his diary: To Business Expenses, 3/6. The editor is favourably impressed with his idea for a novelette and promises it the cover if it turns out okay. He also suggests some alterations and improvements in the story line. Mr. Frishblitz gets it right on the second submission. Proceeds: about £50 (£862 in 2017).

One or two or possibly more stories later, he conceives his first novel, and offers it as a serial. It clicks. Proceeds: about £150 (£2,587 in 2017).

Provided he has had the good sense to to make two carbons of this novel he can now cast covetous eyes on the U.S. Market. So far he’s been getting nothing but bounces – from stories which Unused Planets thereupon bought at the minimal British rates. But a novel, surely, which has been serialised…?

Mr. Frishblitz wraps it up, fills out the customs declaration with an optimistic assessment of the book’s value (which will later cause some wrangling and delay in U.S. Customs), and mails it to Trump Books Inc., a small but voracious paperback house in New York with an enormous output of SF. It comes back, much later, with a reasonably kind letter saying they published more or less the same story in 1937 and just reprinted it, but would welcome more of his work; they pay a standard advance of $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) and would rather the customs slip was marked NO COMMERCIAL VALUE because it makes things simpler at the New York end.

At the end of Year One Mr. Frishblitz tots up his earnings. Rejections included he’s written some hundred thousand words or so – which is a lot of words if you count them one by one. It’s even more if you take re-writes into account. He’s made about £250 (£4,312 in 2017), which is good going for his first year.

What to do? Well… how about an agent? He applies to Scotfree Cheeryble Inc., who – according to The Writer’s Annual – had the highest turnover in America last year and sold one book for a total of $175,000. A note comes back saying, with devastating honesty, that Cheeryble aren’t much interested until a writer is making $1,000 p.a. on his own; then they’ll consider accepting him.

He already knows how much $1,000 is – he worked it out when he got the letter from Trump Books. It’s £357. Anyway, what does he want to give 10% of his earnings for? He’s doing okay, isn’t he?

We-ell…

Let’s skip the interval during which he learns the basic economics of the job and jump to the year in which he quits his regular employment to take a flyer as a freelance; lets say that this is Year Five of his writing career. He’s saved up enough to risk an initial drop in his total income, though his wife is afraid of having to go back to work, and his two children are more expensive than racehorses to feed and keep. The accumulated frustration left over from part-time work, interrupted by having to go to the office every day, lets go with a surge and carries him through the first half of the year with three novels and a couple of good novelettes.

He sells the novelettes – totaling 30,000 words – to U.S. magazines and makes from them what he made in his first year’s work: £250 (£4,312 in 2017). He sells the first two novels to Trump, which he now regards as a safe market, for $1,000 ($7,186 in 2017) and $1250 ($8,982 in 2017) respectively.

Novel three comes back with a regretful note to say it’s below standard, try again.

To Mr. Frishblitz this is a sore blow. He does no more work for a month through worrying; then starts worrying about not working; then the worry fouls him up for a further month, during which time the children eat the proceeds of the sales so far this year. By year’s end he’s recovered enough to have completed a fourth novel. Proceeds this year amount to an acceptable £1500 (£25,880 in 2017), but he’s written about 300,000 words for that, some of which hasn’t found a home, and he’s not sure he can manage the wordage equivalent of five novels every year from now on. His imagination is getting a bit tattered around the edges and what he really wants to do is spend a month researching a magnum opus about colonising the ocean-bed, whereas Trump Books are asking for a sensational novel about adultery in free fall, tentatively titled Peyton Planet.

If he has any sense, this is when he writes to Cheeryble Inc. again. He has the sales behind to make them interested, but he lacks the specialised knowledge to exploit himself.

Lets wish him luck and see how he’s doing in Year Ten.

In this year he writes three books, one of them on commission from a publisher who bought an earlier novel. This is a comfortable pace to write at; it allows time for adequate research, second thoughts, re-reading, and if necessary complete revision which generally permits him to make sure that what he wraps and mails is as good as he can make it. Proceeds are roughly as follows:

The first novel appears, specially abridged by himself, as the lead short novel in a U.S. magazine and grosses $500 ($3,593 in 2017), then sells to a paperback house for $1500 ($10,779 in 2017) and to an English publisher for £150 (£2,587 in 2017), in the full-length version. The second is published as a two-part serial in a U.S. magazine, which pays $800 ($5,749 in 2017), and also goes to a paperback house for $1,500 ($10,779 in 2017), but is too far out to interest the rather conservative British publishers. Not to worry: number three marks two ‘first’ notches for him – his first U.S. hardback edition and his first double sale in Britain, to both hardback and paperback houses, as well as going to a U.S. paperback publisher, bringing some $2,000 ($14,372 in 2017) and £400 (£6,900 in 2017) from a single book. In addition he receives some small royalties from previous work, and there is no reason why novel number two should not later on find a home in Britain; moreover, by now he’s picking up the odd translation sale, and when the escudos, franks, marks, and whatsits are converted to sterling they add another 100-odd quid to the year’s total.

