Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Anybody looking for something to read, I posted a bunch of mini-reviews at my Out of the Depths blog. The link is on this page.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How I Almost Got Published in Analog

In the late 1970s, one of my correspondents was a guy named Ed Byers. Ed contacted me out of the blue and asked if I would like to exchange manuscripts for critiquing. Since I was spending most of my non-working time writing fiction then, the chance to have my mss. critiqued was too good an opportunity to pass by.

For the next half-dozen years, Ed and I exchanged mss. His were very professional, and my comments were usually few and mostly relegated to word choices and sentence structure. Every ms. of his that I critiqued invariably sold to Analog, sometimes with my suggested changes, sometimes without them. None of my stories which Ed critiqued sold, even though I always incorporated Ed’s suggestions into them. But it was not Ed’s fault, since I had never sold any story previously, so how could he be expected to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse?

In 1980 Ed suggested that we collaborate on a story. At first I was intimidated; after all, by then he had quite a few stories published in Analog, while I was still unpublished. Nor was there any doubt that he was a much superior writer to me. But perhaps the chance to collaborate with somebody on Ed’s level would help my writing, and what did I have to lose by trying? So I agreed.

Ed proposed a plot for the story, as well as an outline. The format of the collaboration would be simple: he would write the first scene, then I would edit it and write the second scene. We would continue this process until the story was finished, after which Ed would give it a final going over. I agreed, and Ed sent me the first scene. It was superb, and needed absolutely no revision by me. I struggled to write a second scene that would at least come close to his own standards. Eventually, not totally satisfied, I sent it back to him.

When Ed sent me the third scene, I noticed immediately that he had altered about 75% of what I had written for scene two. The germ of it was still there, but not a lot else. And, of course, he had improved it considerably. His third scene was also superb. So with considerable trepidation I wrote the fourth scene, and sent it back to Ed who to write the last scene.

When Ed sent back the completed story back, my fourth scene was almost unrecognizable, much better than it had been, and Ed’s concluding scene was also very good. I waited awhile before contacting Ed, then I sent him a letter telling him that my conscience would not allow me to accept 50% of the credit (as well as half any money, although that was a secondary consideration) for a story which was about 90% his work and only 10% mine.

Ed was somewhat dismayed by my letter, but when I basically insisted he went along with my request. He submitted the story to Analog and sold it under the title “Misfits.” It was published in 1981 and received fairly widespread acclaim, finishing 5th in the annual Analytical Laboratory Poll.

Of course, when I saw “Misfits” in Analog, I immediately regretted my pangs of conscience and wished my name had appeared on the story, but that’s life. At least Ed realized my small contribution to the story. After he died prematurely of cancer in 1989, nobody else knew of it until now.

2008 update:

This past summer I inventoried my science fiction collection. In addition to my books, I also had 1,400 prozines, mostly Galaxy (the complete collection of 247 issues), F&SF (407 issues), Asimov’s (207 issues), Worlds of IF (165 issues) and an assortment of others. I have read nearly all of them, the exception being the 1950s Galaxy which I bought a few years ago from Chester Cuthbert and have been going through very slowly.

I also had 155 Analog from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Those are the magazines I am least likely to reread, so why shouldn’t I give them to somebody who might enjoy reading them himself? My friend George is a Physics teacher at my school, and a big sf fan with whom I discuss sf regularly. I asked him, and he told me he was interested in the Analog. I gave him about 100 issues, keeping those with stories I was likely to read again by the likes of Robert Silverberg, George R. R. Martin, Gordon R. Dickson, James H. Schmitz, Joan Vinge, and Ed Byers.

But I totally forgot about “Misfits,” and two days after I gave George the issues of Analog, I went running upstairs and quickly scanned through all the remaining issues. There were many fine stories by Edward A. Byers, but no “Misfits.” I had given away my only copy of my only (almost) professional publication! Arghh!!

Fortunately, George is a gentleman who found the 14 September 1981 issue and returned it to me. Immediately I reread it, and it was definitely too damned good for me to have written. I was correct to remove my name from the story.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Frederik Pohl and the Galaxy/IF era

The current issue of Locus has a long article by Frederik Pohl in which he talks about his career in science fiction, and it was very interesting since Pohl has been involved in sf since the very early days of the genre. Pohl was also the editor of Galaxy and Worlds of IF when I started reading them in the early 1960s, which are still my favorite magazines of any era, so I enjoyed reading how Pohl took over the reins of Galaxy in the late 1950s when H.L. Gold was too sick to do it, but Gold’s name remained on the masthead for several years before Pohl “officially” took over.

