Tales Too Good To Forget #3

So how do you feel about pebbles?

Susan Wood was a Canadian literary critic, professor, author, and science fiction fan who edited The Language of the Night, a collection of Ursula Le Guin essays which discuss various aspects of fantasy and science fiction. In her fanzine, Warm Champagne, Wood wrote about a 1977 seminar she attended along with a number of other science fiction types. I think you’ll be able to guess why I’m repeating the story here:

I have been back to Berkeley, where I delivered my paper, saw Ursula Le Guin, and had dinner with her, Elizabeth Lynn and Terry Carr. Also got to see Dignified Ursula (all of us sitting cross-legged in a Thai restaurant and little giddy after a day of Academic Serconity) using the skewer from her barbecued beef to flick grains of rice at Saintly Terry Carr. (You wondered what Pros do when they aren’t signing autographs?)

The nadir of the Sercon-Academic Stuff came when an earnest Jungian critic, the young man (she said patronizingly) who organized the seminar, tried to get Ursula to pin down the Meaningful Symbolism of her work. “Trees, you use a lot of trees. They seem to represent Good.”

“Well, yes,” said Ursula with her usual tact, “I do like trees, yes.”

“And rocks now, Rocks are Bad.”

Ursula, straight-faced, “Why, no. I never met a pebble I didn’t like.”

Academic, undeterred, asked her how she celebrated the Vernal Equinox; did she strip and dance on the lawn to the fertility goddesses, or what?

Ursula, still deadpan, left a meaningful, then replied, sweetly, “That’s none of your business.”

It’s a great little anecdote but I have to admit I have a hard time believing anybody would ask a question like the one Susan Wood claimed the academic asked Ursula Le Guin in regards to the Vernal Equinox. It feels to me like her account drifted from reality to whimsy at that point. Still, I could be utterly wrong, perhaps that’s how Jungian critics think. Perhaps we should be asking the tough questions of our authors? Questions like:

Do you think rocks are Bad?

Are you ever tempted to flick rice at your editor?

Do you dance naked on the Vernal Equinox?

If you do ask please report back. I’m sure we’re all desperate to know the general attitude of science fiction and fantasy authors towards rocks.

Hugo, Where Art Thou?

Rocket, rocket, who has the rockets.

Hugo 1953 Astounding
1953 Hugo Award for Astounding Science Fiction

While writing about the Hugo situation in 1955 the other day I mentioned that Ron Smith won a Hugo in 1956 for his fanzine, Inside. This particular award is of special interest to me because as far as I’m aware the rocket Ron was awarded is the only one that has had a long-term residency in Australia. I’ve read that it was displayed in the window of Merv Binns’ Space Ago Books in Melbourne for many years after Ron Smith moved to Australia in, I think, the early sixties. I can’t vouch for that because I only managed to visit Space Age a couple of times while the store was still a going concern and was too eager to get inside to be concerned about what might be in the window display. Space Age Books is of course has long been a thing of the past now and presumably Ron Smith has passed away too so that makes me wonder what happened to his rocket? I’m assuming that when Space Age Books stopped being a bricks and mortar establishment the rocket went back to Ron (if not before that) but I can’t be certain. Hopefully somebody living in Melbourne reading this will know the answer to my query or perhaps be able to dig an answer out of Merv.

Anyway, having begun this line of thought I started to wonder if anybody has made any attempt to track down the location of the various Hugo statues that have been handed out in the past 65 or so years. I’m not thinking so much about those awarded in recent decades as I assume all those recipients are still alive and have their rockets somewhere safe. On the other hand I don’t think many of the award winners prior to 1970 other than Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison are still with us. Now in some cases, Robert Heinlein, Philip Dick, and Frank Herbert for example, I imagine their rockets are safe with whichever organisation their papers were donated to, but what about those authors like Mark Clifton or Eric Frank Russell who drifted away from the field before they passed away? For that matter a quick count shows 17 Professional Magazine, 16 Professional Illustrator, 21 Fanzine/Fan, 8 Dramatic, and 13 Miscellaneous Hugo Awards were handed out prior to 1970. I have to wonder how many of those rockets do we know the location of?

This strikes me as a useful project to tackle. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be curious to know where they all those awards ended up.

Any answers?

They’d Rather Be Right

So just what happened in 1955?

Despite the battle in recent years over what works should be on the voting shortlist the Hugo awards have been relatively free of controversy since they were first awarded at the 11th Worldcon way back in 1953. Sure, I doubt there’s ever been a Hugo awarded in any category that absolutely everybody thought was well deserved. I don’t rate that as controversy though given the Hugo Awards are decided by popular vote and the disparate individuals who have voted on them each year naturally held many divergent opinions as to what constituted the best. To rate as controversy in my book there has to be some disagreement about how the awards have been run or how a particular winner was decided.

Off the top of my head I can think of only two instances that came anywhere close to plunging even a tiny slice of all fandom into war. One involved a well-known and extremely volatile author who became upset in the sixties because a particular worldcon committee was planning to not include the Dramatic Presentation Award (the committee eventually changed their minds). The other was a negative reaction in the seventies to what was seen by some as block voting for a particular fan artist (the artist decided to remove himself from future award contention).

Given all this perhaps it’s not surprising that the typical reaction to the most inexplicable TRBRHugo winner of all time, the novel They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, has been more one of sorrow than anger. In the years since this novel was given the Best Novel Hugo in 1955 there have been two schools of thought in regards to They’d Rather Be Right. One is that it’s a mediocre novel that didn’t deserve to win a Hugo and the other is that it’s an underachieving novel that inexplicably won a Hugo.

Back in February of 2011 Rich Coad published Sense of Wonder Stories #5 and in that issue of his fanzine he included a cleaned up version of an e-list discussion in which the participants discussed Mark Clifton, Frank Riley and even made some attempt to explain why They’d Rather Be Right won the 1955 Hugo. It’s quite an interesting discussion despite the way (or perhaps even because) it rambles from topic to topic so if you’re interested a PDF of Sense of Wonder Stories #5 can be found on eFanzines.

Anyway, after reading that e-list discussion I did some research of my own and eventually developed a theory (oh what a surprise) which I’ll share with you here. First though I’d like to point out that while I’ll make what I think are some interesting points, these can only be considered tentative without any input from the fans who voted in 1955. Unfortunately asking those fans is a tad difficult given most of them are no longer alive enough for the likes of me to bother them. What I did instead was the next best thing and examined the historical record. In other words I went and looked through all the fanzines I have in my collection to see what was being written about They’d Rather Be Right back in the 50s.

