Zineophile (From Proper Boskonian 38, December 1996)

by Bob Devney

Critical Wave #44/45 April 1996 The European Science Fiction and Fantasy Review Publishers and Editors Steve Green, Martin Tudor News items and review materials to S. Green, 33 Scott Road, Olton, Solihull, West Midlands, England, B92 7LQ; letters and listings to M. Tudor, 24 Ravensbourne Grove (off Clarkes Lane), Willenhall, West Midlands, WV13 1HX, England 40 pages including covers 8 1/2 x 11 11/16 Five issues per year, U.S. subscriptions $33 per year

It's your first day attending an SF convention in another country - say Britain. There are little rooms everywhere filled with people talking about cool subjects. But ... You can't find a schedule or a hotel map or a program book. Your feet hurt. You haven't slept in 47 hours. And as you wander around dazed, it's as though a gray mist were settling over everything in sight.

As the Brits might phrase it, thus Critical Wave.

The problem is probably just the tiny type and the fact that the copier job wavers back and forth between gray and light gray over 40 packed pages featuring way too many lists. It's not that Critical Wave lacks an editorial focus or a point of view, although about that "European" in the subtitle - except for listing a few cons in Poland or Spain and actually reporting a con in the Netherlands (plus reprinting a Dutch interview with a U. S. author), it's the U. K. first, the U. S. a distant second, and a polite bow to Japan.

Critical Wave is really a quite respectable British news and reviews zine with a raft of good contributors writing well on many interesting topics. All somewhat dampened by a small grayish layout. And even there they have the smarts to break up text columns with large callout quotes, which more zines should learn to do. So I don't know why I'm caviling here; go and read the thing, chances are you'll find much to like.

Such as almost five pages of fine material on Bob Shaw, the beloved Northern Ireland/U. K. SF author and fan who died in February. Included are a useful bibliography and an article from 1975 wherein Shaw explains his invention of one of the most poetic and beautiful ideas ever to grace SF: "slow glass," which by tremendously slowing light's travel through itself enables you to view scenes from past years. Editors Martin Tudor and Steve Green join pros and fans Stephen Baxter, Keith Brooke, David Wake, and Greg Pickersgill in tributes to works such as Orbitsville and The Ragged Astronauts; to Shaw's classic fanwriting; and to his good-guy preeminence. Green notes that he first met the author at a convention venue where Shaw reined supreme: "it was in a Novacon bar - which is on a parallel with joining John Huston on safari or Ernest Hemingway at a bullfight."

The issue also features agony and ecstasy, as in Jan van 't Ent's interview with Vonda McIntyre: "My career has been attended by a good deal of luck; I sold the second story I ever sent out. (On the other hand, the first story I sent out was rejected 27 times, and though it finally was accepted, the magazine disappeared without a trace, taking my story with it.)" And just plain agony, as in Green's review of short fiction collection The Eyes by Spain's Jesus Ignacio Aldapuerta: "The war-maddened masturbator of 'Necrophile' stumbles out of New Worlds via the films of Jorg Buttgereit....these are dark tales of insanity and madness, foul splinters in the mind's eye." Sounds like a good bet for your bedside table. And look for this Buttgereit dude as GOH at your next media con for sure.

Eight pages of other good book reviews produce - in Roger Keen's piece The Third Alternative, a leading British short story zine - another rave for "Last Rites and Resurrections" by new U. S. writer Martin Simpson. Kiersten Stevenson of CLF Newsletter also loved it when it appeared in the U.S. small-press mag The Silver Web, as mentioned in PB 37. Remember? The story about grief counseling from talking roadkill? When two disparate sources go nuts over a dark-horse story like this, could well be worth checking out. As apparently is The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton, a 950-page space opera series opener that Martin Tudor found "every bit as grand, as wonderful and as fascinating as Iain Banks' 'Culture,' but...even more readable."

And in four pages of chatty, stream-of-consciousness fanzine reviews, Mike Siddall anoints Anorak Redemption from Nigel E Richardson as "a classic....the best single zine I've ever seen." He notes that Antony Shepherd's The Disillusionist #1 & #2 have it all: "Books, worldcons, cars, Creuzfeltd Jacob Disease, music, apazines, it's all in there....even caters to the fetishistic...with a Betty Page cover." In a look at Pips 1 by Jim Trash, he even sums up what we all want from fanzines: "something I had a vague 'I'll get around to it one of these days' interest in, being transformed by someone else's enthusiasm into a real desire to get in there and experience it for myself."

The Freethinker #5 June 1996 Edited and published by Tom Feller Box 13626, Jackson, MS 39236 E-mail: Internet CCWS74A@prodigy.com; Prodigy CCWS74A; World Wide Web: http://pages.prodigy.com.trfeller/cover.htm 28 pages including covers 8 1/2 x 11 the usual

The Freethinker isn't quite a perzine. But per this issue, if the title were Tom Feller, Freethinker or Feller and Friends it wouldn't require any change of content. Of the 17 pages of article space, 12 are filled by Editor/Publisher Tom Feller himself. (There are also 8 pages of letters from many of the usual freethinkers.) Luckily, he's got an interesting, well-stocked mind and varied tastes, so the diet doesn't really pall.

In covering a New Orleans conference of the International Association of Hospitality Accountants, Feller attends a presentation by freethinking scientist Clifford Stoll, who is flogging his newish book Silicon Snake Oil. Stoll doesn't totally buy into all the e-excitement around. He describes an experiment wherein he compared snail- with e-mail, arranging for a postcard to be sent from New York to California (same addresses each end) every day for 60 days, while also sending e-mail to himself from 5 different remote accounts. Average delivery time of e-mail: 12 minutes. Postcards: 3 days or thereabouts. But, Stoll points out, every card came through, whereas 5 of the 60 e-mails were lost forever....

Later Feller sees a show by a French Quarter musician (Ed Peterson), who admits what we've all suspected: jazz song titles don't mean a damn thing. They're "just a way for the group to stay on the same page."

