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.

To Pervert & Stultify

Did the capitalist running dogs really knee science fiction in the groin?

I’m sure you’re all grown weary of the cry that it’s all been done before so I won’t be surprised if none of you care to read past this sentence. I am, as you no doubt feared, going to assure you all that everything you dread encountering online; spam, trolls, scams, flame-wars have all been a blight on humanity long before there was an Internet for it to fester on. Heck, way back in the early 80s I even received a badly photocopied example of the Nigerian fraud letter in the post. Yes, it’s true, there was indeed a time when scam artists had to pay for a stamp in order to lure you with their too good to be true promises.

Which brings me to the topic du jour, the practise of denouncing science fiction. It seems to me that denouncing science fiction has been something of a popular blood sport in recent years. Not just the usual catalogue of disdain from outsiders declaiming that science fiction brings nothing of value to literature. The adherents of li-fi have always been a bit sniffy about other categories of genre fiction, genres such as spy-fi, sigh-fi, and Twi-fi, but sci-fi and its supposed obsession with talking squids in space especially raises their hackles. But don’t take my word for it, go read the As Others See Us sections in Dave Langford’s newszine, Ansible, if you really want to see what such people think.

However these days even some those within the fold have been getting snarky about whole sections of science fiction which they feel aren’t up to snuff. (For the record please note I’m not going to get any more specific than that. While I’m not without opinions I think that having one more person thrashing around in the big tub of lime jello controversy shouting, “Have at thee knaves!”, is, at the very least, redundant.)

Anyway, getting back to the topic of it all having been done before, would you be surprised like to learn that once upon a time the entire field of science fiction was denounced by the Soviet Union? Puts more recent kerfuffles into perspective, doesn’t it? After all, how many genres can say they were once condemned by a superpower?

It was in Fantasy Review VII #12, a fanzine published by Walter Gillings in December 1948/January 1949, that the condensed version of an article titled The World Of Nightmare Fantasies by Victor Bolkhovitinov and Vassilij Zakhartchenko was reprinted from the Soviet literary journal, Literaturnaya Gazyeta. Literaturnaya Gazyeta was a Russian newspaper with literary roots dating back to the 19th century. However in 1947, the format of Literaturnaya Gazeta was changed from a purely literary publication into a newspaper with political and social content as well.

This explains a lot because The World Of Nightmare Fantasies is an article about ‘capitalist science fiction’ so long on assertions and so very short on reasoned argument that it’s hard to imagine any literary journal, even one published in the Soviet Union, being willing to print it. On the other hand it’s exactly the sort of article I’ve seen published time and again in one political echo chamber or another. Such articles don’t need to prove any of their points when their base purpose is to confirm pre-existing prejudices.

However to be entirely fair I do need to point out that if the prose is somewhat clumsy at times then the translating and condensing of this article by unknown hands is the most likely reason. I would also blame various incorrect story titles on the quality of the translating (though why editor Gillings didn’t see fit to correct these is beyond me). For the record The Mysterious World by Eando Binder is actually Mystery World, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel by Eric Frank Russell story was actually Mr. Wisel’s Secret (later changed to Mr. Wisel for the short story collection, Dark Tides), and The Incredible Pebbles by Robert Moore Williams is actually The Incredible Slingshot Bombs. There’s also a story mentioned that’s not attributed to any author and neither I nor the incredibly knowledgeable Denny Lien have been able to divine who wrote The Lights of Mars since we can’t find any stories with this title predating the Soviet article. I can only assume that this has been mistranslated and thus who the author was is lost to the sands of time.

On the other hand I don’t think we can blame the excessive amount of invective on the anonymous translator(s). While I would assume that sentences such as, ‘The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers.’ read better in the original Russian version I doubt the level of hyperbole was any less absurd.

Then there is tin-ear use of language but here I don’t know who to blame. Part of me is certainly in love with the idea of a heavily bemedalled political commissar handing messrs Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk a list of words and demanding that they use all of them when referring to the authors they would be criticising. However in the spirit of impartiality I have to accept that it’s entirely possible the anonymous translator(s) are to blame for some or all of the less than smooth word choices such as ‘miasma’, ‘hooligan’, ‘stultify’, and ‘ignoramuses’.

