Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Hugos - Midamericon 2 - 2016

Dave Kyle said they couldn't sit there.
See what you made them do, Dave?
So, the Hugo Award nominees have been announced, and the expected gnashing of teeth has begun.

As in previous years, there has been a great deal of comment on the various Puppy campaigns, most of which I personally believe is moot.  Here's the thing:

Yes, previous Sad Puppy campaigns have been very poorly thought out, and structured in a way that was nearly guaranteed to raise hackles among the regular Worldcon crowd. Presented as "slates", the whole thing rather smacked of the effort of L. Ron Hubbard's religious faithful to suborn the Hugos in 1987.[1] Quite apart from the reaction to a perceived attempt to game the system for personal gain, it was perhaps to be expected that the fen would come out in droves to gripe and block the effort just on principle given the appearance of being railroaded.  After all, this is the community that produced the Balcony Insurgents[2], whose main objection appears to be having been told what to do.

Enough, though: this year's effort seems to have been thought through a little more thoroughly[3], with a good effort made to produce an extensive list of options spanning the available categories. Suggestions by not only the Puppy faithful but others appear to have been honoured so long as the announced rules were followed, and the result is – to be frank – much stronger than it has been in the past.  Given the number of suggestions in most categories, it’s much harder to call this Sad Puppy list a prescribed slate – though there was some discomfort expressed in some quarters regarding how late the actual publication was (and of course there were those who felt less than honoured, shall we say, to be included in the recommendations).

Not to be out-done, however, the Rabid variety generated their own list, and in this case it was very much according to previous years: each category contained no more than the number of spaces available on the Hugo nomination form (in some cases fewer) and despite an admonition from the organizers (organizer?) that it was not to be viewed as a slate, it was inevitable that the fen would see it as such and seethe accordingly.

Given the unavoidable mental association between the Sad and Rabid varieties, the various correspondences between the 2016 Hugo finalists announced by the Midamericon 2 Hugo committee on April 26 and the Puppy list/slate have unfortunately generated…ah…sarcastic commentary.[4]

Nevertheless and regardless, there seem to be some quite viable contenders on the ballot this year, and I sincerely hope that the unfortunate idée fixe some fen have that leads them to reflexively vote No Award at the slightest sign of Puppy taint will take a break this year: quite a few of the finalists deserve to be considered on their own merits.

Under Best Novel, we find the following:

§  Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
§  The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
§  The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
§  Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
§  Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Ann Leckie has been a nominee in this category three years running, and took a rocket home in 2014 – it seems likely that her latest installment in the Ancillary series is a worthy contender, even if this particular style of SF isn’t to your taste. Similarly, Neal Stephenson is no stranger, having been nominated in 2009 and 2006 as well as winning the category in 1996 with his well-known novel The Diamond Age. I confess I’m more sceptical of Jim Butcher’s offering here – he’s a solid writer and I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of his work, but what I’ve read so far hasn’t really been Hugo material in its own right. But then, some authors spring upon the scene fully formed while others earn their chops over time. Perhaps this is the one that will really wow me?  I really can’t comment on the other two entries, but given their company I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Best Novella might be a bit more contentious, I suppose:

§  Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (
§  The Builders by Daniel Polansky (
§  Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
§  Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
§  Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

But here we also have some interesting suggestions. Alastair Reynolds is, in my opinion, overdue for some recognition and I’m very happy to see his story Slow Bullets made the final cut.  Nnedi Okorafor is also a very interesting writer, and although I haven’t read Binti myself yet the excerpt available at TOR’s website and what I’ve seen of Okorafor’s work makes me confident it’s a solid contender as well.  I’d be happier in this category if there were more names I knew (let alone works) but nevertheless it looks like we have two very different options to vote for – and I very much look forward to seeing how the other three measure up.

Best Novelette is another complicated category, but even there seem to be at least three strong options:

§   “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)
§  “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
§  “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)
§  “Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
§  “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

Brooke Bolander’s offering is one I found very interesting when I ran across it in Lightspeed last year, and although I didn’t nominate it myself  I can definitely see the appeal – I will be rereading it again through a new lens, and wonder how it will stack up. Was it just the story’s unusual narrative approach that pulled it down a bit for me (i.e. was it just a matter of taste)? Only considering it on its own merits will tell me. Stephen King is one of those authors who you might say has a list of nominations and awards of various kinds (including the Hugos, twice) as long as your arm – provided your arm is mutated to freakish proportions. I haven’t read Obits but let’s be honest: given King’s track record it would be strange if it wasn’t at least a solid story, and from there it’s as much a matter of taste as technique.  I’m not familiar with the two options taken from There Will Be War – but Folding Beijing is definitely a contender. It’s available online – check it out!

Now, I’ll confess that for me the Best Short Story category is a definite disappointment:

§   “Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
§  The Commuter by Thomas A. Mays (Stealth)
§  “If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (, Jun 2015)
§  “Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
§  Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

I’m very happy to see Algernon’s story “Asymmetrical Warfare” on the list of course, if only because I’ve been following Nature’s Futures feature for some time now, and have been impressed by how it’s come along.  It’s beyond time that they got the kind of recognition they’ve been working for. I don’t know The Commuter or Seven Kill Tiger so can’t really comment, but my heart sank when I saw the two “poison” entries on the list. I know why they’re there, of course, but I don’t have to like it.  Still, with confidence that Mays and Shao have produced something that can reasonably compete, it’s not a total loss. My real beef here is that short form simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves in these days of never-ending epic novel series.

As for the rest of the Works categories – well yes, there probably are some items here that maybe don’t deserve sneers but deep sighs of disappointment, but on the whole these relatively unassuming awards don’t seem to have had much to do with the kerfuffles over the last few years, and to be frank they look pretty normal to me.

Best Related Work is probably the worst offender here, with only one real contender  - the Gene Wolfe retrospective - that isn’t obviously being pushed by Puppy sympathizers.[5] Of the others, I will be excited to see Jeffro Johnson’s book once it’s actually in its final form, and the pieces by Eness and Greyland though deeply disturbing are certainly on topics that need to be discussed openly if they’re to be dealt with in any community regardless of what you think of the actual contents. As for the last: well. Battle lines were drawn years ago, so I don’t suppose this is much of a surprise to anyone.

Best Graphic Story isn’t a category I normally even consider, so it’s hard to say, though I recognise some names as worth looking more closely so presumably those who do vote here will see some strong options.

I confess that most years I’m not that impressed by any of the Dramatic Presentation options even if I know what they are, so who knows.