Unfortunately my collection is not nearly so complete that I can describe the results of this search as being definitive but I do like to think that what I did discover carries some weight. For starters I was only able to find two references to They’d Rather Be Right but interestingly they’re both at odds with the more recent opinions. In Fantasy-Times #214 (January 1955) Thomas Gardener in his annual review of print science fiction describes They’d Rather Be Right as the best novel of 1954 and in Etherline #45 (1955), ‘So far, it’s excellent!’ is the opinion of Tony Santos in regards to the first instalment of the serial in Astounding. Now two positive comments isn’t a lot to go on but it still suggests the novel had a few fans back when it was first published.

GalaxyAdmittedly, as my friend Mark Plummer has pointed out, all the professional reviewers in the science fiction magazines had something to say, but how much were their reviews duty and how much real enthusiasm? Look at the review by Floyd C. Gale published in Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1958 to the right. Hardly a ringing endorsement, is it?

Okay, so if the enthusiasm for They’d Rather Be Right melted away faster than an ice cream on Venus then why oh why did it manage to win an award?

The Sense of Wonder Stories discussion touches on three possible reasons as to why They’d Rather Be Right won despite so little evidence of enthusiasm for it. Of these I don’t find the suggestion that it was carried over the line by a block vote from the Dianetics supporters very convincing. Given Dianetics was going through a very exciting early growth spurt at this point I doubt anybody but those members who were also science fiction fans would be concerned about a fledgling set of science fiction awards. I’m willing to believe that some, if not all, the various fans who were also into Dianetics could and did vote for They’d Rather Be Right but that’s all. I’m pretty sure that if any of them had tried to organise a block vote there would be some evidence of that. I’ve seen no mention of anything like a push to secure a Hugo for They’d Rather Be Right in any fanzine I checked and I’m certain that if anybody had tried to organise such a push rumours about the attempt would be published everywhere regardless of proof.

On to the second possible reason and not having access to any issues of Astounding from the relevant period I don’t have any evidence that John Campbell actively promoted They’d Rather Be Right for the Hugo (besides which, it wouldn’t be a good look to offer too much support) but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he at least put in a good word for it. Even putting his infatuation with Dianetics to one side, a win for a novel serialised in Astounding wouldn’t hurt his ego. Winning awards, even vicariously, feels good and is also the sort of news an editor likes to pass on up the corporate ladder to those paying his wage. I still doubt there was anything approaching a block vote for They’d Rather Be Right but if the novel was suggested for the award anywhere it was probably in the pages of Astounding. If nothing else John Campbell would surely be happy to stop Horace Gold, his editorial rival at Galaxy and regular sparring partner, from winning with the Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth novel, Gladiator At Law.

This brings us to the third and most interesting suggestion, that They’d Rather Be Right gained the inside running because the overall vote was split between multiple candidates. This idea wasn’t properly pursued in the Sense of Wonder Stories discussion, mostly I think because so few possible alternatives to the Clifton/Riley novel were brought up in that discussion. However that paltry list of rivals was based upon two false assumptions, that what fans in 2005 remember as being the good novels of 1954 were the same as fannish opinion in 1955, and that voters in 1955 had a clear idea of what was eligible. This is where a little more research can make a lot of difference (even if your references are incomplete like mine).

For a start the picture I received by looking through my fanzine collection is that the field of potential candidates was much larger than assumed in the e-list discussion. During 1954/55 the following novels received positive book reviews in at least two different fanzines: Gladiator At Law by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, Messiah by Gore Vidal, Hell’s Pavement by Damon Knight, Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Fury by Henry Kuttner, West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn, The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and A Mirror For Observers by Edgar Pangborn. I’ve not read everything on this list but of the novels I have read there are none I would rate as unworthy of a Hugo nomination.

Now the key fact to note here is that until 1959 there was no filtering process in place to winnow down the number of options. It wasn’t till then that a worldcon committee decided to have voters first nominate which novels should appear on a short-list and then vote on that. Before that each committee would simply include ballots in their progress reports. The example I have here is a 1953 ballot taken from Progress Report #4 published by 11th Worldcon. By the way, the progress report I took it from was addressed to T.L. Sherred but couldn’t be delivered for some reason and was returned to sender. Thus I was the first person to lay eyes upon this ballot since it was originally sent out all those years ago (I do hope T.L. Sherred still managed to get his vote in). Anyway, as far as I can tell the 1955 ballots were essentially identical to this 1953 example:

1953 Hugo Ballot Side A


1953 Hugo Ballot Side B

Now, given such a crude system I can see how those novels listed above probably took votes away from each other. Books like Messiah or I Am Legend had no chance of winning but that doesn’t mean they didn’t receive a few votes regardless.

Now of course some of you will be falling over yourselves to point out to me that not all the novels listed above were eligible for the 1955 Hugo and you will be right. This indeed was surely part of the problem because those who voted in 1955 didn’t have access to most of the references we do. For example a quick search online shows me that The Kraken Wakes was first published in 1953 and thus was ineligible (depending on whether the Cleveland Committee counted foreign publication or not). Somebody who bought their copy of the Wyndham novel from one of the book dealers listed in Fantasy Advertiser might not be aware of this and vote mistakenly. Even if we assume every voter did a little checking and took care to not choose any clearly ineligible novels I bet errors were still made. As Mark Plummer notes in his Sense of Wonder Stories #6 letter, the period of eligibility wasn’t a calendar year but ran from August to August. That would be easy if all the above examples had seen magazine publication but as some hadn’t voters would have to decide eligibility by whatever year was quoted in the copyright notice at the front of whichever book they happened to possess. I expect the Cleveland Worldcon Committee culled out any errors they spotted since I assume they knew what was eligible and what wasn’t but that doesn’t entirely negate the problem. Every mistaken vote cast reduces the (probably) small number of votes and makes it just that much easier for John Campbell to potentially encourage the readership of Astounding to roll right over the rivals to They’d Rather Be Right.

It has become clear to me that the key to the win by They’d Rather Be Right was the mechanics of the voting system. I see that Mark Plummer also mentions in Sense of Wonder Stories #6 how Nycon II, the 1956 worldcon, wanted ‘a more representative vote’, which I suppose could mean anything but which I suspect is a tacit admission that the 1955 votes were spread between too many candidates. It’s not too hard to imagine the Nycon II Committee hearing from the Clevention Committee about how They’d Rather Be Right beat out out the likes of Gladiator At Law despite the latter being a better regarded novel because so many other books received votes. It’s also possible that some of the Clevention Committee didn’t approve of certain novels getting voted for at all, Messiah and I Am Legend come to mind in this regard, and wanted something done to discourage future voting for novels like those.

