Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Books from ICFA

This past March, at the International Conference onthe Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Fla., I did what I usually do: first, bought too many traditional (i.e., paper) books to lug aboard a plane; second, ask my bookseller friend Mark Wingenfeld of Kathmandu Books to ship them home for me, in no rush whatsoever. 

They just arrived – thanks, Mark! – and in opening the box, I’ve enjoyed a bit of Christmas in June.

The books relevant to our work on this blog include:

Bleiler, Everett F. Science-Fiction: The Early Years: A full description of more than 3,000 science-fiction stories from earliest times to the appearance of the genre magazines in 1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1990. [Non-fiction, reference.]

---, ed. Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. New York: Scribner’s, 1982. [Non-fiction, reference.]

Fowler, Karen Joy, et al, eds. The James Tiptree Award Anthology 1. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2005. [Anthology of fiction and non-fiction, including a revised version of Alice Sheldon’s autobiographical 1978 essay “Everything But the Signature Is Me” and Joanna Russ’s 2005 essay “‘Tiptree’ and History.”]

Keller, David H. The Last Magician: Nine Stories from Weird Tales. Ed. Patrick H. Adkins. New Orleans: P.D.A. Enterprises, 1978. [Fiction collection, including Keller’s autobiographical 1947 essay “Half a Century of Writing.”]

Platt, Charles. Dream Makers: The Stairway Press Collected Edition. Mount Vernon, Wash.: Stairway P, 2014. [Non-fiction, an abridged omnibus volume of Platt's two interview collections with veteran sf and fantasy writers.]

Priest, Christopher. The Affirmation. New York: Scribner’s, 1981. [Novel.]

Tiptree, James Jr. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2004. [Fiction, a “greatest hits” collection.]

Happy reading and blogging are ahead!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

David Drake remembers E. Hoffmann Price

David Drake, publisher of E. Hoffmann Price’s Far Lands Other Days (Carcosa, 1975), writes:
Dear Andy,

I'm not sure what you want me to address, so I'll give you some personal background on Ed. We'd both been cavalrymen in our days --1915 and 1970. He liked to talk and I was delighted to listen.

E. Hoffmann "Ed" Price. (Credit: Will Hart, cthulhuwho1.com)
Ed had joined the 15th Cavalry at age 16 to patrol the Philippines. He'd met an old trooper who told him that Oriental women had their vulvas crossways, so that when they spread their legs they got tighter. That sounded good to Ed.

In fact he spent only 30 days in the Philippines before the 15th Cav was recalled to the Mexican Border where Pancho Villa was raiding. Shortly after that they were shipped to France where they acted as mule skinners unloading freighters in Bayonne, France. He had stories about the prostitutes in all three continents.

When WW I was over, Ed was on garrison duty on the German border. The army created a service-wide scheme by which enlisted men could take an entrance exam for admission to West Point. Ed was one of the extremely few who gained admission through that test. He graduated in 1922 and was briefly a 2nd Lieutenant assigned to a Coast Artillery unit in NJ. He resigned ahead of a court martial because he had gotten to know the battalion commander's wife rather better than the major was pleased to learn.

I've told the story this way to make it clear that though Ed was very smart, he was also an iconoclast who was not even slightly interested in polite society or its norms. He was acting out in the introduction, but I don't doubt he meant what he said.

Ed's judgments on the stories in FLOD as he went over them were sometimes puzzling. The pro-Klan paragraph is an example of that, but his enthusiasm for “Hands of Janos” and “Bones for China” baffle me to this day. I would recommend that you read and judge stories as stories, not as examples of political correctness or of racism (as the case may be).
In particular, read “One Step from Hell.” I'll be pleased the day I think I've written its equal.
All best,

Dave, thanks for the fine letter. One of my hopes for this blog is that whenever the name of someone who (happily) is still with us gets invoked at any length, I will contact that person to invite his or her 2 cents (or 20 cents, as the case may be). You’re the first thus contacted, and your quick reply is much appreciated.

From your description, Price sounds like some of the salty old cusses I’ve known, who have one eye on their audience while doing their best to say shocking and outrageous things, often sexual in nature. I’ve known some of those in science fiction, too. On some level it’s always a test, the old cuss’s attempt to determine whether the listener (of whatever gender) is “one of the boys.” In the process, of course, the old cuss is passing or failing a test in the listener’s mind, too – and I’m sure Price already has failed the test for many 21st-century readers, just from what you and I already have said about him on this blog!