As for the Editor categories, particularly in the Short Form section I confess I really can’t see why anyone would be up in arms here – these are all solid choices, and I’ll personally find it very difficult to choose. I suppose in my case Mr. Pournelle will likely sink to the bottom, however, just because of the relative paucity of material on which to judge him – but then, perhaps some of those There Will Be War offerings in the Works categories will impress me sufficiently to push him back up.  Fnord knows he’s earned his spurs! Long Form will no doubt cause some gnashing of teeth considering the first name on the list, but otherwise again the choices seem solid.  The only real objection I have is that these days it’s hard to judge the editors in Long Form just because of how the industry has changed over the decades. Still, there seem to be a few names there deserving of recognition, including one who was unjustly snubbed last year because the wrong people liked her.

Semiprozine, Fanzine, and Fancast all seem like ordinary, solid categories for me – and in particular Semiprozine’s options are going to be hard to choose between for me. I’m also pleased to see Tales to Terrify on the list – I don’t often bother with the Fan categories at all, but this team definitely deserves your patronage, along with the others working on the Districts of Wonder ‘casts. If you’re not listening, you’re missing out on some great chatter – not to mention the stories!

So there you have it. Yes, the Puppies had an influence this year, but the massive influx of new voters last year seems to have reduced the impact of strange statistical anomalies that have plagued the Hugos for years (seriously, the very small voter pool combined with relatively low proportional participation contributed to some very odd effects). We still seem to be in the grip of a major fandom holy war, but “this too shall pass” as they say, and if membership and participation can be kept up - perhaps even grown! – it seems likely that the nominations and final voting will settle down into more normal patterns in a few years.

Fingers crossed in that regard, anyway.


[1] Peter Nicholls' personal account of the Conspiracy '87 fiasco can be read here - no doubt there will be similar accounts in the future by the MCs of similarly embattled Hugo ceremonies.

[2] The insurgents themselves included a number of prominent fans of the era who objected to paying $7 for the ticket to the Hugo banquet (mainly on the strength of the menu, which was apparently indifferent compared to what you could get for much less at a restaurant in New York at the time).  Nevertheless, they wanted to hear the Guest of Honor (Al Capp, the cartoonist responsible for Lil Abner) and see the awards ceremony, so they trundled up to the ballroom balcony to watch. According to Dave Kyle's account, he had merely been responding to the fire marshal's concerns in the midst of a harrowing effort to keep Nycon II on an even keel while his fiance Ruth Landis was being propositioned by the GoH. Whatever the true story, the fans were incensed, and that banquet exclusion was later denounced in their fanzines as wicked, barbarous and against ghod, if Fancyclopedia 2 can be trusted.

[3] Yes, I did have to.

[4] As of this writing, File770’s helpful cross-reference table showing the correspondences was unavailable, probably due to multiple links to it at venues such as io9 – however, for those who might be interested I should think this link will eventually function again.

[5] Even that one probably is of course, given the venue, as it’s not likely core Worldcon fandom even knew it existed, but those who did know surely consider it a worthy effort.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Soft-boiled Sci Fi

In the inimitable 1980 rendition of Flash Gordon, Voltan
(Brian Blessed) brandishes the Hawk Men's giant crystal
tribute to Ming - that's hard SF, right?
In the October 9th issue of T.P.’s Weekly [1] in 1903, journalist Robert H. Sherard quoted Jules Verne’s comment on his British peer H. G. Wells:

Je pensiez bien que vous alliez me demander cela,’ he said. ‘His books were sent to me, and I have read them. It is very curious, and, I will add, very English. But I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli,’ cried Monsieur Verne in an animated way, ‘but show me this metal. Let him produce it. (T.P.’s Weekly, ii, 589) [2]

And so it was that one of the arguments of our genre began: hard vs soft.

Fast forward to today, and the battle rages on: does Star Wars count as SF? If not, why not? How about Star Trek? Battlestar Galactica? Avatar? Iron Man? Lord of the Rings?[3]  And of course, the argument boils down to the question of hard vs soft.

Traditionally [4], science fiction has typically been looked at mainly in the context of the science or engineering aspects that are presented, but of course the position these concepts have in the story varies widely.  Now, the concept of “hard” science fiction wasn’t really coined until 1957 [5] and its counterpart “soft” SF not until the 1970s [6] but it should be noted that the three types of SF identified by Asimov in his 1953 essay (which I referenced here) are already beginning to create this distinction, with his scale that goes from (effectively) “explain this thing” through “use this thing” to “how is society changed by this thing” – and of course Verne’s comment tells us that the tension has been present more or less from the beginning.

Asimov, of course, was writing at a special time in SF, more or less at the beginning of a cresting wave of “Campbellian” hard SF popularity that gave rise to the crystallization of science fiction as a discrete genre. [7] Nevertheless, the concept of “hardness” in science fiction has endured, and the modern era has even given rise to a Mohs Scale just for SF.

In general, people think of this hardness scale as having to do with “realism” – that is to say that the more realistic a work is (i.e. how closely it adheres to what we actually know about science and engineering) the harder it is.  Thus, things like A Princess of Mars are at the extremely soft end of the scale, while things like 2001: A Space Odyssey are at the hard end. 

As such things go, the scale is an interesting way to sort science fiction literature, but I see a problem with it:

The scale practically invites fans to argue over whether a work belongs in the category of science fiction at all – it creates an implicit scale of legitimacy, in other words.  Is A Princess of Mars science fiction? Or is it just sword and sorcery fantasy that happens to include other planets and atomic rifles?

Does this distinction even matter?

And in fact I think this is an important question; when you look back at the sorts of work that were being published prior to the Campbellian revolution and the de facto establishment of this scale of hardness, it becomes clear that authors routinely mixed and blended aspects of science, fantasy, and horror in their stories.  True, stories seem to lean heavily in one direction or another, but there’s no hesitation to include fantastic elements in what is essentially a science fiction tale, or to include some esoteric technology in what is essentially a horror or fantasy one. After the philosophical shift that Campbell encouraged, on the other hand, there appeared to be a fairly clear division between fantasy/horror and science fiction – with those works that straddled the gap becoming gradually more uncommon through the 50s and 60s.

Part of what drove this shift was of course the tendency toward hardness in mainstream science fiction, which makes the gap more obvious – but it also leaves some kinds of work (work that harks back to the roots of science fiction itself!) difficult to classify.

And if rigorous realism in speculative fiction is what constitutes “hard science fiction” what are we to make of books like The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien built rigorously with his knowledge of the mythology and history of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, and his intricately considered languages? Is this science fiction? Is it “hard fantasy” – can there even be such a thing as “hard fantasy”?