Farther on, Elizabeth Osborne reviews a scabbardful of movies from an historical POV in "Swords of Last Summer." Like Rob Roy: "a wonderful film....Even the cattle were the traditional shaggy haired breed from the Highlands." And Braveheart: "a great film, but there are some problems....Wallace spent the 7 years after Falkirk not as a guerrilla in Scotland's countryside but in [presumably comfier] exile at the French court."

Feller celebrates Apollo 13, the movie that "makes heroes out of techno-nerds," and compares the story to lead astronaut Jim Lovell's own words in his book Lost Moon. He also looks fairly favorably at Toy Story, Goldeneye, Twelve Monkeys, and From Dusk Til Dawn.

By the way, the zine's pretty good graphics are topped by a wicked guitar-playing lizardman showing his chops on the back cover (John Martello), and a cool full-page piece (Stephen Lewis Skeates) that sets four elaborate, muck-raking 1907 definitions of "imagination" to zippy modern toons.

Elsewhere, contributor Johnny Lowe tells the story of an ad agency colleague, a writer, who made fun of Lowe's Mississippi background and supposed illiteracy. So Lowe pointed out that Faulkner was from Mississippi. The writer's response: "Who?" As an ad agency writer myself, I hereby reveal a trade secret: literacy's got zip to do with advertising.

Speaking of books, in reviewing one called Cultural Atlas of the Viking World (editor: James Graham-Campbell), Feller disappointingly reveals that those horned helmets "have no basis whatsoever in historical fact." ... Fred Moody's I Sing the Body Electric paints a portrait of a Microsoft project team "so miserable, so angry, and [talking] so incessantly about frustration and disappointment" that you'd almost think they worked at my ad agency.... And in discussing a trade magazine article on insuring satellite launches, I guarantee Feller will make you feel better about your homeowner's bills: "An Ariane 5 may need as much as $600 million in insurance for a single launch."

 

Fearfully Tremulous Tiggers (FTT 20) March 1996 Judith Hanna & Joseph Nicholas, 15 Jansons Road, South Tottenham, London N15 4JU, United Kingdom 38 pages including covers 8 1/4 x 11 11/16 the usual or £1 per copy

Apparently the name of this impressive British zine changes every issue, always keeping the initials FTT. Which stands for a short imperative sentence that urges you to do something rude to (or perhaps nice with) The Tories. The politics here, like those of, say, the giant U. S. rightist zine FOSFAX, are certainly in your face. It may be just my own lefty leanings that find this face altogether more pleasing to gaze upon.

Not that this thing is gussied up. Listen to FTT's attitude toward illustrations: "We do not believe in breaking up the text with scads of completely irrelevant little pictures which seem intended for no other purpose than to give the readers' brains a rest between all the dreadful long words." Take that! trivial fanworld artists.

So you have nice white paper with lots and lots of words, long and short. But while the body copy size is a little small to run the full width of the page, the type treatment otherwise is quite readable and sophisticated.

Besides the lettercol, with its 13 beautifully edited pages containing thoughtful stuff from luminaries like our own George Flynn, there are really only five articles here. But the mix is rich, and each is meaty and extremely well-written.

For instance, here's how Editor Judith Hanna leads off her lead article: "Telling your boss he's worse than Stalin is very satisfying - but it's a thing you can only do once." Turns out this one isn't just another crowd-pleasing bash-the-boss diatribe (although who won't throb with sympathy to lines like "Management by tantrum, backstabbing and changes of mind"?). It's also the saga of how Hanna canned the full-time grind and is reinventing her life via part-time work plus volunteerism plus self-improvement. "I can say from experience that having more time and less spare money is a lot more fun than mortgaging the days of your one and only life."

Especially if that life is spent in the America of the next two pieces. It's clear pretty quickly that we're not exactly talking about America the shining city upon the hill here.

First, Marjorie Thompson contributes a tart little memoir entitled "Under the Age of Consent: Growing Up With The Republican Right." For this daughter of a prominent California GOP activist, "Dinner table conversations [concerned]...the misdemeanours of the Kennedy family, the antics of trade union barons, and the audacity of Cesar Chavez who wanted lettuce and grape pickers to be paid a living wage." Eventually, Thompson no longer accepted, for instance, that "pre-Civil Rights Act, black people had been 'happy in their own restaurants.'" So in a happy-ever-after ending, she now works in London at the Commission for Racial Equality.

Things may not end so well for Judith Hanna's younger brother Julian. All through his fascinatingly dark account of the U. S. leg of his ramble around the world, he keeps saying things like, "I jumped out of the raft among all the exciting rapids, exclaiming, 'Hey everybody, I think this is where I die!'" Like Hunter S. Thompson's younger Aussie brother, with vivid prose and wild eye Hanna finds paranoia, race hatred, and police hassles from the slums of L. A. to the slums of New Orleans to the slums of Nuevo Laredo. He does take time out for a rodeo, a Native American sundance pain party, a homicidal chat with a cockfighting matron, and a drive straight into a hurricane which disappoints by failing to kill him. And he did like the Grand Canyon (despite the pollution) and the Alamo. You end by being glad "Deathwish" Hanna made the trip and wrote so interestingly about it - and ecstatic that you didn't go with him.

Seek out this issue in the NESFA archives for other interesting pieces. Like Editor Joseph Nicholas' meditation on the value of green landscape versus a (considerably subhyperspace) highway bypass. Or Yvonne Rousseau's reprint of a 1953 historian's essay about an artifact suggesting that the great 15th century fleet of the Chinese admiral/eunuch Ch'eng Ho may have visited Australia before the Europeans.

I told you this zine was rich. It strikes that rare, just-right note between serious and lively. Although it's "a science fiction fanzine with scarcely any mention of science fiction - and scarcely any mention of science fiction fandom, for that matter..." So be warned. Or intrigued.

 

Opuntia 28 March 1996 Published by Dale Speirs, Box 6830, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 2E7 16 pages including covers 5 1/2 x 8 ½ $3 for one-time sample, or the usual

To paraphrase an old Larry Niven passage - "Have you noticed in me a tendency to use profanity for emphasis?"

