Archive for August, 2013

TT: Humor Surreal

August 29, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and hear both about a new short story and what went on at this year’s Bubonicon.  Then join me and Alan as we enter the world of the surreal.

Solidly Surreal

Solidly Surreal

JANE: Last time, we were just getting into the surreal element in SF/F humor.  Pray, continue.

ALAN: I think it’s the edge of surreality that comedy can bring to SF which makes some of the odder stories work so well. Fredric Brown’s remarkable short story Placet is a Crazy Place takes place on a planet which meets itself coming back in its orbit, causes hallucinations and is inhabited by widgie birds which are made of matter so dense that the planet itself appears to them as thin as air appears to us. They have a habit of flying through the foundations of buildings, thereby making the buildings unstable.

JANE: Sound like a variation on the Higgs Boson particle to me.  I was just reading an article in Smithsonian magazine which used the analogy that a fish physicist would have a great deal of trouble analyzing the watery world in which they dwell because they are completely surrounded by water and its influences.  Seems as if the super density of widgie birds is playing off a similar idea.

ALAN: Quite so. And I imagine when the fish went exploring on land, it would be utterly astonished and bewildered by the first fire it found. Stories like Frederic Brown’s put us in the position of that fish. You have to admire the cleverness of that, even while you are laughing at all the fun he’s having with the odd ideas.

JANE: Yes!  The best of SF in its speculative mode as well as something funny.  Who could ask for more?

ALAN: Henry Kuttner was another brilliant practitioner of surreal humour as well. I have a very soft spot for his Hogben stories. The Hogbens are hillbillies who are so inbred and mutated that that they have magical powers. For example Uncle Lem is so lazy that he spends most of his time fast asleep. When he gets hungry he wakes up just enough to send his mind out into the forest where he hypnotises a raccoon which gathers up a pile of firewood and carries it back to Uncle Lem. Then it builds a fire and cooks itself so that Uncle Lem can eat it. Only one thing worries the narrator of this story. He’s never been able to figure out how Uncle Lem gets the ‘coon to skin itself first…

JANE: Uh, oh…  Tangent warning…  I think of “hillbilly” as a very American term.  Is there a British equivalent?

ALAN: Not directly – I think it’s because the population density is such that there simply isn’t room for an isolated community like the hillbillies to survive. Though having said that, we do have gypsies (and their modern equivalent, the travellers) who are isolated mobile communities and who do share many of the characteristics of America’s hillbillies.

JANE: Thanks!  I’d never compare hillbillies and gypsies, though…  Still, I can see what you mean.  Both are cultures that evolve within larger cultures.

Kuttner was also responsible for the humorous Galloway Gallagher stories.  I was too young to encounter them in their original format as short stories published in Planet Stories, but a few years ago we were given a collection of the stories (Robots Have No Tails) by a friend.  Since I’d liked some of Kuttner’s  fantasy, I sat down to read them with great enthusiasm.

The basic gimmick is that when Gallagher is drunk he is a genius and clueless when sober.  He invents a machine when drunk then, when sober, has to deal with the consequences.  The problem is, he suffers alcoholic blackouts, so he usually doesn’t remember what he has done.

ALAN: I always liked the odd images that the stories evoke. One of the machines that drunken  Gallagher builds is a narcissistic robot with a transparent body. The robot spends most of its time standing in front of a mirror admiring its cogwheels as they spin. The sober Gallagher has no idea why he constructed such a complex and seemingly useless machine and he embarks on a quest to solve the mystery. And the ultimate purpose of that robot is, at one and the same time, both very practical and very silly. I’m actually smiling as I write these words – the story is that funny and that memorable.

JANE: I’ve actually wondered if that robot – Joe is his name – influenced Marvin, the depressed robot in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it, but I would not be at all surprised to find that Joe and Marvin were siblings.

JANE: I think, for me at least, the Gallagher stories would have worked better in their original format.  Despite some very clever tales and peculiar characters, the similar element tended to drown the fun after a while.  If I was ever to give someone the collection, I’d say, “Read no more than two at a time.  You’ll like them better.”

I did love the Lybblas – cute little bunnies from Mars with a vicious intent to conquer.

ALAN: I think I’d agree with that. The stories’ impact is much greater if you read them at widely spaced intervals.

JANE: There’s more to humor even than this, but – funny as it may seem – I really should go write.  Let’s pick up with this next time.


“Hamlet Revisited” and Bubonicon

August 28, 2013

It’s been an exciting week and not just because I went to Bubonicon.  I also had a short story published, met my new editor from Tor, got to hold a reviewer’s copy of Artemis Awakening in my hot little hands, and finally had a chance to get the answer to a long-held question about Tim Power’s novel, The Anubis Gates.

Let me start with the short story…  It’s called “Hamlet Revisited” and you can find it at

"Hamlet Revisited"

“Hamlet Revisited”

Many years ago, when I taught Shakespeare’s play Hamlet a couple times a year, I must have gotten a bit punchy.  I realized that if the events of the play were looked at from the ghost’s point of view, the story became a comedy.  I promptly sat down, wrote the story, liked it very much, and started sending it out.

I collected the most amazing sheaf of rejections.  I wish I still had them.  Basically, time and again I heard 1) the story was very funny 2) everyone in the office read it and laughed their heads off  3) but they weren’t taking the story because (some variation of the following) a) it didn’t suit their magazine’s needs b) the editors were concerned their readership wouldn’t remember enough of the original Hamlet to follow the plot c) it was neither fantasy or SF (despite having a ghost).

So, when I was contacted by Josh Gentry, the editor of a new venture called Snack Reads, I immediately thought of this story.  I was honest with Josh about its history of rejection, but he decided that it suited his needs perfectly.  His wife Jennifer Gentry supplied the amazing cover art.

Not only am I delighted to have the story coming out for itself, I can’t help but think that, side by side with Shakespeare’s original play, “Hamlet Revisited” is a great illustration of the concept that the difference between comedy and tragedy is in how you tell the tale.  Needless to say, it belongs in every classroom!  <grin>

Just a few words about the publisher.  Snack Reads’ focus is offering new and reprinted short stories in inexpensive ebook format.  For now, they are drawing from the local New Mexico pool (which is vast and varied indeed), but I have no doubt they will expand.  They also do interviews with their authors, which appear on the web both on YouTube and as podcasts.  Josh Gentry and I had a conference at Bubonicon to lay the groundwork for my forthcoming interview.  I think it’s going to be fun.  I’ll let you know when it’s available!

Bubonicon this year was really busy for me.  Josh Gentry wasn’t the only editor I met with.  I also met my new editor at Tor, Claire Eddy.  We’d met once before, about 19 years ago, at a World Fantasy in New Orleans.  However, that had been at a crowded and moderately insane dinner party.  This time we went out for a very genteel tea at the St. James Tea Room.

Me and Claire Eddy at Bubonicon's Afternoon Tea

Claire Eddy and me at Bubonicon’s Afternoon Tea

Claire had arranged to have a copy of the advance bound manuscript of Artemis Awakening sent to me.  No cover art yet – that’s still being finished up – but just seeing the story in something like book format made the entire project more real.  It also made giving my reading at Bubonicon a whole lot easier.  I had a good audience and they seemed to enjoy themselves.

One of the things that made Bubonicon insanely busy for me this year was that one of the two writer Guests of Honor was Tim Powers. (The other was Brent Weeks.)  If you’ve been following the Wednesday Wanderings and Thursday Tangents, you already know I’m a huge fan of Tim Powers’ work.  Except for one interview at a World Fantasy years and years ago,  I hadn’t had an opportunity to hear him speak.  Therefore, I resolved to try to make as many of his program items as I could, often bouncing from the panel I was on to one of Tim’s.