Thinking back to those years, I remember fondly a lot of the stories Pohl published in the pages of Galaxy particularly (and IF and newcomer Worlds of Tomorrow to a lesser extent), and I have enjoyed going back and rereading many of those issues in recent years. Take a look at some of the great stories which appeared in those magazines just in the few years between 1962 and 1967:

Clifford D. Simak’s Here Gather The Stars (later renamed Way Station);
Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth,” “The Dragon Masters,” “The Last Castle,” and two Demon Prince novels The Star King and The Palace of Love;
Damon Knight’s underrated “The Visitor At the Zoo” (later renamed The Other Foot);
Cordwainer Smith’s “”The Ballad of Lost C’Mell,” “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” “Under Old Earth” and the novel Norstrilia (broken up into two novellas);
William Tenn’s “The Men in the Walls”;
Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld stories as a series of novellas, as well as the serialization of The Fabulous Riverboat;
Gordon R. Dickson’s “Soldier Ask Not”;
Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin’ Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”;
Roger Zelazny’s “This Mortal Mountain” and “Damnation Alley”;
Samuel R. Delany’s “The Star Pit”;
Philip K. Dick’s All We Marsmen (later renamed Martian Time-Slip);
Larry Niven’s entire first collection Neutron Star as well as the novel Slowboat Cargo (later renamed A Gift From Earth);
Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” and all three novellas comprising Nightwings;
Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Farnham’s Freehold and Podkayne of Mars.

Likely because of the popularity of Heinlein, and the fact that Worlds of IF published all three novels listed above, it was IF which won three consecutive Hugo Awards as Best Prozine in spite of the fact that Galaxy was the most highly-regarded of the three zines, publishing more high-profile stories and earning the most individual Hugo nominations for its stories of any magazine of that era.

According to Locus, Pohl is writing another book on his life in science fiction, a sequel of sorts to his The Way The Future Was, which I enjoyed tremendously. I look forward to its publication eagerly.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Bucket List

I do not watch many movies due to lack of time. I can barely make a dent in all my reading, so think how much harder that would be if I watched a lot of television and/or movies? But since I have several free cards for Blockbuster, occasionally I’ll stop and see if they have anything interesting to watch. Last night we watched The Bucket List, with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

My taste in movies generally runs similar to my taste in reading. I like character-driven movies with a strong plot that combines a bit of humor with some thoughtfulness. This movie had all of that. Freeman and Nicholson are two 80ish men dying of cancer, both of whom were given less than a year to live. Freeman initially wants to spend the time with his family, but as a therapeutic measure he compiles a “bucket list” of things he would like to do before he “kicked the bucket.” Since he is a fairly cerebral person, his list contains items along the lines of “see something majestic.”

Nicholson, on the other hand, is a career-driven Type A personality whose life consists of running the hospital in which both men are now patients, with little time for any type of relationships. When he sees Freeman’s list, he adds to it items such as “Sky-dive” and “Get a tattoo.” After Freeman gets his final report that he has less than a year to live, Nicholson convinces him that they should enjoy their final months by doing as many things on the “bucket list” as possible.

For the next three months the odd couple sky-dive, travel around the world (Nicholson has more money than he has ever or can ever spend), drive race cars, and generally have a lot of fun. But they are both still facing the specter of death, as well as several items on the list which they both fear doing. Nicholson has not seen his daughter in decades, and has no intention of doing so, but Freeman has added it to the list against Nicholson’s wishes. But Freeman has never cheated on his wife, and Nicholson thinks a brief affair belongs on the list as well.

While there is both humor and fun in the movie, mostly it is about how Freeman and Nicholson face death while growing closer together, and how some of the less likely items on the list are actually attained in warm, touching ways. While The Bucket List is not a great movie by any means, it is both entertaining and thoughtful with two fine performances, and a message that everybody can embrace, whether we are nearing the end of our lives or still firmly in the midst of it.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Time It Never Rained

I am not a particularly big fan of reading westerns. They tend to be routine adventures with a minimum of characterization. When I am in the mood for some light reading, I may choose a Louis L’Amour novel, but not on a regular basis.

