Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What I learned from the Warrior-Maid of Mars

I recently came across this incredible cover for Planet Stories Summer 1950 issue and the title stories snagged my attention immediately, of course – how can you not be snagged by Margaret St. Claire and Ray Bradbury in their primes? – but I was also curious to see who else was featured, and went off looking for the contents[1].

Holy cow this is an amazing issue! Look at these titles:

Warrior-Maid of Mars by Alfred Coppel
Flowering Evil by Margaret St. Clair; and
Death-by-Rain by Ray Bradbury of course, but also:

The Enormous World by William Oberfield
Collision Orbit by Clyde Beck
Alpha Say, Beta Do by Alfred E. Maxwell
Moon of Treason by Emmett McDowell
Suicide Command by Stanley Mullen
Unwelcome Tenant by Roger Dee

OK, not all these names stuck around much beyond this issue, but Bradbury? St. Claire? Their presence alone makes me want to read the whole issue. And notice how some of the titles are firmly SFesque while others are verging into the weird tales or planetary romance aesthetic. 66 years ago, the genre periodicals were very different. Let’s take a closer look:

Bradbury’s Death by Rain (also published as The Long Rain) is an incredible story about alienation and displacement - and set on the familiar rain-swept jungle world of Venus-as-it-should-have-been. It starts mysteriously with the crashed Earthers making their way across the drenched jungle, searching for the fabled sun domes which are the only possible respite from the constant grey of the world outside. They have various adventures, but it’s the imagery and atmosphere that’s really gripping. Bradbury was obviously solidly established in 1950, having been publishing shorts at a breakneck pace all through the 40s, but this story is a determined step away from the status quo of SF publishing at the time. For some people, this kind of tale is an early tremor of what would lead later to the New Wave, but for me I think it’s really more of a blending of the Weird Tales era atmospherics with the space adventure tropes of the 50s.

Curiously, St. Claire's story is also about Venus in a way - Flowering Evil[2] is one of a series of shorts she wrote that focus on the weird affairs that accompany alien botany, in this case the trouble Aunt Amy gets into when her ne’er do well nephew keeps sending her plants from various planets in the solar system without really knowing what they are. In this case, the plant in question is from Venus, and after a rather pulpy scene on the verandah over tea and cookies our protagonist moves on to her Venusian greenhouse where we are given a glimpse of what life might be like on yet another version of Venus-as-it-should-be.

But where would we be without the title story? Warrior-Maid of Mars is very solidly in the planetary romance category, and the tagline in the table of contents nails it: “The Terran Barbarians have landed!” it cries, “Already they plunder a dying, helpless planet! And a whisper rustles through the cold, thin air, across the rust-red sands: “Give us a Leader – and we will fight! Give us back our ancient glory!”” Come now, who doesn’t want to read this story after that tag? Surely this story thrums with the red blood of adventure? Reading it doesn’t disappoint. It’s not the most skillfully crafted of tales, but it follows the classic pulp pattern: the main players are introduced and their characters established very early on, the protagonists move from trouble to peril to disaster, succeeding only because they cleave to their heroic ideals. Ostensibly the tale takes place on Mars, but if we read more closely this Mars is more like Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria – this is yet another imagined world, quite different from what the readers knew about the real Mars. But that’s just it: it’s a placeholder. No one expected Mars to have bronze-skinned warriors swashbuckling their way through life, not at the time, not in the past, not in some distant imagined future. But Mars has a baggage of ideas and images attached to it and not all of them are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fault. This story builds on that substrate and builds well enough to deserve its place as the headliner.[3] An interesting aside here is that this wasn’t Coppel’s ordinary fare, and actually most of his SF stories seem to have been more typical Campbellian work. It’s curious, then, that he continued to publish right up into the 1990s, but seems to have consistently drifted toward the fantasy end of the spectrum.

Roger Dee’s short-short Unwelcome Tenant, which appears right at the end of this issue, is an interesting one to leave us with. At first, it appears to be a strict space tale of the Campbellian tradition, but it quickly becomes clear there something much more Weird Tales about it. Yes, the setting is interplanetary space and the protagonist is explicitly identified as an astrophysicist, but this story is closer to Lovecraft than Clarke. This is interesting because Dee is another of the fairly long-lived and productive authors that appeared in this issue. He wasn’t anywhere near the status of St. Claire or Bradbury of course, but his single novel was written with Isaac Asimov, and Asimov selected Dee’s stories for a number of his anthologies over the years. He actually began his career with Planet Stories, and this is in fact only his fourth published work – but it gave him a strong push, and he published quite a lot of stories all through the early 50s. Something seems to have happened around 1954-55, and his rate of publication dropped off suddenly, until he published only a couple of stories in 1962 and then fell silent until his final story in 1971. I’ll confess, I don’t know a lot about Dee – the few stories of his I’ve seen in the past have been in Asimov anthologies, and they have been like Unwelcome Tenant – a strong SF setting (rockets, space, technology) but that’s really just window dressing for a more psychological tale, or at least one that forces you to reconsider the nature of identity and self. Or reality. To Remember Charlie By (Fantastic Universe, March 1954) is one of those stories for sure. On the other hand, Pet Farm (Galaxy, Feb 1954) is quite different, though still deeply rooted in the pulp tradition I think – this one reminds me a lot of Merritt and his explorations into the unknown, though here we have an alien world rather than a hollow Earth as the setting for the protagonists’ encounter with the weird.

