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Category: Essays

The Fantastic Novels of Harlan Ellison

The Fantastic Novels of Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison speaking to the audience at the Los Angeles
Science Fantasy Society, May 1982. Photo by Pip R. Lagenta

Harlan Ellison published three novels early in his career, and spent the rest of his life trying to complete another1. Despite a large and successful body of work, and the willingness of publishers to pay large advances for a novel, he never succeeded.

Returning to the novel form was important for Ellison; he announced the titles of works in progress as “forthcoming” in the front matter of his short story collections, ghost titles that would appear in successive volumes, sometimes for years, then vanish to be replaced by new ones. In 2010, when he was 76 and announced he was dying, Ellison said that he was working on a new novel, The Man Who Looked for Sweetness;2 and in 2014, shortly before he suffered the stroke that ended his writing, he returned to an earlier project.3 Completing another novel was a dream he never relinquished.

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May I Read You This Book?

May I Read You This Book?

I would rather read a book, but I listen to a LOT of audiobooks. I listen to them in the car (fewer work commutes with the Pandemic); and often during my work day. My mind is wired so I can listen to an audibook/radio play and still concentrate on something else. I’ve had friends and coworkers tell me they can’t do that at all, so I feel fortunate. It lets me ‘read/re-read’ a lot of things I otherwise wouldn’t have time to get to. I use the Overdrive App to get them out of the library, and I do Audible.

Many a night, I fall asleep to an audiobook (not a problem when you sleep alone. Sigh…). Usually something I’ve read or listened to before and know reasonably well. Like Max Latin (Norbert Davis), Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler), or Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie). That way it doesn’t matter if I doze off.

Of course, If I REALLY like the book, or author, I tend to favor the narrator more (unless they are screwing up my book!). But I’m pretty objective in determining whether or not I’m glad this person is doing the narration. Today I’m gonna talk about some who I really like – and plugging some authors I like as well!

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Talking Terry Pratchett

Talking Terry Pratchett

It’s always a good time to talk about Terry Pratchett! He was, simply, brilliant. Pratchett, who passed away in 2015 from Alzheimer’s, wrote the terrific fantasy series, Discworld. He gets my vote as one of the great satirists of our time. And he used classical fantasy tropes to do it! Did I mention, ‘brilliant’?

I re-read (and listen to) Pratchett books throughout the year. I got in the mood again recently, and did a mini-binge. Discworld is fantasy world, with the entertainingly horrible city of Ankh-Morpork at its center. Parody, homage, satire – they are fantastic books. Pratchett pokes fun at our world (especially, society) though these books. If you Google search, ‘Terry Pratchett quotes.’ you will get some absolutely terrific ones. Most are from his books, but real-life ones can be pretty hilarious, too. The man was just incredibly funny. Add in being very observant, and a good writer, and you have the ingredients of a great author.

JINGO

It started when I decided to listen to a Pratchett audio book during the work day last week. I’ve read the series a couple times, and I can miss a bit here and there as I work. Jingo is one of the City Watch books. There are several ‘sub-series’ in the Discworld series, involving central characters. My favorite is the one with Sam Vimes and the City Watch. They are essentially very entertaining police procedurals, in a fantasy world. They’re a blast.

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B is for Bradbury

B is for Bradbury


R is for Rocket (Bantam, 1965, cover by Paul Lehr), The Golden Apples of the Sun
(Bantam, 1970, cover by Dean Ellis), Long After Midnight (Bantam, 1978, cover by Ian Miller)

June 5, 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of all time. It’s fair to say that no author has positively affected my path into reading, and subsequently writing, to the extent that he did. Through this four-part series, I hope to convey some of the joy and wonder that Bradbury instilled in me and so many others, by revisiting a selection of his short stories that have continued to resonate with me throughout the years. Disclaimer: I don’t profess that my selection are his greatest tales, no matter what your definition of the term, but they hold a special place in my pantheon of stories, and I hope they will be worthy of your time.

