Hoodwinked

Hugo Gernsback was a veritable fountain of bad ideas. And yet…

Gernsback Isolator 1

So here we are folks, proof positive that there is hope yet for even the stupidest of inventions. When I first saw this particular Gernsbackian brainchild years ago I mentally labelled it as one of the least practical inventions I’d seen from a man who seemed to specialise in unworkable ideas.

However, given the current state of affairs I’m beginning to warm to the idea of fitting out those office workers who can’t perform their duties from home with Isolators. Given each one of them an Isolator and enough bottles of Gernsback’s special oxygen mix and away they go!

Gernsback Isolator 2

Admittedly these suits might not prove popular with the average office worker but that merely demonstrates how little imagination most people possess. The observant among us will quickly realise that once in the Isolator it will be very difficult for the outside world to tell just what an individual is up to. With a little effort there should be enough space in the Isolator to make smoking or drinking possible if the imbiber is willing to make a few adjustments (a bottle with a straw for example). Alternatively, it will be obvious to the canny office worker that once the Isolator is donned it’s very difficult to tell who’s in it. Thus if an individual wanted the day off all they need do is pay a student in need of a little extra cash to go into the office wearing their Isolator and who would notice the impostor?

Yes my friends, the Isolator is the way of the future. If we can’t have jetpacks then why not something equally stupid bit of weird technology? Be the first on your block to build and market your own version. I dare you.

Go West (For Redemption)

Not the robot apocalypse I was expecting.

(Please note that in the following article I am only taking into account the first season of the TV version of Westworld. I haven’t watched past the end of the first season and I’m not sure I even want to given how perfect it was.)

I can certainly understand why film executives take a risk adverse attitude when it comes to remaking films. They are, after all, in the business to make money and choosing films that were successful the first time around is the low risk option. However, it also rarely results in something that transcends the original and all too often results in a less interesting version. The worst part though is that even if the remake turns out to be better than the original it’s still more of the same. So while I can understand the logic being employed I’ve no particular reason to be happy about it.

What I would prefer is for those film executives to work just a little bit harder. To search through their back catalogues for flawed films with unrealised potential. It doesn’t matter to me whether these are films which bombed or if they were hits, just so long as they are in some significant way unsatisfactory. There are plenty of such films out there, I know because I made a list of interesting but flawed films I’d like to see remade in the hopes of their deficiencies being eradicated. That list includes 1408, Conan the Barbarian, Westworld, and Mad Max, all well known films that could be so much better in my opinion.

Of those films, Westworld, that is the 1973 original directed by Michael Crichton, did very well at the box office, making $10 million on a budget of $1.2 million according to Wikipedia. However, all that proves is that even flawed films can make money because Westworld is very flawed film indeed. It’s also very well regarded if the scores quoted on the Rotten Tomatoes website are to be believed. However, I suspect that Westworld, like the original Mad Max, is mostly remembered with fondness for several striking scenes rather than for the film as a whole.

Westworld Poster 4

Just to be sure I re-watched the original Westworld recently and while the basic idea is as interesting as I remember, the way that idea is developed leaves a lot to be desired. I came up with what I consider to be four major flaws (while ignoring several minor ones):

The claimed financial viability of the theme park is entirely unconvincing.

It takes far too long for any real action to start.

Too many scenes were little more than information dumps.

The reason for the robots going on their rampage was not convincingly explained.

As you can see none of these flaws pose an insurmountable problem. Even a simple soul like myself can see how they all could be corrected without injuring the basic idea posed in Westworld. Perhaps doing so wouldn’t result in a brilliant film but it could be competent and it could potentially fix the flaws listed above (of course I can’t guarantee that doing so wouldn’t introduce a bunch of new ones).