The fourth writer in this issue who has anything like a significant bibliography is Emmett McDowell. McDowell was really only on the scene for about five years (1945-1950) and this is one of his last stories. I’ve never actually read any of his other stories, but a quick gander at his bibliography over at ISFDB makes me think he was more a Weird Tales and Argosy sort of writer than the 1940s and 50s wanted, which might explain his disappearance. Moon of Treason is interesting though, in that it seems at first glance to be firmly in the space adventure category, something like you’d expect from people like Bester or H. Beam Piper, or maybe Doc Smith. But there’s more here, and the weird factor does come into things as we learn more about the protagonist’s unusual abilities. Sadly, it seems quite difficult to track down many of McDowell’s other stories, but there are a few there – especially some of his early Planet Stories offerings or the ones he did for Jungle Stories – that look like they might have that 20s-30s era Argosy goodness in them.  

Clyde Beck’s story in this issue of Planet Stories, Collision Orbit, is very much in the hard-core Campbell tradition. We open with the protagonist clearly experiencing life as a 50s era jalopy-owning high-schooler (or college student maybe – we’re told he’s studying at Space Tech after all) transposed into a “rockets as casual transportation” future. Technical details play a part in this story, though mainly as scenery in what’s a fairly straightforward adventure story. It’s telling, I think, that Beck seems to have published fiction only three other times in his career – this is the kind of writer who padded out Campbell’s magazines back in the day, writing as a hobby, selling for a year or two and then disappearing.

Finally, we have Alfred Maxwell’s story, Alpha Say, Beta Do – very much a Campbell era “big idea” story about the perils of duplication. The concept is interesting enough, and interestingly is echoed in later stories such as David Brin’s novel Kiln People – though I suppose the idea of temporarily duplicating yourself to get a pair of extra hands or to allow you to do something dangerous without risk is obvious enough. In this story, the hook is in the ephemerality of the duplicates and the fact they are essentially separate people, so able to develop relationships of their own. The protagonists are thrown together, along with their duplicates, and two of the four fall in love…but an accident has left one pair uncertain which is the original and which is the duplicate. The rest of the story is basically a psychological in which the risk of having fallen in love with the wrong one is explored. Honestly, I think it’s the weakest story of the issue, so it’s not particularly surprising to find that Maxwell never published anything else (nothing else SFnal at least). Still, it’s an intellectual puzzle and humorous enough, though a bit dated by the language and the attitudes of the characters.

The point here, I think, is that this is a more or less random issue[4] of a mid-to-high range periodical of the era and the range of stories available here is really quite remarkable. We have full-bore planetary romance[5] , we have some standard for the era “hard” science, we have atmospheric, speculative pieces[6], we have first first string authors, and we have “give him a chance” sort of writers like Maxwell.

This is really a fascinating era in pulp history, when the market was starting to be dominated by a handful of the new big names who were pushing out the old giants, Argosy and Weird Tales. This is when the shift in aesthetic was happening, and we can almost see it happening right here in this magazine. But at the same time, it’s maybe significant that the aesthetic favoured by the Campbell movement  - Astounding/Analog and F&SF in particular as examples that survived to the present – is represented here as well, in a bastion of planetary romance and what we might call “weird science” (to distinguish from the more “fantastic” flavour usually associated with Weird Tales). Contrary to the modern assumptions about this era, alongside the lighter[7] “Campbell” scifi pieces like Collision Moon there was some serious philosophical thought going on in the genre back in the early 50s - as demonstrated by Roger Dee’s piece - and some literary oomph as we see in Bradbury’s story.[8]  This is a vibrant era where several different schools of SFnal writing were coexisting, right at the beginning of the new take-over by the refurbished version of the futurians that emerged at the other end of World War 2.

A very interesting dimension to this is the fact that Planet Stories seems to be reaching back to the era before the war, into the roots of SFF pulps in the 20s and 30s, and seems to have enjoyed a fairly substantial success – it was theoretically a juvenile publication, and was paired with Planet Comics, but it seems to have had more reach than you might have expected for such a magazine at such a time. I maintained its quarterly schedule for a decade and only transitioned to 6 issues per year in 1951 – right at the beginning of the end for the pulp markets.  Even in the more challenging conditions of the early 50s, it managed to keep that schedule until 1954, after which the challenges forced a brief return to the quarterly schedule before the 71st and last issue in June 1955.

So what was it about this magazine that attracted attention?

