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.

Some Achieve Greatness

Temporary Note: For reasons that I’m sure make sense to itself the company which has supplied my phone and Internet connection for the last decade recently decided to celebrate the upgrading of the local telecommunication network by closing my account with them and deleting my phone number. Currently I’m in the process of rectifying this but it’s taking longer than expected due to some uncertainty as to whether I and my home address actually exists. I’m pretty sure I exist and so does the apartment I’ve lived in for the last ten years but apparently my word doesn’t count for much within the telecommunications industry. Anyway, until such time as I have a home connection once more I’ve been reduced to using wi-fi wherever I can find it, a situation not really conducive to regularly posting at Doctor Strangemind. Normal service will be resumed just as soon as it’s agreed that I’m real and so indeed is my apartment (and if not, then why the heck did I have to pay all those phone bills?)

The green shoots of talent are hard to predict.

Like most of the mouldy hepcat set I see myself as being part of my absolute favourite John Belushi film is The Blues Brothers. I doubt many of you would find this fact, or the fact that my second favourite Belushi film is Animal House, particularly surprising. Just as few of you are likely to be shocked when I tell you my favourite line from Animal House has Belushi delving into alternate history:

Bluto: What? Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

My second favourite line from Animal House is, I believe, a more controversial choice. It’s uttered just after the boys return from the road trip and Flounder discovers the terrible things that has been done to his brother’s car. It’s at that point that Otter channels his inner politician and utters the most utterly perfect statesman-like line ever uttered:

Otter: Flounder, you can’t spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes! You screwed up… you trusted us! Hey, make the best of it! Maybe we can help.

Oh, and look, a science fiction reference at last. Flounder was of course played by Stephen Furst, who went on to play Vir Cotto in Babylon 5. And would you believe it, my two all time favourite scenes from Babylon 5 feature Stephen Furst as Vir (one involves Vir & Lennier stress relieving in the bar together, the other involves Vir telling Mr Morden that what he, Vir, wants is to live just long enough to see them cut Morden’s head off and put it on a pike so he can wave to it).

The speech I really want to quote however occurs early in the movie when the Deltas are deciding on which pledges to accept and Flounder’s picture appears on the screen. Most of the Deltas respond in a less than impressed manner but then Otter gets up and gives a speech about why he should be admitted:

Otter: Okay, okay, this guy is a real zero, that’s true. Just think back when you guys were freshmen, huh? Boon, you had a face like a pepperoni pizza, right? And Stork here, everybody thought the Stork was brain damaged. I myself was so obnoxious, the seniors use to beat me up once a week. So this guy is a total loser? Well let me tell you the story of another loser.

I love that speech because it reminds us all that no matter how successful or weird or clever or pompous we are we didn’t start that way, we had to work at it. Nobody starts as the mightiest tree in the forest, we might begin as a Flounder but only time will tell if we end up putting the burn on our very own Morden.

But you don’t have to believe Otter or myself. Let me quote from a speech made at the 1983 Disclave by one of the authors attending that con (for the record the text of this speech was reprinted in Bill Bower’s fanzine, Outworlds #34). Our mystery author begins thus:

I have been to Disclave before. Once. That was why I was so pleased when Alan Huff asked me to come east. Because it so happens that I attended the 1971 Disclave, and it so happens that it was my very first SF convention.

Interesting… Go on mystery author:

Maybe a few of you were here in ’71 too. If so, maybe you remember me. I looked a little different back then. My hair was shoulder length, just like everyone else’s, but I was still clean-shaven, I didn’t stop shaving until 1974. Even then, I was a snappy dresser. In fact, I was a hell of a lot snappier. As I recall, I wore my Psychedelic Hippie Pimp outfit to the con: ankle boots with zippers, burgundy bell-bottoms, a bright solid green tapered body shirt, a black satin scarf, and — the piece de resistance — my famous double-breasted pin-striped mustard-yellow sports jacket. Perhaps now you veterans recall me. I was the one wandering around the con suite doing permanent retinal damage.

Gah! I can’t imagine an outfit like that would be easy to forget. However, this doesn’t seem like a random wardrobe choice, oh mystery author:

You might wonder why I dressed up like I did. After all, it was only a con.

Yes, the thought did pass my mind:

…I figured I had to dress well because I was gonna be such a center of attention at Disclave, You see, I wasn’t no mere neofan wandering into his first con. Hell no! Not me! I was a filthy pro! Well, maybe not filthy, but dirty anyhow. Smudged a bit around the edges. I’d sold two stories. My first story had been published in Galaxy just that February. (Anyone here remember Galaxy?) My second I’d just sold the month before to Ted White for Amazing. It hadn’t even been published yet. In fact, I hadn’t even been paid for it. But I knew Ted was going to be at the con, and I was looking forward to meeting him. He was the editor of a major prozine, after all, and I was a brilliant new writer he’d just discovered, so I figured he’d certainly want to take me out to an expense-account dinner at Sans Souci, and I didn’t want to be under dressed. Besides, I figured I had to impress all the fans who’d be coming up to me for autographs. After all, I’d published a story! Hell, I’d made a career total of $94 from SF writing at that point, and I was gonna burst through into triple figures once Ted paid me.

Galaxy February 1971

Expectations, you can have all that you want because they don’t cost a cent (at first anyway). I guess making that first sale ensures every budding author feel like singing that line from I’m On My Way (as sung by The Proclaimers), “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today!”

Well, things didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned at that first Disclave. I must say, though, they started off promisingly enough. Once I found the con, that is. This was 1971, you must recall, and Washington didn’t have subways then, just holes-in-the-ground that screwed up traffic, plus a lot of buses. The con was at a different hotel, the Shoreham I believe, and I’d never been there, so I got on a bus Line I’d never ridden before and asked the driver to let me know when we came to the Shoreham Hotel, and settled down to read or look out the window or do something or other. Next thing I knew we were at the end of the line and everyone else had gotten off the bus. I had to ride all the way back, but finally I did find the hotel, and after that I managed to find the consuite. Just inside the door there was a table set up where they were taking registration. Sitting behind it was the very first science fiction fan I ever met. He was a very skinny guy with hair down to his waist and an extremely scraggly beard and a manic gleam in his eyes. He looked sort of like an orange Rasputin. He was not as well dressed as I was. But I forgave him that, because when I paid my money to register, he recognized my name! “Where have I heard that name before?” he asked me.

Oh yeah baby. The thrill the first time you arrive at a con and discover somebody you haven’t already met knows who you are. Notoriety is addictive! The world recognises that I exist! I have been validated!

I modestly allowed that I’d had a story in the February Galaxy and perhaps he had seen my by-line.