But there is one author of westerns who defies the above description, Elmer Kelton. Nor is that just my opinion. Kelton has won far more awards for his writing than any other western writer, including the much more popular L’Amour. The Spur Award is selected by the western writers themselves, the equivalent of sf’s Nebula Award. Kelton has won it 7 times, while other leading authors such as L’Amour, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Leigh Brackett (Follow the Free Wind), Richard Matheson and Chad Oliver (The Wolf is My Brother) have only won it once each. Loren D. Estleman has won it three times, and a few authors, including Tony Hillerman have won it twice.

The best description I can give of Elmer Kelton is that his writing style is to western fiction what Kim Stanley Robinson is to science fiction: slow-paced, deliberate, very low emotional key, emphasis on the characters of the western people doing their best to survive amidst all the difficulties of life on the frontier. The Day the Cowboys Quit was about a cattle drive in which all the paid hands went on strike for better wages. The Wolf and the Buffalo examined the relationship between a black cowboy and a Native American.

But the best Elmer Kelton novel I have read so far is undoubtedly The Time It Never Rained. It is set in 1950s Texas and examines the struggles of ranchers during a drought which lasts several years. The main characters are Charlie Flagg, a 50ish rancher who survived the drought of 1933 and who is so stubbornly self-sufficient that he refuses to take money from the federal government, even when it is free and can help him afford to dig another much-needed well during the drought; his long-suffering wife Mary whose relationship with Charlie has cooled considerably over the years so that at times they seem as much working partners as spouses; his son Tom whose dream is to participate in rodeos and who abandons his father’s ranch during the height of the drought to seek his dream.

Kelton explores several relationships in the novel, including that between Charlie and his family, as well as that between the ranchers themselves, and that between the ranchers and the people with whom their work brings them in frequent contact, such as government representatives, the local banker whose loans keep many of them afloat during the drought, and the chota who are border patrol police.

Perhaps the second most important set of relationships Kelton examines after that of Charlie and his family is that between the anglos and the Mexicans. Charlie’s land has two ranch houses, one for his family and one for the family of Lupe Flores, an American citizen who is Mexican and who would be considered Charlie’s manager if their ranch was large enough to employ more than just the two of them as full-time employees. Charlie considers Lupe’s family as his own second family, and he treats them with corresponding care, but their relationship displays the subtle racism of anglos dealing with Mexicans. Lupe and his family all refer to Charlie as “Mister Charlie,” while his family refers to them by first names only. Charlie makes all the important decisions for both families, including occasionally taking care of Lupe’s family in situations they are perfectly capable of handling themselves. But Charlie never realizes he is being condescending, believing he is doing what is best for his employees and close friends, even when Lupe's son rebels against Charlie's attitude towards him.

Although the two families have a strong relationship, it cannot be misstaken by anybody but Charlie as a relationship between equals.

A third group in the novel is wetbacks, illegal Mexican immigrants whom Charlie will not hire, partly because of fear of the chota who are always nosing around seeking out illegals, and partly because the legal Mexicans resent when illegals are given the same treatment and benefits which they have earned legally themselves.

Most of the novel is concerned with the drought and how it affects Charlie’s ranch and his relationships. We watch his large herd of cattle winnow down steadily in size, since cattle are the least profitable animals compared to sheep and even goats, which are the most profitable but considered insulting animals for a rancher to raise. Still Charlie adapts slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, at times forced to make changes by the banker who refuses to extend Charlie’s credit another year unless he take steps to minimize his losses. While Charlie is debt-free at the beginning of the novel–and the beginning of the drought–as the novel progresses, he becomes just another struggling individual who owes his soul to the bank.

Kelton writes some powerful scenes which fit well into the novel. The “wolf hunt” for two coyotes who have been killing Charlie’s sheep; the time Charlie fell off his horse and sprained his ankle, and was unable to return home without the aid of a frightened wetback; the death of young Manual Flores’ young horse. While the novel’s emotional level is tightly-controlled, the emotions do surface at times and are more effective because Kelton does not indulge in them any more than Charlie himself would do so.

The Time It Never Rained is a masterpiece that should be enjoyed by anybody who enjoys either great historical fiction or strong character studies. While Kelton is basically a writer of westerns, the novel’s 1950s settings escapes all the negative connotations of the genre (no good guys vs bad guys, no shootouts, no cowboys vs indians) while retaining all that is strong about the genre. I recommend this novel very highly! It is the first novel I finished reading in 2009, and it is hard to imagine that I will read a better novel the entire year.