 Despite the low per-word rates Planet reportedly paid (relative to major markets of the era) it nevertheless attracted submissions from well-established and highly skilled authors like Brackett, like Bradbury, like St. Claire – other big names that appeared between its covers include Asimov, Damon Knight, Fredric Brown, James Blish. While the covers were perhaps rather juvenile in nature, focusing as they did on depicting dramatic women and shocking aliens (preferably locked in some kind of thrilling conflict) what was sandwiched between them was far more sophisticated fare than the era is usually given credit for.

 The focus on tales that echoed the previous Argosy and Weird Tales era lends a great deal of credence to Mike Ashley’s suggestion that the real appeal of the magazine was to the older readers who were looking back to the pre-war period as a golden age.[9] This makes sense of course: as so many today who are interested in the pulp aesthetic have seen, there’s something fundamental to these old pulp stories – an aesthetic that, as Brackett suggested, slots these kinds of stories into the same spaces that our ancestors reserved for folk tales and myth. Of course many readers who had grown up with the richer work of the previous era would find the intellectualism and science focus of the Campbell period a bit cold in comparison.

But now let’s get down to brass tacks[10]:    What can we learn of use today from Planet Stories? I think there are a few things, really.

First, it’s vital to realise that there is a real gap between the aesthetic eras of SFF. The crystallization of Campbellian SF[11] creates something new and different from the Fantastic SF era that flourished in the 20s and 30s, and it stands to reason that while they both may have strong (and weak) points, these points are going to be different and as such the fandoms are not going to overlap completely. This seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how hard it is to find people who understand this extends to later literary movements in SFF as well.

Second, deriving from the first we can see that there is some degree of overlap – not just in fandoms but also in the elements of each literary style. There are things that both schools value, things that they both abhor. As such, both styles of story can potentially coexist in the same market. Take this issue of Planet Stories as an example: Warrior-Maiden of Mars is the title story in a magazine that also features what might be an embryonic New Wave story (Bradbury’s Death by Rain) and a couple of pretty straightforward Campbellesque space adventures. Why? Because there are thematic overlaps between them, and it was reasonable to think that a fair number of the people who picked up the mag for Warrior-Maiden would also enjoy something like Unwelcome Tenant   or Collision Orbit.

Third, and I think this is really important, Planet Stories’ success seems to have ridden largely on the cultivation of its place as a market for Brackett and Bradbury. Here we have a pair of writers who may not have been big names in the beginning, but they had potential and the editors collected them up as part of a core stable. We see this to some extent today, but not like it was with Planet – if you go back and look at the covers of this magazine, the number that feature Bradbury or Brackett in prominent places is surprising. It makes me wonder: how many people picked up this issue of Planet Stories not because Warrior-Maid looked interesting but because Bradbury was on the cover? Remember: while there were dozens of magazines on the racks everyone who was anyone was reading all the long-lived ones. The American issue of Planet had a lively readers’ letters column, which included commentary from people like Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, and others who ended up following the luminaries of the SFF field around in the next decades. This is where you build a literary movement.

Some of the “secrets” of pulp success are still with us today – some of the e-publishers like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed have started developing little stables of regular contributors[12] for example – but I really think that anyone working toward building a vibrant revival movement today desperately needs to study the old pulp publications. Argosy and Weird Tales are obvious models to follow, but I think they’re also dangerous: they flourished in a very different environment to the one Planet Stories “lived” in.

Publications like Planet are an excellent model simply because they were facing direct competition from the new aesthetic that was emerging under Campbell’s eye, building on the philosophical foundations of Astounding and the Futurians.

As we’ve seen from the recent reduction in publication schedules at Analog and Asimov’s the financial challenges of keeping a short fiction periodical going are significant.[13] New venues trying to get enough steam to stay afloat will need to learn both from the successes of Planet and Astounding in the pulp era (ie how to cultivate and propagate a chosen literary aesthetic, particularly when there are competing aesthetics already in market) and from the struggles of later era publications that are now stumbling.

I actually think that now is an excellent time to be trying this kind of experiment:

Crowd funding makes it much easier to obtain the seed money needed to try without going broke.  

E-book and other new mediums make “printing” and distribution far easier than they ever have been in the past.

The pulp aesthetic – which is as much about literary experiment as it is about that mythic adventure that Brackett alluded to – seems to do very well in environments where the field is wide open and the rules minimal.

Now is the time!

Forward the Pulp Revolution!

[1] Which, incidentally, can be downloaded at the Internet Archive, here.

[2] Read a scan of this very short story here if you don’t want the whole magazine. But seriously, who are you if you don’t want to read the whole thing?

[3] As an aside, I notice that the eponymous Warrior-Maid pictured on the cover bears a close resemblance to other heroines on other Planet Stories covers. In all likelihood this is just because the artist (Allen Anderson – curiously, this bio doesn’t include this cover, but then he did a lot of Planet Stories covers in the late 40s and early 50s.) most often commissioned had a model he relied on for such things (recursive aside: I find myself wondering if the woman pictured was his first wife, who he divorced after the war, or his second wife who he married after a few years working with Planet…), but I confess I like it as a conceit: it gives a sense of the blending together of imagined stories, whether that was intended or not.