‘Shit!” he yelled. “I bought that story!” Then this skinny, hairy, orange guy introduced himself. His name was Gardner Dozois, he claimed, and he was an editor at Galaxy.

And now the plot thickens. At least for any of you familiar with the the name Gardner Dozois. I assume one or two of you who read this are (he assumes facetiously).

Then he buttonholed another skinny, hairy guy who’d come over to check on registration or something. “Jay,” he said. “here’s a guy I fished out of the slushpile.” Jay, as I recall, hadn’t read the story. In fact, although Gardner was to, introduce me to several other people at the con as a guy he’d fished out of the slushpile, none of then had read the story either. gr head of-it. Gardner was the only person at Disclave, or in the entire district of Columbia, it seemed, who was cognizant of the fact that I’d published a story.

I could suggest here that pride goeth before a fall but that would hardly be fair. Our mystery author later mentioned in his speech how in 1971 he was shy and something of a wallflower so I’m willing to bet he wasn’t as keen for mass adulation at the time as some of the material above suggests. He was surely sensible enough to realise he had done very well to encounter not one, but both editors who had bought a story of his (yes, he eventually met Ted White though he didn’t have much to say about that event).

I think that on the whole George R.R. Martin was pretty satisfied with his first public outing.

Yes, the man behind Game of Thrones was once a shy newbie wearing a mustard-yellow jacket and burgundy bell-bottoms. Would you have spotted him as a talent to watch? I doubt very much that I would have. So you see what I mean about nobody starting as the mightiest tree in the forest. George R.R. Martin may have begun his as career as the literary equivalent of Flounder but since then putting the equivalent of a burn on Morden is the least of his achievements. And that’s the thing, you might see somebody wearing an unlikely outfit talking excitably about the story they just had published and you may be tempted to roll your eyes. However, stay your contempt for at least a bit, unprepossessing as that individual may seem at first glance can you be really sure that they won’t become the next George R.R. Martin? And wouldn’t you like to be able to say, “I remember when…”

 

P.S. I have a theory by the way that Dave Jennings, the professor in Animal House, is actually Oddball, the tank commander from Kelly’s Heroes, fifteen years older (it helps that Donald Sutherland played both characters). I like to think it adds depth to both films, illustrating how the rebels of one generation can end up out of their depth when dealing with the next generation.

Sword & Saucery

How and why of eating your words.

Something that constantly disappoints me is the small role paperwork plays in the field of fantasy. Yes, it’s true that we rarely see how something like an accounts payable section or human resources department operates in a science fictional setting but at least when it comes to science fiction we can presume such matters are dealt with much as they are now but with better technology. Besides, setting the average office in a far future setting is fraught with the danger that your far future technology will become dated centuries before it’s supposedly still in use. This happened to Eric Frank Russell in a short story of his, Study In Still Life, that appeared in the January 1959 issue of Astounding Stories. Study In Still Life is all about how a humble clerk working on a frontier planet plays the bureaucracy of a galactic empire in order to fill a request for equipment he feels is more important than the alcohol that’s actually planned for delivery to his boss. Overall the story is decent enough but unfortunately one scene revolves around the sheer size of the library the purchasing department needs to maintain, a library which was according to Russell was ‘so large that a fully equipped expedition was needed to get anywhere beyond the letter F’. Of course in our future world of today the problem Russell envisions no longer exists due to the existence of computers and search engines. (For the record I’m sure it would be possible to update this scene with an equally entertaining problem based on current technology but of course in 50 years such a change would be every bit as dated as Russell’s original library of reference books.

In the realm of fantasy on the other hand problems such as obsolescence don’t exist and instead we can enjoy imagining how modern administration techniques and paper trails might be re-imagined in a fantasy setting. For example in Lord Of the Rings does King Théoden pursue Gandalf’s ‘borrowing’ of Shadowfax through the Middle-earth equivalent of a small claims court or does he upgrade the case to grand-theft equine? (Don’t groan, that pun just had to be made.) Another example is in Game Of Thrones where it might be demonstrated that the Lannisters always paid their debts because they have invented and become masters at double-entry bookkeeping. (Actually L. Sprague de Camp already made good use of that idea in what I think is his best novel, Lest Darkness Fall. In that book archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting Rome in 1938 only to be transported to 535 AD Rome via a lightning strike. Once there he attempts to change the ancient world with various inventions but none of his major projects work out. Instead, certain other innovations he introduces without much thought turn out to be far more influential. Among the latter successes was the theory of double-entry bookkeeping.)

Given the preceding I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to learn I’ve been giving the paperwork aspect of fantasy a good deal of thought. In particular it’s occurred to me that it must be rather complicated for characters in a fantasy novel if they live in a world where paper hasn’t been invented. And given making paper of any quality is a moderately complex process it seems reasonable to consider a fantasy setting without paper being as just as likely as one where such a convenient product exists.

So why does it matter if the characters in a fantasy world don’t have access to paper? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of alternatives to paper after all. This is true and for most purposes those alternatives are perfectly adequate. Mind you any culture that doesn’t discover a relatively compact and portable medium on which to write upon is going find its recording options limited. While, for example, the Babylonians made extensive use of clay tablets for recording accounts, writing letters etc I can’t imagine it would be easy to write a novel like Dune using such a medium. I keep imagining the following exchange:

Friend:          “Hey Frank. How’s the novel going?”

Herbert:        “I gave up and built a shed with the rough draft.”

Still, could be worse, the Paleolithic version of Dune would only be available as a series of cave paintings. Even if Herbert managed to finish his graphic novel I bet he’d have a real job convincing anybody to come up and see his etchings.

Taral

Novels to one side I suspect the greatest problem in a fantasy world without paper is how to send secret messages to your confederates. The big advantage of paper in this regards is that it’s light, compact, durable, but relatively easy to destroy if it’s about to fall into the wrong hands. The same cannot be said for any of the other obvious options.

Of course in a fantasy world the obvious option is to use magical means but I see two main problems with the idea of relying on magic users to pass messages back and forth. The first being that this requires the ability to use magic be sufficiently common that magic users can be employed as the equivalent of telegraph operators. Colour me cynical but I suspect that if magical knowledge was that common then the interception and decoding of magical signals would also be a thing. The second is that not everybody put in a position of trust can be relied on to remain trustworthy. If you consider the how often tales of banks and other businesses suffering embezzlement surface you will see what I mean.