How I read and judge stories is complicated, but in part because John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1978) stamped me for life, I can read no fiction – for that matter, can read no text of any genre, period – without thinking about what it means. 

The works of Ed Price deserve no less. I’ll start with “One Step from Hell” (Argosy, Aug. 5, 1939), in the Carcosa collection. Thanks for the recommendation, and for writing.

And, I should add, for Carcosa!

P.S.: The fine photo of Price above is from Will Hart's CthulhuWho. I'm checking with Hart to make sure it's OK for me to use, but even if it isn't, I recommend his blog and in particular this set of links to 1940s works by Price. [Added later: Hart says, "What's mine, is yours! ... Thank You for being nice enough to ask!" Much appreciated, sir.]

A letter from Simone Caroti

Simone Caroti writes:


My memories of the science fiction that was new when I was growing up are mostly of movies and TV series: Terminator, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on. They shaped my sense of what SF was and what it was meant to do. In those years, most of the field’s luminaries were still alive, but from my vantage point they were fading. For a kid like me, the visions of the future of Terminator and Blade Runner packed a punch greater than what Heinlein or Asimov had to offer.

Cover art by Richard Powers (Credit: SF Encyclopedia Picture Gallery)
About a year ago, during a phone conversation with John Clute, the two of us started talking about the sensawunda appeal of space opera, and when I told him that I had a lot of trouble taking the SO of "Doc" Smith and Edmond Hamilton seriously, John laughed and said that I'd missed the nine-to-fifteen-year-old train with them. At the age when the guilty pleasures of SF turn you into a fan for life, I was watching Sarah Connor run away from the cyborg with the Austrian accent instead of reading the older stuff, and most of my contemporaries were doing the same.

And now, thirty-plus years on, my brand new science fiction is old hat too. The texts from whose vantage point I think of those others as old SF are themselves history. But while I have little trouble unpacking the cringeworthy passages from Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke with equanimity, it's much more difficult for me to distance myself from the things that were new when I was new. Nostalgia – which, in SF terms, is the feeling you get when you realize you're looking at the kind of tomorrow yesterday thought tomorrow was going to become – is easy for me to process when it's someone else's, but when it's mine … [Ellipsis in original. – A.D.]

Which brings us to our heroes with feet of clay. I keep watching for the day I realize I’ve gotten too inflexible to see the world in perspective, and to an extent I already have to struggle with myself on occasion. So Andre Norton got old, and one day she said something wrong-headed. Surely she of all people should get a pass, especially when, like you said, there’s little to no trace of homophobia in her works? And what about Heinlein, whose excesses most definitely did end up in print? Or Tolkien and Lewis? Or [again, fill in the blank]? The other problem, for me, is the extent to which we can separate the work of fiction from the writer. I have this neat little trick I perform on myself: I describe the stuff I like as somehow transcending the limitations 1) of its time and 2) of its author, whereas the stuff I can’t abide gets lumped under the label “obsolete.” Basically, I'm massively biased.

This categorization mostly works for me (but look at Marion Zimmer Bradley; what do I do about her?). However, there are writers reaching their peak today whose work I dislike on ideological grounds – John Scalzi, for example. I hate the way he preaches sometimes, and if you asked me why I’d tell you that it’s because he espouses beliefs I find obsolete. And who am I to say that and make it stick? Because when I make those distinctions I’m not being objective; it’s a pure gut reaction based on personal values that sink all the way into the world of forty years ago. So I’m obsolete too, yes?

I recently reread The Stars my Destination, and to me it appears newer today than it had when I’d originally read it – certainly more relevant than, say, any of the Transformers movies, the Twilight series, or the whole Divergent/Hunger Games/Maze Runner kinds of stories. Again, bias. Who am I to make this distinction, or even lump those titles together? Conversely, every new Dune title that comes out doesn’t seem to me to keep up with the state of the art the way Bester does – in a novel that came out in 1956!! See what I did there?

I hope this was useful. Your posts have stirred up a lot of thoughts inside my overly cramped noggin, and they’re all trying to get out of Raccoon City at once. Well, tell me what you think. I can absolutely nearly totally take it.


