So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
I love it when Jim Al-Khalili communicates science. He’s a physicist, a BBC Radio 4 presenter of science programmes (The Life Scientific is a great podcast, btw) and he’s written, among other books, a fine work on the history of medieval Arabic science. (I have no idea about his academic publications because I can’t read the first sentence of an abstract in Nature without gibbering.) Give me his popular science books, and I am happy.
I am even more happy when science is applied to science fiction, and Aliens does this excellently. Al-Khalili took the premise that if there are aliens out there, in the vastness of space, what will they look like, and how could we detect them? He asked twenty scientists with a foot in the field to speculate – in a nicely moderated popular style – how their specialisms could illuminate what might happen. He starts with Astronomer-Royal Sir Martin Rees, and moves from astrophysics to microbiology to psychology and neuroscience. In about half the essays, the alien extremes that we already know about on Earth are explored for what they might tell us about the possibilities for life Out There. I already knew about deep-sea thermal communities of bacteria that thrive in conditions that would slaughter most other life-forms, but did you know that communities of chasmoendoliths live inside rock?
I was most struck by Rees’ remark that our first contact will not be biological, but artificial, since that’s what we are doing already. Mars already has alien visitors: our AI vehicles and exploratory equipment are already out there, dropping Earth particles into its peculiar atmosphere. The limitations of space travel (time, energy and mass) make missions operated by AIs much more likely than sending humans out in deep sleep conditions. And then there are the places we could look at: since solar winds strip atmospheres from orbiting bodies unless their gravity is strong enough, only those orbiting bodies with the right geophysical parameters are likely to hold the conditions for life. These begin with water (or another substrate fluid for nutrient exchange and solvents: several of the contributors differ about including methane in this list), and the most common chemical elements that have created life as we know it. Most of the potential life talked about is microbial, and while it’s difficult to get excited, let alone alarmed, at the thought of a mat of proteins living between silicate layers only a few cells thick, it’s that scale, and level of strangeness, that we should be open to if we’re serious about finding life Out There.
The essays are short and snappy, and include excellent round-ups of science-fiction films and novels about alien contact that should be read or seen, or avoided. There is inevitable duplication of explanation – almost everyone carefully defines how H2O is essential – but there are also good links across chapters (evidence of a good editing hand). The consensus seems to be that Europa, Titan and Enceladus are the bodies most likely to harbour life in our own system, but my word, getting to that life will take many of our lifetimes. Even if the SETI search can detect suitable planets, identifying and contacting life on them is one of the longest-term projects we have. Assuming we’re still here on Earth when contact is made by the AIs we send out on missions lasting hundreds of years. My only complaint is that no-one, absolutely no-one, mentions the NASA press conference of a few years ago which announced with hysterical excitement that they’d found evidence of arsenic-based life on Mars. That debacle was hushed up so quickly: I really wanted to read more about the mistakes scientists make when they think they’ve found alien life, and what we learn from those mistakes.
Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) Aliens. Science Asks, Is Anyone Out There? (Profile Books, 2016), ISBN 9781781256817, £8.99
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
Hello, 2017. Look, I’m jet-lagged, I’m about to set up house in a different country to where I currently live, and I start a new job next week. I’m a bit distracted. Please amuse yourself with these short reviews written for the SF Ruminations series on short stories by female sf writers published before 1969: C L Moore’s ‘No Woman Born’, and Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Lady in the Tower’. I’ll be back next week when I’ve got the internet working.
Recently I posted a collection of short hatchet jobs on books that I felt so strongly about I had to be bitter about them in public. This was one of the most popular reviews I’ve posted in the last 6 months, so you clearly like this stuff. I’ve found a few more. I haven’t included those books which everyone says are Great Novels, but which I didn’t, personally, much like. Nor have I included the books that I only feel ‘meh’ about, rather than ‘arrgh!’ Here I warn you off the ‘arrgh!’ books, because I think they’re bad.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) By the author of Dracula.This is dreadful. At first I wondered if the British place-names had been invented since they have no relation to real geography. The narrative is more like journalism than fiction, but also clumsy; and the characterisation is perfunctory and tedious, like symbols going through the motions. It’s a Victorian male quest romance with medieval adventures in magical woods infested by snakes, and still I gave up out of boredom. So much potential wasted.