Then there is the idea of sending out a messenger who has memorised the entire contents of a lengthy and complex message. This is not as impractical as you might think given that during our own ancient and medieval periods it was common for individuals to learn how to memorise vast amounts of information. For example consider this quote about the ancient Greek Poet Simonides of Ceos. It comes from Daniel Boorstin’s book about the history of discovery, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search To Know His World & Himself:

Once at a banquet in the house of Scopas in Thessaly, Simonides was hired to chant a lyric in honor of his host. But only half of Simonides’ poem was in praise of Scopas, as he devoted the other half to the divine twins Castor and Pollux. The angry Scopas therefore would pay only half the agreed sum. While the many guests were still at the banquet table a message was brought to Simonides that there were two young men at the door who wanted him to come outside. When he went out he could see no one. The mysterious callers were, of course, Castor and Pollux, who had found their own way to pay Simonides for their share of the panegyric. For at the very moment when Simonides had left the banquet the roof fell in, burying all the other guests in the ruins. When relatives came to take away the corpses for the burial honors, the mangled bodies could not be identified. Simonides then exercised his remarkable memory to show the grieving relatives which bodies belong to whom. He did this by thinking back to where each of the guests had been seated. Then he was able to identify by place each of the bodies.

Even if we ignore the hyperbole, I think we can assume that Simonides exited the banquet for more prosaic reasons than to answer the call of the gods, this is still an impressive feat. Not only did Simonides memorise a lengthy poem to be recited at Scopas’ party (I assume lengthy because nobody pays for a limerick sized party piece) but while reciting it Simonides was able to note and remember the location of everybody present. I would imagine that anybody capable of such a feat would surely be able to memorise just about any sized message they were given.

The downside to this being of course that if the messenger is taken prisoner there’s no guarantee said messenger will be able to keep what they have been entrusted with secret. Perhaps those captors won’t be able to find a punishment, threat, or bribe which can penetrate the armour of the messenger’s silence but who wants to rely on that?

So, if using your most talented agents to carry messages via memory is too risky an option then the obvious alternative would be to send out less valuable underlings carrying hand-written messages. If said underlings are illiterate then they will be suitably ignorant of what the message contains and thus no amount of interrogation will give the game away. However, this option creates a different problem in that all of the traditional alternatives to paper have significant flaws. Clay tablets are right out as they’re both too bulky and almost impossible to destroy quickly. Parchment (made from the skin of sheep or goats), vellum (made from the skin of lambs or calves), or silk are a little easier to dispose of but would still take far too long to destroy if an agent is likely to be captured. On the other hand obliterating a message written on on a wax tablet would be quick and easy but wax tablets are fragile and there would be a significant risk of accidental erasure, which is not a good development if the messenger doesn’t know what was in the message.

Okay, so what to do if all the traditional options are either too difficult or too easy to destroy? Time to think out of the box then and consider the possibilities of non-traditional writing surfaces. This is when it occurred to me that in any fantasy world large herbivores should be pretty common and the meat of such animals can be dried and cured to make a substance called jerky. Normally this process was used by to preserve meat from going bad but it was also a useful way of carrying a ready supply of protein on long trips.

Okay, so how about expanding the possible uses of jerky by carving messages into nicely dried chunks of meat? The beauty of this system is that there’s no longer any danger of important documents falling into the wrong hands. If the messenger entrusted with with such a message carved into a strip of jerky feels there’s a real chance of being captured all they have to do is eat the message. If it helps I don’t see why messengers couldn’t carry bottles of their preferred condiment to help the meat go down quick. Adding a little sauce should render the jerky tender enough for quick consumption, and make it tastier as an added bonus.

Using jerky has another advantage in that because of its three dimensional nature messages carved into slices of cured meat could also be read with the fingers like braille. This would be a very useful feature as it would allow the recipient to ‘read’ it in the dark or with the message out of sight.

However, I do think such a system requires two things in order for it to work properly.

The first would be an alphabet of rune-like symbols into which every message would need to be converted. This is not so much to encrypt the words as to make both the carving and reading of them easier. A set of symbols mostly composed of straight lines would be far easier to inscribe than text such as you’re reading here.

The second requirement would of course be for couriers who have the ability to dispose of the messages entrusted to them quickly and effectively. I don’t think bird-like eaters need apply for this sort of employment.

Jim Cawthorn 4 - Amra 62

So there you have it, the perfect way to keep all fantasy world correspondence safe. And it’s not like this idea has to be limited to secret messages as an entirely jerky based bureaucracy should be possible. All your clerks would need are some sharp knives and a ready supply of meat. Not only that but such documents can go into a stew or soup once they’re no longer needed. Try that with a clay tablet and see what it gets you.

Art credits (top to bottom): Taral Wayne (originally appeared in Yhos #51, August 1991, published by Art Widner), & Jim Cawthorn (originally appeared in Amra #62, October 1974, published by George Scithers).

The Case of the Vampire Erect

People really do ask me this sort of thing.

Vampire

And so it came to pass that one day I was asked my opinion in regards to vampiric tumescence. Given my reputation I felt it was only fair that I should at least attempt some sort of answer. This is that answer.

The initial question when framed as basically as possible is as follows. Are all vampires, some vampires, or indeed any vampires capable of achieving tumescence?

The answer to that is short and sweet. Yes. As a fictional creation the vampire can be made to follow any set of rules the creator desires so vampiric erections are clearly possible.

The real question, of course, is how. It can be argued that as the vampire is a fantasy creation an entirely valid answer to this query is, because vampires capable of erections are amazeballs. However, as this answer will satisfy only those among us who consider amazeballs proper English I think I shall have to work a little harder for an answer.

So, before we go any further we need to divide vampires into two categories, the traditional and the non-traditional. Taking the second one first, non-traditional vampires is a category which includes unknown Earth species, aliens, robots, and androids, in short any creature which possesses some sort of motivating energy other than magic. This category however is so varied that it would be impossible to make any generalities about any of their capabilities, let alone whether such creatures are capable of erections. Of those examples I can recall which fit this category Hal Clement’s 1976 short story, A Question of Guilt, features an alien which if I remember correctly (and it has been a long time since I read A Question of Guilt) has sufficient vampire-like qualities that it could be mistaken for an off-world version of a vampire but as the story includes no mention of alien reproductive practises the question is an impossible one to answer. The Tobe Hooper movie, Lifeforce, is no more useful despite the large amount of tumescence inducing female nudity. The alien vampires admit they have taken on the form of attractive humans in order to make their hunting on Earth easier but hunting is a different kettle of fish to breeding. In the film how they breed and whether erections are involved are never delved into though given the ship the alien vampires were found in was alive and seemed to be somehow connected to the vampires I suspect the alien reproductive cycle had no need for erections. I’ve not read the 1976 Colin Wilson novel, The Space Vampires, which the Hooper film is based upon but reviews mention that the aliens in that are actually energy beings which would seem to put them in the non-tumescence column.