"Not really. Why?"

"The type is Opuntia is goddam small."

The typeface itself is a decent serif typewriter, the two-column layout is good, the half-size booklet format is interesting and theoretically easy to read (although running all text sideways to the gutter keeps you wanting to read down to the next page instead of up to the next column), even the margins are spacious. But to continue the Niven riff, at this type size even a Puppeteer would have trouble reading the thing. And a Puppeteer has eyes in its hands.

From what I can (dimly) make out, Editor Dale Speirs has here fashioned an austere little personal fanzine concentrating mostly on SF fandom itself.

He takes fandom pretty straight, at least in this issue. The zine jumps right into 3 ½ pages of letters from several of the usual lettercol mafia. Coulson, Warner, Major, Penney et al. are obviously not real people at all, but each a rival worldwide omnipresent letterbombing army. Each grappling for world domination. Their only weapons keen insight, encyclopedic information, and mutant anteater tongues supernally adapted to licking stamps. Subjects this time include why fans are fat, what to do with your fanzine collection when you die, why there are more fan funds ("DUFF, CUFF, SNUFF, FLUFF") than actual fans, why fans are bearded (and fat, too, did we mention that?), and how to tell when a fact from the Internet is accurate (you can't).

By the way, my own explanation for why fans are fat I hereby entitle Burgeon's Law: Because "Ninety percent of everything is fat."

In any case, next Speirs includes a one-page article on a thought by Apparatchik Editor Andy Hooper - that e-mail is closely analogous to telegrams - and, running with it, imagines a world without e-mail but with cheap unlimited-length telegrams.

The rest of the issue continues mining this vein of communications technology back in our own world. A long article by Ken Faig Jr. presents an overview of amateur magazines. You know, zines.

Over 6 closely written pages plus a 2 ½-page bibliography, Faig traces the form from early "manuscript magazines" issued in youth by Hawthorne, R. L. Stevenson, and the Brontes; through the boomlet created by the cheap hand press in the 1850s; to the big boom years of amateur press associations in the last quarter of the 19th century; and on into the 20th century with mimeographs, gelatin hectographs, and other enchanted duplicators. Plus a new hobby group, science fiction fans, that latched onto the idea in the 1930s and helped keep this quirky pastime alive into the present PC era.

There's plenty of interesting stuff to see here and in Speirs' concluding article on carbon paper etc., if you squint: One of the world's largest collections of amateur magazines may be found at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass....The "bundle" or group collation system used for many SF fanzines was adopted primarily for the sake of "reduced expense and fewer hurt feelings"....The Origin of Stencil Duplicating by W. B. Proudfoot (London, Hutchinson & Co., 1972), a major source, also deals with the history of carbon paper, typewriters, and the hectograph...."Proudfoot was a retired employee of the Gestetner company, and his book largely deals with the times of David Gestetner....Carbon paper failed until the typewriter arrived in 1873. Hectographs struggled until the invention of aniline inks in 1856 and the importation of long-fibre paper from Japan circa 1868."

And then there's my favorite thought here, in Speirs' closing: political revolutionaries, who could be jailed for possessing a printing press, "liked hectographs because the secret police could not arrest them for possession of a few packets of gelatin and a cake pan..."

Proper Bostonian 7 Early 1971? Editor Richard Harter For copies, query current PB address 60 pages including covers 8 1/2 x 11 $3 or the usual

Return with us to the thrilling sensawunda days of yesteryear, when Richard Nixon and John Campbell ruled. When young lions Suford and Tony Lewis, Joe Ross, and Leslie Turek had only dared to dream of the galactic conrunning/publishing empire that NESFA would become. When letters to the editor raved about the great art Jack Gaughan was creating for If and Galaxy. Or criticized reviews of Ace Doubles. Or anticipated better service once the Post Office became a corporation.

This is the world of 26 years ago, when Proper Boskonian 7 was first published. Feeling nostalgic, current Editor Ken Knabbe recently ran off reprints of many of the early issues - which I'm sure he'd appreciate my mentioning are ON SALE NOW - and, in the spirit of this year's Retro-Hugos, presented two issues for review.

A first impression of PB 7 is how mainstream it is, with all the names one grew up reading from the early 60s on. The answers given to an SF quiz from the previous issue are works like Clarke's "The Star" and "The Nine Billion Names of God," Bester's The Stars My Destination, Heinlein's Glory Road, Rudyard Kipling's entry in a Groff Conklin anthology, and Eric Frank Russell's "Alamagoosa."

Guess the New Wave hadn't washed over Boston yet.

Because nowhere in this issue will you find a single mention of Ursula Le Guin, who'd published The Left Hand of Darkness the year before. Or Samuel R. Delany, with Babel-17 (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Nova (1968) all out. Or Harlan Ellison with his Dangerous Visions (1967). Or John Brunner and his Stand On Zanzibar (1968). Or Roger Zelazny, who'll live forever for This Immortal (1966) and Lord of Light (1967).

Well, enough diving for dates. You get the picture. Good thing a brash young letter-writer from Toronto named Mike Glicksohn recommended a new Philip K. Dick book called Ubik (1969) (though "admittedly it's confusing and there is no resolution"), or this issue would have approximately zero 1996 spec lit crit cred.

Enough higher criticism: let's wallow in nostalgia, shall we? Here's Young Tony Lewis at play in the fields of Philcon: "I walked in and was met by Andy Porter yelling: get out of town Boston hippies....All drinks were 75 cents mixed, beer, or tonics....That's high for tonic or beer but seems reasonable for mixed drinks....The pros started drifting in: Harry [Harrison?], Ben Bova, Tom Purdom, Gordy Dickson, Bob Silverberg (and Barbara), David Gerrold....I think I saw Keith Laumer....Lester [del Rey]....Alex and Cory [Panshin] were there... [discussing] 'I Will Fear No Evil'....[The hotel] was a Sheraton and the chain is very anxious to get ALL sf conventions since we are good people, cause little trouble, don't barf on the rugs, pay lots money at the bars, and in general behave ourselves." Early days yet, indeed.