For that matter, how can we deal with magical realism from this kind of perspective?  Is it unusually “soft” science fiction?  Is it fantasy? Is it something else entirely? [8]

And then let's consider this side of things: if a book waves away the technical details of engineering but instead presents a detailed view of the biology and sociology of the world, is that soft? Bearing in mind the fact that the hard/soft dichotomy in SF was in conscious reference to the hard/soft division in the sciences, the answer would seem to be yes...and yet, the story may well be as rigorous a consideration of the sociological aspect as, for example, Niven's Neutron Star is a rigorous treatment of the physics of the situation.  Surely that qualifies as hard? 

I think to answer these questions we have to come to some understanding about what exactly it is that this “hardness” is referring to, and ultimately I think that the problem really lies in that the classification isn’t sufficient to deal with the two key dimensions from which people usually look at science fiction, and for an added bonus it over specifies the one dimension it actually deals with. [9]

In order to try to re-unify the genres into a more coherent means of classification (one that doesn't rely on what are essentially marketing categories rather than literary ones) I suggest that two dimensions (at least) may be needed.


Here's the thing: consistent and coherent trumps nearly anything else when it comes to how satisfying a story is. [10] In essence, most readers will swallow nearly anything so long as it makes sense within the boundaries of the story.  This is one reason why the reflexive habit of thinking "harder" science fiction (in the usual sense) is obviously better is a problem: just because something is ruthlessly rigorous in its science doesn't make it a good story [11] - the story part is just as important.  

So there we have one criterion - or one dimension if you like: internal consistency, rigorous rules. a coherent reality from which the action derives. This, more than realism per se, is the core of what makes hard SF compelling to those who love it. Certainly, those who love what we call hard SF (and I am certainly one) love it because of the way in which the story itself is rooted in concrete facts, and how events follow in a logical progression of cause and effect, taking into account the unchanging rules of the universe.

Niven's Neutron Star is of course an example of this (SPOILER ahead - but then, if you're reading this you're almost certainly familiar with Known Space...right?): the necessity for Beowulf Shaeffer's mission [12] derives from the known characteristics of neutron stars and their consequences. The events of the mission likewise. Beowulf's actions, reactions, and eventual fate are firmly rooted in the cause and effect of known physics.

But the point I want to make here is that while Neutron Star and the many stories like it [13] rely on real-world science and the engineering that can reasonably be extrapolated from it [14] the same principle can be applied not only in SF but in fantasy as well.

No, really - consider:

George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series does contain some iconic fantastic elements, but on the whole the story proceeds according to fairly concrete rules, with very little in the way of deus ex machina introduction of new powers or abilities just to allow the plot to move ahead. In fact, much of the action is, really, grittily grounded in a fairly realistic Dark Ages/Mediaeval style world, despite the dragons and the dread prophesies and the apparently odd climate. Moreover, thus far it appears that Mr. Martin is making a serious effort to ensure that even the fantastic elements operate in a consistent, coherent way - as though they were subject to laws of nature. [15]

Similarly, C. S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising [16] seems on the surface to be fairly fantastic. But we can look more closely, and it quickly becomes clear that Friedman has thought out the implications of the Fae and their impact on Erna very carefully - everything follows rules, the Fae are consistent, and despite the trappings of ritual and myth, the "magic" her characters wield is very much like engineering.

Both science fiction and fantasy can have this characteristic of a coherent set of fundamental rules - what I call integrity - and the degree to which it has this character can vary widely, from the most rigorous examples like Neutron Star and Game of Thrones to what might be thought of as their opposites: Perry Rhodan and Narnia: tales where the rules are flexible and can be bent, broken or replaced according to the needs of the story.

These counter-examples are what make it clear that the ordinary "hardness scale" by which SF is sorted is insufficient (not to mention a useless measure of quality - but that's another argument) by itself.  Clearly, even stories with very flexible integrity can be deeply satisfying to our sense of narrative. This makes it clear that there must be another dimension with which we measure them, but what?

What over-analysis of genre fiction is complete without
some kind of artificial visualization?


One thing that separates Narnia from Game of Thrones, and Black Sun Rising from Neutron Star is the way in which the world is presented - the logic by which it works.

Stories like Neutron Star rely on real world science and engineering for their narrative - they may throw in bells and whistles like a presumed FTL mode of travel, exotic hull materials, or flashy aliens like the Puppeteers, but at base that's all they are: bells and whistles. The story itself runs on the fuel of a gritty, concrete set of rules that drive the cause and effect of the action. But this isn't the only way in which the engine of a story can run.

In Black Sun Rising we have an example of a world which at first glance seems to operate without logic, at the whim of mysterious forces.  As the story progresses, however, we learn that there is a coherence to the rules, but that those rules don't bear much resemblance to the gritty realism of physics - instead, the driving force is symbolism. The world runs on a magical logic, the logic of essential resonance and symbolic harmonies. Cause and effect is still the rule, but the nature of causes - and the nature of effects, of course - is radically different, because the important factor is no longer the physical facts, but the abstract, "Platonic" meaning behind them.

For a similar example, and one where the symbolic nature of the logic is more evident, we can look at a book like Ursula le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea - here the rules are more flexible, but nevertheless there is a fairly coherent pattern of cause and effect, though it is more explicitly founded on a logic of symbol and abstraction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the use of Naming as the foundation of magic, and the use of the Gebbeth as Ged's nemesis, the personification of his inner failure.

This style of storytelling naturally lends itself to fantasy - indeed, where it can most evidently be seen is in things like myth and fairy tales, where the symbolic or abstract dimension is paramount. But that's not to say that symbolism can have no place in science fiction as well.

Look at the way symbolism and abstraction are leveraged in the storytelling we see in superhero comics, for example:

Superman is rendered impotent by the presence of a symbol of his shattered past: crystals of kryptonite.

Captain America lives as a personification of the essence of the democratic revolution of the post-Enlightenment era, a reminder of the ideals that the Allies were fighting for in World War 2 and later the Cold War.

The Hulk - does the symbolism here really need exposition?

Superhero stories are typically presented as rooted in science and engineering, but that's really window-dressing.  The truth is that while science and engineering may play a part, the more powerful fuel for the narrative engine is symbolism. Doctor Doom isn't a super-villain because he has technically superior tools that he uses inappropriately - he's a super-villain because he represents the arrogance of believing that technology can make a person superior, and give the right to dominate others. But the important part is this: what he does, and how he is opposed by the heroes, is driven by this super-structure of representation.