It was worth the effort…  Although I enjoyed the rambling discussion on what happened to dark fantasy between Tim Powers and George R.R. Martin, I enjoyed even more Tim’s solo presentation.  He can vary between serious and side-splittingly funny in a breath, and is a talented physical comedian as well.  Later, when both Guests of Honor were interviewed by the Toastmaster, Diana Rowland, she raised the question of having one’s work adapted by Hollywood…  Well, Tim’s account of his attitude toward the process is impossible to redo in print, but it involved hamsters and high walls.

Also, in a fan girl’s best dream, I managed to have a few chats with Tim in small groups.  During one of these, I got to ask a question that had been lurking in my mind for years.  In the novel The Anubis Gates, there is a passing reference to a husband and wife who have written a “massive, multi-volume History of Mankind.”  For years I had wondered if these were meant to be Will and Ariel Durant, whose massive, multi-volume Story of Civilization is one of the most amazing works in any genre ever written.  Tim confirmed my guess.  Australian author, Joel Shepherd, had been chatting with us.  When Joel admitted he wasn’t familiar with the Durants’ work, Tim and I both started raving about the series with the enthusiasm of religious fanatics talking about their holy book.

It was a lot of fun.

As usual, I came away from the weekend with a list of books to read.  After hearing all the labor Brent Weeks put into becoming an “overnight success,” I certainly will try one of his works.  I also will be reading Ian Tregillis’s latest “Milkweed” book and the next in James S.A. Corey’s wonderful space opera series and…

But now, off to do the grocery shopping that didn’t get done this weekend!

TT: Very British Humour

August 22, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one.  You certainly don’t want to miss how vegetable curry can lead to dystopias (or something like that).  Then come back and join me and Alan for a look at the unique twists the British bring to their humo[u]r.

Remember!  Bubonicon, New Mexico’s SF/F convention starts tomorrow…    Hope to see some of you there!

JANE: I rather talked my head off last time, so this time you get to start.

Russell and Holt

Russell and Holt

ALAN: I’ve always had a soft spot for the British writer Eric Frank Russell. He’s probably best known these days for his 1955 Hugo Award winning short story Allamagoosa but he wrote a lot of stories and novels which still read well today. I’m particularly fond of The Space Willies (aka Next Of Kin). Leeming is flying a space ship behind the alien lines. He’s on a spying mission. The alien language sounds exactly like English, though the words make no sense. Leeming amuses himself by listening to their dialogue:

First voice: “Mayor Snorkum will lay the cake.”
Second voice: “What for the cake be laid by Snorkum?”
First voice: “He will starch his moustache.”
Second voice: “That is night-gab. How can he starch a tepid mouse?”
They spent the next ten minutes in what sounded like an acrimonious argument about what one repeatedly called a tepid mouse while the other insisted that it was a torpid moose…

When Leeming is eventually captured by the aliens he is informed:

“We shall bend Murgatroyd’s socks.”

Leeming then goes on to wage a rather twisted one man campaign of psychological warfare against the aliens. He is, of course, triumphant!

JANE: Very amusing!  Reminds me of some of the by-play Pratchett uses for his secret societies.  Is this back and forth nonsense a British tradition?  Just wondering.

ALAN: It’s very much in the tradition of The Goon Show, a very popular radio comedy show in the 1950s. It was written by Spike Milligan and performed by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. It was hugely influential (without the Goons there would have been no Monty Python, as the Pythons themselves freely admit) and The Goon Show remains popular to this day. So, yes, the back and forth nonsense is very British. The first time I read The Space Willies I remember thinking, “Milligan would love this…”

JANE: Thanks!  I’m not familiar with The Goon Show, but I love a lot of the Monty Python troupe’s work.   The first time I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I didn’t register that most of the male roles (and many of the female) were played by the same six people.  Later, when I started watching the television show and it clicked, I was even more impressed.  I’d enjoyed the movie as a very funny riff off of Arthurian legend without even needing the gimmick of most of a very large “cast” actually being only six people.

Have you read British author Tom Holt?  His novel Expecting Someone Taller is screamingly funny and very smart at the same time.

ALAN: Oh indeed! Expecting Someone Taller knocked my socks off. It’s a kind of a sequel to Wagner’s Ring cycle. I’d never realised before that Wagner was funny…

JANE: That was my reaction, too.  The scene where Malcolm Fisher, heir to the Ring of the Niebelungs, goes to the library to find out exactly what it is he’s been carrying around and reads the summary of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” is laugh out loud funny, especially in its analysis of the various personalities involved and the logical incongruities necessary to make the plot work.

Roger sent me the novel, noting the page numbers, just to make sure I didn’t miss that part.  I particularly loved the description of Wotan as “evidently the sort of person who, if asked to rescue a cat from a roof, would solve the problem by burning the house down.”  Or the plot element that involved “Fafner kills Fasolt, and transforms himself into a dragon before retiring to a cave in the middle of the forest in the middle of nowhere, this apparently being preferable in his eyes to retiring to a cave in a forest with the Goddess Freia.  It takes all sorts.”  I’ll never be able to see Wagner in the same way again…

ALAN: I also loved Who’s Afraid Of Beowulf? An archeologist is excavating an ancient Viking burial ship. The ship is occupied by a horde of Viking heroes and a couple of rather odd spirits who while away the time playing a game called “Goblin’s Teeth” which appears to be a combination of chess, Monopoly, Scrabble and Snakes and Ladders. It’s very, very funny.

His first several novels, which re-examined classical mythologies in a curiously British way, were all great fun. But then he seemed to fall into a bit of a rut and the novels became quite repetitive. I wasn’t very impressed with those. However he’s recently been writing a series of novels set in the modern day offices of J. W. Wells and Co., purveyors of magic (J. W. Wells, of course, is a Gilbert and Sullivan reference). I suppose you could describe the novels as office politics with magic and spells. They are a true return to form and they are very funny.

JANE: Thanks for the tip.  I’d had a similar reaction to later Holt, so it’s good to know he found a new playground.

ALAN: Holt also has a sideline in historical novels which are also extremely funny. Olypmiad tells the story of how the Olympic Games might have started, way back in ancient Greece. And Song for Nero is the story of what happened to the Emperor Nero after he was deposed (no, he didn’t die…) I highly recommend these as well.

JANE: I missed those, too.  I’m hard to lure back to an author once I’ve been burnt. Thanks for letting me know about them.

We seem to be on a British theme here. Are there any other British authors of humorous SF/F you enjoy?

ALAN: I have a very soft spot for Robert Rankin, though his novels are so odd that I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to describe them. He has a fixation with brussel sprouts and they play a large part in many of his novels. In one novel, a brussel sprout called Barry travels back in time and lodges himself in the brain of Elvis Presley. There are days when I think that this is perhaps the most logical explanation behind the bizarre events of Elvis’s life…

Most of Rankin’s novels are set in the London suburb of Brentford. Over the years Brentford has been invaded by aliens, infested with ancient evils, and rescued by God.

JANE: I’m spotting a theme here – the books you seem to like sound very bizarre, and often surreal as well.

ALAN: Again, I think you can blame this on the Goons. When you have just listened to a radio programme in which the players steal Dartmoor prison (leaving a cardboard replica behind so that nobody will notice), then sail the prison across the channel and fight a battle on the high seas against the Chateau D’if (“Curse these French prisons, they’re so much faster than ours!”), it becomes remarkably easy to accept the idea of a time travelling brussel sprout.