Youthful Joe Ross weighs in with a timeless discussion of why SF magazines are on the way out. "Why do so many protagonists in modern fiction have to be such incompetent, selfish [here Joe's editor lets him use a word my editor won't]?....We are subjected to that idiot who let himself get pushed around by Mrs. Robinson, and in SF we've got Jack Barron....It's about time someone running the prozines made things happen." Instead of holding your breath, I'd pursue that law career, young man.

There are also fake science papers, a puzzle, a word game, a fizzy piece on the art of Coke bottle stacking by Sweet Sixteen (or thereabouts) Sue Lewis, and lots of 1970 art by Mike Gilbert, William Rotsler, and others. Lastly, it wouldn't be a proper Proper Bostonian without a British Isles trip report. This one sends a young thing named Marsha Elkin to a European SF convention named HEICON, although it somewhat mysteriously begins with an account of a canoe trip on the Concord River by a group including whitewater ace Leslie Turek. Later, though, Marsha attends a party in London with U. K. writers E. C. "Ted" Tubb and Kenneth Bulmer, where "We talked, and talked, and talked. My hat was admired and I was chided for wearing slacks. Either Ted or Ken explained that while slacks were O. K., how could they tell how good my legs were if I didn't wear minis. I apologized." You've got a long way to go, baby.

Proper Bostonian 8 July 1971 Editor Richard Harter For copies, query current PB address 86 pages including covers 8 1/2 x 11 $3 or the usual

Comic genius Steven Wright describes the dictionary as a book about everything. From a fannish point of view, that's pretty much the story with PB 8. It's sort of the reverse of a theme issue: 86 pages of material on everything from 1971's hottest fan feuds to Yugoslav operas to surrealistic recipes to collecting tables of contents to the difference between Sherlockiana and Holmesiana to falling in love with a brass axe.

Surprisingly, the issue's charm is at least as Continental as Critical Wave's, with contributions by several Brits. And an apparently serious rave review by Nathan Childers for something called The Great Interstellar Marshmallow Conspiracy, a classical comic opera "which is sung in Croatian and which was distributed only in Yugoslavia (except for smuggled copies)." So you may not recall the showstopper, "Marshmallow Moon Over Belgrade."

There's also Italian TAFF delegate Mario B. Bosnyak with the longest word in the German language. (You probably thought it was DONAUDAMPFSCHIFFARTSGESELLSCHAFTSKAPITANSWITWE, but Mario says it's really HIMMIHERRGOTZAGGRAMENTZEFIXALLELUJAMILEXTAMARSCHSCHEISSGLUMPFAREGTZ. And adds "If you don't find out what it means, I'll be glad to translate it for you if I can make it to Noreascon." See you in 2001, then, Mario? Super.

Several old stalwarts check in with contributions. Marsha Elkin continues the Heicon report begun last ish. By the end of this second installment she still hasn't made it to the con. You do learn, however, that Heicon will be (was?) in Heidelberg, a fact that she lightheartedly neglected to mention anywhere in Part 1. This chapter covers outings to such Heidelbergian suburbs as Liverpool, Bristol, and Oxford. While shopping for snuff boxes, she falls in love with the aforementioned brass axe, "double bitted with a stiletto in the haft and lovely chasing on the haft and blade." Note that this fondness is never explained. Perhaps she wanted to give some Heidelberg student really interesting dueling scars.

From his cradle, Craig McDonough researches corollaries to techdom's beloved Murphy's Law that probably still come in handy for Craig's consulting work today. "All warranty and guarantee clauses become void upon payment of the invoice....Tolerances will accumulate unidirectionally toward maximum difficulty of assembly....All constants are variables....Interchangeable parts aren't."

Mike Glicksohn muses that "it is an eerie feeling to open a fanzine and read a letter that I appear to have written and of which I have no memory at all!" One recalls that substance abuse was perhaps even more prevalent among fans in 1971 than today.

For instance, Editor Richard Harter had clearly been abusing some kind of duplicating fluid. He has a good lead article making fun of a faction called The Fannish Insurgency, which author Gregory Benford may now be embarrassed he once supported. But at the end of the zine, Harter spends pages goofily giving and soliciting advice on fanzine printing technicalities: "You can get that kind of effect if the burn voltage is set too low. The proper burn voltage for cutting a stencil varies widely with the brand of electrostencil....If anybody knows where I can get 30 lb buff for under a dollar a ream, please let me know....If you pay four dollars and up for a quire of stencils, which is what most people pay retail, you are being robbed." Noted, Richard. Now put down that crank handle and let's talk this out.

It happens to all fan editors sooner or later, I guess. Right, Ken? And for more in the Some Things Never Change Department, here's Harter again, with a timeless and pathetic plaint forming the last words on the last page: "This issue slipped about a month and a half for various reasons. I have enough material for another issue right away but I don't have the time. I just don't have the time. No way. Actually a quarterly schedule isn't possible - three times a year, yes, but quarterly, no."

 

 

Zina 1 June 1995 Published by Barnaby Rapoport 407 Noxon Road, LaGrangeville, NY 12540 14 pages including covers 8 1/2 x 11 the usual or $1

This charming, perceptive, pink, editor-created zine was accompanied by an addenda sheet, which introduces you to Editor Rapoport's light touch while touching on an apparent paradox of physics all too familiar to many fans. About his recent move to a new address: "That was an education. A paperback book seems so innocuously portable! So small, so light in weight! I suppose an individual army ant seems harmless too."

There's a lovely cover page, initially bewildering because there's no zine title, number, date, or any of the usual stuff. Instead, you get a page of small-set text attributed to Philip K. Dick's The Divine Invasion, with a breezy accompanying Diana Harlan Stein illustration. Reading this - let's call it, this overt meta-text - answers several questions. Why is the zine called Zina? What form will it take? What will be its attitude toward the universe? Why is it pink?

It's all embedded here in the Dick quote. A cool move, this. How many other zine covers ever make you think?