All stories, I believe, contain some degree of rigorous narrative "consequence", some degree of flexibility. All stories likewise contain some degree of concrete realism, some degree of symbol. It's the nature of things - it's the foundation of what makes us love stories that we can blend these aspects together.

Great writers carefully balance these two dimensions - abstraction and integrity - to match the tone and nature of the story being told.

For some stories, granular, concrete reality will work best. For others, symbolic drivers are a better fit.

For some stories, it's critical that effects flow naturally from causes, that the reader can clearly see the nature of the underpinning reality. For others it's less important how characters get from A to B than that they do.

Where a story falls on these dimensions doesn't make it good or bad - but a mismatch between where it lies and the nature of the story being told can be jarring, and that's where the feeling that "harder SF is better" (and its equivalent for other qualities) comes from.


1. One of several publishing ventures by T.P. O’Connor, a penny weekly that featured such names as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Joseph Conrad.  Interestingly, the journal had been launched less than a year previous to the interview in which Verne made this comment.

2. Having read Verne, the idea of him positioning himself as a technically precise SF author is actually rather amusing – even taking into account the knowledge gained in the past century.

3. No seriously: why is Lord of the Rings not science fiction?

4. Insofar as you can call it tradition with a realm of literature so young, I suppose.

5. Apparently, the first appearance in print was in Astounding Science Fiction (Nov 1957) by SF writer and critic P. Schuyler Miller in his review of the modernized novelization Campbell’s serial Islands of Space which had previously been published in the Spring 1931 issue of Amazing Quarterly. Miller, incidentally, was an amazingly prolific reviewer, with an astounding <snerk> number of entries in nearly every issue of Astounding that year – heck in quite a few years!

6. Unsurprisingly: this corresponds with the peak of New Wave, which in contrast to the Campellian “Golden Age” SF was delving more deeply into sociology, anthropology and psychology – thus the analogy to the academic division of hard and soft sciences.

7. More on this another time, but I believe that the Campbellian revolution was responsible for the “divorce” of science fiction from the more general speculative or weird fiction of the pulp era, and in turn the growth of science fiction and fantasy as independent genres combined with the boom in corporate, mass-market book-sellers in the 80s to cause The Great Delisting, a literary extinction event of amazing proportions that may never have been possible before.

8. I confess to leaning toward “something else” but for the sake of argument, let’s consider it.

9. This isn't so much a criticism of the concept of SF hardness itself, but an observation that it was intended for what is essentially a very arbitrary subset of speculative fiction, and one that doesn't seem to really reflect either the history of the genre or the reality of readers' experiences. 

10. This is part of my reluctance to include magical realism, since...well, it's the nature of the genre to be incoherent. (I mean that in a technical way, not a slur)

11. If you disagree, I have a couple of old Apple II+ operation manuals you might be interested in.

12. Fun fact: Neutron Star (Worlds of If Magazine, August 1966) was Beowulf's first appearance in Niven's universe. Part scientist hero, part Harry Lime lookalike, Beowulf may well be my favorite of Niven's characters.

13. Engineering puzzle box type stories have a long and glorious history well back into the era of the pulps, after all.

14. And in fact in Neutron Star Niven really only relies on "unobtainium" to generate the necessary "frictionless sphere of uniform density" needed to make the calculations work, if you ignore the framing.

15. Of course, Professor Tolkien is the iconic example of what might be described as "hard" fantasy, but the enormous variety of ways in which his work has been re-interpreted - not to mention the range of ways in which he himself wrote in works other than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - makes his work a tricky choice here.

16. Incidentally one of my favourite books from the 90s - I thought Black Sun Rising was amazing fantasy in an older ethos when I read it. The rest of the Coldfire Trilogy is also strong, but it was the first book that really caught my imagination.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On the Beat - a lost skill in writing?

I have been thinking carefully about the pulps lately, in particularly about what made some of the early pulp SF greats so enduring.  

What was it about was perusing the excellent Center for Fiction website today when I came across this article by Victor LaValle.

In a nutshell, this is the tale of two skilled and educated writers who have suddenly come face to face with the fact that narrative had never been a big part of their training.  In LaValle's words:
There's a kind of blind spot, an essential flaw, in the workshop method that contributed to our problem. In class we'd discussed each submission seriously, were schooled about our characterizations, our use of language, our voices, our ideas. But we rarely, if ever, discussed the structures of our stories. Never examined the reasons why we'd told this story in this order.
This epiphany comes to them when LaValle's friend calls in a daze, realizing that the comic book panels he has been scripting in his new job are just sudden cut scenes from conversation to conversation. What could it all mean? Did their prose stories boil down to much the same?

What they realized, suddenly, was that the demands of writing for comic books were exposing a gap in their training: it wasn't necessarily that they couldn't write a coherent narrative, but that the focus of everything they'd done so far had been elsewhere, and they were suddenly realizing: they didn't know how to think about the narrative.

A tightly written story is a beautiful thing.  Even when the characters are cut-outs, the dialogue wooden, and the cliches are thick on the ground - if the beats come just right then odds are good that's a story you will have trouble putting down.

Reading this little blurb about the way in which comic book writing had thrown their lack of narrative training into relief reminded me of my question: what was it about the best of the early pulp writers that made them work so well?

These modern writers were learning how to analyze their narratives, how to think about the attack and decay of beats, the sequence, how to build a climax and how to pull together disparate threads to make a point, all this by looking at their writing through the lens of comics.

The pulp greats?

Detective stories.

Looking back, it seems obvious. If you take a look at some of the best known names from the 30s and 40s, which is arguably the peak of pulp SF, the best were known as much for their mysteries and their detective fiction as for SF.

Look at C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner - between the two of them they turned out any number of mysteries and hard boiled detective stories.

Look at Leigh Brackett - as well known in some circles for her hard-boiled novel No Good From a Corpse and her screenplay for The Big Sleep as for any of her space opera in SFandom.

Look at Dorothy Sayer, look at Dennis Wheatley.

All of these writers worked with mystery and detective stories just as much as Arthur Conan Doyle did with his Sherlock Holmes tales and later Agatha Christie with her murder mysteries. And the one thing that ties this all together is that for a mystery of any kind to work effectively for the reader the author must master two things:

1. The timing of the story beats
2. The weaving together of divergent narratives into a whole

The proof?

Further forward, let's look at Ray Bradbury, Moore and Kuttner's young padawan - his stories may never have drifted into detective territory, per se, but they have that same fine grasp of timing and control.  He takes that mastery of tight storytelling he learned in his mentors' livingroom and applies it masterfully to build a sense of otherwordly disconnect in his Martian Chronicles stories, to misdirect and surprise in tales such as The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, to build tension in stories like Chrysalis.