JANE: I bet!  I’d like to explore this further, but duty – in the form of my other life as a writer of fiction – calls.  How about we continue this next time?

Dystopias and Anti-Heroes

August 21, 2013

This weekend, as Jim and I were cutting up vegetables for curry, we ended up talking about dystopias and anti-heroes.

We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

Seriously…  We really did.  This is NOT just an excuse for a topic.

Anyhow, Jim was saying how he didn’t much like fiction set in dystopias.  Knowing something of his reading and viewing preferences, I told him I didn’t think this was actually the case.  I pointed out that lots of very good stories take place in dystopian settings.  A dystopia is simply a fictional setting which is diseased or corrupt either (or sometimes both) politically or environmentally.  Such settings are often very good for fiction because the protagonists have a lot of challenges to work against.

During the Cold War, these dystopias were often under the control of totalitarian governments who pretended to be promoting some ostensibly positive philosophy (usually a variation on socialism or communism), but were really creating a tiered society in which those on top lived a lot better than the bulk of the population.

These days, environmental catastrophes (rather than an abstract political philosophy) have become the reason for the dominating regime to become established.  The world is in trouble.  Extreme control is needed.  The mass of the population is subjected to severe, even harsh, restrictions.  As with the earlier incarnations, there is usually a segment of the population who is living very well – in direct contrast to the policies they enforce.

In both these earlier and later trends of fictional dystopias, the government may be a theocracy of some sort. (Although sometimes the “god” is a leader, since Marxist philosophy speaks out against organized religion.) After all, what better way to maintain control than to have the divine on your side?

Jim and I started discussing books and movies we’d both enjoyed that used dystopian settings.  I mentioned Heinlein’s various “Crazy Years” stories.  Jim brought up the movies Rollerball and Blade Runner.  I mentioned Pratchett’s Small Gods.  Jim mentioned Zelazny’s Lord of Light. From there we went on to a lot of the cyberpunk material.  In the end, we both agreed that it wasn’t the dystopian settings we disliked, but the frequent cases where dystopias seemed to become an excuse for authors to create whining, unattractive, and simply just plain annoying and/or ineffectual characters whom we’re supposed to accept (or at least pity) because they are against (or oppressed by) the dystopian regime.

For this reason, neither of us much cared for Orwell’s classics 1984 or Animal Farm.  Or Huxley‘s Brave New World.

This led us to anti-heroes.  Anti-heroes are a more difficult concept to define than dystopia because the question of what is heroic and what is not heroic shifts with both the time period and the culture.  Even the definitions of the term vary from source to source.   (Take a look on-line if you’re curious).  Some definitions say that the anti-hero has “no” heroic qualities.  Others say that anti-heroes are lacking in some heroic qualities, while possessing others.

If I were to take a stab at a definition, I would say that an anti-hero behaves in a recognizably heroic fashion in some sense, but does not embrace the idealized concept of how a hero should behave.

What do I mean by behaving in a “recognizably heroic fashion in some sense”?  Usually, the anti-hero is on the side of what would be recognized as “good.”  He might be a bit of a bully, but he’s our bully, fighting worse bullies.  She might be a vigilante (therefore, outside of the law), but the people she’s taking down are operating in a fashion so that the law cannot  or (as is often the case in a dystopia) will not touch them.

As for the idealized concept of how a hero might behave…  Its evolution is so complex that I can’t possibly cover it all here.  However, one of the major influences on the modern concept of the hero in “Western” civilization were the medieval courtly and chivalric romances.  These included the concepts of a fair fight, treating a lady with courtesy, and honoring your ruler (and often his legal code).

While serving as a fine, civilizing influence, these chivalric romances were not in the least practical, nor were their ideals followed in “real life.”  Nevertheless, the concept is so attractive that it keeps cropping up.  You find an updated version in many Westerns (novels, television shows, and movies), where the “white hat” hero won’t shoot to kill, is more likely to kiss his horse than the girl, and does his good deed, then rides off into the sunset without asking for reward – or even thanks.

Early Science Fiction, especially space operas – which were often Westerns translated into outer space, rather than being set on a more or less historical frontier – also adopted these ideas.

As I said above, the concept of heroic behavior changes with time periods and cultures.  The Greek hero Theseus was considered a great hero at the time his stories originated, but I doubt that someone who builds his reputation by brawling, murdering, and stealing, and even abandons the girl who gave up everything to help him, would be considered a hero today.   John Gardner’s novel Grendel retold the Beowulf saga from the monster’s point of view – and showed the burly hero in a much more unattractive light than he would have been seen by the culture which created him.

Robin Hood is a great example of how the reasons behind actions, rather than the actions themselves, make the difference between an anti-hero and a villain.  If Robin Hood had robbed from the rich to line his pockets, he would have been a villain.  However, because he robs from the rich to give to the poor and flouts the law to correct its abuses, he is an anti-hero.  The classic film with Errol Flynn shows this perfectly.   Maid Marian’s view of the dashing rogue doesn’t change because he is charming and has a brilliant smile, but because she sees what he does for others.

I think one reason we like anti-heroes is that they are more believable than idealized heroes.  As much as we love the Lone Ranger (classic version), it’s hard to believe that we’d be able to shoot to wound when being rushed by a dozen furious outlaws, all armed to the teeth.  Arthurian legend shows how vulnerable a hero becomes when an impersonal code replaces personal justice.

Yet, as appealing as anti-heroes can be, writing them well is a dangerous balancing act.  It’s far too easy for an anti-hero to slip over the line into villainy.  Carrie Vaughn dealt with this challenge beautifully in her “Kitty” books.  The vampire hunter Cormac steps over the line and goes to jail for it – this despite the fact that he is an appealing character, one who had helped Kitty a great deal in her adjustment to the supernatural world.  I’m sure I’m not the only reader who expected to pick up the book following Cormac’s arrest to find that he’d escaped or gotten off or a technicality.  It was refreshing to find a story where, when the anti-hero steps over the line into villainy, he pays the price.

So, dystopias and anti-heroes…  Like them?  Hate them?  Tired of them?  I’d love to know.  And I hope to see some of you this weekend at Bubonicon, right here in sunny New Mexico.

TT: The Humor Boom

August 15, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and learn what “butt-heads” had to do with my lasting fondness for a certain popular TV SF show.  Then join me and Alan as we take a look at a couple of writers who contributed hugely to the boom in humorous SF/F that made the 1980’s such a funny time to live.

Some Very Funny Books

Some Very Funny Books

JANE: Although humorous Science Fiction and Fantasy was certainly around long before, there seemed to be a boom in the 1980’s.  Oddly enough, there was also a boom in Horror around the same time.  Probably something in the psychological landscape of the time.

ALAN: Ah yes. All those hilarious novels by Stephen King. I remember them well.

JANE: Smart aleck!

Anyhow, when I think back, two authors immediately spring to mind: Piers Anthony and Robert Lynn Asprin.  The first works in their most popular series –Anthony’s “Xanth”  and Asprin’s “Myth Adventures” –  appeared in the late 1970’s, but by the 1980’s both series were going strong.

ALAN: I quite enjoyed the early Xanth novels but I felt the series deteriorated in quality as it progressed. Anthony also wrote a very funny fix-up novel called Prostho Plus which was all about the adventures of an intergalactic dentist. As someone with a dentist phobia, I found it both amusing and squirmy!