Having given this film so much thought imagine my surprise when I discovered that Westworld was to be remade as a TV series. I was dubious about the idea to say the least because I couldn’t image where they would find the extra plot to flesh out what I considered to be a rather thin story. So imagine my yet greater surprise when I watched the first season of Westworld (to see if they did indeed find a bit more plot) and discovered it both entertaining and mostly devoid of the faults mentioned above. Imagine my yet greater surprise when I looked up the details of this TV version and discovered that none other than Michael Crichton, the man behind the film version, had been involved in scripting this version. So, let me explain what Mr. Crichton (and others) did that was so right.

Let’s start with the financial viability of the theme park. Yes, I know, I’m the only one who’s bothered by details like this but I can’t help it so I’m going to write about this at length. You have been warned.

First of all it was made clear at the start of the film version that there two main reasons for customers to spend time at one of the three theme parks, that is Westworld, Medievalworld, or Romanworld; fornication and murder. However I didn’t find it convincing that large numbers of people would pay significant sums of money for either of these given how these parks were run.

First of all there’s the problem offered by the parks offering sex. The thing about robots is that they’re complex machines which need to monitor and record what happens to them in multiple ways in order to facilitate repair and maintenance. Anybody who contemplates sex with a robot in Westworld, Medievalworld, or Romanworld will have to do so knowing that their partner will be at least partially recording what happens (much like the black box on a plane I would imagine). It seems likely to me that the majority of people willing to indulge in casual sex would prefer to believe their encounters are going unrecorded (except perhaps in an exaggerated form as part of the memories of their partners). Not only that but what guarantee do visitors have that their encounters aren’t being fully recorded? How many people are inclined to implicitly trust a corporation and the staff working for it in such intimate situations? Regardless of how much the park administration denies such practices it seems likely to me that most people would find the possibility that somebody was not only looking over their shoulder during sex but keeping a permanent record of what happened to be extremely off-putting. Sure, a minority people won’t be bothered by the idea but I doubt this group alone would be enough to provide the necessary cash flow.

The potential for violence in film Westworld doesn’t seem like something which would greatly appeal to punters either but for an entirely different reason. The problem isn’t so much that park guests knew they were in no danger whatsoever, though that didn’t help. The real problem was that every one of the staged violent encounters had no build-up and wasn’t part of any larger story. Each incident I saw in the film involved a robot challenging a visitor more or less out of the blue and with no justifiable reason for seeking such an encounter. Combine this lack of story line with the certainty of victory and I can’t imagine people flocking to hand over cash for what I can only describe as a boring experience.

The TV series mostly fixed these problems by putting an emphasis on providing story lines for visitors to participate in. So rather than visitors arriving in town and having an android announce that they don’t like their face and make an attempt to kill them, they would instead be invited to join in some sort of escapade by various androids. Guests could decline such offers and simply play tourist, wandering about and watching a fully functioning replica of the past at work. However, as was mentioned by several different characters, most of the interesting action happens far away from the arrival point and it was implied the best way to encounter that interesting action was to take up one of the many invitations.

Guests still couldn’t die but by involving them in complex plots that could last for days their visit could become a far more immersive experience. If, for example, a guest accepted an invitation to join a team of android bounty hunters and then spent several days in the saddle with this posse, by the time a gun battle erupts it’s very likely said guest will have forgotten that they can’t be killed and will bite the ground with the best of them. Given the potentially immersive nature of these plots I can see this version of Westworld being a far more satisfying experience and something which actually draws customers.

Even the sex angle seems to have been partially fixed by hinting that the world outside contained many more people who were comfortably off but bored than in our time and that for these people the potential for excitement outweighed the potential lack of privacy. Actually, for all the TV audience knows about the outside world reduced privacy might well have become the norm out there as well. The TV version also doesn’t blatantly promote the sex angle, it’s clearly there but neither does anybody turn to the camera and announce that they’re only there for the rumpy-pumpy.

