Thursday, December 24, 2015

Fritz Leiber - apparently the least known SF author you need to know

This is not the Fritz Leiber you're looking for. [1]
Happy birthday to Fritz Leiber, born December 24, 1910.[2]

Apparently, Fritz Leiber Jr. is an unknown science fiction author among modern readers, at least according to this io9 article.


Noted contemporary Poul Anderson was quoted as having said that in the late 30s and 40s Leiber was writing "a lot of the best science ficiton and fantasy in the business." [3]
He was prolific, amazingly vivid in his writing, and active almost right up to his sudden death in 1992.  While many of his most prominent contemporaries passed away before "the Great Delisting" [4] Leiber spanned the gap, and more importantly was beloved by fans for his skillful public persona (no doubt dividends of his past on stage [5]) and his habit of engaging personally with fandom - indeed, in addition to receiving many different fan awards over the years he was a participant in groups such as Hyborian Legion and LASFS, contributed to fanzines (Vorpal Glass, Amra).  So why is he not as prominent today as he might deserve?

I think one of the comments on that io9 piece more or less explains it:

Grglstr writes:
"I think he's not as well known by the kids today because most of his best work is in short story form, and people haven't quite figured how to peg him in either SF, Fantasy or Horror, because he excelled in all three. "
I say more or less, because I think Grglstr [6] misses an important point: that this division between SF, fantasy, and horror is really a fairly recent thing that was only just starting to congeal in the late 70s - many of the writers of Leiber's generation regularly mixed together elements of what we would now call science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  It still happens of course, but it often causes comment - even by the late 80s and early 90s, work by writers like Celia S. Friedman [7], who blended a SF past (interstellar colonization) with fantasy themes (magic! vampires!) in her Coldfire Trilogy left many of my friends scratching their heads.  Is this SF? Is it fantasy?

But take things back a decade or two (at least) and this kind of category bending wasn't really all that unusual - in fact, I wonder if Leiber's SF and horror riddled "sword and sorcery" [8] isn't sort of the other side of the coin from Leigh Brackett's planetary romances - in the former, a familiar fantasy is spiced with dashes of SF and a frisson of horror, while the latter takes something that is ostensibly SF and makes the colours bolder by applying a veneer of archetype fantasy.

To be fair, though, Grglstr [9] has a point - a huge proportion of Leiber's work is in short form, which sadly doesn't have the shelf-life of novels.  This does make it more challenging for new readers to really see him shine, despite the excellent anthologies that have been published over the years.

A small subset of potential fans will be familiar with Leiber mainly through his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, which earned him a healthy stipend in his later years, owing to RPG giant TSR paying residuals for the rights to use the Lankhmar setting and certain eponymous characters.  But despite the enormous popularity of this flavour of sword and sorcery story among fantasy gamers, I wonder how many realise that these stories were written by Leiber over a span of 50 years, printed and reprinted in periodicals and anthologies for various generations of readers?

And why is it these stories in particular that have been remembered when there are so many other great stories in Leiber's canon?

I wonder if it's a combination of factors:

First, we have Leiber's strong association with Dungeon's and Dragons, via TSR's interest in using his work

Second, we have a solidification of genre categories during the peak of TSR's popularity in the 80s.

Finally, we have the combination of phenomena that led to many backlist works that had been printed and reprinted for decades no longer sitting on those spinny racks at rest stops and drug stores.

Could it be that the result has been that Leiber has been unfairly recast as a "one trick pony"?  If so, it's a dreadful shame.

The io9 article mentions Our Lady of Darkness (1977) [10] which is indeed an excellent book, but let's not forget Leiber's first ever book in print: Night's Black Agents (1947) - while this is actually a collection of shorts, I think that along with a later collection A Pail of Air (1964) [11], a good Fafhrd collection, and Our Lady of Darkness we get to see the full scope of Leiber's amazing range.  Oh, he has had some flubs - who could fail to, considering how prolific he was?  But make no mistake that there's far more gold.

Leiber is one of those under-re-printed (is that a word?) authors, and I'm very glad to see that in the last few years some new editions of his work is seeing the press again - it's always been fairly easy to find a new edition of the Lankhmar stories, but to be honest I don't think the Fafhrd tales are really where he shines.

Leiber's writing has a fine sense of timing and poise - a skill that perhaps he learned from his time on stage, and which I'm sure served him well in the pulpit.  He was beloved of many while he was alive, and I can hardly believe that he could be characterized as "the least known SF author you need to know."  This is the man who, after a lengthy dry spell, came back to publishing welcomed with an entire F&SF issue devoted to his new stories (July 1969) and an enormous outpouring of appreciation from fandom.

I think that the SF&F world lost a bright star when Leiber passed in 1992, and I look forward to re-reading quite a bit of his work over the coming months, for which I'm sure Amazon will be thankful.

By the way - THIS is the Leiber you're looking for, and one of my favourite photos of the man:
A still from the film Equinox (obviously) signed by Lieber in 1982.  Scan via fan Will Hart

I think this image says more about the man than any of the words I put before it.