However, I have read one short story in which vampire erections are go. Unfortunately I read this story so long ago for I have absolutely no idea who wrote it or what it was called. (Any suggestions as to the name of the author or that of the story wouod be very much appreciated.) I can’t even be sure of all the details but as far as I can recall the main character was an orphan who had come to realise that while his adoptive parents were human he was not. As he grows older a yearning grows in our protagonist to meet other vampires, creatures like him. He begins to search the rural countryside because for reasons I can’t remember he’s confident there are vampires living locally. Eventually he does meet several male vampires and discovers them to be little better than hill-billy stereotypes living hand-to-mouth in a half-wild state. They take him to a barn (I think) where the hill-billy vampires take turns to breed with a female vampire (incidentally revealing that vampire genitals are quite different in design to those of homo sapiens) and invite him to join in. The protagonist declines this offer and returns home to deal with the knowledge that he is trapped between two worlds, neither of which he is capable of integrating into. That’s the story as best I can remember, the implication being that the vampires were no more than flesh and blood creatures with no magical powers. Therefore the one story I know of where vampire erections unequivocally exist how the vampires achieve tumescence doesn’t need to be explained, especially given it’s possible the vampires are distantly related to homo sap.

I don’t think I need to consider non-traditional vampires any more deeply than this. I think it’s obvious that their physical abilities can be explained by either terrestrial or alien biology, assuming achieving tumescence is even relevant to them at all. However before I go any further I’d like to pause and mention how much I hope somebody one day attempts to explore the possibilities of robot or android vampires. Yes, I know, something like that is hard to make work without involving great dollops of super-science and at least one mad genius but some of us don’t see such additions as a bad thing at all.

This brings us to the question of the traditional vampire. The traditional form of the vampire, though we can see it was once a living human, is now one of the dead that has chosen to remain among the living. The traditional vampire is therefore by definition undead and only continues to function in our world through the hand-waving explanation of the supernatural, that is magic.

Now if the creators of traditional vampires have never cared to explain whether their creations are capable of achieving tumescence, well, neither do they explain how any other part of their creation’s bodies manage to continue working despite the absence of life. In other words if we accept that a being which is no longer living can flex it’s muscles in order to walk and talk then it would be churlish indeed to demand that they stop to explain the mechanics of tumescence. However, though we don’t expect authors to explain how their traditional vampires exercise non-living muscles that doesn’t mean I can’t try. It occurs to me that the use of the supernatural to explain the undead’s simulation of life can be made to explain not only that but various questions about vampires and blood.

Why do vampires need blood after all? It’s not like they need fuel themselves the way the living do. They don’t need anything but magic to operate their undead limbs. But suppose they do, suppose the blood they drink but don’t seemingly excrete in any manner doesn’t rot in their veins but instead is consumed as the fuel which feeds the magic so vital to their functioning. There is no evidence to support this supposition of course. Neither does it explain an aversion to daylight or garlic, vampiric shape changing abilities, or why cutting off the head or putting a stake through the heart might end a vampire but given all those are outside the brief I was given I don’t particularly care. All that matters to me is that the idea of blood being fuel for the magic which operates them is a very useful explanation for the whole why and wherefore of the vampire’s blood drinking habits.

Anyway, even if we go with the assumption that traditional vampires are animated by magic (regardless of whether blood is involved or not) this still leaves the question of vampiric capability unanswered. That’s because as far as I can see for a vampire to achieve tumescence two conditions would need to be met. First the vampire needs to be properly equipped in order to be physically capable of the act. This is trickier than you might think as not all traditional vampire legends involve well preserved creatures of the night. Secondly the vampire needs to possess the appropriate desires because without such it doesn’t matter what a vampire is physically equipped with.

Thus what we need to do is examine those earliest genre defining stories to see what they can tell us.

Which means starting with the first generation of vampires, the denizens of the traditional folk tale. Now I’m by no means an authority on such folk tales but I’ve certainly read bits here and there and this first generation doesn’t seem overly endowed with suitable candidates. Indeed I’ve long thought most folk tales regarding vampires shouldn’t even be considered to be about proper vampires. It’s a tricky situation because on one hand there was no consensus back then as to what constituted a vampire but on the other hand the tale range so widely it would be better to describe them as being broadly about ‘creatures of the night’.

Take for example the Irish legend of Abhartach. In Derry is a place called Slaghtaverty, but which ought to be called Laghtaverty, the laght or sepulchral monument of the Abhartach or dwarf. This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant who perpetrated great cruelties until slain by a neighbouring chieftain. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he reappeared, more cruel than ever. So the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place but upsidedown. This subdued his magical power, so that Abhartach never again appeared abroad.

As you can see all Abhartach has in common with our idea of the vampire is being supernaturally undead. All too many of these early legends are like this, the Nachtzehrer of Germany, the Sumerian Ekimmu, and the Striga of Italian legend are all too often incomprehensibly labelled as vampires. On the whole I think it’s safer when discussing the nature of vampires to give the folk tales a big swerve and move right on to the literary vampire. The only reason I’ve written as much as I have about folk tale vampires is to make clear the lore is too all-encompassing to be very useful.

To me the most interesting difference between the folk tale and the literary vampire is one of intelligence. In most folk tales the assorted creatures of the night lumped beneath the term vampire are often (but not always) bestial creatures with little or no capacity for thought. Indeed a lot of these creatures are closer to the modern zombie than anything we would recognise as being vampiric. The literary vampire as portrayed in such formative stories as The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori, Carmilla (1871) by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker is on the other hand described as an intelligent and scheming creature. As well as that these literary vampires are physically capable of participating in human society without comment (or at least without too much comment). This leads me to suspect they are all still suitably equipped and with the application of the magic which drives their undead bodies I imagine they would all be capable of achieving tumescenc in one fashion or another and simulating the sex act. I can’t imagine they would be able to either conceive or impregnate another as both those act involve processes which seem to me to be a bit too complicated even for magic.

That brings us to my second condition, not just the ability but a desire to achieve that state. However none of the vampires featured in the three stories mentioned above seem especially interested in carnal matters. Apart from their intelligence the most consistent feature of these vampires is their disdain for humanity. And yes, that includes Carmilla, who while she carries on in a touchy-feely manner to disarm her victims (thus allowing the unobservant to come to the utterly erroneous assumption of lesbianism) does rather let the cat out of the bag at various points in the story about her true feelings for the human race. I assume that while any of them can use supernatural magic to create the right physical conditions it’s hard to imagine situations where they would feel the need to actually do so.