On a side note it’s worth noting that as per speculation in the Sense of Wonder Stories #5 Mark Clifton had a pretty high profile in 1955. Not only had he written a number of well liked stories but he also had an article about writing science fiction in the ninth issue of Ron Smith’s fanzine, Inside (May 1955), a fanzine to which fandom was clearly paying attention as it won the Fanzine Hugo in 1956. Oh, and according to various issues of Fantasy Times Mark Clifton attended several conventions in the mid-fifties and was announced as one of the speakers at the 1955 Worldcon. I’ve no idea if he did turn up and speak but just the news that he would be there no doubt helped ensure that nobody forgot he existed.

So let that be a lesson to you all. Regardless of how you feel about the current nominating and voting process for the Hugos you still have it better than they did in 1953. I suggest you lull yourself to sleep at night with that thought.


Author Vs Art

Can mere words catch and pin art?

As anybody who has read much of Doctor Strangemind has probably noticed I’m not exactly cutting edge. None-the-less I’m not entirely unaware of the cutting edge of controversy (especially if said edge cutting is happening on File 770). And so it is that I’m aware of how Terry Goodkind recently described his latest novel, Shroud of Eternity, as ‘…a great book with a very bad cover. Laughably bad…’ and later on claimed he disliked Bastien Lecouffe Deharme’s cover because it was ‘sexist’.

I’ve seen the cover in question and while it doesn’t wow me it doesn’t strike me as ‘Laughably bad…’ In fact my only complaint is that I’m not keen on the colour scheme which is a bit too grey and brown for my taste. As to whether the complaint of sexism holds up I’ve no idea given I’ve not read this or any other of Terry Goodkind’s novels. As such I’ll leave that question to those of you better equipped to make a case one way or the other.

What I can do is point out that author discontent with output of those artists contracted to illustrate their work is nothing new. As it so happens I recently discovered some interesting comments in regards to this very topic in Mithril #4, published by Dennis Stocks sometime in 1973. (You knew I was going to dive back into the dear, distant past at some point, didn’t you?) As a starting point for a convention panel titled SF Illustration… A Dying Art? Stocks asked various professionals for their opinions. Unfortunately while it’s clear from the responses that Dennis Stocks posed two, or perhaps three, questions I can’t find any mention in Mithril #4 as to what he asked exactly so I can’t put these comments in exact context for you. Oh well, not that it matter in regards to the first respondent, Isaac Asimov:

Heaven knows I have no views whatever on art, science fiction or otherwise.

Really? No views whatever? Okay, so I’m pretty sure this is just Asimov’s way of politely declining to be involved but none-the-less I find his wording in this sentence absolutely fascinating. This is because he didn’t make what is to me the more obvious excuse of not being qualified to comment. No, instead he stated he had no views whatever, a rather myopic claim if you ask me. Not that it clashes with my general impression of Asimov, the sheer amount of popular science writing he produced always did make it seem to me that he didn’t have much time for anything besides science. But even so I did expect Asimov to at least imply that while he didn’t know much about art he certainly knew what he liked. Is it actually possible Asimov was that indifferent to art, or was this an ill-considered statement made in haste? I’d suggest the latter except I’m reminded of the fact that the first few issues of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine featured photos of Asimov on the cover rather than any artwork. Hmmm…

Asimov Covers

Enough about Asimov, let’s see how L. Sprague de Camp responded:

I have no special ideas on sf illustration; it seems to me to putter along pretty much the same regardless of the New Wave. I think the New Wave is already becoming Old Wave, as such things do. Experiments are fine, but only a small minority of those in the arts have permanent effect; most don’t work and are soon forgotten.

This is the way I expected Asimov to respond, by appearing to tackle the issue but actually dodging it. I assume from the way de Camp mentioned the New Wave that Dennis Stocks asked about what effect the New Wave movement had on science fiction art. I imagine Stocks had in mind the sort of eccentric graphics the British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, became well known for after Michael Moorcock took over as editor. Unfortunately de Camp confines himself to generalities of the sort I can imagine a first year art student mouthing. Which is not entirely surprising given that by the sixties de Camp wasn’t writing or editing anything which called for any but the most obvious graphics. His non-fiction wasn’t art orientated and the Conan paperbacks didn’t need covers showing anything other than barbarians bashing each other with swords before they were good to go.

Perhaps we’ll have more luck with Robert Bloch:

About science fiction illustration being a dying art – I’d be more inclined to regard the patient as not dying but merely partially crippled. My diagnosis is as follows:

His skin – that is to say, cover illustrations in both magazines and paperbacks – has a good, healthy tone and radiates a high degree of vitality,

His insides – i.e. interior illustrations in the magazines are ailing. And have been for many a long year. Much black-and-white is crude, hastily-executed and poorly reproduced, and necessarily limited as to size by the digest format of the pages on which it appears.

Bloch then went on to suggest the latter was not due to a lack of talent among artists but a mechanical problem. I’m in agreement with Bloch in this matter, interior artwork was always going to suffer once the science fiction magazines went from pulp size (25cmx17cm) to digest (19cmx13cm). However while this change shrank spot illustrations and reduced the amount of visible detail I suspect the real problem was one of budget. The vast majority of fiction magazines were discontinued during the 50s leaving only a handful of survivors, mostly science fiction and mystery titles. Not surprisingly magazine publishers had little reason to consider these few survivors important to the company bottom line. Consequently budgets didn’t keep up with inflation and soon enough there just wasn’t enough money to spare for b&w interior illustrations of the highest quality.

I have to wonder why editors didn’t use the opportunity afforded by by the move from pulp to digest size to begin phasing interior art out entirely. They surely knew it was possible because the editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had always used interior art very sparingly ever since that magazine began in 1949. However this is an easy decision for me to make in hindsight. At the time I imagine editors felt that the average reader would be disappointed if a longstanding feature like interior art disappeared. It’s also possible magazine editors felt that the interior art was a point of difference between their publications and the ever increasing number of paperbacks and thus saw the b&w illustrations as a selling point. For all anybody knew then or knows now keeping interior art did indeed help keep at least some of the magazine readership loyal.

None-the-less evolution is a thing and art has to evolve along with the rest of the world. In this case it has to asked if there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. If we assume that online publishing is where it’s at in regards to anything other than novels (a bit of an exaggeration I know but let’s roll with it) then why accept the budget limitations of the pulps and use anything less than full colour? While a website can afford the space to display large b&w pieces to best advantage is this a thing which people would still be interested in? This is certainly a question I would hope websites publishing science fiction have already asked themselves (perhaps they have, I don’t know enough about the modern scene to know) because I’m sure at least some artists would still like to produce b&w art on SF themes.