I should note two rather useful sources that helped me confirm things I remembered as well as offering new details:

1. But it is Fritz Leiber - Senior, rather than Junior played Caesar with the Three Stooges in Cleopatra (nyuk nyuk nyuk!).  Junior, the subject of this post, was also an actor (unavoidable, having been raised among such unsavory sorts) and in fact not only appeared with his father in Camille (1936), The Great Garrick (1937), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1939 - uncredited speaking part) but toured with his parents - who were noted Shakespearean actors in addition to his father's extensive film credits - in 1928 and again in 1934, and returned to the screen in Equinox (1970) and The Bermuda Triangle (1979).  This last is an odd addition, as it's a documentary but Leiber's role is a dramatic one.

2. Thanks Santa!

3. I have seen this quote bandied about, and had to do some digging to confirm it, but it appears to be from Anderson's introduction to The Wizard of Newhon: The Best of Fritz Lieber (1974: Doubleday). I'm still seeking confirmation from someone who actually has a copy of this book in front of them if anyone cares to assist? Assuming anyone reads these footnotes of course, which I write mainly as an amusement for myself.

4. A theory on the disappearance of many backlist titles in the 80s, which has led to many people not being as familiar with decades-old genre works as had been the case previously - I may elaborate in a later post.

5. And as a lay preacher! Lieber Jr apparently had a B.A.(hons) in philosophy, and later certified as a lay preacher.

6. Dear lord, what are parents thinking these days when they name their children?

7. More on her in January, since her birthday is on the 12th!

8. A term he's actually credited with coining in his correspondence with fanzine Amra, in a response to Moorcock's demand for a term in 1961.

9. No, really - what were they thinking!? Buy a vowel for goodness sakes!

10. Expanded from a short "The Pale Brown Thing" first published in F&SF in 1971.

11. I have a particular fondness for the titular story "A Pail of Air" since I clearly remember reading the story years and years (and years) ago, but more recently came across the radio play adaptation in an archive of the excellent Galaxy Magazine sponsored series X Minus One (listen here!) as I was exploring the classics.  If, like me, you have limited time to actually sit and read, but have lots of time when you could listen, I heartily recommend the many collections of pulp era radio adaptations available online!

Monday, December 21, 2015

M is for Mage

The Magician
scan from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot
apparently public domain, retrieved
a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Back in 1996, a gaming friend got so worked up about the second edition of Mage: The Ascension (White Wolf Games) that he went out and bought copies of the game book for a handful of us who he wanted to play with.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of the "storytelling" systems so it was a bit of a hard sell, not just for me but for all of us.

It's hard to say why, exactly.  Partly, it was just that it was a very different game from what I started with and what I'm used to - and I've never been big on tossing away something that works perfectly well just for the sake of novelty.  A bigger part of it was the image I had of it - some intensely creepy people were getting into Vampire back then, and I had...misgivings [1] about the whole thing.  On top of that, I had never really bought into the vampire mania that had driven the initial offerings [2] and it seems a bit of a stretch to invest myself enough in the default world to make game play of any interest.

But my friend really, really wanted to play, and since I knew his tastes were broadly similar to my own [3] I thought I'd give it a fair try.  Man, was I in for a surprise!

The game naturally used White Wolf's signature mechanics, but that's a trivium: the big thing for me was the way in which they had put together the spheres/schools of magic, the whole idea of Paradigm and Paradox, the secret metaphysical war being waged between those schools over control of not just our senses but the very foundations of reality.  The Technocracy as an oppressor.

I'm not sure how it would read to me now, but at the time it really resonated with the kinds of far-out ideas I was looking for in fiction and in metaphysics study. [4]

I started to really get into it, and ended up reading the rules from cover to cover after flipping through whetted my appetite for more.

We got a bit more enthusiastic about it after that - I got on the band-wagon and started talking the game up to the others, and finally we all agreed to try a session or two at least.  The one thing we could all agree on was that we trusted our friend to have the necessary background in various esoterica and to put the work in to make the game a success.  We gathered at my place to work out characters, to figure out how we were going to go about this.

The game allows for mages of different schools to work together, but we needed to figure out a back story that would make sense, or somehow figure out how to run a game in which we worked alone or in small teams actively competing for control (while simultaneously fighting against the Technocracy).

Sadly, despite the excitement that we managed to generate in those first few sessions, we never really managed to do anything substantive.  We were, of course, crippled by the fact that we were trying to play a very different kind of game while simultaneously trying to learn a completely new set of rules.  In the end, it just seemed like too much work, and our friend who started out so enthusiastic eventually threw up his hands in frustration.  We went back to our other games, and never cracked that book again.

Looking back, I wish we'd been able to make it work.  I still think the basic idea is incredible, but I can see now that we just weren't properly prepared for it.  Too few of us had enough knowledge of the esoteric to riff off, though we could probably have generated a creditable Call of Cthulu/World of Darkness mashup setting as we went.

But really, the main problem was type of game.  Really, we just weren't in the right mental space.

If we had been playing more traditional-mechanic intrigue games at the time - things like Cyberpunk 2013 [5] or Shadowrun, or even Traveller really - or if we'd played enough Amber at the time to really get into the idea of multi-narrative games, where the players are working toward individual goals, and only in cooperation or conflict as the events dictate, I think it could have gone very differently.

I almost never get any chance to game these days, and I don't have any idea where I'd get a group of people into this kind of game, but boy do I ever wish I could get a chance to play in an actual functioning long-term Mage game now.