In conclusion I don’t think the how of tumescence is the right question to be asking. If authors need to be asked searching questions about their sexy vampires then to my mind the only question worth asking is why? Given the usual accepted facts about vampire lore I’m struggling to see any reason for a vampire to have an interest in sex. Which is not to say it can’t be justified, just that I’ve not yet encountered a successful attempt to do so. If some author I’m not aware of hasn’t already produced a suitably clever justification then it’s about time this motivational hole was filled.

Nature abhors a vacuum after all, even when it comes to the supernatural.

On the Newsstand

Adversity always inflames the enthusiast.

It’s 1955, Elvis Presley is on the radio, Dragnet is on the TV, and last but not least Astounding Science Fiction is on the magazine racks. So here is Joe Fan pushing open the door to his neighbourhood drugstore in Anytown, USA. It’s the start of of a new month and Joe is eager to begin searching for the latest instalment of his favourite form of fiction.

He pauses briefly in the doorway to take in the magnificent sight before his eyes. Row upon row of bright coloured covers hint at the wealth of wonders waiting just behind them. Everything sort of fiction magazine a keen reader could want is laid out in serried rows, detectives, westerns, sports, air war, jungle adventures, true romance, the choices seem endless.

But what is this, where is Joe Fan’s favourite form of reading? He can see everything but the science fiction he so desperately craves! How could this be he thinks to himself and turns towards the counter to inquire into the availability of current SF magazines. But before Joe can utter a single word the druggist has turned and scurried to the rear of the store. Joe sighs upon seeing the elderly gentleman’s retreating back and girding his loins strides to the nearest rack in order to begin pawing through the literature on display.

Eventually, in a corner assailable only by climbing three towering stacks of hot rod magazines and crawling over a dusty mound of fading newspapers does Joe at last find what he has been looking for. Scrambling back into into the afternoon sunlight he takes another look at the contents of his hand, only to discover what he holds are nothing but almost mint copies of Stirring Science Stories. He drops them with disgust.

Joe frowns and resignedly crouches behind the stacked magazines. Tearing the cover off a copy of Hot Rod’s he pokes out Jack Webb’s eyes and stares through the small holes as he lays in wait for the druggist. Eventually that elderly gentleman comes shuffling back from the shadowy and mysterious recesses of the store. Joe Fan leaps up, the Hot Rod’s cover held before him, “Hold it right there friend! I’d like to ask you some questions!”

The druggist recoils in surprise, staggering back against the counter, “Please Mr Webb! I ain’t done nothing wrong. You can’t take me in, I have a business to run!”

Joe waggled the magazine cover menacingly, “Now none of that. I just want the facts doc, just the facts. Where are you hiding Astounding and the other science fiction mags?”

The druggist frowned, “You’re not Jack Webb. An upstanding detective like him would never be interested in perverse trash like that. The science fiction is out the back where it belongs young fellow me lad and there it will stay. I only sell science fiction to customers who can prove they’re over 21. So unless you have some proof of identity be on your way!”

Joe Fan knew a losing battle when he saw one. The whole business with Ray Palmer and the Shaver Mystery had aged him beyond his tender years. Without another word he turned and strolled out of the drugstore as casually as possible. However if the druggist had but seen Joe Fan’s face lost in thought he would know that this was not the end of the matter, not by a long shot.

Drugstore Magazine Rack

Poor Joe Fan! All he wants is to buy the latest issues of Astounding, Galaxy, and if he’s feeling particularly sophisticated, F&SF. Unfortunately for Joe the delivery of his favourite reading material was a cooperative effort. In order for Joe to set eyes upon any magazine the delivery process required not just a publisher but a printer, distributor, and retailer as well. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that none these businesses cared about Joe’s reading preferences. In particular Joe’s druggist had little incentive to sell that one extra copy of any title. Even today the average retailer of magazines has hundreds of magazines in stock, and really, so long as all these titles as a group sell a decent number between them each month what does it matter to the business if a particular title sells 6 copies or only 5?

Luckily for Joe he had somebody looking out for him. Well to be honest that somebody was actually paid by certain publishers to look out for them but if the end result allowed Joe to buy his favourite magazines who are we to quibble?

Time for me to introduce Dave Mason. I doubt you’re familiar with the name because while he did sell a few stories over the years he was hardly prolific. While writing wasn’t the primary means by which Dave Mason earned a living he still knew something about the magazine business. According to an article by Mason published in the November 1955 issue of Ron Smith’s fanzine, Inside & Science Fiction Advertiser #12, he was as involved with the publishing business as most authors. In this article Mason put his two cents into the debate various authors had been having in the pages of Inside about why the science fiction field had recently gone from boom to bust. I’m sharing a slightly pruned down version of this article here because Mason goes into a lot of fascinating detail about how things worked at the coalface of the of the magazine trade in his day. (And are things so very different today? I suspect not.) He also offers a good many opinions that I found amusing and which will hopefully amuse you too.

But before you dive right in a couple of points. First of all Mason uses a couple of slang terms that have left me slightly confused as to their meaning. I included them in for that authentic fifties feel but don’t expect me to be able to explain what they mean. Secondly, I’d be curious to know if anybody can make an educated guess as to which magazine Mr Mason was referring to when he wrote about the situation with ‘Exasperating Tales‘. My first thought was that ‘Exasperating Tales‘ was really Imagination as published by William Hamling but I’m not sure if that guess makes sense or not.

Mason

I am getting awfully tired of this whole silly argument, chums. And I do mean the argument about what’s with the boom/bust/bwah of poor old science fiction. Look, I ain’t no lit’ry type, see? I wrote a story, and it got published by a fella named Shaw in a magazine called Infinity, but nobody invites me to pro parties, and H.L. Gold doesn’t know me from Hubbard.

But there’s one phase of this silly business I do know about. And it’s the one thing that all of the brilliant editors, publishers, authors, such who’ve been belaboring each other appear to know very, very little about, and care less. And that is a thing coarsely known as distribution.

I get paid for knowing something about it. Not as much as Horace gets for editing Galaxy, not even as much as an apprentice printer gets for running his fingers across the web to create that interesting smudged effect Beyond used to go for, before Beyond went annual. But for the mysteries whereof I am adept, I get a small purse of gold which may or may not prove that my services are worth something to somebody.

The firm for which I slave is a poor one, and one of many such; it’s generally called, before ladies, a publisher’s representative. This means that magazine publishers, on being confronted with the dark jungle that lies between the printer’s shipping room and the customer’s cash, cry aloud for a white hunter to guide them through, defend and preserve them, and lend them comfort when the drums beat loud. That’s us. We bedevil, pursue, and harry newsdealers; we ceaselessly shove excess copies about the highways and byways; we stick up posters, enchant with smiles and soap, make endless statistics, and perform similar mantic arts to the end that nowhere in the civilized world may any man, woman or fan step into a newsstand and be confronted with the absence of a magazine we represent.