Bloch also wrote:

My opinions as to art used to illustrate my stories? I still admire what Virgil Finlay did on some of my yarns in the old Weird Tales – and what two friends and proteges, Albert & Flo Magarian, did in the Ziff-Davis pulps of the mid-forties, very much in the Finlay manner.

Finlay on Bloch
Fane Of the Black Pharaoh by Robert Bloch & illustrated by Virgil Finlay

My gripes are reserved for artists who obviously do not read the stories and who make their own decisions as to how the characters should look, without bothering to follow descriptions. I am not fond of abstract squiggles, nor do I care for ‘comix’ techniques which result in slapdash sketches of heroes with beetling brows and oversize jaws.

Bloch’s gripe about artists not reading his stories reminds me of a complaint made by I don’t remember who in which they claimed “Artists never read the story while blurb writers read the wrong story.” Such assumptions were often unfair to the artists though as books and magazines are produced by rigid schedule and artists weren’t always granted the time necessary to do justice to the story they were being paid to illustrate. (This is also why minimalist graphics have replaced cover art on an increasingly large percentage of books these days.)

Let’s move on to James Blish. We’ve already seen he’s the opinionated sort:

Unfortunately, I’m a poor person to ask any sort of question about art, a subject of which I have little knowledge or appreciation.

Don’t know about you but I’m sensing a theme developing here. I wonder why nobody seems game to take the ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ route?

Anyway, Blish goes on:

I’m inclined to agree with your suspicion that many New Wave stories don’t supply enough visual images to give the artist something concrete to draw. But the artists who attached themselves to the New Wave couldn’t seem to have cared less. In New Worlds many of the graphics didn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the text.

As for cover art – I get many hardcover books for review and all too often their jackets show nothing but that the artist was utterly baffled by the task. (My favourite example of this is a collection of Avram Davidson stories, the jacket for which depicted an ice-bag floating in mid-ocean – a dead giveaway of how the artist felt, but nothing to do with anything in the book). Paperback covers have generally been much better as illustrations, and I hope they last a long time.

Strange Seas & Shores
I wondered if James Blish wasn’t being a little harsh but ghad, this is uninspiring!

Ah, so Blish decided to take the ‘I don’t know art but I know what I don’t like’ route. Still, I do think he makes an interesting point in there among the general grumpiness. I think it’s fair to say that the fiction being written by most authors identified with the New Wave didn’t lend itself to striking imagery. Authors such as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Philip Dick, the later Robert Silverberg weren’t writing material that lent itself to visual interpretation given that scenes more often than not involved groups of relatively ordinary people talking together. This actually takes me back to my earlier question about whether there is even a place for b&w science fiction art any more. In this case however it’s not a question of whether b&w art is desired when colour is so easy but if any art is desirable at all if science fiction is no longer focused on visually exotic topics.

The thing about science fiction art is that it has rarely existed as an end in itself. Most of the time SF art has been produced as an adjunct to SF stories and novels. Even when a piece wasn’t intended to illustrate a specific story it usually features objects and ideas we’re familiar with from reading those afore mentioned stories and novels.

There was a time when the art served to visualise these new concepts and add depth to them. That time is long past, so long past that what once exited us now bores. How many of us really want to see new visual iterations of the robot, the spaceship, the time machine, the alien landscape?

Okay, so the problem for visual SF seems to be that the old concepts are passe while many of the new ones are less visceral and don’t lend themselves to interesting visual representation.

I think I should end this piece with Ursula le Guin because of all the authors asked she seems to be the only one capable of being both grumpy and graceful about the art associated with her books. Other authors might like to read the following and take notes:

I know absolutely nothing about SF illustration, and yet find I have opinions about it – predjudices even – which go so far as asking, is it a dying art, or was it even born?

SF illustration. What comes to mind? Some subtle and handsome paperback book covers by the Dillons and Kelly Freas? The line drawings Gaughan did for the Jack Vance story The Dragon Masters. Tolkien’s own drawings for The Hobbit, and the beautiful dustjacket, which I think he did himself.

Then what? The illustrations to my own books, you ask about? Oh Lord. Well. You know, I trust that unless you are Harriet Beecher Stow you do not get consulted about illustrations, or book covers – or even shown them before publication, unless your publisher is uncommonly courteous? You DO know that? (I keep getting asked Why did you let them put that cover on etc, etc. Let them! Hah!)

I have been given two covers I unqualifiedly like. One is the French edition of Left Hand Of Darkness (La Main Gauche de la Nuit), which is heavy silver paper with an embossed pattern of what might be snowflakes. No picture at all. The other is the British (Hardcover – Gollancz) edition of Wizard of Earthsea, a neat Durer-like drawing in black on ochre. The original (Parnassus) and the Ace editions of the Wizard are also very handsome covers, and Ruth Robbins’ interior illustrations are elegant. The wizard on the Puffin paperback is either anaemic, or stayed too long at Oxford – I am arriving at something. I am arriving at the fact that I know what my people look like, and what their landscapes look like, and that nobody else (naturally) knows it quite the way I do – they know it their way – which is fine, so long as they keep it to themselves. But when they draw it, it looks wrong. To me. I don’t tell them that. I only tell you that. They are all talented people and they worked very hard.

But the plain silver cover with a suggestion of snowflakes still leaves the imagination free to work – which is, perhaps, the best of all?

le Guin
I strongly suspect none of the images I can find online do justice to the original French cover but hopefully this gives you some idea of why it appealed to the author.

A.E. Van Vogt – In the Beginning

Not every origin story needs to be revealed.

Recently I responded to an article about pseudonyms written many years ago by Anthony Boucher. In it I mentioned that A.E. Van Vogt as an example of an author didn’t care to be associated with a certain genre. I made this claim because I had a memory of reading a piece by him in which he admitted to writing for true adventure style pulps but giving no details.

Since then an old friend of mine, Denny Lien, who knows more about such matters than I ever will, pointed me to a page on the van Vogt website that actually reprints one of these stories and gives some background on how it was rediscovered. So it turns out I was wrong about him writing for the true adventure pulps. What he actually wrote apparently were true confession type stories which is about as far from his later science fiction in theme and style as you could get.

When I read this example of van Vogt’s true confession work I have to admit I didn’t find it terrible as I suspected it might be. It probably helped that the story isn’t a long one, or that to my eye at least it appeared to be an attempt by van Vogt to parody the short stories of O. Henry. I think it was a parody attempt rather than simple imitation. Certainly lines such as this suggest parody to me:

It was the old Ted, exasperatingly smug in his knowledge of her, incurably romantic about himself and probably already planning to commemorate the occasion by writing one of his happy-ending stories, in which he would be the forgiving and ill-used hero.