Or maybe more accurately:

I wish I could go back to the 90s and do it better.

But then, that's just the kind of change that causes Paradox.


1. A polite way of saying that some of the people I knew playing World of Darkness games I would have gotten up and walked away from had they sat down beside me.  Yes, it was that bad.  Not universal, but enough to put me off.

2. As interesting an idea as Anne Rice had with her Vampire Chronicles books, I'm afraid angsty pseudo-goth vampires don't hold much of a draw for me.  That said, I suspect much of the "vibe" being given off by the people who put me off the game had more to do with Lost Boys than Lestat.

3. Read: he found the Vampire crowd just as distasteful as I did.

4. In those days, I was doing a deep study of various fringe religious beliefs and their relations/origins in traditional or indigenous religion and ritual - sue me, I'm an anthropologist, it's a professional risk.

5. Yeah, that long ago.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Alfred Bester - Godfather of modern fiction

Happy birthday to Alfred Bester - sometimes known as "the Godfather of modern fiction"

Bester was born on December 18, 1913 in New York, and apparently remained a New Yorker for the rest of his life.

Although best remembered now for his print science fiction, the truth is that he actually only worked in print SF sporadically, and produced far less than many of his contemporaries with similar reputations.

Consider: according to this bibliography he produced only 5 SF novels (plus one finished by Roger Zelazny in 1998) during his lifetime, and 45 short stories (plus one that was never published) - in comparison to other big names of the era, this is really not very much.  So what was he doing?

Well, the truth is that for part of it he was working quite a bit in SF.

Bester started strong, with a prize winning entry The Broken Axiom in the Thrilling Wonder Stories contest in 1939 [1] and over the next 3 years published 14 of his shorts, including what is probably his most famous story Adam and No Eve (still very well regarded today) but then seems to drop out of sight until the 50s.  Why?  Because instead of the pulps and traditional publishing in the early years he spent a fair portion of his time working in the growing comic industry (Superman, Green Lantern, the Phantom) and then in 1946 turned his hand to radio, penning the scripts for several popular radio shows of the time.

He returned to the pulps in 1950 with a psychological SF story Oddy and Id submitted to Campbell at Amazing, but it wasn't long after that Bester joined several others in jumping ship when Campbell went on his dianetics jag.  This led him into a new phase of his writing during the 50s, producing several of the stories he's most remembered for (including Fondly Fahrenheit - which I actually first came across in the radio adaptation Bester wrote for CBS Mystery Theatre! A copy is available here, titled "The Walking Dead") as well as of course his two iconic novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.  This period seems to be where he most deeply develops the psychological conundrums and exploration of the human identity that mark his work, as compared to the highly technical speculative engineering or political musings of contemporaries like Heinlein and Asimov.

In the 1960s, he disappears again- why? Because he moved on to a lucrative career in non-fiction.

It starts off innocently enough, with Bester trying his hand at non-SF fiction for magazines, but then he moves off into something more like journalism - travel journalism to be specific.  All through the 60s, Bester wrote consistently for the magazine Holiday, and was particularly well known for his interviews with famous figures such as Sir Edmund Hillary and various Hollywood stars.  He wasn't entirely outside the SF community however: during this period he continued to produce reviews of the new work his peers were producing, as well as interviews with stars of the era like the Heinlein piece I mentioned earlier.

In the 70s, he returned to the fold again, however he published only sporadically - mainly novels like Golem 100 along with a handful of short stories, interspersed with various anthologies or collections.

So, here we have a man who was engaged during four very distinct phases of science fiction - not continuously like some of his peers, but in waves, which is most fascinating.  It's interesting to see the differences between his work in these phases, as well as the sometimes strange innovations he comes up with to present his narratives - things like odd page arrangements, novel punctuation, etc to express mental communication (sometimes between characters, sometimes between parts of the same character).

One of the most interesting things about his earlier periods of publishing, I think, is the way in which his other work is clearly influencing his writing.  The format of comics and radio plays is obviously very different from ordinary literary prose, and you can tell in some cases that he's reaching for ways to achieve the same effect on a page of text as he could over the airwaves or in the speech bubbles of a comic.

Bester was an innovative writer, and his impact on the genre is, I think, clear - mainly in the way in which styles and topics evolved over the years.  He took SF into the mind, which was a bit of departure from the glorious adventures of Leigh Bracket or the engineering fantasies of the "hard SF" most often published in the popular pulps like Amazing and Galaxy.  In some ways, I think he was paving the way for the more introspective "social SF" of the New Wave and even our current era, and there's still a lot that up-and-coming SF writers can learn from him.


1. Bester claims that when he interviewed Heinlein for Publishers Weekly years later, he learned that Heinlein had decided not to submit to that particular contest, instead choosing to try his luck with a paying market - making $70 on his sale, while Bester won only $50.

Additional reading

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What makes SF work?

capture from the "uplift" sequence at the beginning of Kubrick's 2001
Recently, over on +Jeffro Johnson 's G+ stream, there was a minor kerfuffle over his reaction to the opening scene of 2001: A Space Oddysey.

Jeffro's objection hinges on the question of whether it makes any sense for these ape-like human ancestors to "suddenly" be imbued with an understanding of tools by "divine fiat" via the alien artifact.

To be honest, this is a story element that rubs me the wrong way as well, but given the film's success and reputation in the genre I had to ask myself why.