The inside confirms this favorable impression. First with design: good typeface choice and size in a classically readable two-column format, with clean use of rules and boxes, really pops off the hot pink stock. (Although it's awfully belt-and-suspenders to signal para breaks with indents plus line space between paras, no?) The credited "Design Goddess," Nevenah Smith, could definitely find other pubs that need her divine design intervention throughout the fanzine world.

Early on, Rapoport swears "zines are the main subject of Zina." Well, maybe next time. Because this 14-page issue has 8 pages of summer movie reviews (Die Hard With a Vengeance, Crimson Tide, Johnny Mnemonic, Mad Love, Congo, and Batman Forever, plus Bar Girls, a lesbian date movie which tops off this testosterone fest with a cooling draft of "subversive pop"). Plus maybe 3½ pages of fanzine reviews. (He approves the party line of Apparatchik, but dares to find bits of the revered Mimosa 16 stodgy and "hopeless," and questions (OK, slaughters) an "unctuous, self-serving" piece wherein popular SF writer Mike Resnick claims a close, selfless relationship with fandom). Add a 3-page introduction that mixes material on naming Zina together with CD reviews, a description of the new drink Zima (apparently just charcoal-filtered malt liquor covertly bottled by Coors), and heavy needling about Apparatchik's Andy Hooper's failure to make Rapoport a lifetime subscriber despite a rashly published promise.

Hooper is featured prominently among Rapoport's nice clear goofy little line drawings. However, if Hooper does not in fact resemble a turtle-headed donut with flippers and pincers, let's hope he's a good sport.

There's a good mind at work (and play) here. Rapoport looks at things we all chatter about - zines, books, movies - and thinks his own thoughts. For instance, that puns and "tiresome wordplay" are way overdone in most zines. (Don't think he and I will reach a good rapoport on that one anytime soon.) He feels the latest Die Hard should have tried harder to give the heroes, not the villains, opportunities for what we really want from such flicks: "justified mayhem" like the amok cab shortcut through Central Park. And he gets off some good lines, which is what I really want from such zines. About Congo: "The cast is so bland I forget who they are...." Or Johnny Mnemonic: "all of Gibson's moody poetry has evaporated, leaving that now-inert shell of wit and coolness around what replaces it, stale generic subroutines." And on his own creation: "The great thing about first issues is that no one knows how late they are."

Unfortunately not true of second issues, though, Barnaby. We're waiting....

 
 
 

A Case of Conscientiousness

James Blish and
The Tale That Wags the God

by Bob Devney

Spock Must Die hit bookstores and newsstands all over the U. S. in 1970, and was an instant success.

The public absolutely ate up the book's plethora of literary insights delivered in articles, critical analyses, an autobiographical essay, and an interview - all teeming with à propos references to the works of historians Oswald Spengler and Thomas S. Kuhn; fantasist James Branch Cabell; philosophers Artemidorus, Karl Jung, and Susanne K. Langer; scientists Johannes Kepler, E. A. Milne, Nathaniel Kleitman, and Eugene Aserinsky; anthropologist Loren Eiseley; painter Paul Klee; composers Franz Joseph Haydn, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage; and writers James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Thomas Pynchon -

Oh. Sorry, wrong book.

Wait, I've got it now. Spock Must Die, of course, was the first original novel set in the Star Trek universe, following a series of earlier novelizations of scripts from the TV show. And it certainly was a whopping success and good exciting read. Although perhaps a little light on critical references to great intellects, their works and theories.

The erudite collection of critical essays I was thinking of was The Tale That Wags the God. (Which I shall refer to hereafter as Wags.) It came out in 1987, and may not have sold quite as many copies.

Sorry for the mix-up. But it's a natural mistake, given that both were written by the same man.

James Benjamin Blish (1921-1975) grew up in Chicago and New Jersey, was an early member of the Futurians fan group in NYC, sold his first story to the SF pulp adventure magazine Super Science Stories in 1940, got a degree in microbiology at Rutgers, did postgrad work in zoology at Columbia, quit to become a full-time writer, was a member of the John Campbell stable at Astounding where many of his Cities in Flight stories appeared through the 1950s, moved to England in the middle 1960s, and by the end of his life had written twelve successful Star Trek novels.

That's the career of an entertaining, craftsmanlike, good-value-for-money, midcentury midlist middlebrow SF writer.

Why would a guy like that get mixed up with writing serious, name-dropping, standard-setting, paradigm-happy, polysyllabificating high literary criticism?

I honestly don't think it's because Blish was ashamed of science fiction, or his own or the field's pulpy beginnings. That may be the case with a few lit critters - that minority of the lit crit community who enjoy the field's finest writing but turn up their noses at anything else, cultivating a few precious blossoms without regarding the manure that fed the roots. James Blish enjoyed the good stuff, however pungent or perfumy.

Nor was Blish just a late-blooming convert to intellectualism, whose stories and essays uniformly grew more serious as he mastered his medium and put away childish things. Remember, another Star Trek book - his twelfth -came out the year he died.

I believe Blish worked seriously at everything he did. That's why he thought that he and every other writer in the field could and should improve their craftsmanship in any story for any audience. Preached against the sin of not thinking out an idea to its conclusions. Talked about the writer's duty to be responsible.

Simply put, he was conscientious.

That's why beside his more obviously commercial work, Blish produced fiction touching on deep (indeed often dark) philosophical and religious matters with which SF up to his time had rarely concerned itself. The gratifying and original results range from the ETs apparently created with no concept of sin in A Case of Conscience (1959) to the horrific prospect in Black Easter (1968) of scholars releasing the Last Judgment onto the world, in a spirit of scientific inquiry familiar to Faust and Oppenheimer....

Also in this sercon vein, Blish co-founded (with SF's earliest serious critic, Damon Knight) the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference in Milford, Pennsylvania. After Blish's move to England, in 1972 he helped set up a U. K. Milford conference that I believe continues today. He was an active charter member of the field's premier professional organization, the Science Fiction Writers of America. And he conscientiously wrote a number of articles intended to introduce both technical and broader theoretical criticism into the field. His earlier and better-known efforts, written as William Atheling, Jr., can be found in The Issue At Hand (1964) and More Issues At Hand (1970). Other pieces and Blish's last critical work were collected in 1987 - in the book at hand.