Not perhaps the most on-target dart tossed at O. Henry’s sentimental tendencies but van Vogt’s ire was in the right place.

So I can see why van Vogt would want to avoid revealing his literary past to his science fiction audience if it’s all like this. While not terrible it’s clearly a bit too twee and small in scale for the author of epics such as The Weapon Shops of Isher or The World of Null A to admit to.

Ursula Le Guin & Her Elusive Hugo!

It all began with a hot tip from Perry Barr of Ace Boops.

Goodbye Ursula. The heavens above were never so full that we won’t miss your bright particular star.

And now for my favourite Ursula Le Guin letter, one which highlights the two things I like best in an author, a lack of pretentiousness and a sense of humour. The following letter appeared in Philosophical Gas #2, published by John Bangsund in October 1970. The Hugo in question was awarded to Ursula for The Left Hand of Darkness at Heicon ’70, the worldcon held in Heidelberg, Germany in August of 1970. I assume the rocket was accepted on Ursula’s behalf by Terry Carr of Ace Books (which would explain a lot). Other than that I don’t think there is anything I can add except I hope the following makes you smile, at least for a moment:

‘We were over in our cabin in the Coast Range on Slick Rock Creek, well insulated from Civilisation by a lot of fir trees and bears and stuff, and it was about 8 a.m. and there was a knock on the door. Mr Smith from up the road. Mr Smith has a telephone, and he had a message for us – from our daughter, he thought they said. As our eldest daughter is 13 and was reading Mad Magazine right in the loft at the time, we were confused, but staggered up through the bears and firs and called the number he had taken down. It was Virginia Kidd in Pennsylvania, who had forgotten the 3-hour time difference between Pennsylvania and Oregon but had a hot rumor that my book had won the Hugo. So I called a friend in Portland who was coming to visit in a few days to stop by the house and pick up any telegrams that might be lying about. Which they did; so about 5 days after the Heidelberg meeting was over I got three, hand-delivered telegrams, one of which said Congratulations your novel won Hugo award Terry Car Ac Books, one which said Congratulations your novel won Hugo award Perry Barr Ace Boops, and one which said Congratulations sinister Hugo more please John Bangsund. It was that one which made the day. I didn’t believe the others, but you clinched it. When I get news from North Carlton, Victoria, I believe it. It was a lovely thing to do, and I do thank you.

Alan Nourse has the actual, physical Hugo; apparently Terry Carr (or Perry Barr, of Ace Boops) gave it to him, saying “You can give it to her, Alan, you both live on the West Coast”, which is perfectly true, only he lives in North Bend Washington and I live in Portland Oregon, but what are these little provincial differences? Oh, are you from America, do you know my friend James Peebles? Well, when Mr Nourse called tonight I asked him just to put some fuel in the rocket and fly it down. He said he’d thought of that. We don’t seem to have thought of any other solution yet. But that’s all right. I don’t need a bronze rocket. I have your telegram.’

Jack Vance & Fawlty Towers

The road to hell is paved with good intentions lazily executed.

Fawlty Towers is possibly as close to perfect a TV sitcom as has ever been produced. Even so there are aspects of the show open to debate. For example there is the claim that Manuel, the Spanish waiter, is the most sympathetic of the regular characters. I could not disagree with this claim more. To me there is only one character truly deserving of sympathy on Fawlty Towers and that is Basil Fawlty.

To judge by various comments I’ve encountered sympathy for Manuel seems to be largely based on the idea that because he is at the bottom of the pecking order Manuel is therefore the most vulnerable character and thus most deserving of sympathy. This is very attractive logic because it requires no great mental effort to reach such a conclusion. It certainly requires a blinkered approach but this is part of the appeal, the blinkered approach ensures that the effort of a cross-examination need not be attempted. The Manuel sympathiser need never consider the ease with which hospitality staff, even those with Manuel’s grasp of English, can change jobs (and don’t try to tell me otherwise, after 16 years in hospitality I know how employable even the incompetent are), the Manuel sympathiser need never consider the fact Manuel makes no serious effort to improve and is every bit as hopeless in the last episode as in the first.

Unlike Manuel, hotel owner Basil Fawlty cannot easily escape from the web he is mired in. He cannot simply walk out without leaving behind most, if not all, of everything he has worked years to build. Even if he steeled himself to do just this I doubt his wife would let him entirely escape. Sybil Fawlty comes across to me as a character who needs somebody to bully and mistreat. Even if Basil didn’t return to the hotel I imagine she would insist on torturing him from afar because that’s just who that character is.

So Basil is stuck there, trying to do his best. I don’t claim he’s very good at it but at least he’s trying, which is more than can be said for either Sybil or Manuel, each of whom continually frustrates Basil by their unwillingness to make any real effort.

I like to think of Fawlty Towers as being a reinterpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit. In this version though the three main characters are running a hotel rather than being locked inside of a room. Also in this version the torments of hell are mostly visited upon Basil as the one trapped in the middle. On one side Sybil avoids making any real effort, choosing to nag and bully Basil instead, while on the other side Manuel uses his lack of comprehension as a shield to minimise his own workload. (The harder it is to get a member of staff working the less they will be asked to do. Amazingly on more than one occasion I’ve seen some form of this tactic; pretending incomprehension, excessive slowness, or just plain hiding, work like a charm.)

By this point I imagine you’re wondering to yourself what any of this has to do with the fantastic. Well fair enough, (though if you’re honest with yourself you’ll admit you’re fascinated by this entirely unexpected take on a classic sitcom.) The fact is the sort of scenario I’ve described in Fawlty Towers is common enough in everyday life, where even the most accomplished and highly regarded amongst us are capable of putting others into the unenviable position of Basil Fawlty.