What’s more, the TV series was very careful to underplay the options for sex in Westworld. Virtually the only place the possibility of sex was brought up was in the saloon where the prostitutes were based. I suspect somebody realised that we live in a less innocent world and that with an android population any sort of sex was possible. Given that sex was a prominent part of the film version the makers of the TV version couldn’t drop it entirely without the audience noticing its absence but it was certainly downplayed. I assume it was decided to skim over the whole matter in the hopes that the more unsavoury options wouldn’t occur to the audience. Which would be the best that they could do under the circumstances, as trying to explain why any illegal sex acts couldn’t occur in Westworld would only draw attention to the possibilities.

Even so, I did begin to wonder about money as the TV series progressed. With each episode the theme park was shown to be larger and the infrastructure ever more elaborate so that towards the end it did begin to seem unrealistic. By that point I could understand why one of the characters had talked about the park haemorrhaging money. I wish this had been made more of a plot point so the scale of everything could be explained, if not justified, and a more concrete threat to the park developed by revealing that the board wanted to scale back the size of the operation.

Westworld Poster 1

Okay, so moving to my next point, a quick skim of the reviews for the film version of Westworld assures me that I wasn’t the only one who thought it took too long for the real action to start. The film was nearly half done before events at the park began to go haywire and the relatively interesting chase sequence began. I blame this on the author of the screenplay , Michael Crichton, being allowed to also direct. Crichton was clearly in love with his theme park idea and wanted to explain how it all worked. This level of background detail can work in a novel where pacing doesn’t need to be so tight but a film, especially an action film like Westworld, needs to keep advancing the plot in order to stay interesting. What’s worse I didn’t find Crichton’s theme park especially well thought out so as far as I’m concerned I didn’t find those scenes worth the time spent on them. He also failed to develop any of his characters into very interesting people. Which of course meant that even once the action started I didn’t much care what happened to them.

The TV series also began slowly, so much so that it took until the fifth episode for the story to get really exciting. This wasn’t a problem as it was in the film though because the TV version very quickly set up a series of questions. Every character was clearly up to something, but exactly what only became clear in the second half of the season. Developing these mysteries made the early episodes a bit slow as we had to follow multiple characters who were up to who knows what, but this was more than compensated for by the fact the various plot threads were clearly building to conclusions the viewer could enjoy speculating about. In fact it turned out that the threads which made the most sense early on proved to be dead ends and the less comprehensible scenes built into the main, and quite interesting, story line.

Besides which, even when it wasn’t clear what was going on some of the performances were quite fascinating. In particular Anthony Hopkins acting like a slightly stoned David Attenborough was mesmerising in its surrealness. Even if it did make me wonder why the board of directors running Westworld hadn’t already made serious efforts to shuffled him off to a retirement home.

In short, unlike the film version the slow start to the TV series was worth it because the early episodes were dominated by the mystery of how the story would get from its starting point to the assumed robot holocaust.

Westworld Poster 3

The next problem I had with Crichton’s directing was that too many scenes were designed to be little more than information dumps. For example, the film begins with the guests being driven to their various destinations. I could see no point to this other than as an excuse to have recorded voices repeatedly tell the guests they could do whatever they wanted and they would be perfectly safe. Given that anybody who saw any of the posters for the film knew that things were going to end badly this seemed like a very clumsy way of heightening the surprise when things began to end badly. Besides which, I can’t imagine any company, even back in the 70s before the health & safety craze took hold, thinking this would be a good message to pound into their customers given it encourages stupid behaviour. It made no sense and was clearly only there for no other reason than to contrast how the theme park was intended to operate with just how out of control events would later become. (I was amused when later in the film one of the head technicians says that it’s ‘inexcusable to endanger a guest’. Pretty rich coming from a senior employee of a company which keeps telling these same guests that they don’t need to take any care in regards to their actions.)