There are nine Blish essays altogether in Wags, together with an autobiographical piece and the text of a interview, plus a preface by editor Cy Chauvin, a useful introduction by John Foyster that places the author's criticism in context and discusses the other two critical collections, and a lengthy - all right, a humongous - bibliography prepared by Blish's wife, the writer Judith Lawrence Blish. The pieces here first appeared in journals and magazines from American Libraries to Playboy, with dates from 1968 to 1984.

The first article in The Tale That Wags the God appeared under that name in American Libraries in 1970, but was renamed "The Function of Science Fiction" in a later reprinting. First, it demonstrates that SF wasn't always literature's bastard child: "In the nineteenth century, virtually every writer of stature - and many now forgotten - wrote at least one science fiction story....Jules Verne, in short, was just plain wrong in assuming that he had invented a whole new kind of story."

Then, Blish points out, SF had the misfortune to be cut out from the herd due to "the invention (by the American publishing firm of Street and Smith) of the specialized fiction magazine....This invention, as it turned out, was malign; in literature, it is almost a pure obverse of Mussolini's discovery that the way to raise the birth rate is to fail to supply electricity to housing projects." He's quite interesting on genres here. The once-hugely-popular ghost story is exorcised by the electric light; Rosemary's Baby rests on two conventional women's magazine fears: "Suppose my baby should be born deformed?" and "I think the neighbors don't like me."

Finally, with space travel and increasing media popularity putting SF back on the road to respectability, Blish cites his thesis: "science fiction is the only remaining art form which appeals to the mythopoeic side of the human psyche." Thus his waggish title.

Blish feels that SF melds science and philosophy; gives even nonscientists the "basic scientific emotions" of the thrill of discovery and good old sensawunda; and creates myths that modern humanity can believe, because they're (at least perceived to be) backed by science.

Much of this argument is taken as truism now. But Blish may have been the first to organize the material this cogently, and I don't remember seeing the word "mythopoeic" bandied about much before his time. Now, of course, it's quite handy to bandy.

In the second piece in the collection, "The Science in Science Fiction" (1971), Blish posits that he's "prepared to agree that most of what we call science fiction - even 'hard' science fiction - is technology fiction at best. The scientific content, as a scientist would understand the term, is quite invisible."

He then brings in the philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn, who in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions talks about the innate conservatism of science when it comes to demolishing a favored old paradigm. (Blish seems to be saying that Kuhn originated the use of the word "paradigm" in this context.) As Blish puts it, "science progresses in a series of convulsive hiccups, during each one of which the attempt to suppress the coming convulsion is the strongest feature of the landscape."

So will telepathy, faster-than-light travel, anti-gravity, time travel, and force fields ever hiccup right out of SF into real science, and become part of a future paradigm? Perhaps, Blish replies, and goes on to make a beautiful and unexpected leap.

OK, he says, "it is the duty of the conscientious [that C-word again] science fiction writer not to falsify what he believes to be known fact." But it's "an even more important function for him to suggest new paradigms, by suggesting to the reader, over and over again, that X, Y, and Z are possible."

It worked for space travel; why not for the other items on our wish list? "[W]e have a lot of hardware...on the moon right now, to show us what can be done with repeated suggestion....It seems to me that the most important scientific content in modern science fiction are the impossibilities."

In other words, friends: if you believe in a new paradigm, clap your hands.

"The Arts in Science Fiction" (1972) is one of the strongest pieces in Wags. Here's a knowledgeable expert taking a still-fresh look at something that just hadn't been covered by anyone else in the field, and still doesn't get all that much discussion today.

You may not be surprised that Blish finds comparatively little reference in SF to the arts so far. And notes that when you do find such a reference, all too often it seems that "the artistic tastes of the future are decidedly worse than our own." In Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X, artistic life in a future utopia "consisted of gauzily-clad children doing folk dances," and statues or public buildings "in the qausi-heroic, or late-Mussolini, style..."

He also lights into Heinlein, who "has no use for the abstract, not only in fiction or poetry ["...I am told...that Robert Heinlein is firmly convinced that the works of [his own] blind poet Rhysling are real good stuff!..."], but also in music and painting." Or sculpture; Blish seems to find Heinlein's mooning in Stranger in a Strange Land over Rodin's "Fallen Caryatid" crudely sentimental and simple-minded. Heinlein "likes paintings which tell a story....he has a general bias for narrative; no other kind of art appears to exist for him."

There's lots more tasty stuff here: How Edgar Pangborn wrote "one of the very few knowledgeable sf stories about music I have ever encountered," anthologized by Blish himself in a (slim) collection of future-arts, New Dreams This Morning (1966). How "every period...believes it is on the edge of artistic anarchy," so don't worry so much. What interesting stuff is coming out of modern SF poetry. What people like Anthony Burgess, Brian Aldiss, and Thomas Pynchon are up to. And, to turn the easel around, what effect SF is having on the arts in general.

The shortest piece in the collection, "A New Totemism?" (1984) takes on a fairly hefty issue for its five itty-bitty pages: "one of the oldest and knottiest questions of iconography: What is the shape of the soul?"

In more mundane terms, Blish is wondering what ETs might look like. Brace yourself. "The first intelligent extra-solar race that we meet may be wiser and nobler than we are, and look all the same like something out of Hieronymous Bosch....The situation is comparable to a first encounter with African artworks [thus "totemism"], where no insight is possible until we realize that what seem like distortions to us are symmetries in a culture where our norms do not prevail."

So the ET may appear to be "constructed of something...like boiled beans, as in Dali's 'Premonition of Civil War.'" Yummy image, Mr. Blish.

As an earlier and less refined critic (Joseph Goebbels) put it, "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun." Admittedly, when we hear an essay title like "Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History" (1978), our phaser fingers may get itchy.

