I took a break from cutting the grass around the house. It was a hot day, and the chore always took a while. “Look what I found,” my aunt greeted me, as I went indoors and dropped into a chair. She’d been cleaning up, preparing to move into the cottage, and she’d been discovering things tucked away and forgotten long before, as one does. She handed me a copy of Xignals.
Years ago, back in the twentieth century, Xignals had been the in-house newsletter of Waldenbooks’ Otherworlds Club, a buyers’ club program for science fiction and fantasy readers. I was never a member, but I’d pick up a copy of Xignals when I’d go with my aunt and grandparents over the border from their summer cottage in Philipsburg, Quebec, to have dinner in Burlington, Vermont. There was a Waldenbooks in one of the shopping malls in Burlington, where we’d stop after eating, and I’d take an inexcusably long time browsing the science fiction section before buying a book to take back to Philipsburg. And, often, grab a copy of Xignals with it.
In 2016 I sat and read this copy of Xignals for perhaps the first time in over twenty-five years. It was dated August/September 1988, which means it had come out as I was turning 15. It was a 16-page booklet, 8 sheets of 11-by-17-inch paper folded over, black and white with greyscale images and green lines and fills. I was fascinated by the thing, its edges nibbled by field mice seeking a home during some winter between 1988 and 2016. It brought to my mind not a rush of Proustian reminiscence, but a sense of significance in difference. I was made conscious of the way the future was conceived then, based on the way the world then operated, and the way the world operates differently now.
[Click the image above right for a bigger version.]
The front-page feature was an interview with Diane Duane, whose then-new Star Trek novel Spock’s World had just become the first Trek novel to debut in hardcover. It’s a good piece, covering not just Duane’s long history with Trek — she says “I think I’ve written Trek in almost every medium except a film script; or a board or role-playing game. I’ve done a computer game. I think I’ve done Trek in more media than any other person” — but also her background with science and her determination to bring hard science into her Trek work. As she points out, the original Trek characters are all highly educated: “Spock isn’t the only one who knows how to say big words. All these people have to be functioning on a very high level of professionalism, or it doesn’t work.” It’s true. At the same time, it’s difficult not to smile ruefully with the benefit of hindsight at some of what she says, just because it is true:
Trek used to have a rather regrettable tendency to let the science fall out. It happened in the TV series because the networks weren’t certain that people would be able to understand the big words. I sometimes wonder whether they understood the big words themselves. There came to be this tacit agreement not to get too complex — to use a lot of what David Gerrold calls “Bolonium.” Or, as some people put it, “There’s proto-matter in the Genesis matrix!” [Laughs.] One of the great BS lines of our time! Pseudo-science jargon probably reached its height in that sentence.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had hit the airwaves only a year before this interview saw print, and would soon develop exponentially more laughable technobabble. If unable to predict the future, though, Duane was easily conversant with the genre’s past in a way I now read as fannish: recalling the first time she read a Heinlein novel (about age 10), or noting that she’d chosen to keep a tradition established by “Jim Blish” that the planet Vulcan was 40 Eridani, 12 light years from Earth. It is no surprise to read her saying “Trek is important to me; I grew up with the thing, and I loved it.”
In 1988 subcultures were not necessarily what they are now, being then both much smaller and also much further from the mainstream. That perhaps gave them more room to grow. I was still reading Trek novels when this interview came out. I can remember reading Spock’s World in Philipsburg, the unaccustomed weight of it, the contrast with the greenness of fields and trees and grass around the house.
Place helps a novel, sometimes, the surroundings where you read a book giving depth to the text and anchoring it in memory. You would think, or at least I might have thought, that the country surroundings would go well with high fantasy, the sounds and smells of nature lending weight to a story with a pastoral setting. It did, and does. But science fiction seems to gain from it as well. At night the stars come out: more stars than are visible in a city. And there is a gain from the contrast, the future alien against a slow-changing landscape. Above all, another world is just a few miles away, across the border.
(Vermont is largely rural, and for that matter so is upstate New York, just across Lake Champlain; meanwhile, less than an hour away to the north is my home, the city of Montreal. So in this particular part of the world the United States is defined by rural if not wilderness spaces, and Canada by a great city. That’s unusual, and it’s almost trite to note that English Canadian literature’s haunted by images of nature and wilderness. I’ve wondered from time to time if that’s drawn a disproportionate number of Canadian writers to fantasy fiction. When I think of English Canadian secondary-world fantasy novelists — never mind short fiction writers — off the top of my head I can think of Steven Erikson, Ian Cameron Esslemont, Tanya Huff, R. Scott Bakker, Jo Walton, Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles de Lint, Charles Saunders, and Ed Greenwood. Claude Lalumière and Yves Meynard are Francophones who write in English. The internet further suggests Michelle Sagara, Sean Russell, Moira J. Moore, A.M. Dellamonica, Karina Sumner-Smith, Welwyn Winton Katz, and Julie Czerneda. For that matter, look around at Black Gate, founded by expatriate Canadian John O’Neill, with writing by Canadian novelists Violette Malan and Marie Bilodeau. Maybe I’m biassed. But for a population a tenth the size of the US, it seems like a lot of names.)