Look at H. Beam Piper, whose detective slate novel Murder in the Gun Room is perhaps his best work, but whose skillful handling of timing and complex threads shows itself in his story He Walked Around the Horses and others of his paratime police series.

Look at Andre Norton, who again draws on the legacy of the pulp era greats and like them in her early work she wrote crime fiction as well as SF - and you can see that way of thinking in the structure of her Time Traders stories.

These writers were writing across genres at a time before the development of our modern silos, and the majority of the early masters wrote at a time before genre publishing was any way to make a living. Those who truly wanted to earn their bread with their type-writers couldn't possibly rely on science fiction alone - even if their output was sufficient to buy food at a penny a word (or less!) there simply weren't that many dedicated venues.  No, to pay the bills they needed to think in terms of the full range of possibilities, and they wrote not only science fiction but also crime, detective/mystery, western, fantasy, adventure, and weird fiction.

The majority of pulp era authors faded quickly of course - they burned out, perhaps, or were simply never really good enough to last.

But the best?

The best pushed on and were well known well into the 60s and 70s, before The Great Delisting - and we're starting to rediscover them again now (though of course they were never completely forgotten, just so difficult to find that only grey-haired or truly dedicated young fans would be likely to come across them).

The best of their protégés obviously learned these same rules, and added to it the next generation's ideas to enhance characterization and colour.

I think it's no mystery why so many of the best writers of the pulp era and the generation after wrote for radio, film, and TV as well as for print - many of the "beat" rules they learned transfer very well to the demands of visual storytelling.  And this, of course, is why attempting to write for comics threw the lack of focus on these rules in modern writer training into such sharp relief.

In modern writer training, the kind of close one-on-one mentoring that previous generations enjoyed is less common.  On top of that, many of the tools that those pulp masters forged and passed on to the next generation have come to be seen as "obvious" - so workshops and similar training venues tend to focus on other things: the artistry of character and colour, the feats of worldbuilding that we've come to expect.

Basically, what's happened is that literary fiction has gained the luxury of being somewhat lazy: it's become possible to obsess about painting scenes and generating atmosphere without much consideration for the other dimensions of a good story.  Make no mistake, there are great authors today - maybe better authors in some respects than in decades past (though I submit that the best of the pulp era would fare as well today as they did then). But there's hardly anyone teaching this generation of writers how to keep a beat.

Partly, I blame the siloing of genres - it's possible now to make a living writing nothing but science fiction, perhaps nothing but a specific sub-type of science fiction. And the sheer volume of writing being published is astounding - even if they wanted to, many writers can barely keep up with what their peers are writing, let alone delve into other realms of publishing to see what the others are doing.  And of course the pay is much better - oh, it's still not a lot, and the majority of writers will still need to heed that advice: "don't quit your day job" but it's no longer necessary to add crime fiction and westerns, and radio plays and TV dramas and film scripts to your bibliography just to ensure enough income to justify the time spent writing.

So if you're a writer, here's your challenge:

If you haven't done it before try this - read something in a dramatically different genre (write SF? read a western. write steam punk? try a spy thriller), pay attention to how the story works, how the narrative is built. Then and only then turn around a try something completely different. Write something new - try a new genre, try a new format!

Do you write prose? Try poetry. Try a screen play. Try a radio drama. Try thinking about how your story would work in a comic - and if you have the skills, sketch it out, see how it works.

Writers need to grow. And yes, writers can grow by simply hunkering down and hammering out what they know, refining their skills and honing down to an ever finer focus. But:

What's growth without adventure?

Try it!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Electric baths and Imperialism - Unno Juza, Japan's Hidden Master

A man in a galvanic bath, a (frankly terrifyin) concept from the
19th century that was considered cutting edge in Unno's time, and
despite having featured in his first murder mystery is
occasionally faddish even today.
Ever wonder what a cross between Arthur Conan Doyle and Nikola Tesla would be like?

Meet the godfather of Japanese SF, Unno Juza! [1]

Unno is a fascinating character, and a writer whose impact on Japanese fiction was enormous, so let's explore a bit.

Unno Juza is actually one pen-name of a man by the name of Sano Shoichi [2], but the one by which he was best known, and the one under which he wrote some of his most interesting work.

Born in 1897 Sano Shoichi came into the world at a time of enormous change in Japan: Matthew Perry's famous "opening of Japan" had occurred only a bit more than a generation previously, triggering not only Japan's full entry into international politics, but also a wave of rapid modernization - technological, of course, but also social, with the disruption cresting in the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, which Tom Cruise's film so poorly documents. [3] Likewise, Japan was starting to feel its oats in the outside world, having debated the value of invading Korea in 1873 [4], won a war against Imperial China, invaded Taiwan, and at the time Sano Shoichi was born tensions were rising between Japan and Russia over control of the North Pacific coast of Asia.

Socially and technologically, Japan was racing to catch up with the European powers by aggressively adopting new technologies such as steam engines, railways, modern firearms, electricity, medical advances - in fact, attempting, essentially, to graft the entire post-Enlightenment academic achievements of the West in one huge gulp. At the same time, enormous social and political reforms were occurring, with the abolition of the Shogunate in 1868 being just the first step in a long process of internal government reforms. [5]  Suffice to say, times were turbulent!

By the time Sano Shoichi published his first story, Denkifuro no kaishijiken (The case of the mysterious death in the electric bath) in 1928, Japan was well on the way to full industrialization and was already the dominant power in the Pacific arena.  But what of the man himself?

Born to a wealthy, educated family [6] in Tokushima City on the island of Shikoku in Western Japan, the boy Sano Shoichi entered primary school and spent his first three years of education in this quiet castle town [7] but moved to the cultural and economic center of Kobe for the remainder of his preparatory schooling.  As a major center, Kobe was a city where young Shoichi could be exposed to the new world that was emerging, and so it was that somewhere between 1913 and 1916 he moved on to Tokyo, where he was to study electrical engineering at Waseda University, and on graduation the Ministry of Communications [8] as a official in their electrical testing and certification laboratories.