(Doctor Strangemind: This is where my point about there being a transitory period is best illustrated. It was only during those years between the early fifties and the eighties that it was possible to sell the same work in differing forms this many times.)

Year Ten therefore sees him comfortably established with an income of around £2,500 (£43,123 in 2017) plus past, future, and imponderable accretions from work not actually done during the year. He is doing very well considering the field he is in. Next year he may very well make less than £1,000 (£17,249 in 2017) because he breaks his wrist and can’t type, or he may make £10,000 (£172,493 in 2017) because his agent happens to be drinking within earshot of a film producer and seizes his chance on hearing the producer is looking for a science fiction property. He can’t tell. But he wouldn’t trade problems with anybody, He’s hooked on writing.

Mr. Frishblitz did everything right, and had the single essential attribute out of that list at the beginning of his career, which is persistence. He’s probably about thirty-five or forty; he gets half a dozen fan letters a year, is asked to speak at conventions, and when the BBC puts a programme together about SF they send someone around with a tape recorder and use two minutes forty seconds on the air. He’s okay. But if it hadn’t been SF he wanted to write – if it had been , say, TV serials and he sold an idea which caught on like Dr. Who – he might easily have made in the first two years enough to retire on, in a gracious modern house on Grand Bahama Island with his own private beach, and the seventeen Frishblitz books you so greatly enjoyed over the past ten years would never have been written at all.

Sometime I must ask Mr. Frishblitz which way he’d have preferred it to turn out back in Year One of his career…

If this article finds its way into the hands of any U.S. readers, they should remember the phoniness of the dollars-to-pounds exchange rate. In this country an annual income in the Frishblitz bracket will provide a comfortably furnished house, adequate food and clothing for a family of four, a medium priced car, and the occasional vacation abroad. At the current Stateside rate it would compare so badly with what one can earn in business that the writer’s wife would certainly leave him, unless she was desperately in love.

My guesstimate is that Mr. Frishblitz, living in the States, would have to earn some 50% more in order to survive, and at least 100% more to enjoy the U.S. Equivalent of Anglo-Frishblitz’s standard of living.

I couldn’t manage it. That’s why I live here. (Also I was born here, which counts for something…)

Bad Mad Vlad

Vampires are a lot like dogs you know.

Vampire

No. Don’t scoff. They really are if you think about it in just the wrong way (that’s always been the Doctor Strangemind way of course).

Here, let me explain.

So what is the single most noticeable feature of the animal known as dog? That’s right, the seemingly endless plasticity of the species. The fact is humanity has been able to twist and turn and breed dogs into a startling wide array of forms from poodles to corgis to dobermans. If the average Martian visited our planet what are the chances that this visitor from space would guess right off that all dogs are of the same species? Not likely is it? Instead the average Martian would probably decide that dogs make no sense to them. Which is probably why they don’t visit Earth all that often, they find this planet too weird and confusing to be a satisfactory holiday destination.

So what has this to do with vampires I’ve no doubt you’re wondering. Well, the answer to that is to point out how humanity has been able to twist and turn and write vampires into a startling wide array of types and situations, far more than any other supernatural creature. Why this should be has to do with the fact that vampires are essentially humans with supernatural abilities and are thus have human level or above intelligence. Consequently it’s relatively easy to insert them into a wide range of roles of roles and situations. Whereas many other supernatural creatures are trapped within a limited role due to their having little or no ability to think and plan.

To pick the most egregious example, how much variety have you seen in the many zombie films made since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first shuffled onto the big screen? Off the top of my head I can only think of 28 Days Later as presenting anything like a different take on the idea of the living dead. Even in a comedies like Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead the actual zombies are little more than off-the-rack shamblers. I’m sure that if I more was into zombies flicks I’d be able to nominate more good examples of different approaches but the mere fact that the genre is often divided up on the basis of whether the zombies move fast or slow does suggest to me variety is lacking among the living dead. In short, no brains equals no variety.