[4] I just came across the cover in a social media feed and it grabbed me enough to make me go looking.

[5] no great surprise considering Leigh Brackett was a major contributor.

[6] not great surprise here either – Bradbury was another major contributor, and one of Planet’s claims to fame is the discovery of Philip K. Dick with his first sale: Beyond Lies the Wub

[7] Notice: the Campbellesque works are lighter – so much for literary pretension.

[8] Seriously: take a look at that one as a study in how to use image and description to establish the psychology of a story!

[9] Ashley, Mike (2000). The Time Machines:The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the beginning to 1950. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. Pp151-152

[10] No, not that one!

[11] For lack of a better term, I use Campbellian as a shorthand to refer to SF with a strong focus on the science and tech, the sort of mission statement that you see today in Analog’s submission guidelines: take away the science and the story falls apart. But more importantly, there’s a focus in Campbell’s era on exploring the tech, and on the scientist hero. Note how often these stories feature protagonists who are genius engineers and the like. These heroes are ur-Futurians, not mythic archetypes.

[12] Though in part I think this is due to the limited markets for short fiction resulting in a concentration of submissions.

[13] No matter what they say, the basic reason is almost certainly financial: they save money by going to a 6 per year schedule, even if they are buying and printing the same number of stories. Watch carefully: I suspect we’ll see F&SF follow suit in the next year or so, and if nothing changes they may well ultimately have to choose between going quarterly or abandoning print altogether.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Strange Silence of Ernest Kinoy

I have heard the name Ernest Kinoy over and over in recent years as the old archives of broadcast radio have gone online. As an example, look at the episode lists for the two iconic SF radio play series Dimension X and X Minus One from the 50s.[1]

Not only was he involved in the adaptation of nearly every episode of these two series, but he and his partner George Lefferts also contributed original pieces. True, much of his work in SF was derivative in the sense of being derived from the short stories of others[2] but radio plays are a very different beast from print, and it's not as though he did no original work of his own: Kinoy contributed 8 wholly original works to these two series, and is credited with the novelization of several dramatic works in addition to adapting work for radio and screen.

Kinoy was heavily credited in both radio and TV[3], and although he moved on to other things once he shifted to TV - mostly suspense and thriller – he continued to contribute to the SF corpus from time to time, for example the 1980 TV film The Henderson Monster.

Kinoy was no lightweight in writing, and though he may not primarily have been a SF author his contributions are surely significant – and yet…

And yet, despite winning two Emmy Awards for his work in television[4] and his significant contributions to radio SF during a period of enormous growth – and surely contributing to the fortunes of the iconic writers whose work he adapted – on his death in 2014 he passed away never having been honored by the SFF community and not even warranting a mention in the usual genre history sources.

Did his SF work reach the levels usually recognised by Hugos or similar awards? Maybe not, but it seems strange that a man whose writing contributed over the course of a decade to the popularization of SF through these two iconic SF radio drama series was so completely invisible.

I find myself wondering if the issue is – at least in part – related to a kind of snobbery, a sense that “just a radio drama” wasn’t good enough to be noticed, as though radio dramas held the same kind of place in the scheme of things as merchandising.[5] This sort of “high-brow” thinking is hardly new to SFF. Both fandom and the writing community have long suffered a kind of inferiority complex due to the way in which genre has often been viewed by the ivory tower and even the general public. After all, comics and TV have only comparatively recently begun to be taken seriously in some parts of fandom[6] - there’s no particular reason why writers like Kinoy ought to have been awarded per se.[7]

But in a realm where simply being a fan who just won’t shut up wins accolades and followers, one has to wonder why radio dramatists were never recognised at all.


[1] X Minus One actually ended in January 1958, and had a replay in 1973 with a fresh story by Robert Silverberg, but Kinoy’s involvement seems to have ended with his adaptation of Nourse’s “The Coffin Cure” in November 1957.
[2] And just look at the names whose work he was adapting!
[3] imdb lists 73 TV and film credits to his name - I can't find a similar listing for radio, but he has 91 *just in "Dimension X" and "X Minus One"
[4] One for his own episode “Blacklist” in The Defenders, the other shared with Blinn for their work on the second episode of Roots.
[5] Cue the new Hugo category…
[6] The Hugo “Graphic Story” category was launched in 2009, “Dramatic Presentation, Short Form” in 2003.
[7] Though I do find myself wondering if the stage version of R.U.R. would have been recognised. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Pulp Aesthetic

Misha Burnett recently joined the ongoing conversation about pulps, to which a fellow blogger Rampant Coyote[1] responded – and Misha responds again here. There are some excellent points in both blog posts.