JANE: I agree with you about Xanth.  I thought A Spell for Chameleon was a very thoughtful look at the different and contradictory roles a woman is expected to play in the course of her life.  I very much enjoyed The Source of Magic and Castle Roogna.  However, by Centaur Isle, I felt the puns were coming to dominate the story – the forcing the story to serve the joke, an element you mentioned last week as bothering you as a weakening trait in so much humorous fiction.

I did find that the Xanth stories that focused on non-human characters held my attention longer.  I recall liking Ogre, Ogre and I thought Night Mare was very interesting.

ALAN: I also enjoyed Asprin’s early “Myth Adventure” novels, but I felt that he blotted his copy book with Little Myth Marker which was simply a re-telling of Damon Runyon’s Little Miss Marker. I stopped reading Asprin’s books after that.

JANE:  I loved the early “Myth Adventure” books.  One element that kept me reading was that beneath the puns was a very solid coming of age story that continued into a story about coming to terms with changing relationships and changing roles in life.  However, I agree that eventually Asprin lost his sense of where the heart of the stories rested.

Did I ever tell you I interviewed Bob Asprin back in 1992?

ALAN: No – I didn’t know that. Tell me more!

JANE: I’d met Bob at Magnum Opus Con in South Carolina.  (That’s where I met David Weber, too. That convention has a lot to answer for.  That meeting directly led to Roger asking Bob to be one of the contributors to Forever After, a humorous novel in four parts, to which I also contributed a section.)

The first time we met, we ended up going to the airport at the same time.  Bob came into my concourse with me and, while he signed books for my sister –  (I never got him to sign one for me, something I regret), – I asked him some questions about writing.  His answers were so interesting that I queried one of the academic SF publications to see if they wanted an article.  They said “yes,” and the next year I taped an interview.  (The article came out in Extrapolation, November 1993.)

ALAN: Is it available on-line anywhere? I wouldn’t mind reading that.

JANE: I don’t know…  Maybe one of our readers would.

Anyhow, Bob talked a lot about how the interplay of business and writing had influenced his approach to what he did.  He started as an editor of the seminal “Thieves World” anthology series – the one that pretty much gave birth to the entire “shared world” anthology concept.  On the strength of that, he was able to sell his  original fiction.  He saw himself as an entertainer first and writing as only one of the ways he entertained.

Bob also indicated that  there was a lot of insecurity behind his “funny” – not an uncommon trait in comedians.

ALAN: Indeed. Witness Stephen Fry’s battles with depression that have brought him more than once to the brink of suicide. And yet Stephen Fry is one of the funniest men on television…

JANE: I had no idea about Stephen Fry, but I agree with you about his talent.  I am especially fond of his portrayal of Jeeves.

Anyhow, I remember Bob Asprin telling Roger how he’d just gotten a huge advance for a novel.  I forget the amount, but it was pretty impressive.  He said, “But I don’t know how to write a $X00,000 novel.”  Roger responded with typical gentle wisdom.  “They don’t want you to do something other than what you’re already doing.  They simply have realized what your work is worth in the market.”

But I have wondered if success is what ultimately undid him.

ALAN: It must have been very stressful for him, so I imagine there’s more than a grain of truth in your speculation.

JANE: I listened to those tapes again when I saw what direction we were going in our chat.  I’d just read your comment about “hilarious novels by Stephen King” so you can imagine my shock when Bob suddenly started talking about how close horror and humor really were, paraphrasing Stephen King saying that handled wrong horror could become humorous and humor a source of horror.

ALAN: Oh indeed. They are often two sides of the same coin. The Frankenstein story can be quite shuddersome when taken seriously and yet Mel Brooks managed to turn it into one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen when he made Young Frankenstein. It’s really only a matter of emphasis.

JANE: Yes…  I’ve always thought Hamlet has great room for humor.  I’ve even written a story…

Going back to Piers Anthony, again I wonder if success weakened Xanth.  When I read the entry on him in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror, the article mentioned that Anthony actively solicited reader feedback for the series, up to and including plot ideas and puns, then incorporated the material into the series.  The writer of the article seemed to think this gave the series a certain “freshness,” but I think it could lead to twisting of the plot to make a joke work.

ALAN: Absolutely! I found no freshness in these books. I did attempt to read some of the later Xanth novels and Piers Anthony would often have an introduction or afterword commenting about the reader input. But somehow the stories always seemed stale and forced to me. It was almost as if he was going through a semi-mechanical process to generate the book, with only half his mind on what he was doing. Too many silly jokes and not nearly enough story.

JANE: This brings me back to what I said last week at the end of our discussion of Terry Pratchett.  To me, Pratchett never seems to write from anything but the heart – even when that means his book isn’t going to be as “funny” as his readers might expect.  Some of my favorites – Small Gods, Nightwatch and Hogfather – are often not funny at all…  But they are very wise and the wisdom blossoms forth from the humor.

ALAN: That’s why he’s so successful at what he does. And, of course, now that we’ve exposed his secret to the world, anyone can just follow the formula and be as successful as Pterry! Oh, if only it really was that easy…

JANE: Easy… Yeah.  Right.  The man is an amazing writer.

Now, mostly thanks to me, this has gotten a bit long.  Perhaps next time we could spin through some other aspects of SF/F humor.

The Other Great Doorway

August 14, 2013

Last week we chatted a bit about the books that showed us that SF/F had something to offer that other genres did not.  This past weekend, when Jim and my friends Sue and Hilary Estell came over, we found ourselves extending the discussion to include television programs.

Heading Toward the Final Frontier

Heading Toward the Final Frontier

Although most of these – at least for me – did not have the idea-jolting impact I found in books, they did offer a visual and auditory addition to the story experience that made them compelling in their own unique ways.

Sue, Jim, and I are all of an age that “classic” Star Trek captured our imaginations.  Jim watched it during its original release when he was in high school.  Sue caught it in re-runs when she was in college.  I didn’t catch Star Trek until re-runs and those very sporadically – especially at first.  In fact, for the longest time, I thought there was one episode only, “The Menagerie,” because that was the one I’d see in passing, usually when being chased outside to play on some summer afternoon.

My parents weren’t into having kids watch TV.  Except for the Sunday evening ritual of Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney, I don’t remember watching much TV until was about twelve and started babysitting for other people.  Then, whether with the kids I was babysitting (many of whom seemed glued to televisions) or after the kids had gone to bed, I caught up on my TV viewing.

That’s when I discovered that the show with the “butt-heads,” as we had dubbed the aliens in “The Menagerie,” actually had a whole lot of episodes. I also learned that the “butt-head” story, which had always confused me, had done so because it was a two-part story.  Catching it in fragments, out of order, had created a very surreal viewing experience.

After that, although I never became a “Trekkie,” I was certainly hooked.  I watched every episode more than once or twice or three times.  I read  the James Blish short stories based on the episodes.  Later, at the Smithsonian of all places, I bought a boxed set of the first four “Star Log” stories by Alan Dean Foster.  These were based on the animated Star Trek, which I’d never seen, so they were very exciting – all new Star Trek.  Later, I picked up others in the series.

These were the days before media tie-in novels cluttered bookstore shelves.  Even when tie-ins started appearing, there were only a few that caught my imagination.  The New Voyages collection had some good stories, as I recall, but most of the original novels were missing some intangible quality I found on the screen.  (Later I’d find a couple really good ones, but going into that topic could be its own Wandering!)

I owned two non-fiction Star Trek books –  The World of Star Trek and The Making of Star Trek – but, although I read these through repeatedly, they mostly served to confirm me in a preference that continues to this day.  Even if I love a show, I don’t care about the actors or how special effects were designed.  Although I enjoyed a few anecdotes, especially those about how the set design people created a starship on a shoestring budget, mostly I didn’t want the fourth wall broken – and I still don’t.  Let me keep my illusions and believe that , on some deep level, it’s all real.

