John Brunner – The Writer In Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now on with the show:

The Economics of SF
by John Brunner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We-ell…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Aldiss & the Worst Story Ever!!!

WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!

It is my impression that Brian Wilson Aldiss was generally considered to be a stern but fair elder statesman until he passed away in 2017. I, on the other hand, considered him to be far more curmudgeonly than that (he would never have a passable member of the Beach Boys for example). It also my opinion that Brian Aldiss adopted his curmudgeonly persona relatively early in his career. Oh, but Doctor Strangemind I hear you all cry, Brian Aldiss was never a curmudgeon, at least not until he was old enough to carry the title with a suitable level of gravitas! Ah ha, my poor innocent audience! You have fallen into my cunningly constructed audience trap and now while you lay squirming in the metaphorical mud at the bottom of the pit of unwarranted assumption I’ll just sit here on the lip above and tell you all about how in Australian Science Fiction Review #15 (published by John Bangsund in April 1968) that young curmudgeon, Brian Aldiss, did go so far as to accuse two fellow British authors of writing as he put it the, ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’ To quote from Aldiss himself:

There was one story in particular in Authentic which, ever since I read it on its first appearance in 1954, had impressed me as reaching a really impressive level of badness. To my great delight, I found on reading it again that it has grown even worse over the intervening fourteen years. I therefore would like to nominate as the worst sf story ever published:

The Lava Seas Tunnel, by F.G. Rayer and E.R. James, (Authentic SF, edited by H.J. Campbell, Vol.1, no.43, March 1954.)

Authentic SF V1 No.43 March 1954

Now before I unleash the savage beast that was Brian Wilson Aldiss I think it only fair I let F.G. Rayer and E.R. James put forward their side of the story. For the record, according to material published in Space Diversions, the fanzine of the Liverpool Science Fiction Society, F.G. Rayer and E.R. James were in fact cousins. Francis George Rayer and Ernest Rayer James, to give them their full names, had quite a few stories published in various British science fiction magazines during the fifties. My impression is that their work was used as filler material, inserted into gaps by editors such as Herbert J. Campbell (Authentic Science Fiction Monthly) and John Carnell (New Worlds Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, & Science Fiction Adventures) when nothing more impressive was to hand.

If I am correct then this would explain why F.G. Rayer felt that the science fiction being written in his day was not up to scratch and that much of the blame for this could be placed at the feet of editors. Consider this extract from an autobiographical article by Rayer in Space Diversions #6 (April/May 1953):

The present trend in S.F. has several admirable traits and several that are deplorable, Unfortunately a writer can do very little to influence such trends – the onus rests on editorial shoulders. If the editor does not like what the writer sends in, then he does not publish it. Accordingly the writer is usually committed to write, from time to time, stories which he deduces the editor will like. These are published. The others fill the W.P.B.

Well that’s as blunt a condemnation of the editorial fraternity as you are ever likely to encounter. A cynical person might also suspect this is an attempt by Rayer to divert potential future criticism away from what he knows to be weak stories. On the other hand he might be genuinely frustrated the refusal of Bert Campbell and John Carnell to buy what he, Rayer, considers to be his best material. Without more source material to hand it’s impossible to say one way or the other.

Okay, so what were the traits in science fiction that F.G. Rayer found so deplorable? I’m glad I asked. Again from the article in Space Diversions #6:

Deplorable traits, in my view, include:- women dragged into stories for the sake of the feminine or romantic interest; pictures of the later undressed yet unfrozen in space, etc; stories based on a series of “clever” incidents which do not really integrate.

I was disappointed when I read this as given his earlier comment I was expecting a more impressive list of complains than this. While I agree that illustrating partial nudity in space is never a good thing Rayer’s first point has to me a ‘No Girls Allowed’ vibe to it and not much else while his last is insufficiently explained for it to make much sense. On the other hand his list of positive traits paints a much clearer picture:

Admired traits are:- real originality, fully reasoned and logical development, scientific premises which will stand pondering upon, and lack of superficial emotion.