One last point, editor Gillings points out in a footnote that though this article was written in 1948 the stories discussed all date from some time previous to that. This made me wonder where the magazines had come from as I would assume wartime issues would be the least likely to make it to the Soviet Union given there was a war right in the way. My initial thought was that the authors of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies had based their research on magazines that had been taken to Europe by the US military during WWII and which had then somehow filtered through to the Soviet Union. However that only works for those named works which appeared in Astounding. Stories mentioned which were published by Amazing and Thrilling Wonder date from long before US troops set foot in Europe. For the record here’s a quick list of the named stories with their publishing origins. As you can see it also suggests Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk were working from a rather small sample:

The Crystal Invaders – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mystery World – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mr. Wisel’s Secret – 1942 Amazing
The Incredible Slingshot Bombs – 1942 Amazing
Adam Link Saves the World – 1942 Amazing

Though Dreamers Die – 1944 Astounding
Renaissance – 1944 Astounding
Lilies of Life – 1945 Astounding
Destiny Times Three – 1945 Astounding

I’ve reproduced the entire condensed version of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies here so you might enjoy the authors attempt to crush various butterflies of fiction with their rhetorical sledgehammer.

And now for the fireworks:

The World Of Nightmare Fantasies
by Victor Bolkhovitinov &
Vassilij Zakhartchenko

The American Raymond F. Jones, experienced writer of “scientific” fantasies, attempts to lift the curtain of the future for the reader. He uses all his flaming imagination in describing a machine which analyses the inclinations , talents, character and other potentialities of a new-born infant. If it finds the child normal, it returns it to the arms of the waiting mother. If it finds a future “superman,” the mother will never see him again; he will be sent to a world “parallel” to ours where he will be raised without the help of parents. But woe to the baby the machine finds defective – it will be immediately destroyed. According to the “scientific” forecast of author Jones, a network of such machines will cover the world of the future.

This tale, monstrous in its openly fascistic tendency, appears in the American magazine Astounding, under the optimistic title of Renaissance. Jones’ fascist revelations are not an isolated instance in American science fiction literature. There are numerous such examples under the brightly colourful covers which enterprising publishers throw on the market in millions of copies. From their pages glares a fearful world, apparently conceived in the sick mind of an insane, a world of nightmare fantasies. Miasma, mental decay, fear of to-day and horror of the future: all these innumerable ills of capitalism are clearly reflected.

In their science fiction delirium, the authors reveal the innermost secret of capitalism. With shameless boldness they bring to the surface what serious literature still tries to present in a veiled form. The lackey of Wall Street, in the livery of a science fiction writer, first of all carries out the main order of his bosses: to persuade the reader of the invulnerability of the capitalist system. The wolf-pack laws, the so-called American Way Of Life, are represented as inevitable for all people on Earth, now and in the future.

No matter to what planet the author carries his heroes, he describes worlds constructed according to the American system. In The Mysterious World by Eando Binder, the bandit Yorin, following the trade of his Chicago colleagues, steals an interplanetary taxi, kidnaps the scientist Tom and the beautiful Della, and takes them to an unknown planet to look for hidden pirate treasure. In a story by Eric Frank Russell, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel, there is an ecstatic description of the adventures of a spy from Mars.

The American science-fantasy, in its unbridled racial propaganda, reaches heights which might have made Goebbels envious. The author of Lilies of Life, Malcolm Jameson, tries to impress on the reader that there is inequality on Venus and that there are inferior and superior races. With the revolting cynicism of a coloniser and a slave owner, he writes: ‘The natives of Venus are lazy, vicious and shameless. The native is a born liar and thief; he shuns work, is indifferent to physical pain and completely incapable of thought.’

The dollar, the gun and the fist function equally well on the most distant planets, even those in the dust of the galaxy. Obeying the order of the Wall Street owners, the writers glorify war as the basis of life and as the natural condition of the planet. In Destiny Times Three, Fritz Leiber Jr. describes a cruel, unending war between two nations who have swallowed all the rest. They are constantly goaded on by the thought that the war must be continued or all previous sacrifices will have been in vain. In The Lights of Mars the author foresees war not only on Earth but also on Mars.

To fortify the propaganda of the imperialist war machine, the ‘science’ fantasts of America unrestrainedly threaten with the atomic bomb monster. Robert Moore Williams in The Incredible Pebbles, describes a future atom bomb factory into which, having made a mysterious leap through time, there wander a moronic little boy with a slingshot. The little boy shoots atom bombs with his slingshot like pebbles. A hooligan with an atomic slingshot – isn’t this the true symbol of modern imperialism?