But the title and subtitles in the article should probably be taken as academic pastiche, employed since Blish in this piece was applying to SF the ideas in hyperintellectual philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. (Blish's Cities in Flight stories are said to be much indebted to Spengler.) And we might especially be inclined to let the man have his fun here. Because this astounding little essay was composed in the hospital bed wherein James Blish was dying of lung cancer.

First Blish summarizes Spengler's main concepts. This took several pages; I won't even try, except to say that Spengler saw sweeping connections and cycles throughout the vast epochs of human history, with lots of repetitions in the general although not the specific. One vital Spenglerian idea: syncretism, the combining of different forms of belief or practice from different eras and areas into a "new" whole.

Springing from that, Blish's central thesis is so dense with ideas and specificity that it's worth quoting in full. The italics are his:

"Science fiction is the internal (intracultural) literary form taken by syncretism in the West. It adopts as its subject matter that occult area where a science in decay (elaborately decorated with technology) overlaps the second religiousness - hence, incidentally, its automatic receptivity from its emergence to such notions as time travel, ESP, dianetics, Dean Drives, faster-than-light travel, reincarnation and parallel universes. (I know of no other definition which accounts for our insistence that stories about such non-ideas be filed under the label.)"

Read that over twice, then go look up the whole essay. I will say that Spengler's serene determinism leads Blish to predict that we can expect no masterpieces from SF - it's simply not in the nature of the genre's niche in history. This need not be "an occasion for despair. I repeat, we have free will within our rôle and era, as long as we know what it is and when we are." Thanks, I feel much better now.

Speaking of despair, though: "On a broader scale, most of Spengler's predictions for the Twentieth Century after 1921 have come to pass, and in the order in which he predicted them, a good test of any theory. He did fail to foresee that they would happen so fast; but he set the date of the utter collapse of the West at around 2200, which is just about as much time left as the Club of Rome gives us, and for the same reason - insanely runaway technology."

"Poul Anderson: The Enduring Explosion" was written for the special April 1971 Poul Anderson Issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Naturally, this means you get more kisses than killshots here from Blish. In fact, he coyly hints Anderson may have written a few poor stories amid a sea of good ones, then refuses to say which they are. (I didn't say everything Blish wrote was higher criticism.)

In an interesting aside, Blish claims to have midwived a critical term still in hard and heavy use today. He once labeled "the kind of thing Poul writes as 'hard copy' - work so deeply felt and so carefully crafted that it looks solid no matter from what angle you view it....Everyone instantly assumed that what I was talking about was sf in which the science was correct, and thus inadvertently was born our present usage of 'hard science fiction.'"

Can anyone out there point to a better or prior claim?

In any case, Blish makes an argument for Anderson's value in terms of prolific quality (238+ stories by 1968), scientific accuracy (Tau Zero is both scientifically plausible and mind-boggling enough to outdo E. E. Smith), literary craftsmanship (the story The Day After Doomsday builds up to a crucial space battle which is then narrated in ballad form), special gift for bardic poetry (he actually pulled that battle ballad off) and deep understanding of how to create both tragedy (the "utterly pitiless" story "Sister Planet") and comedy (The High Crusade, maybe not so much the "Hoka" stories).

Last but not least, Blish shows that Poul also knows how to party. As evidenced in the story "A Bicycle Built for Brew," in which Anderson "constructed a spaceship powered by beer and made me believe it would actually work."

Let's pass lightly over the next three selections.

"The Literary Dreamers" (1973) surveys dream research both classical and current and relates it to Smirt (1934), a late dream-novel by the fantasist James Branch Cabell (1879-1958). Blish edited a Cabell Society journal. Frankly, he was nuts about the guy. Equally frankly, I'm not. If you are, this and the next piece should be right up your tree. Certainly the dream science here is interesting but now perhaps somewhat dated; the Cabell material almost put me into a dream state myself.

Ditto in spades "The Long Night of a Virginia Author" (1972), which is all about Cabell. I perked up a bit at a list of parallels between Cabell, with his trilogy The Nightmare Has Triplets (successive novels entitled Smirt, Smith, Smire - was his editor insane?), and James Joyce with Finnegans Wake; said parallels are in fact somewhat startling. But then begins the 8-page plot summary of Snore - sorry, of Cabell's trilogy. All else is darkness.

Last of my three over-easies, there's "Music of the Absurd" (1964). It appeared in Playboy, but try as I might the only sexual note I could tease out of the entire article was a description of the Greeks' "primary harmonic discovery - that women tend to sing the 'same' melody an octave higher than men do." Other than this heavy-breathing moment, the piece is an extremely well-written, informative overview of new movements in "serious" music to the early 60s, some of which Blish appreciated but most of which he considered entirely wrong-headed and potentially disastrous. Music was Blish's favorite art after writing. If you have any interest in the subject, his insights here are well worth reading.

"A Science Fiction Coming of Age" (part of which saw previous publication in 1972) is an autobiographical sketch, and thus hard to summarize or evaluate fairly. After all, it was his life.

Here's some of what we learn:

Blish came to science fiction at age nine, in June 1931, when a friend gave him the April issue of Astounding Stories. It had a garish cover, and stories by Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, and Ray Cummings. He was hooked forever.

Even at nine, he claims, he had a "sort of common sense about the future...to see, for example, that interplanetary travel was...inevitable...whereas time-travel was just a romancer's game."

His mother referred to SF, Blish says "vaguely" but I believe rather elegantly, as "fairy-tales for grown-ups."

Shortly before moving from Chicago to East Orange, New Jersey, he finished 7th grade and had a letter published in Astounding - "the second memory is far more vivid than the first."

He filled the pages of a juvenile home-made SF fan magazine called The Planeteer with the adventures of a Hawk-Carse-like hero, a sidekick named Bob, a girlfriend named Velvinor, and a weak patsy wonderfully named Crawly Spindling.

He sold his first story to a professional market as a college sophomore.

Emboldened by steady sales to the SF pulps, though married and with an infant, Blish quit grad school in 1948 to become a full-time free-lance author. By the time that dream collapsed, he'd been forced to sell the house.