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V Isn’t Always for Vendetta

V Isn’t Always for Vendetta

Please to remember the 5th of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

It’s November 5th, and in Great Britain, it’s time to roll out the sparklers, hot dogs, and burning effigies. For those unfamiliar, November 5th traditionally celebrates the capture of the villainous (and Catholic) Guy Fawkes and his crew mere minutes before they blew up the House of Lords with King James in situ, over 400 years ago. As a foreign import to these fair isles, Bonfire Night has always held a strange fascination. What was this peculiar celebration, which took precedence over Halloween, where small children gathered with their glowing wands and unhealthy snacks in the shadow of a large, flaming ‘Guy’?

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Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #1 History of Fantasy

Lin Carter’s Imaginary Worlds #1 History of Fantasy

Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine Books, June 1973). Cover by Gervasio Gallardo

I’m the age Proust was when he died, and Lin Carter books are my Madeleine cake.

The covers transport me to the sunny afternoon garage sales of my teens. Picking up one — they’re tiny compared to today’s paperbacks — and riffling the yellowing pages, and I’m thirteen years old, on a hill-walking holiday in Wales, rummaging in a small town charity shop while the rain rattles the dirty glass window. And later, playing Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D was my edition!) in a stuffy teenage bedroom in a Victorian house where the hundred-year-old window slammed down and nearly took off the DM’s leg as he was smoking a roll-up while perched on the ledge…

And like the D&D games of my mid teens, Lin Carter’s books never quite lived up to the potential of the promised exoticism. In our case, we were teenagers with limited life experience. We did very well, as far as it went, and our DMs were patient and I argued too much. Lin Carter, several times married, a Korean war veteran — the Vietnam sequence that kicks off the Callisto books reads very authentically —  cosmopolitan New Yorker, experienced editor, has less excuse.

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Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior

Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior

Worms of the Earth by Robert E. Howard (Ace Books, 1979). Cover by Sanjulian

“Worms of the Earth” was published in Weird Tales in November of 1932, and was thus described in the table of contents as “a grim shuddery tale of the days when Roman legions ruled in Britain–a powerful story of a gruesome horror from the bowels of the earth.” It features Bran Mak Morn, the King of the Picts, one of Howard’s barbarian characters. A quasi-Faustian tale, the story dramatizes Bran Mak Morn’s greatest transgression, a dark pact the king makes with diabolic force to avenge his dying and brutalized race: the Picts.

Many consider “Worms of the Earth” one of Howard’s masterpieces, truly haunting and enigmatic, its impact lingering long after a reading, like a stagnant tobacco smell or a leathery flapping of shadowy wings. The story is also notable for its inclusion of allusions to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, specifically the ancient Mesopotamian god “Dagon” and the sunken city of “R’lyeh,” home to dreaming Cthulhu. Undoubtedly, the story’s themes of racial degeneracy and the violent power of geologic time are steeped in Howard’s legendary 1930s correspondence with Lovecraft.

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Why I Read Old Science Fiction Stories? (Spoiler: For Entertainment)

Why I Read Old Science Fiction Stories? (Spoiler: For Entertainment)

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“Written by authors who mostly died before we were born”

What is wrong with us?

A gazillion SF&F books get published every month, and here we are reading books written by people who mostly died before we were born. And this is Science Fiction we’re talking about! Surely that’s the genre that riffs off the present to paint a plausible future, or at least an illuminating one? Why are we still reading the old stuff?

Is it because we’re wedded to some idea of “canon”? Probably not.

Sure, it’s interesting to visit the roots of a genre, but most of us want to be also entertained in our scarce leisure time. It’s why people who like theatre come back to Shakespeare for pleasure, but mostly approach Jonson and Marlow out of intellectual interest, and why I still dip into Malory’s pulpy Le Morte De Arthur, but not the ploddy Vulgate Cycle by some Medieval French guy(s?) I forget.