It was while working at the Ministry that Sano Shoichi began writing for science and youth magazines, publishing short pop science and educational articles aimed at young people under a variety of pen names to obscure his identity.  Like many educated young men of 1920s Tokyo, Sano was very interested in the outside world.  In his work, he was greatly influenced by the work of Nikola Tesla - a fact that emerges in his writing, reflected in the kinds of electrical technologies he imagines for the future - but of course in order to even do his work, he needed to be fluent in English (to have access to the latest developments and correspond with colleagues in various countries - principally the United States and Britain) and in his readings he seems to have at some point developed an interest in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - in particular the Sherlock Holmes stories: and so he came to pen his first "scientifiction" [9]story, Denkifuro no kaishijiken, a murder mystery revolving around technological ideas in the same way that Holmes uses his penetrating reason to link together human observations.  It was with this story that Sano established his most enduring pseudonym, and the one under which he wrote the majority of his corpus of fiction.[10]

Over the next decade, Sano wrote mostly as Unno, producing a number of scientifiction stories - mainly mysteries of various kinds that featured a prominent scientist hero, including his most frequently used hero, the rather obviously named Soroku Homura. [11]

Many of his stories involved the use of emerging technologies in innovative ways either as a murder weapon or as a means to defend the intended victim - in his biographical writing, Sano said that at the time there was a great enthusiasm for new discoveries and new technologies, but also fear.  This was part of what spurred him to write popular science articles, believing that education would help balance enthusiasm with prudence, and fear with familiarity.  From this perspective, it seems natural that he would move into fiction as a vehicle to achieve the same end.

Interestingly, as Unno in particular from among his pseudonyms, Sano's work often also serves the purpose of gently - and sometimes not so gently - satirizing the government in which he worked. [12] While it can probably be said that he approved of the rush to industrialization and the advance to join the Western world in modernity, he often made comments on Japan's increasing militarism and expansion, and of course the increasingly firm hand with which the government held the people.  In addition, a number of his works between his initial publication in 1928 and the beginning of World War 2 are clearly intended as social commentary on the incursions into Manchuria, and the increasingly strident tone of nationalist propaganda (and the blank acceptance with which the people accept it)

In a Kafkaesque twist of fate, Sano was one of a number of writers of the era who were drafted in 1941 by the military arm of the Japanese government to write propaganda copy - and in addition to writing leaflets and other materials for the "education" of troops and factory workers, 1942 Sano was posted as a propaganda officer to the Japanese occupation forces at the recently captured Rabaul on East New Britain Island (Papua New Guinea).  He expressed the deep impact of the experience in a letter home to his wife, and although the ship he had been assigned to (the Aoba heavy cruiser) remained until the bombing of Rabaul in November 1943, Sano's deteriorating health and mental condition led him to be recalled to Japan after only two months.

Sano's impression of the government of Imperial Japan at the time was already not the best, as reflected in his satirical Tokkyo Tawan Ningen Hohshiki (Patent for a Multi-armed Man, 1941) in which an inventor is repeatedly thwarted by bureaucrats and their nonsense, until at last he realizes that they're only interested in the use of his idea as a military tool.  After this experience he seems to have become even more negative, though in the war era his published work was of course limited in its ability to reflect this due to censorship regimes (not to mention personal danger).

The era leading up to the war was surely a time of elation for Sano - this was science fiction made real! The transformation of his country as he watched, the amazing discoveries and new technologies, the bubbling innovation he must have seen in industry and the universities of the era must have been inspiring, perhaps even more so than it was to writers in the West, who had grown up embedded in societies far further along in industrialization than Japan. Imagine, then, the impact of seeing this shining future turned into a tool for war, culminating in the ultimate science fictional weapon being levelled at Japan itself at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, Sano's scientifiction shifted - where he had previously explored the dangers and uses of technology in murder mysteries, he was reluctant to portray technology as a potential weapon and so he focused on stories of space exploration and futurist specuation in the style of Wells.  In this period he produced a fair bit of work, publishing not only science fiction and futurism but biographical works and commentary on the state of things - moreover, in the recovering economy of post-war Japan many of the industries that had been subverted by war were being retooled in ways that must have already shown the direction that Japanese technology was going to go.  He could see the light coming, but sadly he never really recovered from the crushing defeat of the war, and passed away in 1949 at the age of 51.

In his persona as Unno Juza, Sano was really a remarkable writer, and without a doubt his work had an impact on an entire generation of writers including such greats as Hoshi Shinichi, Komatsu Sakyo and others.  His influence can continue to be seen today, echoing in several well-known space opera series of the 80s and 90s, from where it reverberates again in modern Japanese science fiction.  Despite the age of the work, he is also one of a handful of Japanese science fiction writers whose writing continues to get re-printed in collections and anthologies today.

Remarkably, it doesn't appear that his work was ever translated into English in any significant way - in fact I challenge you to find professional translations on the internet.  In part, this is probably a problem of format - a large portion of his work was published as shorts and serializations in a wide variety of relatively ephemeral venues, such as long-extinct newspapers.  This has proved a challenge to anthologists in the Japanese market as well, but of course in the era in which he wrote it would have been very uncommon for "yellow" publications like the daily newspapers and weekly or monthly entertainment pulps to ever get enough attention to be translated, and as a result Unno's work is nearly completely unknown in English fan circles.

This is a crying shame - here we have a man who wrote brilliant futurist predictions in the style of H. G. Wells (and ironically, was born in the very year Wells first wrote about the dangers of future weapons in War of the Worlds), who wrote scientific mysteries and puzzles with the skill of Arthur Conan Doyle, and who was writing as sophisticated a social and political commentary as any of his peers in the West.

Sadly, Sano seems never to have been honoured during his lifetime - though he has been given the nod by many of those who followed after him, with tribute references such as in naming the captain of Battleship Yamato "Okita Juzo."

Perhaps its time for a translation project.


1. Once again, I am giving the surname first, because westernizing the order just feels strange.

2. Japanese order again.

3. I'm being unfair - such things rarely lend themselves to entertaining films, so I suppose we should forgive its failings to some extent. But seriously...

4. They decided not to - probably wise considering the string of rebellions between the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the Satsuma Rebellion.  It seems doubtful the emerging parliamentary monarchy could have survived the pressure of a serious land war with that level of internal unrest.

5. The plight of the newly unseated samurai class is what usually gets the spotlight, but in fact the changes were disruptive at all levels, particularly the "domino effect" caused by removing the feudal system of land management, which left peasant farmers in the novel position of having to pay rents or taxes on their lands.  The disruption in the economy, including a serious depression in the price of rice, led to critical debt loads (up to 2 trillion yen total in modern terms - $20 BILLION!) and serious hardship.  There was a more or less constant brushfire of local "debt rebellions" around the country, the most famous of which is surely the Chichibu Incident in which possibly as many as 10,000 farmers rose up to attack government buildings and lenders' offices to obliterate their debts, and in the process loosely organized into a democratic revolution.  Due to the government's vicious crack-down and the destruction of whatever literature there might have been (these people were largely illiterate, so probably not much was in text other than among the ringleaders, who appear to have had some education in Western ideas) it's hard to say, but this might well have been essentially a marxist revolt against the increasingly harsh conditions of the rapid transformation of Japanese society.