Now, these arts are a dark mystery to nearly all editors and publishers. When they are handed the plain and simple results of a great deal of legwork, and those results fail to correspond with some airy theory they have may have about their publications, the genii simply ignore them. Therefore follows trouble, such as now, and for quite a while, has beset science fiction.

To cite an example: There is, upon the lists of my firm, a Certain Magazine, which we shall call Exasperating Tales. The publisher of ET pays us for our services, but apparently is not sufficiently interested to find out exactly what those services are. The editor, nobody’s fool otherwise, does not even know we exist. I know, because I met him once and mentioned that I worked for the firm that represented his publication. He appeared to think we had something to do with printing it.

Now, Exasperating is slipping. It’s slipping so badly that it’s a mystery as to how it keeps going. On the other hand, earnest efforts by us help keep it going (no, we don’t want gratitude – we get paid).

It doesn’t take much research to find out why. There is a strictly limited market for the magazine in question and too many copies are going out. But it wouldn’t be quite such a limited market if a few touches were added; the covers could be better, for instance, and certain other things might help. And, although we don’t advise on editorial policy, if enough newsstand buyers are saying the stories stink, we hear about it and report the fact. Mind you, we don’t say we think they stink, but that newsstand buyers do.

And this, together with other information such as the way the magazine sells, where, and during what part of the on-sale period, is reported to the publisher. If he does anything about it at all – and he often doesn’t – he seldom if ever mentions anything to the editor. The editor works in a vacuum, with only a few letters to tell him anything: and those letters are usually from rabid fans, who aren’t representative of the general reading public.

But now, just how does this whole set-up I’m speaking of work? What be these mysteries of which editors are blissfully ignorant? How is it that the vintner sells? Well…

You have thirty thousand nicely printed copies of Frenetic Fiction, Volume One, Number One. You are a publisher.

You aren’t going to wait around until enough people mail you subscriptions. You’re a publisher, but you have some sanity left. What you need is a distributor who will put copies on newsstands and in stores. You take a look at what’s available.

There are a few small time distributors who carry a few very popular magazines to routes in various areas. Those we don’t even think about. Then there are a couple of so-called Independents (since one man’s family owns ’em all, the term ‘Independent’ is by courtesy) and there is the Big ‘Un, American News. Your decision on which to use is based on the kind of magazine, the number of copies to be sold, its expected popularity, whether you can afford American News’ rates for national distribution, etc. Once you’ve made up your mind, the favored outfit gets your 30,000 hunks of deathless literature and proceeds to wreak.

The distributor’s method is usually to examine your mag and, after uffish thought, to decide that Frenetic Fiction is very like The Quarterly Fetishist, on the basis that the same sort of moron buys both. However, since the lad who makes this decision is probably a guy who moves his lips when he reads, and who thinks Amazing is science fiction, he can quite easily be fooled into using Boot & Shoe Industry as a comparison magazine for Boats & Ships.

Once his usual slightly wrong decision has been made, our distributor’s expert proceeds to make a distribution. He does this by opening up his lists of dealers and saying, “Well, Gooha’s Stationary Store gets six copies of The Quarterly Fetishist, sells four. Give him eight of Frenetic Fiction, on account we got twice as many copies to get rid of.” Thereafter the distributor using these figures carries copies of Frenetic, along with all the other magazines he handles, to Gooha, and to all the other stores and stands called for.

Gooha opens the bundle and sees a new magazine among the others. Gooha, you must remember, is a high grade moron, much smarter than the average fan. He is in the magazine business because at an early age his Aunt Tchasha bought it for him; she correctly figured that books and magazines were the only stock in trade he wouldn’t try to steal. He hates the magazine business – all newsdealers do. They make much more on candy bars and reefers, and they only keep magazines in the place so the cop on the beat can have something to paw over when he comes in for his weekly ice.

Gooha cannot read, but he can recognise a new magazine. He resents the very idea of a publisher trying to make him sell something. He grunts and flings it under the counter, to be returned at the end of the week without ever having been visible. If you ask Gooha about Frenetic he will say, quite truthfully, “Duh, it didn’t sell.” That’s right, it didn’t, none of his customers having X-ray vision.

The magazines are given to Gooha and his anthropoid brethren on consignment, which means he only has to pay for what he inadvertently sells. He has to pay a very small carrying charge and he has to keep a small sum on deposit with the distributor; also, he must return a magazine which has not been sold in order to get credit. The dealers resent these various small curbs on what they would like to do, which would be to evade their bills, swindle everybody involved, and possibly sell the unsold magazines for pulp.

Now, among other things, I make up distributions for publishers. Having personally visited Gooha and a thousand others of his ilk, I know him well. I know what his stand looks like, his habits, his prejudices, what sells well and what doesn’t. Judging by this, I try to give him enough copies so that he will have to return only two or three.

If he ‘prematures’, or returns copies before the end of sale period, or if he sells out rather quickly, I will find out about it. If, for instance, I don’t see Frenetic right out there in front, I’ll ask him where it is. I may try to do him little favors like adding up 3 and 7 so his accounts will come out straight. But with smiles and soap I’ll get copies of Frenetic out in front where the madding crowd can see it. If he returns copies, re-orders will appear in his mail the same day. If he tries to sell them out fast, I’ll be there with more. And, as returns come drifting back to the distributor, I’ll be there waiting with a list of dealers who have never received Frenetic, to whom returned copies can be sent, thereby making certain that no copies stop moving till the end of sale.

Now, there’s more to promotion than this; I’m not writing a book on the subject. But the whole basic concept of promoting is the same anywhere, in all fields. It’s this: Make a noise. Beat on a tin pan in the market place and cry loudly, “I have oil and wine, o ye Faithful!” And whether the wine be good or bad, the loudest pan-beater sells the most. Being an idealist I would prefer that the loudest pan-beater also be a good wine-maker, but there’s no necessary connection.

I shall now make some highly radical statements.

Number one. I know, better than – certain other parties – what kinds of science fiction will sell, which will sell best and which will not sell at all. Now, when I speak of promotion, I don’t mean that lousy stuff of the SF Plus or Amazing variety will naturally sell better than Astounding or Fantasy & Science Fiction. It doesn’t, unless, as in the case of Amazing, the enormous push of a big chain publisher’s sales and circulation staff are put behind it. Rap didn’t make Amazing into the leading seller single handed, and he didn’t do it simply by making it the awful crud that it was; he did it because Ziff-Davis knew how to make magazines sell. That’s nothing in Rap’s disfavor – it’s easy for him to think he was the prime mover, because, as usual, the editorial department lived in Parnassus, above the madding throng of circulation men.