The werewolf strikes me as another supernatural creature unable to widen its role. The problem isn’t so much the inevitable changing into beast form and the hunting of humans but the fact that once in that beast form werewolves rarely demonstrate anything more than animal level intelligence. So it is that while I’ve seen the occasional good werewolf film (Dog Soldiers and An American Werewolf in London come to mind) I don’t recall a book or film that explores the possibilities of the form in a different way to those two films. I’ve certainly never read or watched the werewolf equivalent to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, or Steve Niles’ 30 Days of Night. Oh, and I’m definitely not counting anything in the Twilight series (or the imitations thereof) as those characters are such angsty teens that anything else about them is merely window dressing. (However, I will recommend to all and sundry a film called Werewolf Cop. It doesn’t entirely break the mold but does shake things up some by having the main character still perform his duties while in beast form. It’s also at least as funny as Shaun of the Dead in my opinion.)

Okay, so if vampires aren’t the supernatural creatures suffering most from plot limitations why am I writing about them? Well, there are two good reasons for me to be considering vampires right here, right now. (Don’t worry. I’ll get back to werewolves. I have some thoughts about them which will blow your minds in due course.) Now my first reason is that too many vampire stories focus on static locations (the previously mentioned Stephen King and Steve Niles works for example) and I don’t think this is still a viable option. The second is because I have an excellent solution to this perceived problem.

Vampire truckers.

The fact is stories like Salem’s Lot and 30 Days of Night highlight the problem vampires have in this modern high-tech world. Because we live in an interconnected society isolated communities that a vampire can prey upon for an extended period of time are increasingly rare. Even if we put the existence of mobile phones and the Internet to one side improved physical communication, in other words private and public transport, ensures no community sits in perfect isolation. Perhaps there was a time when the members of a rural community had no regular contact with people living further than a days walk away but that’s no longer the case (if it ever was). Those days are long gone as now even isolated communities have friends, relatives, and business partners all over, people who are going to want to know what’s going on if suddenly their contact, and the community they live in, suddenly falls silent.

This is why the vampire infestation in Salem’s Lot never seemed convincing to me. Sure, King made a few attempts to explain why the authorities never conducted an investigation of the town but it all seemed half-hearted, as if King knew it would be next to impossible to construct a sequence of events which would convincingly stop the town from being thoroughly searched. King didn’t help matters either by writing a sequel to Salem’s Lot, a short story called One For the Road. In it he reveals that the continuing infestation is an open secret among locals, “Ayup. We all know about the vampires. That’s why nobody much shops there anymore.”

I found the premise Steve Niles used in 30 Days of Night far more convincing. Having the vampires attack a community in temporary isolation due to the extremities of winter was certainly more believable, but still limited in possibility. I can’t see it being an easily repeatable event for starters. Even if the vampires managed to destroy all evidence of their presence (possible, but not easy) the fact remains that a sizable community was wiped out with no explanation and that fact can’t be hidden. There will be considerable scrutiny and precautions will be taken against this happening again. How many times could the vampires attack temporarily isolated towns before their presence is recorded by a multitude of hidden devices? If we assume that a vampire’s best defence is secrecy then the events described in 30 Days of Night have to be a one-off or else discovery is inevitable in a world where sophisticated recording devices are common. And then it’s all over for the vampires because humanity has the numbers, the determination, and the technology to do for them. We’re not a sharing species at the best of times and we’re certainly not going to put up with another species that preys upon us. It will be on until humanity has destroyed every vampire it can find. And given the sort of resources humanity would put into such a project I expect that would be close to a clean sweep.

Well that’s alright you might argue, a whole clan of vampires can comfortably live undetected in a large city for decades so long as they’re careful and Blade doesn’t blow into town. True enough but we’ve seen that option taken so frequently that the vampire nightclub owner; suave in public, predatory in private, has already become something of a cliché. On the other hand I think the mobile vampire is in fact the road less travelled and is thus worthy of serious consideration.

I have in fact seen a couple of films, the titles of which escape me, that featured mobile vampires. In one a group of them were tooling around in a camper van type vehicle while in the other the vampire spent his days concealed in the boot of the car while his minion drove him about. However, while entertaining as films, neither made any effort to combine the mythology of the road with the mythology of the vampire which I thought a great pity. I also thought both films made vampires appear to be fringe dwellers, not a cool outsider sort, but more like dangerous scavengers. To be honest this is probably more realistic depiction than I have in mind but I can’t help it, I want something with a touch of Mad Max to it.