6. The two were of course synonymous - and the family were doctors, a profession that even now tends to run in families in Japan.

7. As a key agricultural center, Tokushima was large and significant enough to attract the attention of US forces during the war, and the city was nearly completely destroyed by more than 1,050 tons of incendiary bombs.

8. This was an Imperial Ministry, and a the time it was also responsible for things like electrical infrastructure - after the war the functions were divided between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (who handle regulatory matters), Japan Post, and NTT.

9. Like many of his contemporaries, Sano/Unno didn't write strictly what we would call science fiction - in Japan the science fiction genre was largely considered a branch of detective fiction, and the influence is evident in the types of stories that were written in the early magazines.  As Sano/Unno wrote not only real SF and real detective mysteries but curious blends of the two I'm going to refer to his style as scientifiction - this also divides it from the emerging science fiction genre that was crystallizing in the US and UK toward the end of his career.

10. Amusingly, Sano himself wrote in a biographical work that he took the name from his love of Mahjong: in Japanese Mahjong circles there's a turn of phrase un ga juu meanting "luck is 10" (a reference to the way in which different pieces combine to create winning hands) - he converted this to un no juu (luck's 10) and added a casual post-fix on the end to get un no juu, sa  "luck's ten, eh!"then just slotted in kanji characters to come up with a name that more or less read that way. (this, incidentally, is a common approach among Japanese authors, and a lot of Japanese pseudonyms are a pun of some kind, often a personal joke)

11. Perhaps a bit warped from the perspective of an English speaker, but an obvious play on the Japanese rendition of Sherlock Holmes - Shaaroku Hohmuzu

12. Another reason to obscure his identity for sure!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hoshi Shinichi in Short Shorts

This strange bird character was created by Hoshi and is
often used on work relating to him - here I shamelessly
steal a scan of the orignal
Hoshi Shinichi [1] died just a few months after I arrived in Japan, and was one of the first Japanese authors I ever read (in Japanese) – as a result, his work is the standard against which I have measured Japanese science fiction ever since. 

This has caused me some frustration: Hoshi is regarded in possibly the most influential writer of science fiction in Japanese, with a body of work including more than 1000 stories – so many in fact that it’s essentially impossible to find a complete list of even his collections.  My own first purchase “The Man From Earth” [2] doesn’t appear on any of the lists I’ve seen, for example – including a few Japanese ones!

Hoshi perhaps comes by his talent honestly as the great-grandson of famous Meiji Era writer, Mori Ohgai [3] but his early life leaned more in the direction of his ancestor’s academic achievements: although Hoshi was the right age for military service during the Second World War, his academic potential (and presumably his family’s connections [4]) kept him away from the front as far as I can tell, and he eventually got a degree in agricultural science from Tokyo University (another sign of his family’s elite status at the time) and was working on a PhD in agricultural chemistry in 1951 when his father’s sudden death forced him to drop out to manage the family’s failing pharmaceutical company.

The company collapsed soon afterwards, being in too rough condition to save, and ultimately the company was rescued by its acquisition by Kohkichi Otani [5] which released Hoshi to pursue his own interests.  Hoshi’s own condition was poor at this time, and following the sale of the family business, he spent some time recovering – and it was at this time he encountered Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles which sparked an intense interest in science fiction.

Over the next few years he became involved in a variety of science-fictional societies ranging from technological futurism to flying saucer clubs, culminating in his contribution to the inaugural issue of Japan’s first major science fiction magazine, Uchujin in 1957.  From there, he produced constantly, becoming a fixture in the Japanese science fiction community.

Overall, his influence on Japanese SF – and fiction in general – has been amazing, inspiring dozens of manga, films, TV, and of course other writers’ work.  He specialized particularly in what are sometimes called “short shorts” – short, intense stories less than 5 pages in length, and is considered the master of the form.[6]  There’s little you can really say in such a short space of course, but Hoshi invariably paints a situation in rough, vivid strokes – not so much world-building as tone-building to create the scaffold from which he’ll make his comment on society.

Hoshi not only wrote constantly, but was also responsible for introducing the Japanese SF scene to Western writers such as Frederick Brown and Isaac Asimov – and in fact I have read that he was responsible for some of the translations of his own work into English.

Bizarrely, though, despite the massive volume of his work, the enthusiasm with which he was received in the Japanese market, and the interest he attracted in other markets (translations into English, German, Russian, French, Italian, and Hungarian!) he seems to have received little recognition in the form of awards – at least not directly: many of the efforts to transform his works into films or manga have won awards.

Early in his career, Hoshi’s collection Six Short Shorts was nominated for the Naoki Sanjugo prize in 1961 (beaten, unsurprisingly, by Minakami’s Temple of the Wild Geese).  Another collection of stories was nominated for the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1962, and a novel in 1965, but it wasn’t until 1968 that he won the MWJ with his short Delusion Bank – though that award was presented for both the story and “for past achievement”. [7]  Strangely, despite his popularity and reputation, Hoshi was never awarded the coveted Seiun Prize by Japanese SF fandom, and it wasn’t until after his death that he was awarded the Nihon SF Taisho Award [8] for life achievement.

A fair bit of Hoshi’s work has been translated into English, including possibly his best known story Bokko-chan which was printed in the June 1963 issue of SF&F and seems to have been Western fandom’s first encounter with this remarkable author. 

Like a lot of Japanese SF, Hoshi’s writing has a very different flavour from what we’re used to in the type of English SF from the era in which he was writing – but I think its charm is that it retains the style of the older pulps that was lost during the shifts that occurred in American genre publishing in the 50s and early 60s.  

For anyone looking for a “gateway” to Japanese SF, his short, sharp stories are definitely a good place to start.


1. Hoshi is the family name of course, but it has always felt strange to me to anglicize the order – it just sounds better this way around.

2. 地球から来た男(chikyuu kara kita otoko) – oddly I can’t find any online reference to this collection from before the 2007 Kadokawa Bunko imprint, though I bought mine years before that, in about 1999 or 2000.

3. Author of Wild Geese and other works, also known for his poetry and his translations of contemporary Western authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Ibsen and others.  In his later career, he produced a number of biographies of Edo Period academics.