Too often, I come across supposed "pulp revivals" that seem to think the defining feature of the pulp era[2] was "B list schlock." To be sure, there was a lot of poor work printed in the scramble to get a piece of the action in a market suddenly bursting with appetite for literary periodicals, but to say that's what made the pulp era different is deeply unjust. In fact, the pulps drew their appeal from three things:

1. The universality of heroic tales: The pulps and their descendants are heirs to a heroic tradition that - in commercial literature - leads us back to the 18th Century romances. This doesn't necessarily require swash-buckling derring-do, but does mean the tale needs to present a clear sense of good and evil, and the protagonist's success should at its core lie in the adherence to a moral core, whatever the source of that might be (faith, honor, obligation, confidence and strength of will - it doesn't really matter – more on this in a later post)

2. The allure of the exotic: As both Misha and the Coyote say, it's this sense of the unknown and the surprising that catches the reader, the sense of exploring strange new places and discovering things outside the realm of everyday life. Sure, you could say it's just escapism - and I don't think there's anything wrong with that - but I think it's more than that. Face it: if you spend 12 hours a day at a computer in a cubicle farm you really, really don't need to read more about working at a computer in a cubicle farm. You might not have time, money, energy to take a month to paddle up the Amazon, but you can read about it on the bus. Yes, escape is part of it but more importantly humans just need to explore beyond the familiar, to learn new things and see new places. The exotic dimensions of the pulps provide this exploration, and the authors of stories that push past the boundaries can remember it for us wholesale when life prevents real exploration.

3. Experimentation: There's a reason why the pulp aesthetic lives most fully in short fiction and "pocketbooks" - the best of the pulp mags would have a solid heroic-exotic story at the core and wrap it up with some efforts that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't but the author and the editor took a chance. There was a wide open space where writers could try to fit together bold new ideas and new writing techniques[3] - the best writers could make things work, but sometimes the whole thing would fall flat. But it didn’t matter too much because the format was short, the costs low, and most importantly there was often the redeeming feature of The Big Idea that was embedded in the tale.

What’s strange about many efforts to “recapture the pulps” is that they fail not because there’s no appetite for the pulp aesthetic in the modern world[4] but because they don’t really get it. They see the failed experiments of the pulp era, the sea of mediocre work, and mistake it for the whole. They get trapped in the illusion that the poor production quality of things like the Flash Gordon cinematic serials in comparison to modern SF/X is the touchstone of the pulp aesthetic, and the ironic undercurrent of the effort ends up sucking the whole thing under.

But the thing is that the true substrate on which the pulps were built isn’t ironic at all – it’s earnest and enthusiastic. It can sometimes be dark of course, and doesn’t always involve uncomplicated protagonists and villains, and even sometimes pokes fun at itself, but the basic sense of it is pure – and you could even argue that it’s founded on human universals.

The strangest thing about the failure of these efforts to revive the pulp aesthetic over the years is that the current era seems like an ideal time to reboot the old pulps and take the best of its successes forward into a new era of SFF. The technological revolution we’ve seen in publishing over the last decade is a perfect environment for this – if cheap printing and even cheaper pulp paper were the raw materials of the original pulp revolution, surely even cheaper  e-publishing options available today are ideal?

Better still, if you look closely the pulp aesthetic never died – not really. It simply shifted venues. While the Campbellian era was being forcibly dismantled by the New Wave[5] the pulp aesthetic was moving into new formats. It’s no coincidence that the late 60s saw a renaissance in the comic industry, or that the 60s and 70s saw effort after effort at figuring out the small screen. Right through to the 80s TV was a major vehicle for pulp aesthetic – naturally there were direct adaptations of the pulp periodical format such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, but there was so much more: in the 60s there were classics like The Prisoner, The Avengers, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Joe 90 – even the amazing supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons! It just kept getting better in the 70s with things like The Six Million Dollar Man, UFO, and Space 1999. People like to cast Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica as a revival of the old pulp aesthetic in the 70s, but the truth is they are the derivative “schlock”[6] in comparison to the rampant experimentation that was already going on.

Some of the verve survives right into the 1980s with classic Saturday morning cartoons like He-Man, Sectaurs and the like[7] - but more importantly we get to see the pulp aesthetic reflected in the prime time live-action TV of the era as well. Things were starting to change, but the “family oriented adventure shows” still had that sense of experiment, that search for the exotic, and uncomplicated heroics.[8]

TV started to change as well in the late 80s and the 90s – there was more “lived experience” fiction being shown, and we saw reality TV starting to grow. Oh, there were still a few bright lights in the schedule, but the pulp aesthetic was definitely fading. Where did it go? I think the aesthetic lives on in things like comics (especially superhero comics in the more traditional style) and in video games. This is where we see the bulk of heroics, exploration, experimentation in entertainment media right through to the current year.

So here we are, looking at print traditions in SFF that seem to have lost their power over the decades. There are still excellent writers, and I’ve seen some beautiful wordsmithing, but the common elements that made SFF explode in the 1930s seem to have been pushed aside for a time. There are a few venues where the old pulp feel is starting to reassert itself though, and it will be very interesting to see where it goes.