At this point in the article I began to wonder if Rayer wasn’t a scientific boy scout more in tune with the philosophy of Hugo Gernsback’s explaining science through fiction than where science fiction was actually heading at the time. A idea reinforced by the following:

These feelings, strong as they are, may have arisen from the large amount of work I do on electronic equipment; here, there is always a reason, although sometimes complex deduction is required to discover it.

That seems to sum up F.G. Rayer so what about E.R. James? Well in Space Diversions #7 (December 1953) there is an article by James called Don’t Shoot the Writer which begins thus:

He’s doing his best, and –

You’ll serve yourself and him much better if, instead of saying WHAT A ROTTEN EFFORT! you try to tell him where he has gone wrong from your point of view.

It takes a keen and knowledgeable mind to criticise constructively and with proper humility, for –

Criticism is a favourite occupation of mankind (and womankind.) But it is a two edged sword. If we say a story, a piece of music or even a meal dished up by an unfamiliar cook is no good, then we are expressing a relationship, not a truth. We are saying that we cannot digest the meal, the music or the story that has been prepared and, although it may be the author, the musician or the cook, it may also be merely a statement of our own limitations.

Eating fried snails, listening to symphony music and reading science-fiction are all acquired tastes. Even reading is not a natural ability (such as eating, seeing sleeping, etc.) For we had to learn first single letters, then words and finally abstract ideas which were behind those collections of words. So you see that reading, especially in respect to a single branch of reading, i.e. S-F., is almost – – though not quite – – as much a skill as writing the words to read.

E.R. James then spends a couple more pages expounding his ideas on what an author needs to do in order to write a good science fiction story. However I don’t think we need to go into that here and now for we have what we want. Certainly I do because to me these opening paragraphs read like an attempt by E.R. James to construct a Get Out Of Gaol Free card. You don’t like one of James’ stories, ah well reading science fiction requires special skills that perhaps you don’t have.

It’s especially telling that he starts off by assuming that the disgruntled reader will respond in a singularly inarticulate manner. It ensures your argument is easier to make if you can frame the opposing argument in as crude and clumsy terms as possible. Which is why the above extract from Don’t Shoot the Writer contains no hint that a reader might follow ‘What a rotten effort!’ with an unprompted and articulate explanation as to why they found the story rotten.

I think it’s also pretty clear that James makes rather strange use of the term ‘relationship’ because he actually means opinion but doesn’t want to come out and write that because it will likely be a red rag to a bull in regards to the audience of this article. What James is suggesting in this camouflaged manner is that any negative comment is merely an opinion and as such can be dismissed because opinions aren’t the same as facts. This is indeed true but what James is trying to hide is that a negative comment can contain both opinion and fact.

All in all F.G. Rayer and E.R. James come across to me like characters in a Simon and Garfunkel song:

We are but two sad boys,
Though our stories always sold.
We did trade our souls to editors,
The purveyors of deplorable, heed not their promises.
All lies and jests…
Still a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.

And now at last we come to The Lava Seas Tunnel, featuring the combined writing talents of F.G. Rayer and E.R. James. So perhaps you would like to know what this story, sorry ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’ is about. So, a plot summary is clearly in order.

The Lava Seas Tunnel opens in the cockpit of some sort of boring machine. We learn that it’s commanded by a Steve Martel who is nervous about the forthcoming operation due to a previous accident. Martel shares the cockpit with an unnamed communications officer with whom he is annoyed because the fellow arrived late. Below, in the nose of the machine is an observation officer named Hedgersley and the engine room is crewed by somebody called McGilligan. What then follows is:

They begin boring.

The machine halts due to a fault in the thermostat.

After two & a half hours work this is fixed and they begin again.

They bore for hours but then the machine breaks down again due to a blocked nozzle.

Martel and the communications officer are knocked out by the sudden stop but Martel recovers and pulls the communications officer to safety and in the process discovers it’s his son, Dave, in disguise. Martel is annoyed that Dave has snuck aboard but there is little he can do about it now.