For example in Skyhook #16, published by Redd Boggs in the winter of 1952/53, there is a letter by Jack Vance in which he responds to part of a William Atheling Jr article which appeared in the preceding issue. Unfortunately because I don’t have a copy of Skyhook #15 to hand so I can’t quote the offending comments but I assume Vance didn’t misrepresent what was written about his work since neither Atheling or Boggs remonstrated with Vance in response to the following:

‘A few remarks on Mr Atheling’s article, which was read with wry amusement: (1) Big Planet was suggested, not by Beowulf, not by the Odyssey, but by a short story by the author of Beau Geste, whose name temporarily escapes me – Percival Wren, something like that. A dozen men desert the Foreign Legion; only one survives to reach Tangier. Big Planet naturally evolved considerably from this human-depletion idea; and in its original form – 82,000 – it had an entirely different slant from the one it ended up with. Written originally two or three years ago, it is not, as Mr Atheling assumes, a sample of my latest work. In fact, many of Mr Atheling’s assumptions and inductions do not completely hit the mark. For instance: (2) A person who, reading a collection of short stories while firmly convinced he is reading a novel, cannot fail to put the book down with a trace of dissatisfaction. This is evidently what occurred when Mr Atheling read Dying Earth. I completely concur with his view that, as a novel, this collection of vaguely related short stories makes a “chaotic…shapeless” whole. I believe the notation on the cover, “A Novel by Jack Vance” misled Mr Atheling. (3) Mr Kuttner I esteem highly as a man, a gentleman, a fellow citizen of the U.S., a prolific and talented author, but I must minimise the degree to which his works have influenced my own. There have been, I must assert categorically, absolutely none.’

For the purpose of my argument the matter of what inspired the plot of Big Planet is a secondary matter though we can see that Atheling was already on shaky ground if he was attempting to second-guess an authors inspirations. Tempting as it is to make such pronouncements I suspect correctly tracing literary inspiration is about as easy as discovering the source of the Nile was for 19th century explorers.

The Dying EarthIt’s with Vance’s next point however that we encounter what surely his Basil Fawlty moment. I’m willing to bet the restrained sarcasm Vance employed in order to agree with Atheling that the short stories contained in The Dying Earth collection made for a terrible novel is as nothing to how he felt when he first read Atheling’s complaint. As somebody who has read The Dying Earth collection, albeit many years ago, the thought that anybody could miss the assorted changes in plot, location, and characters is an astounding one. As the author of these assorted stories and thus more intimately involved with then than any reader could be the Atheling complaint was surely a source of intense frustration for Jack Vance. How do you deal with being told you have failed when the basis of the claim is as demonstrably wrong as this? There are things that should not need explanation, that are a chore, an undeserved burden to set right. If it had been me in Vance’s place the sheer frustration of Atheling’s comments would have had me curling up Basil Fawlty style.

And then, not content with the above Atheling apparently then went on to rub salt in the would by claiming Vance’s style was influenced by the work of Henry Kuttner. Given Vance had for years been plagued by a persistent rumour that he was nothing but pseudonym of Kuttner I imagine any claim that Kuttner was a major influence would annoy Vance. That such a claim came from the same person who had just mistaken a collection of short stories for a novel should be grounds for unbridled fury.

Under the circumstances I think Jack Vance handled the situation with impressive restraint. I know if it had been me the temptation to unleash an Ellison-like diatribe would be hard to resist.

For the record in Skyhook #16 is another William Atheling article in which he responds to Anthony Boucher pointing out that The Dying Earth was a collection with the following:

‘Mr Boucher is right about the Vance “novel,” technically….’

There is no reaction from William Atheling in regards to Vance’s own letter but perhaps it arrive too late for Redd Boggs to make Atheling aware of its contents before Skyhook #16 was published (it should be remembered that communication was just that little bit more cumbersome back before easy access to the sort of technology we employ today). If Atheling did respond to Jack Vance’s comments it was probably in the form of a private letter.

If there is a conclusion to be had from this situation I think it’s best summed up by quoting Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

P.S. It should be noted that William Atheling Jr was a pseudonym of the late James Blish. I didn’t mention this earlier because when Skyhook #16 was published this was still a well kept secret. I would also assume Blish either expunged or rewrote the Jack Vance section when preparing the Atheling material for book publication but as I don’t own either The Issue At Hand or More Issues At Hand I can’t confirm this.

P.P.S. Percival Christopher Wren was the author of Beau Geste.

Psycho Birds Bloch Hitchcock!

Robert Bloch & Alfred Hitchcock were plotting against us.

Typist Inside

Horror Bloch & Mystery Bloch Tag Teaming On Psycho

Last year a cinema local to me devoted Sunday afternoons to showing classic films. Among these hits of yesteryear were the Alfred Hitchcock films Psycho and The Birds. I made sure to attend both those showings because I’d never seen Psycho on the big screen and The Birds not at all. Much as I enjoyed re-watching Psycho and picking up on details not obvious on the small screen it was Hitchcock’s version of The Birds which most piqued my interest most. While I’d read the Daphne du Maurier novelette the film is based upon several times the only part of the film I was familiar with was the scene in which Tippi Hedren is trapped in a phone booth by attacking seagulls. Despite how dramatic this scene is it helped convince me that Hitchcock’s film would be lacking the brooding menace of the story was based upon and thus a bit of a let-down.

Having at last seen the film version of The Birds I find I was right to assume that a 1963 Hollywood production, even with Hitchcock at the helm, could not match the power of du Maurier’s original. Overall I thought The Birds was okay, certainly better than I had assumed it would be, but still not great. I can see why Hitchcock made so many changes as I doubt that in 1963 a more faithful translation of the story would sell tickets, but I can also see why Daphne du Maurier hated what he did to her story. I didn’t hate it myself but I did think it was the least impressive Hitchcock film I’ve ever seen.

None the less I was fascinated the way Hitchcock started off the film with a light romance that had nothing to do with du Maurier’s story and didn’t begin to introduce anything by du Maurier until the romance plot was well advanced. Why did he take such an unexpected approach I wondered as I watched this story unfold? Afterwards however it occurred to me that Hitchcock began The Birds the way he did in order to replicate the success of Psycho.

This theory of mine starts with not with Hitchcock but Robert Bloch for it was he who wrote the 1959 novel Hitchcock turned into his famous film. One of the interesting things about Bloch as an author is that while he wrote a large number of short stories he produced relatively few novels. Part of this is probably because while the majority of his pulp contemporaries shifted to writing novels during the 50’s as the fiction magazines were steadily replaced by paperbacks Bloch moved into script-writing instead. Possibly Bloch never felt as comfortable with the novel length and had no great need to overcome this due to his script-writing income.

Perhaps this is why Psycho is not a lengthy novel. The copy I have here is a mere 98 pages long which was short for a paperback even in 1959 (though to be fair comparable in length with many of the ‘novels’ that appeared in the fiction magazines back then). Moreover Psycho reads to me like two short stories linked together by that famous shower scene. Why the novel should have this rather unusual structure I can’t say for certain. Perhaps Bloch was using this as a deliberate ploy to ease himself into an story length he wasn’t entirely confident in. Perhaps Bloch decided to link two story fragments together because he couldn’t make a satisfactory stand-alone story out of either. Whatever the reason the fact is Psycho is greater than the sum of its parts because of the way those parts are fused together.