I guess because of my willingness to believe the Star Trek universe was “real,” I puzzled over little unexplained details.  Initially, I watched Star Trek on a black and white television.  (For that reason, the joke about “red shirts” meant nothing to me the first time I heard it.)  When I saw the show in color, I tried to work out what each different color of uniform shirt indicated.  (And wondered why engineering and security apparently wore the same color.)  I also wondered what the different lengths of the braid on the cuffs meant.  Remember, these were the days before VCRs or the ability to “pause” and study a screen.  I had to gather my information on the fly!

Stardates were a particular puzzle.  I kept a notepad with the dates mentioned in a given episode, then tried to figure out the order in which the different stories happened.  You can imagine my disappointment when I realized these dates were tossed out at random and were not an indication of continuity.

All of this was great fun and, I think, contributed to my appreciation of the little details that can make or break a story world.

Star Trek was certainly my favorite SF TV show, but those late night babysitting gigs exposed me to a lot I hadn’t caught the first time around.  Mission: Impossible was a favorite (although I was a bit startled to see Spock without his ears and characteristic haircut).  I liked The Six Million Dollar Man, but never got into The Bionic Woman – especially after they introduced the stupid dog.  I could stretch my credulity to believe that a school teacher might get the bionic add-ons, — especially with the threat her very expensive boyfriend might go AWOL if she wasn’t saved –  but a dog?  A kid?

I watched other shows occasionally, but usually those with continuing casts, rather than anthology series like The Twilight Zone.

Sue Estell was a much more voracious viewer.  I asked her what stories grabbed hold of her imagination.  After noting that she couldn’t leave out the impact of the Star Wars movies, she went on to say that she had continued to follow the various Star Trek incarnations, liking Next Generation quite a bit, and finding something to value in most of the others. She then noted a range of programs, stretching to the present day: “The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Battlestar Galactica (both the laughable old one and the edgier new one), V, SeaQuest, Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, StarGate SG1 and Atlantis (I did NOT like StarGate: Universe), Farscape, and more.  I watched just about anything on the SciFi channel in past years (before their programming managers went mad and classified wrestling as SciFi), except for The X-Files, which never drew me in.”

Sue’s “twenty-something” daughter, Hilary, has a viewing history that overlaps her mom’s, then takes off in new directions: “I think Star Trek all around was a starter in sci fi for me too, simply because Mom watched it a lot when I was little and it’s the kind of show I grew up knowing about. I especially remember the original Trek and Next Generation. I didn’t sit down to watch shows with Mom though until later, when I saw Farscape and Stargate SG-1, both of which I really, really enjoyed. Although Stargate started before Farscape, I know I only started watching it in season 3, so I’m pretty sure Farscape was The One that really started everything. (Show-wise at least. I’m in agreement with Mom about the impact Star Wars had on me for watching sci-fi/fantasy). I also watched about two seasons of Stargate Atlantis before losing interest, and then got into Firefly late to the game after I saw reruns on the Sci Fi channel. My most recent choice isn’t actually on the tv really; it’s a web-series called The Guild, which is about 6 gamers trying to cope with real life.”

As for me, when I went to college, my TV viewing pretty much ended for four years, as neither I nor my roommates had televisions.  The one exception was The Muppet Show, which my then boyfriend’s roommates watched with great fidelity.  Even after my undergrad years, when I moved out of the dorms and had a little TV, I didn’t get back into watching in a big way.  However, I did watch some “after school” animated programs.

These were the days when SF/Fantasy was becoming more prevalent, even in the afternoon TV shows.  I really liked Thundercats, at least for the first season.  After it became a hit, characters and stories were altered to provide more merchandizing opportunities.  Sigh…  He Man and the Masters of the Universe and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors were fun, too, although not up to the standard of Thundercats

When I finished grad school and moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, to teach at Lynchburg College, I had cable for the first time in my adult life.  However, even cable was not enough to draw me back into regular television watching.  I remember liking some of Quantum Leap, but I was too busy (this was when I was both teaching college for the first time and trying to break into selling fiction) to spend time watching much television.  Gaming was my chosen break and stress reliever, followed by – thanks to Steve Hogge,  a young man with whom I gamed, and southern fan Diana Bringardner – my first opportunity to watch more than the occasional bit of anime.  (That is another topic, one I touched on in the WW for 3-10-10, “Animated Enthusiasm.”)  These days, anime remains my main viewing choice.

Clearly, visual media is the other great doorway into SF/F.  Nor is there a dividing line between media fans and reading fans.  Both the Estells are voracious readers.  (That’s how I met them.)

What television programs were your favorites?  Which ones can you forgive for their flaws because they showed you places that made you dream richer dreams?  I haven’t really gone into movies here (so many stories, so little time), but feel free to include them!

TT: Humorous SF/F

August 8, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wanderings?  Just page back one and join me, George R.R. Martin, Ellen Datlow, Steve Gould, and many other writers, editors, and devoted readers as we wander on about the books that made a difference when we were just getting started reading SF/F.  Then come back and have a laugh with me and Alan as we take a look at what we find funny.

JANE: One type of SF/F I’ve really wanted to discuss with you is humorous SF/F.   I think it would be fascinating to find out where humor does and does not cross cultural (not to mention gender and age) lines.

Books of Wit and Wisdom

Books of Wit and Wisdom

ALAN: It’s an all or nothing thing – you can’t be a little bit funny. Either it works or it doesn’t.   It’s funny or it isn’t.

JANE: Before we get started, I should warn you.  I strongly suspect I don’t have a sense of humor or, if I do, it’s a bit skewed because I often don’t find funny things other people find hilarious.  Here’s an example…

Are you familiar with the movie Raising Arizona?

ALAN: I know of it, but it’s a movie I’ve gone out of my way to avoid seeing because I know I’ll hate it.

JANE:  Hmm…  Then you probably have heard it’s about the lengths to which a childless couple will go to acquire a baby of their very own.

Jim thought it was one of the funniest movies he’d ever seen – not because he’s particularly cruel to children or anything, but because of the outrageous situations.  So, when we were dating, he rented it to show me.  He was appalled to discover that I found it very, very sad.  Maybe I’d known too many people who desperately wanted children, but I didn’t find the childless couple’s predicament funny at all.  I also didn’t find what the baby went through funny either…

So, be warned, you’re going to try to discuss humor with someone who doesn’t find lots of funny things funny at all…

ALAN: Well actually, measuring by that yardstick, I think we have rather similar tastes. I find no humour in other people’s tragedies and disasters. Perhaps I’m just too empathic.

JANE:  Good, then, we won’t be advocating humor based on cruelty, but I bet we’ll be able to find a lot we both think is funny.

From the “tour” of Australia we did via The Last Continent, I already know we both love and admire the works of Terry Pratchett.

ALAN: We actually wrote four of them: 9/2/2012 – Visiting the Last Continent, 16/2/2012 – Legends of the Last Continent, 23/2/2012 – Meat Pies and Cork Hats, 1/3/2012 – Strine and Newzild.

JANE: Even if you do insist on writing the dates all wrong, thank you very much!

Anyhow, from comments you have made here and there, I realize that sometimes I’m missing a lot that a British audience would immediately grasp.  For example, I’d never realized that many of Nanny Ogg’s bawdy songs were in the tradition of the Pantomime Dame and music hall burlesque.