Against Blish's own "stern resistance" - he'd considered it unsaleable even when writing the original short story - Frederik Pohl and Betty Ballantine persuaded him to turn A Case of Conscience into a novel. It won Blish his only Hugo, in 1958.

Doctor Mirabilis (1965), a straight historical novel about Roger Bacon, was Blish's own choice as the best book he'd ever written. Borrowing a trick from Cabell, in retrospect he announced it as part of a trilogy - on the question of whether the quest for secular knowledge was evil - which he called After Such Knowledge. Its elements (in reading order): Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment (he considered these latter two one book), and A Case of Conscience.

The last item we'll consider, "James Blish Talks to Brian Aldiss," was published in 1973 after a recorded interview at a British SF convention. It's gem. Following a whole book's worth of tightly controlled literary discourse, Blish seems to let his hair down and natter easily with his old friend Aldiss.

Who manages in a fairly short space to ask many of the questions any Blishniac would most want to hear answered, including (although asked with perfect geniality) the equivalents of Why'd you bail out on America? Was your greatest idea yours or really John Campbell's? Why are you so obsessed with eschatology? Why is your writing so cold? Wasn't that book you wrote about your failed first marriage with [fellow SF author] Virginia Kidd a failure itself? Aren't you ever going to loosen up?

Remember, this guy is a very good friend. But perhaps an even better interviewer.

Here in part is how Blish responds.

"I have in fact, pretty much, for my own purposes, exhausted America. I didn't come to this decision lightly. Every day here [in England] I find more and more things that I love, that are personal to me, that enrich me, whereas in the States I was finding fewer and fewer."

"The main thing that [Astounding editor John Campbell, in a famous four-page letter inspiring the Cities in Flight series] did contribute, the central idea, was that the most valuable things that these migrant workers could transfer in a situation involving fast interstellar travel was...information. These are the pollinating bees of the galaxy....I was quite tired of the kind of sf story in which the leading character rises from lieutenant-general to ruler of the galaxy....Therefore my migrants, carrying their information and operating their small intrigues, seemed to me to be much more interesting as humans...."

"There could be no more final and black an ending for a novel than Black Easter [SPOILER WARNING: this book ends with Armageddon and the triumph of the Devil], so my editor at Doubleday said "how about a sequel?".... I mentioned this mad project [to Harry Harrison], and tried to see how I could undertake it. Harry, who is a master of the over-reaction, threw up his hands, staggered backwards across the room, brought up against the wall with his hands thrown up against it, clasped his brow, then...said, 'Well, meanwhile in another universe very similar to ours....'"

"So many people have said that my writing is cold, in one way or another, that I must assume it to be true. Now, when I hear it from Harlan Ellison, who lives at the top of his voice, I discount it, but Harlan is not the only one to have said it by any means....What I want to do is to produce work which contains passion controlled by reason, in as exact a balance as...I can manage."

[About his failing-marriage comic/tragic/SF novel, Fallen Star (1957)] "It's almost totally autobiographic, on the surface as well as at the bottom....The novel fails...when I weighted the damned thing on the science-fictional side. That was a failure of nerve on my part, and I'm sorry for it."

''I won't consider [a piece of writing] a work of art unless it not only has the wider feeling that I'm hoping for, but that it still has the control I feel an artist absolutely must have in order to say what he means....I don't dare lose control because I don't know who I'm becoming yet."

So that's a longish sample of Blish the critic.

Conscientiously trying to bring some intellectual rigor, thoughtfulness, and a wider cultural context to his and others' work. Not a humorist, but certainly not humorless. Often dismissed as too cold and analytical, but passionate about SF's roots and its reach for the stars.

It wouldn't do to push the analogy too far, but I often think of James Blish as science fiction's T. S. Eliot.

Both left America, where intellect was not to say the least overvalued, and found a home in England where their intellectualism was better appreciated. Both were dry in their approach, and born to criticism at least as much as to their quite significant individual creative accomplishments. And both were quite concerned with sin. Above all, with the sins of the intellect.

There's a sad story about The Science Fiction Foundation in the U. K., another worthy group of ameliorationalists which Blish helped found, in 1970. They appropriately established the James Blish Award after his death. Its purpose: honoring excellence in SF criticism.

Also appropriately, the first award went to Blish's old friend Brian Aldiss in 1977. But the project was then canned due to lack of cash.

It couldn't have been for lack of a new generation of fine critics. I'd have nominated any of the triad from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - Peter Nicholls, John Clute, and Brian Stableford - for the ESF and other individual works. Not to speak of SF-authors-turned-occasional critics such as Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, James Gunn, or Barry Malzberg. All must own a considerable debt to Damon Knight and to James Blish, who blazed the trail.

About Wags itself: in Clute and Nicholl's monumentally judicious Encyclopedia, Peter Nicholls cheekily terms it a "curate's egg." Turns out this is an English catchphrase from an early 1900s Punch cartoon, which showed a nervous, overawed, overeager curate having breakfast with the bishop. The bishop says the curate must have got a bad egg. Blurts the curate, "Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent."

His partner Clute might beg to differ, and point out that the egg we're talking about here is from the workshop of Fabergé. In his solo offshoot Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), Clute observes: "If American SF were interested more in intellectual discourse than in the telling of stories, if it were interested more in thinkers ravaged by heavy thoughts than in heroes, then James Blish might have been the most significant figure in the whole history of the genre."

Still, why read rag-tags of criticisms in perhaps not the best critical book by someone who might have been - but in this universe was not - the best SF writer, and who moreover has already been dead for more than 20 years?

Because a good writer can always surprise you, as I hope some of the above has demonstrated. And James Blish was certainly a good writer, who thought deeply about how to reward your reading of his work.

He was conscientious about it.

 

The Tale That Wags the God by James Blish

edited by Cy Chauvin, introduction by John Foyster, bibliography (96 pages) by Judith L. Blish Advent:Publishers, Inc. Chicago 1987 Hardcover, 290 pages