On the face of it, it seems a not unreasonable premise for a science fiction story - and in its favour it resonates with the questions that were surrounding human evolution at the time both the book and the movie came out.

The core of 2001 is of course Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Sentinel which he apparently wrote in 1948 as his entry in a BBC competition. [1] But this story only contains the seed of the idea, and forms the basis for the scenes on the surface of the Moon where the first Monolith is discovered in the film.  The rest of the film, and the book that was developed along with it [2] were grown from this seed, and are very much a product of the late 60s in many respects.

At the time the film was made, we knew much less about human evolution than we do now. [3]  The evidence we had at the time showed what appeared to be a sharp division between clear human ancestors (Homo lineage) who were using tools and fire and clear extinct great ape lineages who we thought were not [4] - ideas proposed to fill this gap ranged from special creation by supernatural agency through to a chance mutation that just happened to have "the right stuff."  In between, some exotic evolutionary histories were "floated" [5] including Zecharia Sitchin's ideas on alien intervention.

On top of this, the late 60s saw deep interest in altered consciousness [6] and a growth in interest in alternative ideas.  In this context, it's hardly surprising to find that evolutionary gap being plugged by what we now see as a rather silly idea [7] and accompanied by what amounts to a glorious on-screen religious experience.

Given this context and the fact that we accept even sillier ideas without blinking in other SF works, why should this seemingly innocent conceit be troubling, especially in a film that was received very well and raved about ever since? [8]

I think the issue is that "science fiction" is a rather large tent and although 2001, Star Wars, ERB's Mars stories and War of the Worlds are all stamped SF they actually operate under different rules.

The Force is acceptable in Star Wars because, despite being dressed up in space ships, blasters and robots, it's actually a fantasy so it operates under rules that demand resonance with mythic archetypes.  So long as it's internally consistent, a lot of the tech etc can be black-boxed without issue. (contradicting Ben Kenobi is an example of a failure to be consistent and as you point out it causes problems)

ERB's Mars stories are similar in that the world John Carter travels to doesn't have to be Mars - it just happens to have that sign hung on it.  Beginning to end, it operates on mythic levels so much can be accepted so long as it's internally consistent.

War of the Worlds again doesn't need Mars - that's just a convenient label that forestalls questions as to the origin of the aliens.  The point is the vastly superior tech of the alien invaders, the bumbling, over-confident early response of authorities, and the irony that the aliens are defeated by the fact we're too backward to have conquered microbes.  The tech presented is a reasonable extrapolation from things in use or being discussed at the time, in most cases, and the main thrust is the social reaction anyway so we can call this sciencey science fiction.

Here's where the problem lies:

Most of 2001 appears to be presented as a science/engineering hard SF story.  There's solid extrapolation, the tech itself and scientific advances are integral, and it appears to be a science mystery.  The scene with the "space flight attendant" delivering a meal, the meeting on the space station, the Moon excavation site with the Lunar Monolith, the suspended animation and other tech of the Discovery One en route to Jupiter/Saturn [9]

With the "discovery" of the orbital monolith[10] it becomes a first contact story, and to be honest the presentation of the aliens being so far advanced that we can't even grok them outside a psychedelic experience works, especially in historical context.

However, the premise of "uplift" as the moment of transition from ape to human is jarring in the context of the majority of the film. It's not an entirely unreasonable riff on the more out-there ideas of the day, but it's out of step with the majority in the middle - because it breaks the rules: 

It invokes mythic themes and deus ex machina in the context of what's written as a solid engineering SF story.  To my mind, this essentially puts the film (and the co-developed book) in the position of being two quite different stories which have been stitched together, which I think is what causes the slight sense of "wrongness" that rubs me the wrong way in the early ape scene and the transition to psychedelia at the end. [11]

Were I to be tasked with "fixing" the problem [12] there seem to be only two ways to go:

1. Cut the initial uplift scene, present contact with the aliens at the end as written but make the "descent into madness" less abrupt.

This makes the story a "hard SF" story about the implications of first contact and the smallness of humanity in the context of the universe.  This is a well-tried theme, yes, but to be honest I think that a version of 2001 that had taken this route would have rendered Sagan's Contact unnecessary - in fact, it would appear a rather wishy-washy effort in comparison, I think.

Consider: we are treated at the beginning to a paean to humanity's technical achievements:

  • Travel to LEO and the LaGrange space station is so casual that Floyd is dozing in front of the picture window and an in-flight meal is served in exactly the same way it would be on a long-haul business flight.
  • The space station itself is so basic and obvious a thing that it has lounges in the corridor.  There are hints that there are bars and cafes just off screen.  Certainly, they seem to have nearly unlimited access to Retro Modern style furniture catalogs!
  • While it does seem as though everyone we meet has at least one PhD, this is also portrayed as fairly ordinary - what kind of future is this in which people have the luxury of nearly constant study?
  • While the Moon excavation is clearly a grand thing, the implications of being able to bring such an industrial effort to the Lunar surface are stunning (or should be) - the infrastructure and comfort with working in space is amazing.

So here we have a society that has developed to the point where rather a lot of people have the luxury of pursuing intellectual interests to quite high levels, and technologies that in the 1960s were strictly speculation have become as casual as air travel and hanging out at Starbucks.  Amazing, right?  But there's more!