Anyway after sixteen hours work the blocked nozzle is fixed and Martel decrees a six hour break before they begin boring again.

Martel discovers McGilligan has exited the machine and it busy digging diamonds as big as eggs out of the tunnel wall. There is a confrontation, McGilligan produces a gun and locks the rest of the crew in the store room and makes his escape with the diamonds in a life-balloon.

It’s during this confrontation and subsequent incarceration that we learn that the Earth has run short of coal and oil and needs to tap into lava deep inside the planet in order to generate power. Nice to learn at last why we’re all here.

Once the remaining crew break out of the store room they discover McGilligan has smashed the instruments in the control room. An hour is required to repair everything sufficiently to begin boring once more.

Eventually they stop for a sleep break but Martel wakes up to discover he has been tied to his chair. Hedgersley then informs him that he works for a foreign country that wants to see this project fail. Hedgersley then escapes in the second life-balloon. Martel eventually escapes from his bindings just in time to discover Dave recovering from a blow to the head. He also discovers that Hedgersley has jammed the release mechanism of the one remaining life-balloon, trapping father and son forever.

The two of then make one last attempt to break through to the sea of lava the world so desperately needs access to. And they do! Success! But oh no, the borer is slipping down towards the molten sea where neither it or the remaining crew can survive. But fear not, Dave reveals that he also noticed the jammed release mechanism and repaired it. The two men scramble into the cabin of the life-balloon and float up the tunnel as the borer falls to its doom. Presumably they reach the surface and everyone receives their just deserts. The end.

So, Brian Wilson Aldiss, what’s your initial reaction to The Lava Seas Tunnel?

Anyone who has followed the careers of these two authors as closely as I have will know how exquisitely poor they can be alone; together, they are exquisitely bankrupt.

To be honest, Brian, I think exquisitely incomprehensible would be a better description. Almost nothing described in this story makes any sort sense. Consider the following account of how the boring machine works:

Turbines whined and flames glowed redly through the observation ports of indestructible mica. Below them, the rock made molten by the huge flame projectors was being sucked away. It would be ejected upon the walls of the boring, giant sprocket holes being formed in it as it solidified, so that the machine could wind itself back up to the Earth’s surface.

Okay, so two points I’d like to query about this astonishing process. First of all how is there an open tunnel behind the borer? Surely once the rock melted by those huge flame projectors is sucked back behind the machine it would solidify into the same amount of mass as it had before being melted? Secondly, just how are those giant sprocket holes being formed, hmm? You know, coming from somebody who claimed he wanted to see ‘scientific premises which will stand pondering upon’ this gibberish is especially embarrassing to F.G. Rayer. Don’t you agree, Brian?

This total blindness to any sort of technological probability extends to the equipment of the machine itself. The escape apparatus consists of three inflatable balloons, which are suppose to drift up the tunnel the boring machine has made! The machine is not refrigerated; it has “heat-batteries” instead. Nor is it equipped with an intercom; Hedgerley’s voice comes “over the reproducer”.

Yes, Brian, those life-balloons worried me too. At first glance the balloon idea is a potentially clever low-tech solution to the problem of how crew members might return to the surface in an emergency. However, as with all the technology mentioned in this story, there is no detail explaining how it works so I’m left high and dry. Given from what little the reader is told I’m guessing that the tunnel created by the borer is relatively smooth-walled (apart from those inexplicable sprocket holes that is) so in theory a balloon might float up the shaft unimpeded like a car in an elevator. By all rights however conditions outside the borer should be extremely hot so the balloon would need to be constructed of heat resistant material and filled with incombustible gas for it to be viable and we never learn if this is so.

You’re also probably right about the borer not being refrigerated but we can’t be absolutely certain of that because while the authors make it clear that the temperature inside the machine is being regulated they are once more singularly vague about how this is achieved. For example they do mention heat-batteries but give absolutely no indication of what heat-batteries do.