Another example of clumsy foreshadowing is a scene in which a lot of time is spent having one of the main characters explain to his partner that the guns in Westworld couldn’t work on living creatures. This was an especially stupid scene as it asked the viewer to believe that the people running the park didn’t bother telling customers about this basic fact on arrival. Again, this was only there to reinforce the surprise when guns did begin inexplicably working on people. Equally absurd was the reveal that the technicians operating the park all worked in an air-tight room fitted with electrically operated doors. Thus when the electricity failed all the technicians asphyxiated in a surprisingly short time. It was never explained why they worked in an air-tight room or why there was were no manually operated means of escape. I assume the audience, not knowing much about computers, was suppose to assume the room needed to be kept dust free because computers could break down if dust was present. If so, then this was complete rubbish as the computer wasn’t in the room, only terminals connected to it. Besides which in one scene which cut back to the control centre we hear a technician order scrambled eggs, bacon, and cinnamon toast and then ask the kitchen to send it down to consul three. Why guard against dust if you’re going to let cinnamon toast crumbs waltz right in? No, the only reason for this silliness was to ensure nobody was left alive who could help the surviving main character as he was chased by the robot gunman.

That the TV show was able to avoid replicating this sort of obvious foreshadowing is impressive given it had to be assumed the audience knew for a fact that eventually there would be a robot rampage. Putting the emphasis on the mystery of what the various human characters were up to was a wise cunning ploy. It allowed the growing danger of what the androids were capable of to be pushed into the background. In hindsight all the clues were there but so casually inserted that I imagine most viewers didn’t question any of them.

Finally, the explanation for why the robots went out of whack in the film was totally unconvincing. The basic idea of multiple robots developing a fault was entirely reasonable but why this should be so is never explained. All the audience is given is the suggestion that the robots are breaking down in a manner analogous to the spread of an infectious disease. Audiences back in the 70s, who were after all unfamiliar with computer technology, apparently found this sufficient explanation, but it’s entirely unsatisfactory to anybody more knowledgeable. Even adding in additional references to other equipment faults doesn’t help as the cause of these breakdowns aren’t explained either. It was such an easily fixable problem too, for example all Crichton needed to do is have a couple of technicians talk about some sort of upgraded command processing device that they had been inserting into the robots and have one of them mention that it seemed to be having unexpected side-effects. That way we have an understandable cause and effect for robots beginning to kill, even if the cause is glib sounding gobbledegook.

(Just as an aside, I’ve been blaming Michael Crichton for all these faults because he did write the script and he did direct the film but I have to be fair and acknowledge that a film is a pie made by many cooks. For all I know studio interference caused some of these faults, such things have been known to happen after all.)

How the TV version eventually handled this was far more believable and far more interesting. Actually I didn’t catch on to what was going to happen until nearly the end despite the evidence pointing in that direction. It’s very easy to become so distracted by all the sub-plots that the single thread which ignites the the final sequence can be easily overlooked. In fact by the halfway point of the first series I’d begun to wonder if they hadn’t decided on a totally new ending. I thought it very impressive how the TV version turned one of the main weaknesses of the film into a strength.

All in all I would rate the first TV season of Westworld as a vast improvement over the film. It is a rare, if not unique animal, a remake that surpasses the original. If only we had more of those.

Westworld Poster 2

In the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Guin

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

‘The Rule of Names by Ursula K. Le Guin

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

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

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

Taking Care When Biting the Bear

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

Bear Eating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the blue hell would he be, you nit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Boucher:

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

Then Asimov:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was madness.

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

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

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

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

Sheer. Utter. Madness.

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

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

** Later retitled as The Stars Like Dust.

 

The Next Big Thing

Had we but world enough, and time.

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Eternal Champion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad God Amulet

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

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

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

Count-Brass

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tales Too Good To Forget #4

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

Printshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monster From Everywhere
by H.H. Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing, apparently more complicated than the word suggests.

Ray Bradbury & The Unguarded Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s get a little controversial:

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

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

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

And now for some real controversy:

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the controversy:

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

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

But wait, it gets better:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in conclusion:

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

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

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

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