To distract the mind of the reader from ‘harmful’ thoughts on the origins of social evils, American publishers release a flood of horrifying tales with ‘other side’ themes such as telepathy, reincarnation and failure of memory. The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers. They foretell the total destruction of matter, which is replaced by a concentration of thought-energy. Throwing in a few mathematical theories, the ignoramuses of these American magazines arrive at a belief in the existence of other worlds in the fourth dimension. Thus, in a story by John and Dorothy de Courcy, there appears an immortal corpse out of a grave! In Joseph J. Millard’s The Crystal Invaders, the protagonists are bodiless creatures of ‘concentrated pure energy’ which by feeding on the nervous energy of people arouse in them emotions of fear and hatred.

In huge quantities appears the writing of literary fiends like Richard S. Shaver, consisting of a mixture of mysticism and sadism in the fascist style. In his novels Shaver constantly avers that all the troubles on Earth are caused by an incredibly ancient and learned super-race of Lemurians who once owned the Earth but who have been driven into deep underground caves with all their machines. They operate from these caves with special rays which inspire anti-social thoughts and actions and invite man to suicidal war.

The authors of this arch-reactionary and screamingly shameless mess cannot, however, hide their fear of the future which has seized the entire capitalistic world. Capitalism, which enslaves and exploits men, would much prefer that its factories were worked by uncomplaining automatons. So, to please their bosses, the writers bring forth a whole army of robots who push live workers out of the factories. Characteristic is a story by Eando Binder, Adam Link Saves the World. Adam Link is a robot with a platinum sponge brain superior to a human’s. In a war with monsters arrived from Sirius, he leads herds of bestial and merciless people. In Lester del Rey’s Though Dreamers Die, all humans die out, while on a faraway planet the robots survive and multiply.

In the contemporary bourgeois world, the fruits of the creativeness of inventors and scientists are turned into objects for speculation and robbery or the means of slavery and exploitation. Capitalism has chained inventors to its chariot by its patent laws and forces scientists to do things against humanity. The hero of the modern science fiction story is usually not a scientist but a business man or a gangster who utilises the fruits of other people’s labours. Science, in the opinion of the American business man, is above all else a means of enrichment, crime and tyranny.

Capitalism has no future. Time is working against it. Pessimism shows through all science fiction literature., in spite of a bravado on the part of the authors. The reader is presented with scenes of a world reverting to wilderness and of the destruction of civilisation. The revelations appearing in this delerium of unbridled fantasy, poorly concealed by the label of ‘science’, vividly betray the incurable disease of the capitalistic system. The hacks supplying the fantastic drivel feel this, and try to present the doom of capitalism as that of the world. But all their endeavours are in vain, their nauseating, evil ravings cannot fool the peoples of the world who believe in progress and the bright future of humanity.

Doubling Down With Don Wollheim

Presenting the platypus paperbacks.

I don’t think there are many fans of vintage science fiction who would disagree with me if I suggested that Ace Doubles are among the most desirable paperbacks to collect ever published. However, this is something a non-collector might find a little strange given the Ace Doubles are best described as the platypus of the publishing world. Like the platypus those early Ace Double paperbacks were a weird hybrid that worked better than they had any right to. However it’s that very unusual format which makes them so collectable in many eyes.

As the name implies every Ace Double consists of two separate books (usually novels but not always) bound back to back. This might seem like a strange publishing decision now given it appears to reduce potential revenue but at the time it seemed like a clever solution to a difficult problem. According to Piet Schreuders in his book, Paperbacks, U.S.A., publishers in the US had been unwilling to price their books above 25¢ all through the 30s and 40s. The reasoning behind this being a fear that raising prices any higher than that would encourage the reading public to buy magazines devoted to fiction, few of which were selling for more than 25¢ prior to 1950, than said publishers paperbacks. Don Wollheim, for it was he who was head of editorial staff at Ace Books, neatly sidestepped this concern with his two ‘Complete and Unabridged’ novels for 35¢ scheme. Not only did offering two novels ensure the higher cover price wouldn’t scare off would be purchasers but the implication that the second novel could be had for a mere extra 10¢ surely tempted them instead.