To that end I’d like to steal an idea I encountered in a vampire novel years ago. What the novel is called I don’t remember as it wasn’t a particularly memorable book. However, it did include an interesting twist on the vampiric mythos. As I recall the vampire in this novel owned a yacht. The yacht had a secret compartment located below the water line in which the vampire’s coffin was secreted. This meant the vampire could slip from port to port, ensuring that he didn’t stay long enough in any particular city for evidence of his presence to build up. It also made him extra difficult to attack as fire or sunlight was unlikely to reach him before the yacht was sunk by his minions, and since vampires don’t need air being below however many fathoms of water was hardly going to bother him. All the vampire had to do was stay in his coffin till dark and then exact revenge.

However, while a yacht has a lot to recommend it as a vampire transportation device it just doesn’t excite me (I’ll choose Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome over Waterworld every time). That’s why I like the idea of transferring the hidden compartment idea from boats to trucks.

Yes, it’s true that a compartment built into the undercarriage of a truck doesn’t allow the occupant to drop into the murky depths of the ocean and escape like Aquavamp but that’s easily solved by invoking the right piece of vampiric lore. As I recall in Russian folklore what made the vampires especially difficult to kill was their ability to transmogrify into a hoard of spiders, snakes, etc. According to legend if even one of these creatures escaped the vampire could regenerate itself. How I imagine this would work in a truck is that there would be a tube running from the driver’s cabin down to the secret compartment where the vampire would have it’s lair. Attached to this compartment would be a series of other tubes linking the lair to various other parts of the truck. Thus, even if the secret compartment is in danger of being broken open, or filled with napalm, or whatever the author deems a suitable vampire extermination substance the vampire has a difficult to combat back door. Thus your average fearless vampire hunter would need to locate and seal the exit to ever one of these tubes. Which would be a more than slightly difficult task to complete without being discovered (not entirely a bad thing of course if you want to add tension to the story).

And yes, the whole idea can be seen as some barely warmed over Mad Max: Fury Road style hi-jinks. Especially if the author goes with the idea that there’s a whole community of vampires hauling rig along the highways of where ever. This becomes even more pronounced if the vampires stay in contact with each other and offer each other back-up via the medium of CB radio and ally themselves with gangs of motorcyclists as guards. Since any protagonist hunting vampires will surely take them on somewhere remote so no third parties gets the wrong idea and tries to interfere the Mad Max: Fury Road comparisons are obvious.

But that only need be true of the action scenes (and who would object to scenes such as were featured in Mad Max: Fury Road but with added vampires, not I for one). There are all sorts of tweaks that could be made to turn the story into a unique one.

What if, for example, the vampires were grizzled old loners who didn’t actually like each other and were supremely jealous of the resources they laid claim to. A radio documentary about paddlesteamers that travelled the Murray River (on the NSW/Victoria border in Australia) that I listened to years ago explained that these boats were fueled by locally cut wood and that each captain would arrange for stocks of this wood to be placed at intervals on the river bank so they could refill whenever was convenient. Now you might ask what was to stop a less than scrupulous captain from occasionally stealing a load of wood? Well apparently one steamboat captain ensured this never happened to him by planting sticks of dynamite in some of his logs. The idea was that while he (fingers crossed) knew which sections of log he had doctored nobody else did. Once word of what he had done circulated I doubt any of his fellow captains were game to take wood from his piles. The possibility of what might happen to your boat if the old bloke was telling the truth being too awful to contemplate.

It wouldn’t be difficult at all to depict a bunch of grizzled old loner vampires as being at least that crazy, and probably more so. It makes me shiver to think what such characters might do to keep other vampires off what they consider as their roads and away from their prey.

Another interesting starting point would be to set the story in a post-apocalyptic future where extensive chunks of the planet can no longer be traversed by humanity due to radiation and/or biological agents. In such a world the only way to transport goods from safe area to another might be through the agency of the living dead as neither radiation or biological agents can kill them. That would make for some interesting tensions as both groups would have something the other can provide, but how willingly?

However, regardless of what an author decided to do with the basis idea there is one thing of which I can be certain.

Blood guzzling monsters driving fuel guzzling monsters, it’s a natural.