Exciting times indeed!

[1] I confess that online conversations often make me feel like I’m living in a pulp story…

[2] I’m especially thinking of the pre-WW2 boom from the 1920s to the 1930s – though of course the true pulps survived to some extent into the 60s, and the aesthetic was preserved in some venues even beyond.

[3] Including techniques stolen wholesale from other genres! Just look at how techniques for generating suspense, or for writing action, or for weaving in romance, or for building up setting got swapped back and forth between SF, weird tales, detective stories, hard boiled action, western, and even romance and erotica.

[4] There obviously is – just look at the sales figures of SFF authors who tick off just one or two of these three points of appeal.

[5] Well, that’s what they told themselves.

[6] Cue hate mail in X minus 3…2…1

[7] These had the disadvantage of sometimes/often being mainly created after the fact to help sell toys, but the writers drew heavily on the keys of pulp adventure to create watchable episodes. Admittedly, in some cases episodes were only marginally watchable, but they get A for effort.

[8] Don’t believe me? Check out these classics – some are painfully derivative of popular properties of the era, others are in the full tradition of the original pulps: taking someone else’s good idea and figuring out a better way to do it. But more than anything else, we see the freedom to try anything and the paramount goal of trying to entertain. Many of these shows failed dismally in the ratings, but not for lack of verve.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Jack Vance the Magician

"The less a writer discusses his work - and himself - the better. The master chef slaughters no chickens in the dining room; the doctor writes prescriptions in Latin; the magician hides his hinges, mirrors and trapdoors with the utmost care." Vance in the afterward to "The Bagful of Dreams" The Jack Vance Treasury (2007)

August 28, 2016 would have been Jack Vance's 100th birthday.

The man had an incredible gift to spin worlds from nothing and paint them with a palette of the most vivid language imaginable.

His work is so compelling, in fact, that it’s very hard to remember that every word he wrote after 1980 (a list that includes 11 novels, 27 short stories, and a number of essays, forwards, afterwards, and footnotes) was written by a man who was legally blind and growing steadily blinder. This bibliography is impressive enough – but let’s not forget that in 1980 Vance had already been publishing stories and novels for thirty-five years.

Vance reputedly kept an arm’s length between himself and fandom, rarely exposing himself to real world scrutiny. He is said to have compared himself to a stage magician, whose power of illusion would be spoiled by revealing how his tricks were done. But I sometimes wonder if the truth is that he was actually rather shy of the attention he would have gotten if he’d put himself in the limelight.

In many ways, he was, after all, a very solitary man. Not unsociable – the fact he played several instruments that fundamentally require other musicians to even make sense makes that clear – but simply the sort of man who loved sailing and similar pursuits mainly because of the solitude they can sometimes offer, along with the regenerative powers of contemplation and reflection. Certainly, some of his characters that seem richest and most compelling to me are the men (and sometimes women) who likewise seem to spend a great deal of time alone: sailing (or space-borne variants), certainly, but also drinking wine in the quiet of a working pier at dusk, looking out over the crowds of an esplanade with an exotic cocktail, sipping a fragrant tea in the corner of a luxurious hotel lobby.

I think, actually, this may be what compels me about Jack Vance’s work – the way so many of his richest characters resonate with me. I will never share a carafe of wine with Mad Navarth, or nibble delicacies as I watch the Twik-Men work, or sip gin slings on the terrace at the Yipton Hotel, or listen to the wind as it howls across the pampas, nor even sup on fragrant stews at Smade’s of Smade’s world, but like the characters of Vance’s that grab me I need time to think and recharge, and it is the way in which these characters take the time seems like sheer luxury to me. Moreover, like them – and, I think, like Vance (though perhaps I’m flattering myself) – I love to watch people far more than I enjoy engaging with them directly.

My shelf of books that I can read again and again without end is short, but the V section is enormous. I fell in love with Wayness Tamm right alongside Glawen, and I've wandered the wilds of the Planet of Adventure. I've sneered at Cugel moments before wondering at his incredible luck, and of course I've rolled my eyes at the ineffable arrogance of Rhialto and his peers. And those are just a few of the worlds of Vance I could live in forever.

Vance's brilliance has had an enormous impact on my own writing, and if not for him I might never have become so interested in revisiting the pulp classics - yet another thing that drives my writing.

Since his passing in 2013, one of my greatest literary regrets has been that I never mustered the courage to actually sit down and write to him to tell him what an inspiration he has been to me. How could I humiliate myself with a letter that couldn't possibly match the words he would use?

The sting is worse when I read about what a kind, personable man he was - how he took a phone call from a fan and conversed for hours, how he replied to fan mail. What a joy it would have been to get a letter penned by the man himself. It would have gone on the shelf with his work that I read when I feel too stretched by real life.

But in the end perhaps it's best this way - as he said himself, it's like stage magic. Maybe the memory of the legend is what I really need.