We learn that not only have we cracked cis-Lunar space and made it our own, but we are pushing to what seem to be the edges of what is possible to be known:

  • The artificial intelligence HAL is displayed as not only a crown jewel of computer advancement, but so well developed that it's trusted as the caretaker for a human mission to the outer solar system.
  • We've so mastered biology that suspended animation is considered a viable option for the Jupiter mission.

Think about this - to make a truly human-like AI such as HAL is portrayed to be suggests a rather deep understanding of the human mind, which in turn suggests that we think we are getting close to understanding our own "inner space" very well indeed.  On top of this, although the ability to suspend life via "deep freeze" is portrayed as being used for the first time on this mission, it's trusted enough to do this not with a "test pilot" crew but with the actual primary mission.  Can suspended animation missions even further out, perhaps even to the nearest stars, be very far behind? Even the space ship Discovery One suggests this, being equipped with a new kind of thruster that has allowed the mission to reach Jupiter in an amazingly short period of time.[13]

Clearly, humanity is being portrayed here as entering a glorious future of mastery over everything we could touch - and it's the shock of discovering just how backwards we still are that makes the story.  Indeed, it's the whole point of the story that started it all in 1948.

So: take this scenario, wow the pants off the audience with this truly incredible - and completely plausible - high tech future, take advantage of Kubrick's mastery with the camera to impress us not only with the vastness of space but with how effortlessly we seem to be conquering it.  We're set up to be the rulers of the universe, right?

But then we discover the artifacts.  We're shocked by the discovery we're not first, but even so the artifacts appear to have been left long, long ago [14] by someone who is long gone.  Aha! So we're the inheritors, and perhaps there's a message here for us?

We investigate, but the more we learn the stranger things get, until at last we're dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that we really are just "pathetic earthlings, hurling our bodies out into the void without the slightest inkling of who - or what! - is out there." [15]  This is the point at which the transcendent experiences can be presented, showing how we're just not capable of comprehending what lies beyond the veil, we're just not ready to inherit.

In this way, the story falls firmly in the "engineering SF" category, with some "plausible speculation" at the end that permits some philosophical musings.

Now, this is obviously part of where Kubrick and Clarke were going with this film, so it's an easy hack.  It's also clear that one purpose of the opening scenes is to serve as foreshadowing of modern humanity's stature in comparison to the Monolith Makers - like these apelike ancestors, we're reduced to hooting and shrieking our awe and incomprehension.

But the other purpose of those scenes is the problem - they're used to tell us that the very reason there are modern humans, the reason we have this talent with tools, is because the Monolith Makers gave it to us.

To me, this element of the message practically repudiates the whole "look how great we could be" engineering SF message of the rest of the movie and reduces the stunning SFX and implied setting to a footnote in service to the overarching "creation story" elements.  This is where the story rubs me the wrong way, so to be honest I think that in rewriting the film to be a true "hard SF" story I would be forced to either rework these opening scenes significantly (eliminating the monolith for example) or cut it entirely.

2. Keep the uplift scene, but add more "fantastic" to the middle. 

But let's say we like the whole uplift/special creation elements [16] - can we remake the film in that way instead? Absolutely!

We could keep much of the technical prowess demonstrated in the film, but it would have to recede into the background, be completely dominated by the human element.  More importantly, if we're going to be playing with this mystical theme I suspect we need to inject more mysticism into the body of the film.  This would lead us up to the transcendent experience effects at the end as well as underlining the "special creation" dimension.

The religious experiences at the end would need to be echoed in some way - we can retain "the transcendence of the apes" at the beginning in this case, but we can also touch on the theme again and again through the body of the film - perhaps by revealing clues that emerge from archaeology: this is veering into Sitchin's territory of course, but it's not unreasonable for this kind of mystical speculative fiction.

Moreover, I think there would have to be a stronger case for humanity as "special" all the way through - possibly by capitalizing on "religious experience" as a means of unraveling the mystery, portraying the ancestors who experimented with trances and drugs, who made such artifacts as the crystal skull, who built monuments like Stonehenge and Easter Island as being in touch with something deeper and more mysterious.  We might also show humanity beginning to master "psychic" forces - and this could even be woven in as legitimate SF, capitalizing on the fact that the CIA and KGB were (apparently) seriously looking into things like remote viewing and telepathy.  Presume that at some time in the future these experiments - and experiments with psychedelics - pan out, wrap it up as a new branch of human knowledge, and now we really have an argument for human specialness.

This sets the scene as the human mission makes its way into the outer solar system to investigate, and makes it possible for the closing transcendent experiences to be more comprehensible - in fact, it almost demands it.

Where the "engineering SF" version ends with humanity learning that we're just not ready to understand in the face of a new frontier we didn't even know existed, this version would logically end with humanity being invited across the threshold to join the true masters of the universe - it's in keeping with the almost alchemical tone of hidden secrets and special powers that "sublimating" to the next phase involves embracing the fact that in this new world we're just infants.

The message here could be given more explicitly, perhaps with a religious-experience-like exchange with our "elders" - in this version of the story we get a solid "fantastic SF" tale about mythic origins, hidden history, and humans as the chosen heirs of transcendent aliens.