I wonder what else I might have missed?

ALAN: You need to read The Annotated Pratchett File which is a compendium explaining the many, many, many references that Pterry builds into his books. It can be found on the L-Space Web (named, of course, after Pterry’s delightful notion that all libraries are interconnected in L-Space). You can waste many happy hours browsing through it.

JANE: Pterry?  You’ve used that term before.  I suspect it is a joke.  Can you explain it?

ALAN: Pratchett has been known as Pterry ever since a very early Discworld novel called Pyramids which was set in the Discworld version of Egypt and which featured characters called Ptraci and Ptaclusp, etc. — obvious references to Ptolemy, of course. I thought the joke was well-known, but perhaps it hasn’t made it over the pond. Certainly it’s ubiquitous in Right Pondia, to the extent that I actually find it difficult to write Terry. The word just plain looks wrong without the silent P…

JANE:  Ah!  It was a joke, but very much an “in” joke since, if you don’t know the linguistic gimmick in Pyramids, it’s not going to make any sense.

The Annotated Pratchett File sounds like a very attractive time eater!  Could you maybe give one small example of the treasures we might find?

ALAN: How about this from Small Gods where the book title Ego-Video Liber Deorum is translated as Gods: A Spotter’s Guide. The annotation says:

“Actually, the dog-Latin translates more literally to The I-Spy Book of Gods. I-Spy books are little books for children with lists of things to look out for. When you see one of these things you tick a box and get some points. When you get enough points you can send off for a badge. They have titles like The I-Spy Book of Birds and The I-Spy Book of Cars.”

JANE: Lovely!  We have similar games here, but I do think the “I spy with my little eye…” probably came from you folks.

I think that one reason Pratchett’s humor works cross culturally is that much of his humor is universal.  British or American, a reader is going to find the idea of an orangutan librarian funny.  However, it’s Pratchett’s particular genius that he can make the idea appealing and strangely practical as well.

ALAN: The thing that makes the books work so well for me is that they contain almost no jokes (I seldom find jokes amusing). The humour rises naturally out of the situation and is often not funny at all to the people involved. I’ve heard Pterry talk about this aspect of the Discworld many times. An example he often uses is the character of Mr Ixolite, a banshee who has lost his voice. He cannot stand on the roof and howl. All he can do is write “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh!” on a piece of paper and push it under the door. From our point of view this is funny, but consider it from Mr Ixolite’s point of view and it becomes a tragedy – he’s lost his whole reason for living. He can’t do what he’s supposed to do. It must be unbearable for him. So why are we laughing?

The art of the theatre is symbolized by the masks of comedy and tragedy. There’s no doubt that the two are closely related. And I’m uncomfortably aware that I’m contradicting myself here. I find Mr Ixolite funny for exactly the same reason that I don’t find Raising Arizona funny.

JANE: Certainly this is true.  Many of Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, only fail to be tragedies because the resolution of the play ends with a marriage rather than a funeral.  The same can be said for Mr. Ixolite or Otto, the vampire who insists of using flash photography, even though the bright light reduces him to a heap of ash.  Their actions are comic because they have figured out ways to cope, despite their disabilities.

ALAN: I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right. That’s almost certainly why I can laugh at them with a clear conscience.

JANE: So I’ll agree…  To a point.  Mr. Pratchett is not above the Pun.  Indeed, one reason I will not listen to his works on audio is that I like it when one of his puns sneaks up on me.  I read by shape, rather than by sound, so I was well into Small Gods before I realized the main character, a monk named “Brutha,” was, in fact, “Brother Brother.”

The one that really snuck up on me were the revered Ankh-Morpork firm of Burleigh and Stronginthearm.  American English does not always pronounce “leigh” as “lee” so while I caught the silliness in the second word, I completely missed that the first should be pronounced “burly.”  When I did, I was so delighted that I had to run off and make sure Jim caught it, too!

ALAN: As you know, I’m from Yorkshire. We have a saying: Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head. I’ve no idea if Pterry was referencing this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised…

JANE:  Eep!  You’re admitting to it?

As for “jokes,”  I’m not sure how you’d define that in prose…  Pratchett certainly is not above taking a situation and taking it to its extreme for the sake of humor.  The scene that springs to mind is the one in Guards, Guards where it’s going to take a one in a million shot to hit the dragon in its vulnerable spot.  The positions into which Sergeant Colon is twisted to make sure the shot might qualify as a one in a million shot are a very visual joke.  And so is what he falls into when he falls…

Wouldn’t you call that a joke?  It’s certainly seemed like a joke to me.  Yes, I know the situation wasn’t funny to the characters – since when is a dragon attack funny? –  but this seems different from the plight of Mr. Ixiolite.

ALAN: And as Pterry well knows, one in a million chances work nine times out of ten…

Actually you’re right. But Pterry’s jokes tend to arise naturally from the situation. There are some so-called humorous novels where the situations are twisted to fit the joke and these never work for me. I can’t think of any SF/F examples but, in the mainstream Tom Sharpe is a very popular writer, but I’ve bounced off every one of his novels that I’ve tried to read for that very reason.

JANE: I absolutely understand…  A careful sculpting works – as in Roger Zelazny’s classic “Then the fit hit the Shan” from Lord of Light – but when the story is wrenched around and forced to be “funny” it usually fails horribly.

There’s another element in Pratchett’s humor that can’t be overlooked.  He has the ability to take humor and twist it into wisdom.

One of my favorite examples comes from Small Gods.  The novel opens with one of those “cosmic” passages that violate just about every rule for narrative hooks by being strange and nearly unintelligible.  The theme of this one is tortoises and eagles.  It ends with the line “One day a tortoise will learn to fly.”  And when it happens…  Heavens above!  It’s both a laugh out loud scene and one to bring tears to your eyes…

That combination doesn’t happen very often.

As we have already proven, we can do multiple posts just on Terry Pratchett’s work.  However, there are other writers of humorous SF/F.  Let’s move on to some of these works.

Books that Make a Difference

August 7, 2013

This past weekend, Jim and I were chatting about science fiction and fantasy with our friends Kris Dorland and Kennard Wilson.  Eventually, the subject ambled around to those books that are special to individual readers because the ideas hit them at a particularly receptive point and the world starts opening up.

Just a few books...

Just a few books…

Kris spoke movingly about how much Anne McCaffery’s Menolly books had meant to her, when she discovered them as a fifteen-year-old who didn’t quite fit in.  However, almost as important were the discussions she had about books with two friends, one of whom was devoted to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Darkover” novels and another to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant tales .  Those lively discussions comparing and contrasting approaches were important, too.

Ken – who is a chemist at Los Alamos National Labs –  began his journey as a reader of “hard” SF.  However, anyone who knows his lively personality will be unsurprised to find out that he appreciated Fantasy as well and remains an avid reader of both.

The book I mentioned as having a huge impact on me was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  This was given to me when I was fifteen by a law school classmate of my mom’s.  I already read SF/F and had even read Heinlein. (Space Cadet was a lot of fun.)  However, Stranger exposed me to so many things I’d never really thought about before – and no, it wasn’t just the group marriage concept, although I’ll admit that was rather mind-blowing to a student at an all-girl’s Catholic high school.

I was fascinated by the concept of the Fair Witness, trained to report precisely what occurred, without all the unconscious editorial information we usually add to our descriptions.  Since I had grown up in Washington, D.C., I’d seen a lot of statues, but it was Jubal Harshaw’s comment “’Statues’ are dead politicians. This is ‘sculpture.’” that made me see the difference between the categories of sculpture and statuary.  And I loved the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, something that helped make sense of cryptic comments I’d heard all my life as my parents and their friends discussed politics.