On the other side of that coin, SF Plus, which did its best to be much worse than Amazing, and succeeded to a large extent, was a tee-total newsstand flop. That was not merely because it was as bad as it was, but because there was hardly any shadow of an attempt made to circulate it properly. It’s doubtful if any amount of promotion could have helped that item, but it might have; you never can tell.

Second radical statement. Science fiction – real science fiction, and good fantasy, adult stuff – will never have a really large market. On the other hand, there’s a good steady small market for a few magazines of quality. Unless you publish the kind of thing Imagination does, which simply cannot be classed as anything but comic book stuff, you aren’t going to get large sales. So don’t try.

Which to digress into another phase of the lunacy that is the publishing business. Whenever anything appears to be selling well, there will be seventeen other publishers, most of them of the sort that operate out of hats and strictly on credit, who will rush to supply the obvious public hunger with seventeen imitations of the successful item. There are three or four imitations of Mad on the stands now; there will be ten or fifteen imitations of Shock as soon as the other publishers find out how well it’s been selling. And every time there’s a slight upturn in SF there are seventeen hungry impresarios waiting to turn out imitations.

Third radical statement. Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding are going to last just as long as Boucher and Campbell feel like running them. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Galaxy suddenly went poof. I’d be sorry, because I like it. But I don’t think SF would feel the loss.

My reason for comparing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Astounding with Galaxy is this: Boucher and Campbell know a great deal about their public, and have been giving them a pretty consistent diet of what that public wants. Gold, on the other hand, is a guy who knows what he likes, and that’s what he’s going to publish. If you happen to share all of Gold’s personal tastes – which would be difficult – you’ll like Galaxy all the way, every issue. If you don’t, Galaxy will ultimately begin to bore you.

So, from an illiterate, hairy-hoofed, harrier of dealers and juggler of distribution, these words of wisdom: One of these days there will come out of the desserts a Great Man, some editor-publisher who will know how to put together a good general SF magazine. An editor who will put as much effort into promotion and distribution as he does convention activity. And then, we shall see…

Alas for Dave Mason his final prediction never came to pass. Indeed it can be argued that by 1960 the few remaining science fiction magazines had been relegated to a place behind the newly dominant paperbacks and would remain there for ever more.

Now before I finish we need check in on Joe Fan.

That night a shadowy figure crept across the roof of a certain drugstore and with trembling fingers eased open the skylight. A moment later that same figure lowered itself into the store down an Acme brand Chain of Logic and with a soft but gleeful laugh headed for the unlocked storeroom.

And so it was that sooner or later each month Joe Fan’s druggist foe would find his magazine racks mysteriously rearranged and the despised science fiction prominently displayed. He was so disheartened by this mysterious turn of events he could barely bring himself to accept the money customers kept pressing into his hands…

 

Conan the Rebooter

What is best in life? To revive a franchise, to turn it into a success, and to hear the lamentation of your rivals!

I really do wish Hollywood would consult with me before embarking upon certain film projects. I’ve no doubt my sage advice could save them endless money and embarrassment in regards to the making of the more expensive science fiction and fantasy sort of films. “What’s that Mr Executive? You’re thinking about green-lighting a film based on the game Battleship? No. Just no.”

Ah, but I sense you would like some proof of my ability to deliver such sage advice. Fair enough, let’s then consider that famous barbarian, Conan, by Crom! As a teenager I read at least eleventy-seven paperbacks featuring Conan stories (published by Sphere Books in the UK and by first Lancer and then Ace Books in the US) so I’m reasonably familiar with the source material. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Robert E. Howard’s stories but I think I can unequivocally state that neither attempt to put Conan on the big screen was unflawed.

Sphere Conan

Okay, I know that statement won’t sit well with the myriad fans of Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, but perhaps they will forgive me once I explain.

In fact the 1982 film, Conan the Barbarian, is a watchable but overly generic fantasy film. And that of course is the core of the problem from my point of view. Howard gave Conan an origin, a history, a philosophy, and a detailed world to stride across but to me little or none of that is present in this 1982 epic. In particular the origin story included in this version, an origin in which his parents and all the other adults of Conan’s village are killed by mounted raiders and Conan himself put into slavery, bears no resemblance to anything Howard wrote (but is quite like scenes from so many other sword and sorcery movies of that period). Given the source material for Conan is uniquely detailed it’s a great pity the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation filled Conan the Barbarian with scenes that are indistinguishable from contemporary sword and sorcery films; films such as Hawk the Slayer (1980), The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982), Ator, the Fighting Eagle (1982), & Deathstalker (1983). At least once Conan’s origins are dealt with the rest of the plot is serviceable and doesn’t clash (at least as far as I can recall) with Howard’s creation.

Actually, given the tendency of the plot and settings towards generic imagery I do wonder if Conan the Barbarian would be more fondly remembered than, for example, Ator, the Fighting Eagle had the director of the former cast Miles O’Keeffe as Conan instead of the hugely popular Arnold Schwarzenegger? For that matter would Conan the Barbarian be so fondly remembered if Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t then go on to star in The Terminator? I think not because while Arnie made a pretty decent Conan (it could be argued that he was the best thing in the 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian) nothing about the rest of the film stands out. I suspect that Conan the Barbarian benefits from the fact that The Terminator is a film that drags every other part of Schwarzenegger’s career up a notch or two (well except for Hercules in New York, I’ve seen that one and you had better believe me when I tell you it’s beyond even the gravitational pull of The Terminator).

This is a great pity because I really do think Arnie worked well as Conan despite him not really being much like Howard’s vision. He certainly didn’t look like the magazine Conan, a character who I think is closer in looks to Frank Frazetta’s depictions on those Sphere covers above. The script also had him displaying the occasional flash of unconscious humour which while not canon I thought a necessary addition. Howard’s Conan is a very serious character, even a little pompous at times (especially when decrying the faults of civilisation), and I can’t imagine him coming out with anything like Arnie’s line about the lamentation of the women. Now while that level of seriousness is tolerable in Howard’s relatively short stories the occasional lighter moment is a welcome relief in a full-length action film. Also, the humour works because it’s clear that Schwarzenegger’s Conan isn’t aware of the fact that something he said or did comes across as funny.

All of which brings me to the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian. First of all, given the comments above I doubt you will be surprised to learn that I thought the casting of Jason Momoa was one of the stronger points of this second version. I was also very pleased with the early scenes depicting Conan’s origin story. I would like to note here that some reviewers of the film have mocked the absurdity of the birth scene for being absurd. Which is true, it’s absurdly over the top but it’s absurdly over the top in the stories too. What these reviewers seem to have missed is how important this absurdity is to the Conan mythos. The fact that Conan was born on a battlefield is there to underline just how over the top the character of Conan is. I would bet good money that’s why Howard kept mentioning the born on a battlefield business in the first place, to make it clear that Conan’s over the top feats are possible because he’s already been established as an over the top character.