You will notice, of course, that these are two very different stories.  I think that many of the same "beats" could be used in each film, but there are layers of meaning different in each approach, and of course they each are working toward a very different conclusion.

The thing about the film as it is that rubs me in a funny way is that it appears as though Kubrick and Clarke were trying to have their cake and eat it too.

They wanted to make a grand, glorious hard SF masterpiece, a monument to what they saw as the ultimate conclusion of the enormous technical strides that were being made in the 60s. They wanted to paint a future beyond the nervewracking nuclear worries of the day, where a (more or less) united humanity stretched out its hand to touch the stars...and learns just how small we are.  This is long before Sagan's famous "pale blue dot" commentary of course, and even before the comments of Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins after they first looked back at the Earth from the Moon, but we had already heard the wonder in the voices of astronauts who had been in orbit and we were starting to get a true sense of the enormity of it all.  I think this is what they were trying to capture through most of the film.

But they also seem to have wanted to create a transcendent SF work, a "religious" experience embedded in the sterile human world of technology.

It's perhaps important to note here that Clarke's work frequently has religious themes, and in fact he had a long courtship with the paranormal that seems to have ended in the 80s or early 90s.  Clarke described himself variously as a pantheist (what he insisted be printed on his dog tags when he was in the RAF), an atheist, and a crypto-Buddhist (though he always maintained that Buddhism is not a religion) but his work actually explores all sorts of religious ideas, and this in combination with his fascination with the paranormal I personally think reflects a deep interest in the nature of self and identity, and actually was probably born out of his rational, scientific outlook on life and an openness to exploring whether mystical or paranormal ideas might have some foundation in fact.

Likewise, Kubrick himself has said that he didn't intend the film to imply "God" but rather that it's an exploration of the possibility that there might be intelligences in the universe so far removed from us that for all intents and purposes they might appear to be gods.  In fact, he has been quoted in an interview with American Cinematographer as going so far as to claim that the entire film is a refutation of the idea that there might be a god, saying:

"This film is a rejection of the notion that there is a god; isn't that obvious?"[17]

Given this knowledge of the attitudes and ideas of the two creators of the film, it seems unlikely that when we say "religious experience" they would have made a version of this film that literally required the experience to be religious, so reinterpreting elements of religion as being echoes of some kind of species-level memory, or even deliberate messages from our "sponsors" would seem to fit with the sort of thing they might consider using to generate a mythic version of the story.

Honestly? This is a very complex film.  It famously has far more non-dialogue scenes than dialogue scenes, and so is almost entirely a visual work - it's incredible how such complex ideas can be communicated via nothing but (admittedly incredible) screencraft.

I enjoy this firm very much every time I see it [18] but I'd be lying if I said I completely understood what Kubrick and Clarke were aiming for.  This really is a great film in my opinion (though of course I am biased [see 8 again]), and I certainly wouldn't demand it be "remade" to "fix" the dissonance that bothers me. [see 12 again]

But the fact is that two very different stories are being attempted here, and to me they don't seem to go together - the "rules" for each clash, and realising this can, I think, help to improve our own efforts.  The take-away, basically comes down to this:

1. SF stories (all stories, really) can be divided into clear types
2. These types have their own unique "rules of engagement" that follow from their foundations and the expected internal logic.
3. It might be possible to mix types (and therefore rules) but it will be a tricky process, and you will risk jarring the reader/viewer.

If we look back, I think we can see a number of films and (less often) books that famously suffer from criticism that can be traced to just this jarring effect - for just two very obvious examples:

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - takes the "black box sciencey" core elements of the Star Trek universe and tries to graft on quasi religious themes, including a rather ridiculous interaction with "god".  While Star Trek had explored the nature of gods and beings far beyond mere humans in the past, the way in which the matter was engaged in this film was more mythic than materialist, and it rubs many viewers the wrong way. (the film obviously has other flaws as well, as a wealth of critical reviews are quick to point out)

Star Wars prequels -  I won't get into the weeds here, as there are many things to critique if the Internet is to be believed, but one element that gets routinely mocked is midi-chlorians. You might think that anyone who freely accepted the concept of the Force in the original trilogy shouldn't get so worked up about these microorganisms that apparently are the conduit between intelligent beings and the Force - but the issue here is again a mismatch between the sort of story Star Wars is (fantastic SF with strong mythic elements) and the nature of the midi-chlorian speculation - by trying to explain the Force "scientifically" in something approaching real-world terms, the films clash with the mythic elements and the result is an almost visceral reaction in some people.

As 2001 shows, even when blended by masters like Kubrick and Clarke, the combination of different story types can cause issues.  2001 works but the clash causes a roughness that wasn't necessary.

The type of story you're trying to tell is important - not because some types are superior to others, but because it takes a very, very careful hand to blend types successfully.  You must be aware of what you're doing and think through the implications very carefully, or you will be courting disaster.


1. The story apparently failed to place in that competition, but was subsequently published in the magazine Ten Story Fantasy in 1951, and republished several times in the next 2 decades. The apparently out of copyright version of this story is available online here.

2. An early example of book-film marketing tie-in.

3. Remember, the book was written concurrently with the making of the film, and the release in 1968 is long before important discoveries in paleoanthropology that inform our thinking now: Australopithecus spp were only just being accepted as human ancestors, and Homo habilis had only recently been accepted as a separate species.