I could go on just about this one book, but I thought it would be fun to ask some friends about the books that made a difference for them.  Since Jim was sitting across from me in our office, I started with him.  He couldn’t narrow it down to one book and finally settled on “Reading a lot of Andre Norton in seventh grade and thereafter opened my mind to what the future might be, both technologically and socially.”

John Maddox Roberts (author of both SF/F and mystery fiction) told this wonderful tale: “September 1959, 1st day of 7th grade, South Junior High School, Kalamazoo, MI. I was already a reader, and went to check out the new school’s library. Went in the door, turned left, found myself in the fiction section. Came to the H’s and found an intriguing title: Space Cadet.  Checked it out, along with another: Red Planet. Read them both that night, came back the next day and checked out the rest by the author whose name I couldn’t pronounce yet. I was hooked. Proceeded to the N’s and read all the Andre Norton books. 12 years old, the golden age of SF.

“In the years since, I’ve often wondered how my life might have been different if I’d turned right that day.”

Sally Gwylan (author of A Wind Out of Cannan) was already a devoted SF/F reader (the Oz books, Red Planet, A Wrinkle in Time were all favorites) when she read Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea: “The book that changed my life.”  She says, “That book told me to turn around and face what you fear and made it believable.  LeGuin made it clear that there would be a high price.  That book led to me getting out of an abusive home.”

Suzy McKee Charnas (author of many SF/F novels) had a fascinatingly diverse list:  “Gunner Cade (don’t know who wrote it)[collaboration between C.M. Kornbluth and Judith Merrill; thank you Gardner Dozois], More Than Human (Sturgeon), Earth Abides (Stewart), Judgment Night (Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore), and Against the Fall of Night (Clarke, also titled The City and the Stars).  But it all started, for me, with an illustrated edition of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island that we had in the house.”

She went on to say: “Gunner Cade sticks as a clear, uncluttered example of the basic SF plot of the naive young man completely integrated into his authoritarian society’s soldier class (or other take-orders stratum) who, unfairly ejected from his familiar environment by the plot, is nabbed by ‘the resistance’ under whose aegis the scales fall from his eyes, and he ends up leading the violent overthrow of the wicked ruling regime.  It was and is *everywhere* in SF – I  just picked up a forthcoming first novel called Red Rising, and there it is again, only nowadays it apparently takes three volumes to cover the same ground that flew by so satisfyingly in the form of one skinny paperback.  Come to think of it, when I used it myself, in Walk to the End of the World, that was a skinny paperback, too.”

Steve Gould (SF author and current president of SFWA) contributed a nice, juicy list: “First sip was The Runaway Robot by Lester del Rey. Then, out of sequence, I found my grandfather’s copy of The Gods of Mars, followed by Warlord of Mars. Didn’t read Princess of Mars for another five years. Time Traders by Andre Norton. Think my first Heinlein juvenile was Red Planet but once I found that I rolled through them all in time to hit Starship Troopers when it came out and then Stranger [in a Strange Land].”

Laura Mixon-Gould (who also writes as M.J. Locke) had a somewhat different selection: “I had a summer of discovery when I was 11.  Clifford D. Simak’s Ring Around the Sun and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time were the first two that did it for me, followed by Asimov’s I, Robot, then Burroughs’s ‘Mars’ books, followed by C.L. Moore’s ‘Jirel of Joiry’ stories, Jack Vance’s stuff, and, of course, the Heinlein juveniles.”

Editor Ellen Datlow had an interesting list, especially for someone who would become an award-winning editor of horror: “Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books when very young, then Bradbury short stories, Dangerous Visions, and much later (college-independent study course) some novels like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, Slan, The Humanoids, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Creatures of Light and Darkness.”

Another editor, Gardner Dozois, weighed in with a long list that covered his later high school reading as well: “… my first taste of Sword & Sorcery came in De Camp’s Swords and Sorcery, and also in Dan Benson’s Unknown.  De Camp’s The Incomplete Enchanter and Castle of Iron were important to me, as were his historical novels The Bronze Gods of Rhodes and An Elephant for Aristotle.  The Heinlein “juveniles,” of course.  (I actually hit the Andre Norton juveniles first, but soon decided the Heinleins were better, and moved on. ) Hal Clement’s Cycle of Fire and Mission of Gravity.  James Schmidt’s Agent of Vega and Van Vogt’s The War Against the Rull.  A bit later on, the stories in Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords blew my mind, as did Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time.  Jack Vance’s The Star Kings and The Killing Time.  Delany’s The Towers of Toron trilogy, little read these days… I’d read The Hobbit years before I ran into the pirated Ace edition of The Fellowship of the Rings, but when I did, it had a major impact on me.  Le Guin’s early novels, Avram Davidson’s Rork and Masters of the Maze.

“First book that made a big impact on me might have been Kipling’s The Jungle Books.  At about that age, I gobbled up Burroughs’s Tarzan books too, although I didn’t read his Martian stuff until much later.”

George R.R. Martin (author of SF/F and Horror) weighed in with a diverse list:

“Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel introduced me to SF.

“A couple of anthologies did the same for fantasy and horror – Swords and Sorcery, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, and Boris Karloff’s Favorite Horror Stories, edited (allegedly) by Boris Karloff.  The former was my first taste of Conan and REH [Robert E. Howard], the latter my first taste of HPL [H. P. Lovecraft].

“And then, of course, Lord of the Rings.

“I also read a lot of Andre Norton and/or Andrew North in the early days.  Star GuardStar Man’s Son, Plague Ship were particular favorites.”

Pennsylvania area fan David Axler shaped his comment to make  an interesting point: “Pre-teen stuff for me included the original Tom Swift books (the Boys’ Club in Binghamton NY had a full set in its library, along with a pile of first-edition Burroughs ((which must be worth a fortune now if they’re still around) and an odd mix of other stuff published mostly before WW2)), the Mushroom Planet series that Ellen mentioned, the Winston juvenile series (, and a bunch of Verne and Wells. Andre Norton, of course, as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its successors.

“I think it might be just as important to note the best book SOURCES from my childhood, because availability played such an important part in the amount of sf/f I read.

“My family moved from Binghamton to the Philly suburbs in ’58, and into the city proper two years later. The Philadelphia school system at that time was a big supporter of the Scholastic Book Clubs, and a fair chunk of my allowance went into sf/f they made available.

“That was also a time when the Philadelphia public schools had both libraries and librarians, and many of the latter made sure that their fiction sections included a fair amount of sf/f.

“I also have to give immense credit to the Philadelphia Free Library, which sponsored a Vacation Reading Club that was a big part of my summer reading experiences.

“Through the latter, I encountered a lot of the ‘classic’ anthologies from the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60s, which led to a major expansion of my overall reading list — any time I liked a story, I wrote down the author’s name so I could look for more on my next visit to the library.”

My query received many shorter replies as well,  many that duplicated the above lists.  Robert Heinlein and Andre Norton won as “gateway authors” – which may reflect the generation of my research pool, as well as these authors’ undoubted popularity.  However, what was wonderful was how diverse a selection of authors were represented.   Edward Eager, T.H. White, Edgar Pangborn, and Ray Bradbury were just a few.

So what are your special books?  Where did you find them?  Did programs like Scholastic Book Clubs have an impact?  (They did for me!)  Was there a person who handed you a special book?

TT: All the News?