The first part of the novel is classic example of what I like to call the morality tale of horror. Such morality horror tales begin with the the protagonist transgressing in some manner. Sometimes the protagonist commits a crime, sometimes they knowingly or inadvertently cause some offence. However they have transgressed the protagonist then attempts to escape punishment by taking a series of actions. However in the morality tale of horror every attempt to avoid retribution leads the protagonist a step closer to their ultimate, ironic, fate. Classically these stories end by making it clear that the only reason the protagonist met their gruesome end was due to their efforts to avoid punishment for the initial transgression.

In Psycho, Robert Bloch’s morality tale, after a little scene setting and misdirection at the Bates Motel we are introduced to the person we assume is to be the main protagonist, Mary Crane, secretary for the real estate agent Mr Lowery. The plot proper begins when she is tempted into committing the crime of theft when Tom Cassidy presents Mr Lowery with a large sum of money and Mr Lowery asks her to bank it for him. Instead she packs her bags and flees town with the money, heading to Fairvale where her boyfriend lives. With the stolen money she then begins to sell and buy cars as she travels in the hopes of covering her tracks. However Fairvale is a long way away, eighteen hours on unfamiliar roads and not surprisingly she takes a wrong turn. After having realised her mistake Mary Crane decides to stay the night in a hotel somewhere and find the right road in the morning so she can arrive at her boyfriend’s hardware store in a more composed state.

That’s when she spots the secluded Bates Motel and sets off the sequence of events that leads to the shower scene.

Now if this had been a typical Bloch morality horror short story appearing in Weird Tales I imagine that the final scene (not necessarily in the shower) would reveal the hotel was a base for cultists willing to use Mary Crane as a sacrifice, a home for werewolves willing to have her as a meal, or some other horrible fate that she could only suffer by arriving at such an unlikely location.

However such an immediate conclusion was clearly not possible given Bloch was writing a novel, albeit a rather slender one. So instead Bloch simply leaves the abrupt end of his horror story up in the air. Who murdered the secretary and why? We have no idea though perhaps some suspicions. Anyway, upon the death of Mary Crane, the original protagonist, Bloch the horror writer retires to his corner and Bloch the writer of mystery stories takes control and brings her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, and her younger sister Lila to the fore. From this point on the story becomes a fairly straight forward problem solving plot as Sam and Lila attempt to discover the whereabouts of Mary Crane. Even the final reveal isn’t an especially uncommon plot twist. It does have some added impact when the killer’s thoughts are revealed to the reader but even that isn’t much of a surprise to the average reader of Weird Tales.

Now clearly Alfred Hitchcock grasped that it was the abrupt twist in the middle of the story which made this book so worth turning into a movie. Consider how much he built up the initial misdirection by having Marion Crane (no, I’ve no idea why her first name was changed) briefly encounter Tom Cassidy as she flees town and then by having her arouse the suspicions of sheriff Al Chambers. By the time Marion Crane arrived at the hotel anybody not familiar with the book would be primed to assume the rest of the film would revolve around a cat and mouse game between Crane and sheriff Al Chambers. For anybody not familiar with the book and who didn’t recall the hints dropped in the trailer (in other words the majority of the initial film audience) the shower scene must of been a devastating revelation.

This leads me to my theory that Hitchcock liked this misdirection so much that he decided to reuse the idea in The Birds. I would recommend that anybody who hasn’t read the Daphne du Maurier novelette should go and do so because it’s an excellent story. Just be warned though, it’s every bit as bleak a story as I suggested earlier. Indeed, so dark is it that Hitchcock had to change a lot of the detail to make the story palatable to the average film goer (that is apart from the traditional shifting the story to the US as would of happened regardless). He decreased the feeling of isolation by including a cast of bit-players, he reduced the threat level by having the avian aggression intermittent rather than constant, he removed the sense of hopelessness by having it made clear that the bird attacks were only localised.

Of course the danger with all this downplaying of the danger is that the threat might not feel big enough to properly scare the audience. So why not repeat the success of Psycho by starting the plot in one direction and then twisting it in another. In the case of The Birds the change in direction from the sunny uplands of a light romance to the darker and considerable more fraught survival story was less abrupt (well most things are less abrupt than Psycho’s shower scene) but effective none-the-less. By, hopefully, getting the audience invested in the light romance plot and resulting domestic drama I suspect Hitchcock hoped to make the introduction of the bird attacks feel like more of a tonal shift and thus more alarming. It also had the advantage of helping to stretch out the plot. For all the power of Daphne du Maurier’s novelette there isn’t a lot of plot to it so Hitchcock was was rather neatly killing two birds with a single stone.

Killing two birds with a single stone. That’s certainly one way to describe such plotting.

Virgil Finlay & Fungi! In Colour!

Fungi and toadstools and shrooms, oh my!

Murray Leinster’s novella, The Mad Planet, has been reprinted quite a few times after if first appeared in the 12 June, 1920 issue of Argosy, most recently in 2015. This longevity surprises me not at all because even today The Mad Planet remains a fascinating look at a suitably alien future Earth.

The single best reprint appeared in the November 1948 issue of Fantastic Novels Magazine. No so much for the Virgil Finlay action cover (which I personally don’t care for) but rather the magnificent full-page black and white illustration with which Finlay attempted to give the reader some idea of what Leinster’s future world looked like.

Finlay’s art style is well suited to illustrating this sort of lush future world, so much so that I felt it was a pity that the drawing was in black and white and decided to do something about it. Adding colour does somewhat reduce the amount of texture the black and white version has but I think the added richness more than compensates for that. Not perfect perhaps but I’m still quite pleased with the result.

Virgil Finlay 1

The Mad Planet was the first in a series of stories Leinster wrote about life on Earth 30,000 years in the future. In this first story story it’s revealed that dramatically changed climatic conditions had been caused by a massive increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Leinster explained that this increase was party due to human activity which lo these many years later seems particularly prophetic. Apparently though he wasn’t able to believe that humanity alone would be capable of causing the degree of change his plot required so he also had holes opening up in the Earth’s crust to release even more carbon dioxide. (I’ve been told that something similar to Leinster’s holes is scientifically plausible in that it has been speculated that the melting of the permafrost might release considerable quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.) Leinster then postulated that this change in the atmosphere resulted in fungal and insect life flourishing and growing to enormous size while nearly every other form of life other than man and fish died out. The story is well worth a read for anybody who doesn’t suffer from arachnophobia.