The Xignals issue has several articles keyed to major book releases. An article on David Eddings’ use of maps in building his fantasy worlds is next to a review — really an extended blurb — about his new book Demon Lord of Karanda. A piece on Orson Scott Card’s extensive use of dialogue in Wyrms accompanies a profile of the book. A look at the depiction of the undersea world in science fiction is paired with a description of Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s Cradle.
The reviews are all positive, but if shorter capsule reviews seem like blurbs, the main articles at least don’t read as puff pieces. It feels like a fanzine with more polish and less of what might be called fannish politics. I’m surprised, reading it in the twenty-first century, to find how much it resembles many of the pieces here at Black Gate. It’s upbeat and knowledgeable about its field but also accessible — you have the sense of science fiction as a field, with its own history and notable titles; and you have the sense of the magazine, or fanzine, as a portal into this field.
All the articles I’ve mentioned are by editor Peter Heck. Other than Managing Editor Amelia Cox, only three other contributors are identified by name: Tnek the Unpronounceable, a reader who has submitted a quiz; “Aster,” who selects and presents winners in a limerick contest; and “Waldo,” who reviews a TSR hardcover called Greyhawk Adventures, by James M. Ward. That last is interesting. In talking about the Greyhawk setting Waldo brings up Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story about a conspiracy to create a fictional world by describing it in encyclopaedic detail. At first it’s an improbable linkage: gamers as idealist underground philosophers. But the more I think about it the more I like it. That hints at some of the appeal of fantasy fiction in general, the reason fantasy novels have gotten so thick. It is the appeal of an intensely imagined place, a world with more meaning which might, if described in enough detail, overwrite this world.
(There is one other contributor, after a fashion: one page of the magazine’s given over to news reports, with a report on the 23rd Nebula Awards and obituaries for Clifford Simak and Robert Heinlein. The Heinlein piece includes a poem sent in by a reader named Chris Mohney.)
Back to Peter Heck: through the internet I learn that he also edited the Waldenbooks club magazine for mystery, Crime Times. He’s since had a career as a mystery and science fiction writer himself, collaborating with Robert Asprin on some of the Phule’s Company books and writing a review column for Asimov’s. He does a good job here conveying a tone of intelligent enthusiasm, not the easiest thing to do. He gives full answers to fan letters, speculating about Isaac Asimov’s next book, stressing the importance of early SF, and debunking rumours of notes Frank Herbert wrote toward a seventh Dune novel.
Checking Wikipedia, I find that those rumours later turned out to be true. But then Wikipedia’s a resource that was unavailable in 1988. Science fiction is always about the time in which it is written, intentionally or not; non-fiction about science fiction is the same. 1988 was a time when letters were mailed on paper, when magazines printed regular columns of mail they received. When bookstore chains published fanzines to draw readers. What I remember, reading Xignals, was how much more limited the context was then. You did not have an easily-accessible world-wide computer network that could give you more information about whatever you wanted, or put you in touch with the writers of the books you liked. You were limited to what you could find around you.
If this is what I see looking at the fifth-anniversary issue of Xignals itself, what I see looking through the issue is a field becoming dominated by series, corporate universes, and tie-ins: Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime universe. As I’ve said, Xignals was produced by a corporation and must have had a commercial agenda, but perhaps this was an accurate view of the highest-profile part of the field in 1988. If so, it hasn’t necessarily changed much, then to now. But we are at a point where it’s easy to see past this aspect of the genre, to the small presses and the upcoming writers who are bringing new things to fiction. It’s vastly easier now to find the books you want.
Still, and with all allowances made for nostalgia, I find I respect that Xignals issue: it did what it was supposed to do, and did that better than it needed, with more personality and sense of genre history than was merely necessary. It was made redundant by the march of technology, but in its time it served its purpose. It reminds me of what things were like in 1988, but also reminds me that 2016 was unimaginable then, or at least went without being imagined. And yet relentlessly the world became a science-fictional version of itself. Almost thirty years on, new technologies approach — self-driving cars, 3-D printing — and what we will be tomorrow will be science fiction to us today. What we will understand will be different.
The physical landscape remains, changed in some places and not much changed in others. But the connections we make over and around it have changed. Progress in time has led to an alteration in our sense of place. The web of knowledges we lay over the physical world is finer, more complex. There are more options: we can learn more, about more different things. The Xignals issue reads now like a relic from another world, where information was perceived differently.
I was fascinated by remembering the context it came from. As a teenager it had some use to me less as a partial (and necessarily commercial) overview of the field than as an indication that the field, as such, existed. I did not then have a better source of information about what I was reading. Now, today, the cottage where I read Xignals will soon have internet access. Waldenbooks doesn’t exist as a chain, and I don’t think there’s a bookstore in the shopping mall where we used to go. I’m not sure; these days you need a passport to cross the border, and I don’t have one. I don’t go to Vermont any more. I read books I bring from Montreal at the cottage, and write about them for Black Gate. I prefer this present, that used to be an unthought future. Still it is striking to be brought up short, from moment to moment, by a look back at the assumptions of the past.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy his first collection of essays, looking at some fantasy novels of the twenty-first century, here. His second collection, looking at some fantasy from the twentieth century, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.