However, much as I’d like to give full credit for this idea to our boy Don it would appear that the idea didn’t originate with him. To quote Piet Schreuders in Paperbacks, U.S.A.:

Throughout the 1940s, many important books were not published in paperback form because they were too long for it to economically feasible to retail them for 25 cents and because breaking them up into several separate volumes was considered impractical. Kurt Enoch solved this problem in 1950, with the introduction of the SIGNET DOUBLE VOLUMES and, three years later, the TRIPLE VOLUMES. The Double Volumes were priced at 35 cents and the Triple Volumes at 50 cents and, to clearly show the reader that he was getting extra value for his extra money , spine texts were printed or three times side-by-side over contrasting backgrounds to symbolize the doubleness or tripleness of the book; sometimes even the serial number was subdivided into, for example, 802A and 802B.

So how similar was the packaging? Well this is the cover of the very first Signet Double.

Knock On Any Door

And this is the cover of the very first Ace Double.

The Grinning Gizmo

Okay, so they don’t look that alike and the Ace artwork is decidedly pulpier in style. But then it would be, wouldn’t it? Don Wollheim wasn’t going to try and muscle in on Signet’s classier patch. No, Don Wollheim was going to do what he knew best and let’s not forget that Don’s editorial career had begun with Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories, two of the pulpiest of the pulp magazines.

Covers not withstanding it’s pretty clear to me that the Ace books borrowed a lot of layout detail from Signet. If you have any doubt about that compare the spine of Signet’s Knock On Any Door with the spine of a 1958 Ace Double featuring Eric Frank Russell I just happen to have laying about.

Spine Comparison

Oh, Don Wollheim you clever scamp.

Now you might be thinking that this is all very well but really, what did the Ace Doubles do other than borrow some layout details from Signet? The core feature, the two different novels in one volume, well that’s clearly unique to Ace, isn’t it? Now if you’ve been thinking anything like that then you are so very wrong. Consider the examples pictured below and their publication dates; Two Complete Detective Books (Winter 1939), Two Daring Love Novels (January 1948); and Two Complete Science-Adventure Books (Winter 1950). Three magazine titles that predated Ace Doubles by years (and the first two even left Kurt Enoch and his Signet Doubles in their dust).

Two Novels

Of course it can be argued that none of those magazines sported two separate covers so that’s one innovation that Don Wollheim can successfully claim. On the other hand take a look at Two Complete Detective Books. How on Earth did Wollheim miss pinching that brilliant idea? Every one of the early Ace Doubles should have had a banner proclaiming ‘$5 value for 35¢‘ somewhere on the cover. You missed a trick there Don my boy.

All is not lost on the innovation front though as according to Piet Schreuders Wollheim did introduce another new idea, at least in regards to the earlier Ace Doubles, in that one book was new and one was a reprint (usually taken from the rival fiction pulps). This helped keep the format profitable as reprints were to be had for less money than brand new stories. And profitable the series surely was given Ace kept issuing titles long after the 25¢ barrier became a thing of the past.

Another money saving tactic was to impose a strict word length on each novel published as an Ace Double. A set length saves on printing costs and perhaps even allows the company to offer authors less money. This also meant that if a manuscript was longer than the space allocated some pruning was done. Yes, at least some of the Ace Doubles have ‘Complete and Unabridged’ printed on the cover but not all do. Indeed, it’s possible that Ace made a point of advertising ‘Complete and Unabridged’ when it was true and then saying nothing when a story had indeed been abridged. Even if not done to intentionally deceive I imagine this encouraged the casual reader to assumed all Ace Books were ‘Complete and Unabridged’. One such example of what could be described as a sin by omission was Bob Tucker’s novel, To the Tombaugh Station. As you can see from the cover below there’s no mention that the book had been trimmed for publication, just that it was the ‘First book publication’.

To the Tombaugh Station

As it happens Tucker detailed the story behind the publication of this story in the second issue of Vic Ryan’s fanzine Bane. I’m going to quote Bob’s explanation here as I find such stories fascinating and assume you do too:

The novel (nearly 60,000 words) was sent to Rinehart last fall, but they rejected it (Rinehart has rejected my last two or three books and broken our contract; apparently I no longer made money for them, and the honorable way to sever a contract is to reject a couple of books). Well. So my agent sent the manuscript around, seeking other likely prospects. Meanwhile, the second copy was making the rounds of the magazine editors. Campbell passed it, Gold declined to read it on technical grounds, and it fell into Bob Mills’ lap. Mills liked the story but couldn’t use anything of that extreme length – he suggested that I boil it down to 20,000 words and try him again. The price he offered was decent, so I did, and he accepted the rewrite. However, it developed that I had over-estimated my word-count, so he cut it again to fit into his space. And that is what you read.