4. In the 60s Jane Goodall's research was only just beginning to challenge the perception of chimpanzees as purely vegetarian foragers, with evidence of tool use and complex social structures that could be compared to humans.

5. Gratuitous pun referring to the Aquatic Ape "Theory"

6. This was perhaps the peak of Timothy Leary's popular visibility.

7. New information on tool use among non-human primates and even other more distantly-related animals, as well as new information on the human lineage itself makes the shift from pre-human to human more obviously a gradual one, eliminating the need for a "missing link"

8. Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for the film myself, having seen it in the ship's cinema on an Atlantic crossing.  I'd already been introduced to SF&F via Doctor Who and Star Trek reruns on the BBC, and having been forced allowed to watch things like the Planet of the Apes and various of the 60s era Greek-myths-made-film, but this is the one that is burned into my memory and is the foundation, I think, of my fandom.

9. The destination changes between the books in the series, but was Jupiter from the first in the film.

10. Is this a spoiler? They knew there was an "anomaly" there when they sent the Discovery One in the first place.

11. Let me be clear: I actually really like the Thus Spake Zarathustra ape scene at the beginning, and could be persuaded to like the closing religious experiences (which are actually not a bad surrealist pastiche) but they clash with the bulk of the film.

12. Which I won't be.  And to be honest, I would mock and revile any effort to remake the film anyway.

13. Yes, we can now get out to Jupiter in about a year - see the New Horizons mission, using a direct route (Galileo took 6 years using Hohmann transfers) - but at the time Apollo-type technology was the best available.  Saturn thrusters accelerated Apollo mission vehicles up to 25,000 km/h at launch, but the crewed vehicle travelled at speeds of between 2,000 and 5,000 km/h for most of the journey to the Moon.  At these speeds, it would have taken a crewed vehicle about 10 years to reach cis-Jovian space.  Discovery One was truly travelling at amazing speeds, even for us now.

14. But not in a galaxy far, far away, thankfully.

15. cf The Imperial Vortex.

16. To be clear, I don't actually think there's anything wrong with it - I just don't like how it clashes with the rest of this particular film.

17. I tried to find the origin of this quote, but sadly the original publication seems not to be digitally extant, and the only source cited seems to be Warren Smith's 2010 book Celebrities in Hell

18. Despite the fact it underscores the promises that we'd be on Mars in the 80s and into the outer system by the early 2000s.  Promises that were still being made when I started being seriously interested in SF, but which had died by the time I was old enough to really appreciate it.  Killed by the Reagan era, really.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Leigh Brackett - Queen of Space Opera

Leigh Brackett
(from Amazing Stories July 1941)
I confess: I am a big fan of old-style space operas, planetary adventure romances, and so-called science fantasy.

While I rarely if ever write that sort of science fiction, I can gobble up some of the old classics in one sitting and it's by no means difficult to understand why: these stories are pure fun.

Still, they're challenging, and it's not hard to understand why some people look down on them.  While the basic rule is "there are no rules" and scientific facts can go out the window when the story demands it, to be truly successful these sorts of stories do have to meet three touchstones:

1. The characters have to draw on key archetypes that resonate with the reader.

2. The settings must be internally consistent.

3. While deus ex machina events and "rule changes" can occur, it can't be haphazard: they must be dramatically consistent.

These kinds of stories were huge in early science fiction, and maintained a strong following even through the "hard" era of the 50s and 60s (when the market for new work in her style seemed to dry up) and as New Wave style came on the scene in the 60s and 70s. And the queen of space opera and planetary romance was Leigh Brackett, who was born 100 years ago today!

Brackett's impact still echoes in science fiction today: she entered the pulp markets near the end of their decades-long ferment of experimentation, took a genre that had been largely dismissed and sneered at, and elevated the space opera and planetary romance subgenres to an artform.  Just as we were learning how little like Burroughs' vision Mars and Venus were, she was building an intricate universe around the touchstones that make this kind of "science fantasy" not just readable but un-put-downable even in the face of obvious scientific impossibilities.

But she was by no means only a science fiction author - in fact although her first sales were SF short fiction (her first story appears to have been "Martian Quest" published in Astounding Science Fiction Feb 1940) she published other pulp genres as well and her first full novel was a hard-boiled crime novel No Good From a Corpse , which led to a series of other hard-boiled and noir works, including a number of screen plays.  Ultimately, though, she was best known for her SF stories and novels, especially those set in her version of our solar system.

Brackett's Mars and Venus started with the image painted by earlier authors like ERB - Mars as a marginal desert world of ancient and decaying civilization, Venus a wet and tropical world peopled by brash hunters - but her solar system was intricately interconnected, and many of her stories dealt with themes like the conquest of the frontier and the interplay of cultures, including the impact of colonization.  Her stories and novels sold well right up into the mid-50s, when the "harder" styles dominated and led to the death of many "sword and planet" and science fantasy venues, but she was still looked to for excellence in her chosen sub-genres.  She mastered the art of internal consistency and resonant archetype characters in a way that draws readers in.  So powerful was her mastery of these epic settings and archetype characters that L. Sprague de Camp famously bemoaned the fact that he had gone to Lin Carter first to co-author new Conan stories, saying that in retrospect Brackett's mastery of gloriously barbaric characters would have been a better fit.

