Sword & Saucery

How and why of eating your words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Cawthorn 4 - Amra 62

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

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

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.

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

A parody of the poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.

Probably not Yngvi…

It was in the May 1940 issue of Unknown that a novelette written by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt was first published. The novelette was called The Roaring Trumpet, and marked the first appearance of their hero, Harold Shea, who went on to feature in a series of other stories by de Camp and Pratt It also marked the non-appearance of an equally famous character. At one point Harold Shea and the Norse god Heimdall are imprisoned by Frost Giants after losing a fight with them. While there they encountered a fellow prisoner who comes to the front of his cell every hour on the hour to yell, “Yngvi is a LOUSE!”

Thus began a debate which fascinated science fiction fandom for decades. Was this Yngvi indeed a louse or had his good name been falsely besmirched? At the Denvention, the 1941 worldcon, Milton Rothman (who went on to become a nuclear physicist and science fiction author) put forward a motion at the business meeting to the effect that Yngvi was not a louse only for it to be defeated. A subsequent motion was then passed stating that Rothman himself was a louse.

What the truth of this matter is I suppose we’ll never know for certain. Certainly, at least to the best of my knowledge, neither L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt ever broke down and revealed the truth about their throw-away non-appearing character.

If Yngvi was indeed a louse then I like to think that he was probably a trickster figure, a junior Loki if you will. Yes, just let that idea sink in before you read any further. It’s to that proposition that the following poem is dedicated…

‘Twas Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, the end of year slump
And nobody’s posting, not even to grump

That they’re sitting at home, so bored with their day
That to pixel-stained technopeasants they’re liable to stray

My monitor bathed me in a soft festive glow
As I sprawled in my chair, too lazy to go

And tuck myself snug into bed for the night
To dream of the past and putting it right

When from out from the chimney arose a loud clatter
Of scratching and curses and similar matter

I was up in a flash and gasped in surprise
As a chimney indeed met my wondering eyes

What madness was this I thought to myself
Seconds before there was not even a shelf

The wall had been blank, nothing but bricks
To add such a feature was the wildest of tricks

So when his black boots first slid into view
I took it most calmly because that I knew

That whoever made chimneys down them to drop
Would not in my power be easy to stop

So I sat back in my chair to wait for my guest
To reveal himself fully and the why of his quest

It took a few moments of squirming and kicking
Before he appeared rather than sticking

It was Yngvi of course, I could tell by his dress
An amazingly scrofulous, glorious mess

He spoke a few words with a wink and a leer
Making it plain why he’d travelled to here

According to Yngvi come each Solstice Eve
It was his regular duty, a gift he must leave

To one random member of the science fiction crew
A wish they could have, for the new year come true

I raised up my eyebrows and exclaimed in surprise
To trust someone like me was a mad enterprise

Yngvi laughed at my claim and explained in a trice
This was never a contest between naughty and nice

The decision was random and made to bring life
For Yngvi’s a louse and quite fond of such strife

Having decided the why I then started to think
About what sort of change might tickle me pink

I shuffled my thoughts, from noble to lowly
Before announcing success by nodding most slowly

To Yngvi I smiled and announced my grand plan
Most outrageous it was, a perverse little scam

He nodded quite gravely but picked not a bone
Yes, he accepted my choice, it was written in stone

The change that I’d ask for soon would become clear
With the arrival too soon of another New Year

Then with a bow of farewell and a tap of his nose
He departed at once, up the chimney he rose

My wall reappeared right after his leap
So then I did wonder if I’d just been asleep

But I thought my dear reader as I blundered to bed
That I’d be able to tell if you soon asked for my head

So to one and to all my good wishes I send
And the hope my choice doesn’t mean chaos my friends