Simone, thanks for the fine letter. A few responses:

For most of us, the science fiction of our growing-up years is overwhelmingly movies, TV shows, comics and games. I’m no different from you, there. Yet, when I set up this blog, I perhaps chauvinistically was thinking only about prose fiction – in books and magazines – plus the artwork, non-fiction and other ancillary material published alongside it, plus the commentary (mostly non-professional) that responded to it, plus the fannish community that generated most of the commentary.

Should this blog cast its net even wider, to include media sf and its communities as well? Maybe so. We’ll see how it goes, and where the conversation takes us.

Lots of texts, I suspect, need to be embraced in adolescence, or never. My wife, Sydney, says Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one. I read it at exactly the right time; she says she waited too late. But I am always encouraged, even at age 50, by the old things I do enjoy, however belatedly, once I finally get around to reading them. This is true of all serious readers, I believe.

The “feet of clay” question is a perennial, and is unsolvable, except by the individual reader, who must decide for herself, “OK, here is where I draw the line; I can still appreciate Writer A’s works, despite all, but Writer B’s works are dead to me, because I cannot forget who Writer B was.” We all make these choices, and we should not be ashamed of making them – or of changing our minds from time to time, or of seeming inconsistent in hating the works of Writer C but loving the works of just-as-problematic Writer D. No choice is more personal than a reader’s choice of what, and whom, to read.

And I join you in a big thumbs-up for The Stars My Destination.


The Ether Vibrates: On Andre Norton

“The Ether Vibrates” was a regular column in Startling Stories, and I am tickled to use it as the header for posts responding to mail from multiple readers – which, to my surprise and delight, is beginning to come in.
Thanks to all who have commented so far. While I won’t cut-and-paste here the full text of every comment, the full text of all comments mentioned below (plus others) can be read by clicking the comments link beneath individual posts.

Many have suggested possible candidates for the unnamed sf or fantasy novel Andre Norton complained about to Charles Platt in March 1982, one that, in Norton’s words, “not only described a homosexual relationship, but an incestuous one, between two brothers, in the greatest detail.” The first to suggest to me Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy (1979-1980) were Interrociter (on this blog) and Yves Menard (on Facebook). While Menard recalls “the theme was introduced in the very first volume,” evidence from online reviews (some hostile) suggests Tredegar Trafalgar is right that the second volume, The Dancers of Arun (1979), is the one that so squicked Norton: “The description she gives,” Trafalgar writes, “is accurate as far as it goes, if hostile.”

In addition to that, The Dancers of Arun was, in March 1982, a recent book by a woman writer that had received much positive attention in the field. It and its predecessor in the series, Watchtower, both were World Fantasy Award nominees, and Watchtower won. All this fits the context of the Platt-Norton conversation, as recounted by Platt.

Whether Lynn was aware of Norton’s comments at the time, and whether she associated them with her novel, I don’t know. I’m soliciting comment from Lynn, which I will pass along as I can.

Others commented on the larger point, Norton’s apparent dislike of explicitly gay themes in sf and fantasy. Mark Mills (a.k.a. Cinrambler) writes:
I think you have to put her remarks in context of the time. Jesse Helms successfully cut funding for AIDS prevention programs that "promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities" in 1987. Norton is George Takei in comparison.
A fair point, Mark, though your Norton-Takei comparison may remind some of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen:
“When you say ‘hill,’” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you'd call that a valley.” (Ch. 2)
Carmen Webster Buxton writes:
I would guess it was more a rant against explicitness. If anything, some of her books seemed to me to have subtle hints of same sex attraction, especially between some of the male characters. I'm sure she got dissed by mainstream critics, so anything explicit enought to make the genre look "trashy" might alarm her. And after all, she came of age in the 1920's and 30's.
More fair points, though now I’m interested to know specifics of any Norton books with “subtle hints of same sex attraction, especially between some of the male characters.”

Speaking of Norton in general and vintage sf in general, James Davis Nicoll writes:
May I suggest you look at my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You reviews, in which I revisit books I loved as a teen? Also, I'm rereading the fifty Andre Norton books Ace used to advertise next to Heinlein. And also I am rereading some of -- actually, my site in general is a cornucopia of older material: Jamesdavisnicoll.com
Thanks, James. I’m happy to pass along the link, and I look forward to exploring your site. That the first thing I see there is a photo of Leigh Brackett is a very good sign!

Simone Caroti and David Drake, meanwhile, wrote much longer comments, which I’ll take up in posts of their own.

Thanks for reading and responding, everybody.

Source: Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. 1871.