Similarly, aspiring authors are well-advised to see how their predecessors managed the… choreography of certain kinds of story: there’s no point in reinventing the wheel when past generations have left so many tried and tested examples just lying around. However, that presupposes that those wheels were proven in action, that they carried along stories that were entertaining.

And, yes, given how wide the field is, we’re more likely to find common ground talking about CL Moore than China Mieville: the best place to catch your mates is outside the pub, not in its murky depths. Even so, we want to be able to rant about books we loved and why… books that we found entertaining.

And there’s that word again: entertaining.

What does the old stuff have that the new doesn’t? After all, modern SF comes in meaty tomes of 100K words, generally has plausible extrapolation, and often takes us out of our comfort zone. How can 30K of often lightly characterized and emotionally distant narrative with not much contemporary significance compete with that?

Except, that’s the point,  I think.

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Analog Science Fiction, January/February 2020, Moby Dick, a Side-Quest, and HP Lovecraft

Analog Science Fiction, January/February 2020, Moby Dick, a Side-Quest, and HP Lovecraft

Analog-Science-Fiction-and-Fact-January-February-2020-small

Part One: Analog

Back in the Before Times, I strolled, maskless and blissful, into Barnes and Noble and bought the Analog Science Fiction, January/February 2020 issue. It is a super-sized double issue with a reprint of a classic story from the 90s. I’ve read it in bits and pieces over the months and one tale stuck out at me — the cover story: “The Quest for the Great Gray Mossy” by Harry Turtledove.

Turtledove mines the classics with an enviable lack of shame in this Moby Dick pastiche. Is it even a pastiche? It is more of an abridged version, but with dinosaurs. Imagine if you had a test due on Moby Dick, but by some outlandish set of coincidences you lacked internet access and couldn’t even get your hands on an old copy of the Cliff Notes — hitting this story the night before would ensure you’d manage the test fine.

Honestly, while there wasn’t anything wrong with the story, it didn’t bring anything new to it, either. I mean, outside of the fact that they are dinosaurs.

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A Woman as President?

A Woman as President?

Eclipse John Shirley-small Mike Resnick Alternate Presidentss-small Allen Steele Coyote-small

Eclipse by John Shirey (Questar/Popular Library, 1987), Alternate Presidents edited by Mike Resnick (Tor, 1992),
Coyote by Allen Steele (Ace, 2002). Covers by Joe DeVito, Barclay Shaw and Ron Miller

“It’s rigged,” said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump four years ago. What was? Everything. The system, the primaries, the TV debates, the media. And probably even the election itself.

His view, of course, was and remains that it’s all rigged against a hard-working, self-made billionaire who started out with two empty hands (and a small loan of $14 million from daddy – and this was more than 45 years ago, so consider inflation). But if you look at another aspect, that of general expectations, you might find a different kind of rigging.

So far, no woman has been president of the United States. Consequently, no historical or contemporary realistic fiction has portrayed a female President. But since science fiction is reality-based speculation, and since women make up a little over half of humanity, it would seem reasonable to expect at least some writers to write about possible futures, or alternate pasts and presents, where women inhabit the White House.

But in fact, such speculations have been few and far between. Kristin Lillvis (in “Take Me to Your Lady Leader,” in New Ohio Review #20, 2016) suggests that the first example of an imagined woman president may be found in C. L. Moore’s “Greater Than Gods,” in Astounding, July 1939. Moore’s story is basically about gender stereotypes: her protagonist, Bill Corey, considers which of two women to marry and visits the two possible alternate futures that would result from this decision. One of them is a patriarchal, technologically advanced but militaristic society of blind obedience to strong leaders; the other a matriarchal society with a succession of female presidents (though the first elected no earlier than around 2300), peaceful and comforting but also static and stagnant. “Women as a sex are not scientists, not inventors, not mechanics or engineers or architects,” the story says. And Moore lets her hero marry a third woman, who will add balance and reason to his own limitless ambition, and so give rise to a more diverse future.

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