Dammit Jack, I miss you.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Truesdale Affair's Real Affront

[First, apologies for long silence - real life. I will get back to the couple of projects I had going shortly]

Image result for sword woman howard

So, by now most of those who follow SF with any interest at all in the Hugos and Worldcon have probably heard the sordid tale of Dave Truesdale's ejection from Worldcon in reaction to how he opened his panel on the state of short fiction in SFF.

I'm not going to belabour that point, which is being quite adequately argued about in other places. What I want to talk about is the panel itself.

Seagull Rising has commentary on it, along with a link to the panel recording [1] - I disagree with a lot I see written on that blog, and it’s clear that the author and I are unlikely to end up at the same rallies, but we seem to agree on this panel, and the main point there that really strikes me is this one:

There was no discussion about big new ideas. No one mentioned of[sic] exciting new voices. No one talked about interesting new developments in short fiction (hello, Cirsova!). No one mentioned a story by name, even as an example. No one mentioned exciting new characters or writers.

Panels are rarely very exciting, so boring and banal isn't all that surprising.[2] What's surprising here is that this matches my own listen to the panel recording: it actually doesn't sound like anyone there (including Truesdale) is really all that interested in short fiction. I don't get it.

Short fiction is ideal for science fiction and for certain kinds of fantasy[1]. It has the potential to be enormously exciting not only from a reader's point of view but from a literary one. And these nitwits couldn't even muster the enthusiasm to mention a few specific examples of what they think is exciting about the field?

In a whole freaking hour?

The whole panel should have been ejected, not just Truesdale. Their soul crushing lack of enthusiasm is an offense to genre.

I honestly think that one of the biggest mistakes made in modern SF and some attempts at fantasy is to write things that are too long.

SF shines - no, it burns like a thousand suns! - when it's short.  

This doesn’t necessarily mean short stories, but honestly 600 page tomes rarely do it for me. It's hard to keep reader interest over that kind of span and still be a solid SF story.

As a somewhat contentious example, let’s think about Robert A Heinlein. He’s criticized on several fronts (sometimes justifiably) but when you look at the span of his work you can see that where he truly seems to shine is in his short juveniles – and a few of the shorter adult books he wrote in about the same period and in similar formats. Say what you like about his characters and his themes, and of course you can even criticize his language[3], but the fact is that the stories are tight, fast-paced, and engaging. You get to engage with the protagonists early, and when they “work” for you they will pull you along.

Now, the reason I choose RAH as my example rather than some of the other excellent shorter-form authors of the era – people like Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, H. Beam Piper, James Tiptree Jr., Ray Bradbury, is that he offers me the opportunity to show what I’m talking about:

It does depend on what you’re talking about and how you’re writing it, but it’s hard to write truly engaging SF in longer formats. It takes very, very careful structure of ideas and interlocking storylines to maintain engagement and avoid those nasty moments when suspension of disbelief fails and the reader is ejected from the story.

A well-written short grabs you and pulls you through too quickly for suspension of disbelief to be a problem, and the techniques of short-story writing are such that you can engage with the protagonists almost immediately. The protagonists themselves compel you to keep going, draw the story ahead at a powerful pace that is undeniable.

In comparison, even when excellently written, I find (more often than not) that as much as I enjoy a well-crafted longer story if it’s not structured in a kind of episodic pulse, with each element having the bite of a shorter, self-contained work, my enjoyment is likely to be more abstract – intellectual. I don’t engage as deeply with the protagonists, and the ideas dominate. The story doesn’t compel me the way it can with a short. That’s not to say the short form is better[4] but that it has sharper hooks, when done well. It provides a more intimate relationship with the protagonist, more scope for floating the science part of the fiction as well since there’s less space for missteps that reveal the smoke and mirrors that most speculative technology in SF relies on to be believable.

Long form is a perfectly arranged formal buffet table complete with an ice sculpture centerpiece.

Short form is one dish that you can really dig into – yeah, it might have fewer ingredients to it, but you really get to experience them on a more visceral level.[5]

Which brings me back to RAH:

You see, the works that made him a big name back in the 50s and 60s were short – relatively speaking. Short stories, sure, but also novels that simply don’t have the page count to be published today. With the shorter formats he worked with, there was an opportunity to get close to the protagonists and get your hands sticky with the stuff of the worlds he was spinning without being forced to see it from a perspective that revealed it was just a stage set.

As soon as he was a big enough name that people couldn’t/didn’t really question what he put on the page – when he could do whatever he wanted and had no limit on how long he could do it for? That’s when things start to go south. People have legitimate criticisms of or disagreements with certain aspects of his work from his early era (the way he handles race and gender for example, his politics in general) and I think there are some interesting discussions that can be had around that, but I don’t think there’s much to dispute about his earlier work actually being tighter writing (technically) than in later years, largely because of the structural demands of the form.