Unfortunately this version of Conan goes downhill once the main plot takes over. The whole villain who must be defeated or whole world will suffer plot was done to death long before this film was made. At this late stage the only way to make such a plot tolerable is to make the villainous threat secondary to other aspects of the story. If the film doesn’t concentrate on character interaction or include a major mystery to be unravelled then these ultimate evil plots do tend to be pretty boring. It also a bad plot to use in an action flick that intends to be the first of a series (as I assume they hoped the Conan reboot would be). Really, if you pull that trick in your first movie then what do you do in the sequel? Start with averting the end of the world and it becomes very difficult to produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a let-down. Howard clearly knew that and avoided writing himself into such a corner. Which is another reason why this plot was entirely inappropriate for a Conan movie. Anybody familiar with Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan know he kept the stakes small in order to ensure that whatever he wrote didn’t eclipse latter stories. As far as I recall it wasn’t till he wrote the novel length story, The Hour of the Dragon, which is set towards the end of the Conan story arc, do the stakes become significantly higher than in stories set earlier in Conan’s career.

All in all as far as I’m concerned while each film version of Conan the Barbarian has some good features neither has enough to be a fully satisfactory movie. Interestingly though with a little judicious hacking and stitching I cold see the two plots being joined together to make a pretty decent Conan film. Begin with the origin story of the second film and continue on with the small-scale plot of the first and the end result would be at least adequate.

So why is this so? To me the obvious answer is that other than The Hour of the Dragon Howard never wrote any novel length stories featuring Conan. Howard was writing for the pulp magazines of course and in order to achieve the best possible financial return he focused on writing shorter stories in the hopes of achieving fast sales. The trouble is what worked for Howard doesn’t work when scripting a Conan film because stories of 30K or less he was writing just don’t have enough plot to fill out a feature length film. So the scriptwriters needed to create a plot from scratch and as we’ve seen not just in Conan but all those other sword and sorcery flicks the average scriptwriter just doesn’t have the right background to do justice to the genre. They either produce something dull and cliché ridden or venture out into the valley of the very dumb (and some especially gifted individuals manage to do both, go watch Wizards of the Lost Kingdom if you don’t believe me).

If it was up to me Conan would never have become a film property at all. To me the Conan stories beg for television treatment instead. Turn Conan into a series of 45 minute episodes and it becomes possible to tell the sort of stories Howard was writing without needing to recycle . Each week Conan would find himself in a different location dealing with some difficult but less than world ending situation. Like the original stories the nature of the situation would vary, some weeks he would be working for somebody in power, other weeks he would be carrying out some scheme as a self-employed ruffian, and sometimes he would just accidentally ride into a situation that requires a few heads be bashed together in order to achieve a satisfactory resolution.

Now to elevate this above the average villain of the week plotting there needs to be some ongoing elements to link the episodes and give them a little more complexity. Of course to do this would require a significant departure from Howard’s original stories but I don’t think it could be helped.

For the first series at least (yes, I’m assuming a lot here) this linking could be provided in the form of a quest.

As I really like the relationship Jason Momoa’s Conan had with his father I think I would employ something similar. So let’s have Corin, Conan’s blacksmith father, be highly regarded by his fellow Cimmerians and let his father’s standing frustrate Conan because like so many teens he knows he is destined for greatness and isn’t it about time everybody noticed this and accepted the inevitable. However Conan’s father doesn’t have the good grace to step aside so Conan decides the only thing to do is venture outside of the Cimmerian homeland to retrieve the Seven Keys of Pentuzler which the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom stole from the Cimmerians decades before. Conan’s reasoning being that if he returns with the keys his fellow tribesmen will have no choice but to acknowledge him as the greatest Cimmerian ever. So all he has to do to is search the kingdoms of the south, where no Cimmerian has ever set foot, until he finds the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom, kill said evil sorcerer, find where he has hidden the Seven Keys of Pentuzler, and return in triumph with the keys, easy peasy. Corin and the other men of the tribe would of course have the good grace not to raise even one eyebrow among them when Conan announces his intentions and it’s not until Conan is riding out of sight that the following exchange occurs:

Shaman:   “How long before he comes to his senses?”
Corin:   “Hopefully not before the south knocks some humility into that boy!”
Shaman:   “Assuming the south survives the encounter.”
Corin:   “Gaah! Now you’re sounding like him!”

I’d also like to diverge from the original stories by giving Conan a permanent companion to do a lot of the talking so Conan can concentrate on being moody and impulsive. A companion like Alvazar the wisecracking thief would also be useful for nagging Conan into revealing why a Cimmerian has come south and other important nuggets of information such as:

Alvazar:   “You must wish this quest was over so you can return to your homeland given what a low opinion you hold of civilisation.”
Conan:   “Maybe. I have some unfinished business first.”
Alvazar:   “Really? What could be so important as to keep you away from the adulation of your people?”
Conan:   “Before I leave I must defeat every warrior and empty every tavern. My honour is at stake.”
Alvazar:   “You have a most frightening sense of honour Conan. Let me see, Zingara has a lot of taverns and swordsmen. We might as well start there.”

You’ll note that I gave sex the big swerve n that last exchange. Mostly because I think going even partway down the Game of Thrones path would introduce one too many changes. I would prefer to preserve as much of Howard’s original vision where I could so I’d rather underplay the sex angle. Besides, this is another opportunity for unconscious humour from Conan:

Conan:   “Southerners are too soft! I will not lie with any woman who cannot knock me out with one punch and carry me to her tent!”
Alvazar:   “I seem to recall Red Sonja managed something like that…”
Conan:   “Bah! She hit me from behind with a cask of ale! That was cheating!!”

Such a series should also have a supporting cast of occasionally appearing characters such as Bêlit, pirate queen of the Black Coast, the wizard Thoth-amon, Taurus of Nemedia, Epimitreus the Sage and Red Sonja. If the series moves around the lands of Hyboria it seems reasonable to have the cast very a lot from episode to episode. On the other hand it wouldn’t seem out of place for Conan to team up with or go against certain characters multiple times. The evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom should in particular be a recurring character as Conan seeks to hunt him down.

Well, I could go on for pages outlining every little detail but I think you have the general idea now. Hmm, perhaps I should tell Netflix all about this next. It does seem like the sort of thing they would make.

And they do seem keen to cause some lamentations.