August 1, 2013

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and hear a bit about Treecat Wars, my forthcoming novel with David Weber.  Then come and hear about how the earth shook for Alan — and we had no idea what was going on.

JANE: You know, Alan, if I didn’t correspond regularly with you, I’d have had no idea that starting in mid-July your part of New Zealand was absolutely bombarded with earthquakes.

News Selections

News Selections

ALAN: Yes – there was a swarm of small quakes on the 19th. Many of them were too small to be felt, but some of them were quite large and noticeable. It culminated on the 21st with a very shallow earthquake, magnitude 6.5 on the Richter scale. Because it was so shallow and so strong, it really shook everything up and it was very, very scary.

Since then there have been more than 2,000 aftershocks and they are still going on. Again, they are mostly low intensity and can’t be felt. But we are told by the experts that there is a 10% chance of another 6.5 or greater quake over the next week. The last time this happened was in the early 1950s and the aftershocks then lasted for a month or so.

JANE: Dear lord!  That’s scary.  Talk about waiting for the earth to drop out from under your feet.  How did the quake of the 21st effect your area?   Was your home hit?

ALAN: After the big one on the 21st, the central city was covered in glass from broken windows and several buildings have suffered damage. The CBD was closed for 24 hours. All train services were cancelled while the tracks were inspected for damage (fortunately there wasn’t any and normal service was resumed the next day). The airport was closed for several hours while the runways were inspected and navigational instruments checked. The runways were fine, but some of the navigational aids had to be run from backup equipment for a time. In retrospect we got off lightly – but there may be more to come…

My house is built on solid rock which absorbs a lot of the energy, so it didn’t suffer any real damage, though a loose knob on the garage door fell off and has now completely disappeared!

My cats slept through it all and didn’t notice a thing. So much for the theory that animals can give you early warnings of these things!

JANE: Perhaps Harpo and Bess were more psychic than even cats are credited with being and they knew your house was safe and there was no reason to worry.

Now, I’ll admit, especially since I let my newspaper subscription lapse for various reasons, I’m not the best informed person. Jim, however, regularly checks the news on-line and listens to news radio. On the day my e-mail from you informed me that the quakes which had started the Friday before were still on-going and had gotten worse, the banner headline was that Princess Kate had gone into labor.

Jim later checked around and found on the “international news” page the New Zealand quakes were mentioned far down the list. However, the birth of said baby –  also an international event – was, once again, banner news. I’m so embarrassed at how our “news” has become both parochial and superficial.

ALAN: Oh you’re not alone in your parochialism. Australia is just the same, if not worse. If your only source of news was the Australian papers, you could easily be forgiven for not knowing that countries other than Australia even existed! New Zealand also has its moments – way back around about 1981, the Israelis bombed an Iraqi nuclear power plant. There much concern at the time that this could lead to all-out war. On that day, the headline on the front page of one of New Zealand’s largest newspapers was: “Young Man Dies From Rugby Injury.”

JANE: Wow…  Of course these were the days when newspapers were both paper and assumed to contain news.  Now this no longer seems to be the case.  This is one reason why I stopped getting a print subscription – this despite the fact that the newspaper I was getting was The Wall Street Journal, a paper with a very good reputation and one that I had been a regular reader of for many decades.

ALAN: Why did you stop your subscription?

JANE: The price for a subscription jumped massively and, despite my being a long-time subscriber, they wouldn’t give me a break.  I let the subscription lapse.  Now, about every four months, I get those bargain offers.  However, I have resisted being seduced.  Not only did I realize that without a newspaper I suddenly I had more time to read fiction and non-fiction both, I found I wasn’t missing much.

ALAN: And I’d agree with you. I’m a bit of a news junky and I need my daily fix. But even in those pre-internet days, I didn’t get much of my news from the papers. I depended far more on radio and TV. The BBC World service was, and continues to be, a superb source of news and later, of course, it migrated from radio to television along with organisations such as CNN and Al Jazeera. And they are all much better at reporting on world affairs than newspapers are. I remember that when Mikhail Gorbachev was briefly under arrest after the communist hardliners mounted what proved to be an abortive coup against him, he commented that he had kept himself informed about what was happening by listening to the BBC World Service news broadcasts. I think that speaks for itself.

JANE: Absolutely.  I agree that for current events some web-based service is the way to go.  That’s why I was appalled that – on the service Jim currently uses – a woman going into labor was considered more important than a series of major earthquakes.  I think that if local newspapers are to survive, they need to become “parochial” – focus on their immediate community and provide thoughtful coverage of the issues.  They can no longer hope to “scoop” a major event.

ALAN: We actually have community newspapers that do exactly that. They only report on local activities and leave the big picture to the bigger papers. But, as you rightly say, the big papers are becoming largely irrelevant these days.

JANE: Clear as mud…  but our local newspaper can’t seem to figure this out.  We live in a state that relies heavily on art tourism, yet the Art section of the Sunday paper gets thinner and thinner.  Given the number of high profile local authors (some of whom are quite famous), they could do a weekly interview and rarely repeat themselves.  If they added in visual artists, people working in film, and all the rest, they’d have ample.  And that’s just one area…  Ah, well.

ALAN: Earlier on you said that when you stopped reading The Wall Street Journal you found that you weren’t “missing much”. What did you mean by that?

JANE: As soon as I wasn’t reading daily news, I came to see how much that passed for news was really speculation.  When The Wall Street Journal changed hands, many people were disturbed.  I, however, found that undeclared competition with The New York Times meant that there was a lot more coverage of “my” field – various branches of the arts.   However, I soon saw how much of the “this is what will be hot this year” was just guessing.  And I began to wonder how much that was true in areas where I was less aware of the trends.

Do you take a newspaper?

ALAN: I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper – I just used to buy them as and when I felt the urge. These days I seldom read them at all. But in the days when I did read newspapers I read the “serious” papers such as The Times and the Guardian. I was particularly fond of the Guardian because it was (and is) a left wing paper whose editorial style appealed to my socialist tendencies. It was also a lot of fun. Colloquially the paper was known as the “Grauniad” because it was notorious for having spelling mistakes in its articles and the apocryphal story was that it couldn’t even spell its own name. It did once publish a review of the opera “Doris Gudunov”…

JANE: Alas, poor Boris…

You mentioned being a news junkie.  How much news do you want?

ALAN: Personally, I want lots. The more the better, though I suspect that information fatigue might set in after a while. We have too many news sources these days and so we get overloaded. And the paranoid among us might say that makes it too easy for conspiracies to slip by unnoticed.

JANE: I see…  I’ve seen information fatigue in several of my friends.  They always seem anxious, sputtering about some perceived crisis that a month later they don’t seem to care about.  I know this because I’ve asked “so what about such and such that we were talking about a couple weeks ago?” and been given a blank look.  At the best, I’m sure these people are living more informed and sophisticated lives than I am, but often they seem like teenyboppers who, rather than obsessing over the latest trend or hot band, are obsessing over news items.

Would you consider yourself a typical New Zealander?

ALAN: No I think I’m quite untypical. Most people here are interested in local news (generally sport and politics in that order) and there’s a mild interest in what’s happening in our own back yard so news from Australia and the Pacific islands is also well reported. But apart from really important things like wars and catastrophes, I suspect many people don’t pay much attention to the rest of the world.

JANE: Well, as Jim’s experience showed us, you can want to pay attention to the rest of the world, but sometimes that’s not as easy as it should be.

We’ll keep watching the news and hoping that New Zealand is safe from any other earthquakes.  Stay in touch!  If we don’t hear from you, given what we’ve learned about our news coverage, we’re likely to assume the worst.