What actually worried me more is the inconsistent attitude of the authors to heat in general. Look at how they have McGilligan exit the machine in order to collect diamonds. By this point the borer was deep within the Earth’s crust and surely even back in the early fifties it was clear just how hot the inside of that tunnel would be. According to a video I watched recently about the Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia the temperature in that shaft reaches about 180C/356F at 12,262 metres/7.6 miles. Inside the tunnel in this story the temperature would surely be at least that high, and that’s not taking account of the heat generated by the rock melted by those flame projectors mentioned earlier. It rather makes a mockery of the idea that the molten rock would cool enough to be used as the walls of the shaft, or that anybody could exit the borer without being cooked alive. Apparently the temperatures inside the shaft were determined by the author’s convenience rather anything approaching physics.

In regards to the internal phone system, Brian, I think your complaint is nitpicking given it’s initially described as an internal phone. I’m willing to accept that the device is also known both as a phone and a reproducer and is sometimes called the latter. For what it’s worth the reproducer was one of the less confusing devices mentioned since its purpose in quite clear, unlike the heat-batteries or the radar scanner.

Okay, so on to another of Brian’s major points:

For the assumption behind the story is that things are really desperate on Earth: all supplies of coal and oil have run out, and the only thing that will power Earth’s “enormous industrial machines” is lava. The authors literally have not heard of nuclear or hydro-electric or solar power.

If I was to be more generous than Brian I would assume this story was set on an alternative Earth where the power of the atom had not been discovered. However, even if I did the authors this favour the fact remains that the story is so bereft of context that I’ve no idea if it’s suppose to be set in our future or an alternate history. The authors included no details about the world outside of the borer, we never even learn who Martel and his crew work for or how the project is being funded. All we have are three surnames; Martel, McGilligan, Hedgersley, and one first name in Dave. I dare you to pinpoint their country of origin from those scant details. Given all this I can’t do them the favour of assuming they live in a world where nuclear power hasn’t been discovered.

Besides which, even if I did give the authors the benefit of the doubt in regards to nuclear power there still remains the vexed question of hydro-electric or solar power. Indeed I would go one further than Brian and mention the absence of wind, geothermal, and tidal power generation. How can it be that none of these things rate a mention in The Lava Seas Tunnel? One sentence gentlemen, one sentence was all that was needed to explain how the various renewable sources of power combined were nowhere near enough to keep Earth’s industry functioning. Add a second sentence and tell us how much cheaper lava power would be in the long run. We might not believe it but at least it would be possible to believe the pair of you have some understanding of how power is generated.

It would also help to explain why Hedgersley’s foreign employers were so keen to sabotage the boring project. Perhaps then these unnamed foreigners could be worried that this project would allow the unnamed backers of the boring project to hold the world to ransom and become Earth’s stern and unforgiving masters. Doing that would have given the story a little of the colour it so desperately needs.

Anything else, Brian?

The authors’ reluctance to come to grips with anything that might be termed a fact means that they do not tell us at the beginning that this is a four-man boring machine. This, coupled with their haziness of characterization, causes difficulty for the reader. It seems as though the machine is swarming with crew – ratings maybe, since the only people mentioned are officers.

Well, Brian, while I didn’t find the number of crew members confusing as you apparently did I still think you hit the nail on the head with your point about the authors not wanting to come to grip with facts. If The Lava Seas Tunnel can be said to have any defining characteristic it’s an air of purposeful vagueness. No attempt is made to ensure anything in this story seems real which guarantees there is no sense of consequence. It doesn’t matter what happens to any of the characters because they aren’t people and it doesn’t matter what happens to the world because it doesn’t exist.

Was Brian Wilson Aldiss right to label this as the ‘WORST SCIENCE FICTION STORY EVER!!!’? I can’t say because there is a lot of competition for that dubious honour. However, given the comments quoted at the beginning of this article, I would nominate F.G. Rayer and E.R. James as the most delusional science fiction authors ever.

And that’s saying something!