4. Hoshi’s great-grandfather was a famous writer and physician to royalty, his grandfather was an anatomist, his father was the founder of both a pharmaceutical university and a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

5. The founder of the luxurious New Otani hotel chain.

6. This is considered something of a new thing in English – think flash fiction – but has been a mainstay of Japanese literature, not only in fiction but for essays and the like, more or less since the beginning of their commercial printing industry.

7. Interestingly, some of the best American SF authors of the 30s and 40s – surely a major influence on Hoshi, given his translation of Frederick Brown and his interest in Ray Bradbury – were also known for their mysteries and crime stories.  I’ve often wondered if working in this genre helps to discipline the fantasies of SF to create superior stories.

8. The Japanese industry’s equivalent of the Nebula, awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Henry Kuttner: Another forgotten master

Kuttner and Moore working on a manuscript

It was April 7th, 1915.

Near Basra in Mesopotamia: Turkish troops were assembling,preparing to launch an offensive against the British fortifications. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Los Angeles, California, science fiction writer Henry Kuttner was born.


OK, probably.  But it’s no coincidence that, from the publication of his first short The Graveyard Rats in 1936, to his untimely death in 1958 at the age of 42, Kuttner was not only incredibly prolific [1] but incredibly well received.

Kuttner was very much a cerebral writer – many of his stories (though still just a fraction of his output!) are well enough crafted that had he not specialized in genre fiction he would surely be studied today alongside O. Henry as a short story craftsman.  Sadly, specializing in genre meant that his income depended on a prolific output in order to make a living at the penny-a-word rates of the pulps, so the range of quality in his work is quite wide.

Truth be told, the biggest challenge in his early work isn’t the ideas – it’s the execution and the styling, which for Kuttner seems to have been something for which time was required.  A master of complex stories, pacing, and surprise endings, his tales early are often interesting and engaging even when they’re (frankly) not all that well written from a stylistic perspective.

As genre grew and pay rates rose, it became possible for Kuttner to make a better living with his typewriter and his quality evened to the point where he became known for the literary quality of his prose.  But frankly this is no mystery: starting with letters to Weird Tales in the 20s and continuing with his engagement with the Lovecraft Circle (a collection of young writers and fans who essentially had an early fanzine kind of correspondence with Lovecraft himself) Kuttner was busy developing his craft, and while his early work may have suffered somewhat from an over-intellectual style, after meeting C. L. Moore in 1936 [2] they began collaborations – most intensely after their marriage in 1940.

This was surely a match made in literary heaven – Moore was herself an incredibly gifted and justifiably admired author in her time, but it seems to me that her skill with style and colour was just the thing Kuttner’s work needed.  Indeed, some of their most popular work was written in intense collaboration – so intense in fact that L. Sprague de Camp, who knew them both well, once said that once completed it was impossible for them to tell which sections of a story had been written by which of them. [3] You can almost watch Kuttner’s writing improve after the match – and Moore herself said that she thought her own writing owed a great deal to what she learned from working with Kuttner. [4]

Now, Moore’s work was excellent [5], her styling and pacing sublime, but the more hard-core of the two when it came to pulp writing was probably Kuttner – thus the more prolific bibliography over a huge variety of publications.  Kuttner’s styling may have suffered from the sheer volume, but he was nothing if not versatile.

This combination of skills is what drove much of the pair’s production in the 40s and early 50s – Moore contributed the style, Kuttner the page-rate and to some degree the cerebration for which he was justly famous.  Sadly, production waned when Kuttner started working on his masters degree [6] and really never recovered – Kuttner died in 1958, and Moore sadly remarried to a physician who for some reason loathed SF and SFian society so much that he induced her to have nothing more to do with it – even to preventing the SFWA from honoring her as a Grand Master.

Still, the mystery here is less why they both stopped writing but why – after so many years – Moore is still (somewhat) known but Kuttner has been all but invisible for ages. 

It’s strange indeed – especially considering that even 20 years after his death, Ray Bradbury (whose first horror story “The Candle” was reputedly finished by Kuttner, and who so desperately wanted Kuttner’s career in the beginning) named him a neglected master in his Introduction to a collection of Kuttner stories in 1975.  In the same volume he acknowledges Kuttner’s amazingly fertile mind by referring to him as “a pomegranate writer: popping with seeds.”

Indeed, Bradbury may be the most literary and respected of the writers who claim Kuttner as an early influence, but he’s not the only one; Roger Zelazny (the Amber stories), Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and William S. Burroughs all owe this man a debt, among many others I’m sure.

Kuttner does still turn up of course – how could he not?  In particular, over the years his mythos stories have often been included in collections, including occasional collections of only or mainly Kuttner stories.  But somehow he never seems to get the level of recognition that his best work demands – in fact, while his name remains well known among long-term fandom and of course among lovers of Lovecraftian mythos much of his work remains fairly obscure. 

He has begun to regain visibility in recent years, in part because of the film adaptation of The Last Mimzy (2007) and a small number of recent collections [7], but he still remains sadly underappreciated by genre fandom.

Part of this is surely snobbery – you’d think that a fandom that essentially revolves around the nerdiest of pastimes would be willing to take any accomplices it could get, but the truth is that since the late 50s sword & sorcery and Lovecraftian horror have been increasingly sneered at as unworthy – could this be part of the reason why Kuttner’s work doesn’t get the recognition it deserves?

As I said, at his best Kuttner’s tightly plotted, intricate stories are surely at least in the same league as O. Henry – I think any real fan of early genre writing owes it to themselves to explore at least a little of his work.  You never know what you might learn.


1. Seriously: check out his summary bibliography at isfdb.

2. Amusingly, Kuttner’s relationship with Moore begins with a fan letter he wrote to her in 1936, around the time of his own first professional publication, in which he assumed she was a man.

3. Apocryphal, and possibly part of the mystique de Camp was building about them, but the story goes that they would just leave the page in the typewriter – sometimes even mid-sentence – for the other to continue, alternating constantly until the tale was finished.  This sounds wonderful, but it seems unlikely that a story written in this way would ever be fully coherent, and it was surely the following editorial stages (with both their skillful input) that led to such tightly written stories.

4. Hmm.  While I don’t typically enjoy full collaborations, perhaps there’s an idea here?  I can think of a few authors who have great ideas but less great writing – or amazing writing but not to amazing ideas. Could we force them to marry?  You know, for the good of the genre?

5. And in terms of averages at the very least, probably also superior to Kuttner’s.

6. With the intention of becoming a psychologist of the head-shrinking rather than rat-mazing variety.

7. Yay for e-books and the publication of out-of-copyright anthologies I guess.