Meanwhile (and here is where I make up for the earlier slight), the first copy was being rejected here and there among the book publishers. However, on June 10, my agent sent a note saying that Ace Books was buying it. I have no additional information yet, but I assume it will be ½ of an Ace double-volume.

Which brings us back to cutting. I am under the impression that Wollheim cuts all his manuscripts to fit that tight “double-volume” space. If so, then fandom won’t see the full-length novel unless they happen to get the British edition, if there is a British edition.

An awful lot of material (and a few names) were dropped from the magazine version – 40, 000 words were thrown away, remember. Most of the background on both the man and the woman were thrown away; almost half a chapter of Abraham Calkins was cut. A good deal more happened on that trip to Pluto, and the larger part of the astronomical stuff was pruned away.

Don Wollheim then replied to Tucker’s comments in Bane #3 and I’m going to quote that too because how often does the average reader get to see the workings of the editorial mind? Not often enough if you ask me:

I enjoyed Tucker’s novel a great deal. It isn’t fast-paced but it has a certain pleasingly handled eye for detail and life which made it very worthwhile, in my opinion. Hence, Ace bought it. It’s going to be a double book, paired with Poul Anderson’s Flandry, but I’ve tried not to have it cut at all – in fact, I gave instructions to cut the hell out of Anderson’s novel if necessary to save Tucker’s. But the damn printer still hollered and sent the copy back, so we had to cut maybe 5, 000 words – but I think the leisure is retained.

Actually, Poul Anderson is a better writer than Tucker, but I only like some of his work, and find a good deal of the rest of his copy annoying and reject-worthy (even when not submitted to me…)

On the other hand, Tucker and I haven’t always gotten along, but I always find his writings pleasingly backwoodsy with a sort of bucolic corn that’s very rare in these sophisticated days.

Now that’s an absolutely fascinating response by Wollheim if you ask me. His claim that Anderson was a better writer than Tucker surprised me at first glance but on reflection I suspect he meant that Anderson was a slicker writer of action than Tucker. Which is the sort of comment I’d expect to see coming from a pulp veteran like Wollheim. I’m sure Don was the sort to agree with the advice his fellow editor, Raymond A. Palmer, often gave to authors whose fiction wasn’t ‘slam-bang’ enough for Palmer’s liking, “When the action slows, throw another body through the skylight.” Ah, pulp editors, not men of subtlety.

Given the above it may seem strange then that Wollheim told his staff to trim Anderson’s novel rather than Tucker’s but that’s the thing about ‘slam-bang’ action, there’s usually more ‘bangs’ than is really necessary to move the plot along so an editor can safely delete a few of the less impressive explosions without spoiling the overall display of fireworks. In comparison both Tucker’s and Wollheim’s comments lead me to suspect that everything in To the Tombaugh Station builds on what has come before which would make it difficult not to leave obvious gaps when editing the story down. In which case it makes sense that Wollheim would be reluctant to trim Tucker’s novel. That would be my guess anyway (based on not having read the story).

Now perhaps it’s just that my cynical nature which caused me to raise an eyebrow when Wollheim blamed what editorial cuts that had been made to Tucker’s novel on an uncooperative printer. Surely once the manuscript was in galley proofs whichever editor has charge of it could tell if was too long for the space allocated? Surely then the cuts were decided on before anything was sent to the printer? I can’t help but suspect Don threw in a little pre-emptive finger-pointing in order to deflect future complaints about whatever his staff had done to the manuscript.

From my point of view the most important point to come out of the above exchange is the admission by Don Wollheim himself that cutting manuscripts marked for publication as half an Ace Double was standard practise. I’ve seen that it happened mentioned elsewhere but without any specific examples given so it’s nice to have one confirmed.

And there you have it, my take on one of the more unusual, and thus highly collectable, lines of science fiction paperbacks to ever be published. How would I sum up my feelings about the Ace Doubles? Let me channel my inner Lewis Carrol.

Double cover story book
How I like the way you look
Your only fault you noble mutt
Are missing words that Ace did cut