After a decade writing mainly for film and TV, Brackett returned to her planetary romances in the mid-60s, and produced sporadically for the next decade until her death at the age of 62 in 1977 - in the midst of working on the screenplay for the film most often chosen as the best Star Wars episode: The Empire Strikes Back.

The debt modern SFF owes to writers like Brackett is huge, and yet she languishes largely forgotten - sadly, between The Great Culling of backlist titles in the 80s and the dominance of gritty, grimdark sorts of science fiction in the decades since she simply hasn't had the time in the limelight that is her due.

But what about now?  Perhaps the idea of ancient, decadent civilizations on Mars and solar system spanning intrigue and adventure seems a little quaint in a market that swallows up hard science fiction films like Gravity and The Martian, but then look at the resurgence of popularity for television shows like Doctor Who.  Perhaps the time has come to dust off the old space operas, perhaps re-tune them for a more modern sensibility, and let the sheer spectacle wow us again.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

L is for Lone Wolf

Cover of the editions of Caverns of Kalte that I had. 
a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Sometime in late 1984 (long after I had been introduced to D&D via the Elmore red box and had played several Fighting Fantasy gamebooks numerous times) I was travelling with my family and at a Motorway rest stop paused to peruse a rack of books.

At the time, it was rare to find SFF novels on those racks - they were usually cheapo romances or horror novels, but there was occasionally a fun-looking title and they were also most definitely not the sort of books you came across in ordinary book stores or in the library.  The romances were too tame to engage teenaged me (come on, it was 1984) but I learned quickly that the pulp horror novels in Motorway shops or by the till when you stopped for fuel were a cheap and easy way to kill some hours on a long trip even if it wasn't my usual choice of reading material.

This is how (for example) I came to own copies of those classics The Rats, Lair[1] and Slugs [2], it was where I usually bought Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and on this occasion it was how I discovered Lone Wolf.

FF gamebooks will always be the "home cooking" of solo RPG play for me, if only because the world they painted was so vivid and wide open.  But I'll have to say that when I picked The Caverns of Kalte up on a whim during that trip it blew me away.

Oh, I died terribly and often - these books don't work very well as stand-alones, because there's a coherent narrative that spans the series - and that caused frustration that led to me putting the book down early on and forgetting about it for a while.

But when I came back a few weeks later on a rainy afternoon and tried to play it seriously at the kitchen table I was hooked.  The publication quality was high, I remember, and the mechanics were more sophisticated than FF, but the big thing was this world and this character.  The FF world was vivid, sure, but like a Heavy Metal cartoon.  Lone Wolf felt finer grained, silkier.  There was a richness there that I couldn't put my finger on.

Sadly, the Lone Wolf series was hard to find in the areas I found myself in after that, and I never did see books 1 and 2, but I did end up owning several of them (3 and 7 I remember, but I'm not sure about the others) and played them several times.

It was frustrating, not having a coherent series - you can really tell that the books are designed to "snap together" into a storyline - but they were very satisfying to play when an actual RPG session wasn't possible, in ways that the FF books couldn't achieve.

These books, more than any other "choose your own" series, made me think about how these sorts of games are designed and the effort that goes into them.  I'd played with text adventures before [3] but this sort of brought it to the next level.  This wasn't just an information space of you could explore at random to solve a kind of "locked room" puzzle - in the Lone Wolf books each book was a space for exploration, but in addition to letting you explore as you liked, there was a need to drive the story forwards, to tie in to the next book and maybe even the one after that.  

I never really got a clear view of how the books worked on the broader narrative level until long after I had given away my few Lone Wolf books and had passed on to other phases of life.  But I do wonder if this kind of gamebook has things to teach us about how to leverage modern interactive media for entertainment. [4]  It will never be much more than a particularly eccentric hobby for me, I imagine, but it's a fun thing to think about and neat to realise how being a bored teen on a road-trip with family decades ago is still influencing my behaviour today.

As it happens, if you're curious the author of the Lone Wolf series, Joe Dever, and several of his collaborators on art and later installments, have agreed to allow the books to be "reprinted" in various formats online.  See Project Aon to download and experience it for yourself! 

1. Both these were reprinted for the publication of Domain in 1984 - ironically I don't think I ever read Domain, but if not for that book I would never have discovered these two.  I'm not a big "horror" fan (not this kind) but James Herbert gets a bad rap for these, I think, as I actually enjoyed them quite a bit. Of course, this is teenaged me talking again.

2. Slugs is...not in the same class as The Rats, I fear, and the sequel Breeding Ground I recall being frankly atrocious.  However, it was still entertaining and there are the mandatory titillating scenes and gratuitously gory descriptions that keeps a teenage horror reader coming back.  Shaun Hutson deserves kudos for hitting that sweet spot so perfectly so early in his career - and as I recall, I also discovered that a lot of the biology he exaggerated for horrific purposes was actually basically correct (though I never admitted to my bio teacher that I wasn't really a terrific swot).

3. Inspired by things like old ASCII mags that had whole adventures you could type up in BASIC, or teaching myself to hack the databases in games like Dungeonmaster on my ZX Spectrum.

4.  To a large extent Lone Wolf is behind my thinking in experiments on Twitter and elsewhere as I fumble toward some kind of multiplex storytelling in those media.