Straight Talking With Philip K. Dick

On the Tonight Show this evening, Philip K. Dick!

Philip K. DickOnce upon a time, not all that long ago in fact, if I had been asked to name those science fiction authors I thought would be the least interesting in an interview Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard would be near the top of my list. This more than anything was based on what I knew of their public personas, both of which seemed excessively cryptic to me in their expressed opinions. Dick in particular seemed like somebody who might start off fine but at some point would start channelling his Horselover Fat persona, at which point the signal between Dick and Earth would break down.

I was forced to change my mind however after reading several issues of Terry Carr’s major fanzine of the sixties, Lighthouse. (To be fair Terry shared the editorial duties with Pete Graham early on but the later issues were his alone.) Terry Carr worked as an editor for Ace Books back in the sixties and early seventies. During that time he was best known for the Ace Science Fiction Specials, a series of novels that were intended to appeal to the discerning SF reader. The issues of Lighthouse Terry Carr published while working at Ace read to me like a non-fiction version of the Ace Science Fiction Specials. In those issues appeared authors and artists such as Thomas M. Disch, Greg Benford, Jack Gaughan, Richard Lupoff, Alexei Panshin, Samuel R, Delany, Gahan Wilson, Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, and of course Philip K. Dick.

It’s in Lighthouse #14 (October 1966) that Carr published a Philip K. Dick article called Will the Atomic Bomb Ever Be Perfected, and If So, What Becomes of Robert Heinlein? This piece doesn’t read like a fully formed article in my opinion. It’s a series of unconnected paragraphs that feels more like a transcript of Dick’s responses to a series of questions that had been posed by a talk show host (Conan O’Brien most probably, I can’t imagine who else would enjoy interviewing Phil Dick). Take this line:

‘I have written and sold twenty-three novels, and all are terrible except one. But I am not sure which one.’

That so feels like the sort of thing a talk show guest might say to set the tone of the interview. Watch out audience, I’m quirky and don’t take anything too seriously.

Mostly though Dick expresses the sort of blunt and sweeping opinions I never thought he was likely to come out with. Consider the emphatic nature of the following three claims. (And yes, taken together these three opinions do contradict each other which leads me to wonder if Dick was more interested in trying to startle the reader into reconsidering accepted wisdom than being honest about his opinions. Still, even if he was encouraging the reader to reconsider some of their assumptions, he was doing so in a far more direct manner than I expected him to.)

‘No one makes any real money off good – I repeat, good – SF. This probably indicates that it has artistic worth. If Lorenzo de Medici were alive he would pick up the tab for A.E. Van Vogt, not for John Updike.’

‘The best SF novel I have read is Vonnegut’s Player Piano. Because it actually deals with men-women relationships (Paul Proteus and his bitch of a wife). In this matter the book is unique in the field. Brave New World only seems to do this, 1984 in this regard is awful.’

‘Out of all the SF which I have read, one story still means more to me than any others, it is Harry Bate’s Alas, All Thinking. It is the beginning and the end of literate science fiction. Alas.’

Then there is his brief but savage assessment of two different Robert Heinlein stories. Dave Langford once wrote that it’s always interesting to see one SF Encyclopedia subject writing about another. I would contend that in this particular case ‘interesting’ doesn’t begin to describe my curiosity. Not because Dick is negative but because he gave so little context to this negativity. Neither of these are recent stories, Gulf appeared in 1949 and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961, so I can’t see these as immediate, shooting from the hip, type reactions. Neither am I aware of Dick and Heinlein being bitter enemies back in 1966. Yes, I’ve no doubt they had very different worldviews and moved in very different social circles but these comments read like shots being fired in an ongoing war between the two men that I’m sure was not being fought. Most curious.

‘If I were to dredge up one SF novel which, more than any other, would cause me to abandon SF entirely, it is Robert Heinlein’s Gulf. It strike me as fascism pure and simple, and – what is worse – put forth unattractively. Bleh.’

Heinlein has done more to harm SF than has any other writer, I think – with the possible exception of George O. Smith. The dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land has to be read to be believed. “Give the little lady a box of cigars!” a character cries, meaning that the girl has said something which is correct. One wonders what the rejoinder would be if a truly inspired remark had to be answered rather than a routine statement, it would probably burst the book’s gizzard.’

Further to the above in 1972 Phil Dick dedicated his novel, We Can Build You, to Robert & Ginny Heinlein after they loaned him money to pay his IRS bill. So whatever Dick thought of Heinlein’s work it doesn’t appear that there was bad blood between the two.

Then we have the self-reflective Philip K. Dick who doesn’t seem particularly eager to blow his own horn. Of course given some of what he had to say about other authors perhaps he felt the need to downplay his own work in order to not totally look like the bad guy. Or perhaps this is him really trying to mess with the reader’s head by disagreeing with the general consensus. What? Everybody thinks The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a really great novel? (Yes they do according to Goodreads.) Well let me, the author himself, tell you that it was just a bad acid trip that should never have seen the light of day. Oh, and you liked We Can Remember It for You Wholesale in the latest F&SF? Well guess what! It’s no better than my first published story Roog, so more fool you! (Actually I could go along with this as I happen to think Roog is as good a short story as Dick ever wrote.)

By the way ‘Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi’ is from the liturgical prayer known as the Agnus Dei and translates as; ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ Make of that what you will.

‘In fifteen years of professional writing I haven’t got or a tittle better. My first story, Roog. Is as good as – if not better than – the five I did last month. This seems very strange to me because certainly through all those years I’ve learned a good deal about writing… and in addition my general store of worldly wisdom has increased. Maybe there are only a given number of original ideas in each person, he uses them up and that is that. Like an old baseball player he no longer has anything to offer. I will say one thing in favour of my writing, however, which I hope is true. I am original (except where I copy my own previous work). I no longer write “like Cyril Kornbluth” or “like A.E. Van Vogt”. But in that case I can no longer blame them for my faults’

‘Religion ought never to show up in SF except from a sociological standpoint, as in Gather, Darkness. God per se, as a character, ruins a good SF story, and this is as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s. Therefore I deplore my Palmer Eldrich book in that regard. But people who are a bit mystically inclined like it. I don’t. I wish I had never written it, there are too many horrid forces loose in it. When I wrote it I had been taking certain chemicals and I could see the awful landscape which I depicted. But not now, Thank God. Agnus Dei qud tellis peccata mundi.’

So there I stand corrected, Philip K. Dick could and did express opinions in a most forthright manner. As to whether these blunt opinions were what Dick really thought. Well, this is Philip K. Dick, your guess is as good as mine.