For fantasy[6], I think the situation is a bit more complex and there’s a stronger argument for longer work. Unlike SF where (if you wish) you can just bolt a few unobtainium gew-gaws onto what is essentially the real world there’s more involved in developing a coherent setting, and that can benefit from more elbow room. [Aside: I think this is what makes fantastic or weird fiction more akin to SF than fantasy - it bolts eldritch gew-gaws from inhuman civilizations from beyond time onto the real WORLD]

Again, though, it will depend a lot on what you hope to achieve – I find it hard to engage with the protagonists of longer fantasy as well, even when the overall story and the world are very engaging in their own rights, and sometimes that means the book suffers. I found some of the ideas and the larger plot cycles of the Eye of the World (as an example) to be really interesting, but largely found it hard to care much about individual characters. GRRM’s Song of Fire and Ice is similar – I find myself wondering what will happen next in what is more geopolitical terms than because I particularly care about a character’s last cliffhanger.  When I do care about a character, it’s because the arc in question is building a broader understanding of how this world works. Steven Erikson’s Malazan books are another excellent example – I’m interested in how this world works, in the broader structure and politics, but I am not compelled by the characters.

In comparison, consider Robert E Howard’s short novels and shorts – they try to grab the readers by the throat and shake them right out of the first chapter or paragraphs. Suspension of disbelief isn’t a problem because you’re never given a chance to question, and even though the characters are firmly in platonic archetype territory[7]they get their blood and gristle just from the sheer intimacy of the format.

Come  - does anyone really think Conan would let his foe drag on for more than a couple hundred pages? How about John Carter? Or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? Or coming back to REH Dark Agnes?

These stories run hard and fast and if they went on much longer than they do there'd be no way for the author – or the reader for that matter - to keep it up.

But there’s another reason the lack of excitement over short form is so frustrating as well: short is exactly where we should be looking for excitement and surprise not in the tales and characters themselves, but in the fact that this is where writers can really get to experiment – with technique, with “what if” ideas, with alternate realities, with different voices, it’s where they can feel their way into new territory and explore how best to tackle it. This where editors can gush over new voices by putting them alongside the ones they know the readership already trusts. It’s where they can encourage new ideas and new forms with interesting experiments like issues with a half dozen stories from that number of very different voices but all with the same basic task: write a story about X. It’s where an editor can take a chance with a brand new face and take the time to nurture them as they polish their craft in the first few efforts.

What’s most frustrating about this panel is that the participants are vague and hand-wavy about everything. There was a lot of talk about diversity of voices – and make no mistake, that diversity is a great thing, and short fiction in particular benefits from it – but precious little talk about specific examples of what is great and what is exciting right now in short fiction. It’s not like there aren’t any really interesting voices right now.

I mean, look Aliette de Bodard’s experiments with almost poetic richness in painting dreamlike images in her Obsidian and Blood sequence. Look at how Nnedi Okorafor weaves concepts from Nigerian myth and folk tale into stories about genetic engineering and AI.

Want more specific, more recent examples?

Look at the techniques Greg Bear deployed exploring quantum computing in The Machine Starts, or the edgy dimensions of Elizabeth Bear’s Skin in the Game[8]

There’s lots of potential here for experimentation, because unlike a novel – particularly a modern novel that will almost certainly be hundreds of pages long and part of a planned sequence if it gets published – it doesn’t matter so much if the experiment doesn’t quite work, or if it works but doesn’t tickle readers’ fancy. This is a scratch-pad where the people who actually do this can toss ideas out without committing maybe years of their lives on them to see if they float or sink – and then run with the best ones.

It’s also a way to build rich, fulfilling, extended worlds of fantasy without the risk of losing suspension that you get when you’re working with the novel format – look at how well Moore fleshes out her worlds for Northwest, or how Andre Norton does the same with her Time Traders. Niven’s Known Space is of course another example. In short, sharp episodes we get fragments of that broader world that build up into a larger whole.

So yes, short fiction is an exciting and compelling format, and not only do we need more excitement in discussing it but we need more of it:

This is the digital age, where any idiot (even me) can hang up a shingle and publish a short fiction rag. If readers come, then it worked. If they don’t – well, maybe the rag will stumble but in this era of science fiction reality it doesn’t need to mean the end of someone’s career.

Let the publications spring up like mushrooms, I say, and let the editors and the authors feel the way. By god, let’s have some wonder!


[1] And no, I'm not going to argue about whether it was right or wrong to record the panel either.

[2] Trust me. I’ve suffered through a few as well.

[3] Though that may be unfair considering the changing standards since then.

[4] Though I am personally a lover of it.

[5] Obviously short form can be used in more abstract ways as well – prose poem, tone pieces, etc. But even here, the approach simply wouldn’t work in a work that was too long.

[6] To make a purely arbitrary division – though one I’m pretty sure everyone will grok.

[7] Or maybe Freudian archetype would be more apt!

[8] Neither of which even got a mention as far as I can see in the run up to the Hugos, which is itself a travesty.