Noel Langley, Cage me a Peacock (1935) Arch little number. This was Langley’s first novel (I reviewed his There’s a Porpoise on My Tailhere) and has some spectacular imaginative leaps, related in the style that Richard Garnett invented in 1888 with Twilight of the Gods, in which tales from the classical period are told in modern colloquial conversation. (Naomi Mitchison did it too, cutting out the slang to make the modern historical novel.) It’s a retelling of the Rape of Lucrece from Suetonius as if by Noel Coward, and the result is more tasteless than witty. Tonally, the novel struggles to make the sexual mores of the classical period sound like a glamorous cocktail party, and the casual executions, suicides and rapes are really desperately unfunny. It’s the novel I dislike the least from this selection, because it can’t reconcile its subject and style, not because it’s particularly bad.
Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill (1949) Historical romance and sentimental sludge. Goudge can be a bit gushing, but this is the worst I’ve read. Its manner is affected, and the plot has nothing solid to grasp. She can do so much better: The Dean’s Watch (1960), for instance, has a hard and serious edge that redeems the gloop. This one is uncontrolled, woolly, besotted and tedious. The characters are largely copied from her much more famous The Little White Horse, published three years earlier, and the dragging coincidences and characters’ secrets are signalled so blatantly that Goudge must have expected her readers to need to know where they were going to be able to enjoy the journey. I didn’t.
T J Bass, The God Whale (1974) Science fiction. I did like the automated whale built to harvest and process at molecular levels, and I love the Trilobite bot that worships her with such cheerful eagerness. But the stories of the humans escaping dystopian body-harvesting madness through tunnels and chomping machinery are much less interesting. The idea of a future society pouring vast investment into keeping alive a half-man from the past that it has no value or use for, seems wildly improbable. So many good ideas that go nowhere, and shrivel up for want of some thought-through nurturing.
Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch (1977) Detective. One of the very last Roderick Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh, in which she seems to be wandering in time. It’s set in the early 1970s (flares, drugs, T-shirts, jeans) but Ricky Alleyn (in his very early 20s) smokes a pipe, and the alluring family with whom he gets friendly are straight out of the 1930s in behaviour and attitudes. Roderick Alleyn is stuck in his 1950s period, and in any case would be aged about 100 by this time. The slang feels wrong and unexpected. The scenes of excessive violence and torture are quite unlike anything Marsh had written before. It’s a jumble of elements that can’t and don’t work well together, like a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels.
Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984) Fantasy. Its 25th-anniversary reprinting and praise from writers I admire persuaded me to buy this, and I am SO DISAPPOINTED. What a noxious, incomplete load of tosh. How can it have won the WFA Best Novel award? Or spawned a series? The central idea of a mythago, archetypes brought into being through the characters’ minds and their proximity to leylines (or something like that) is interesting, but why did it have to be so violent, misogynistic and ultimately sterile? There were some great ideas, but the whole thing is a soggy, pointless, swampish mass of ideas, not a novel. I resented being asked to accept illogical origin stories and endless tedious journeys for no purpose. The RAF photography from the air was the novel’s saving grace: the application of modern technology to a fantasy plot makes a serious contribution to telling stories about impossibilities. But everything else was desperately unsatisfactory, and historically out of whack when it should have been precise.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) Historical sf. This novel was promoted as hilarious, and I believed the hype. It is classically farcical, but not often in a good way. It has a technically challenging time-travel plot from Willis’s Mr Dunworthy series of fictions, that fails because she uses time-travel as a casual means to an end, not as the life-threatening, risk-loaded business that her Doomsday Book, for instance, tackles with proper caution. The plot is crammed with babbling, caricatured characters on a tediously slow progression along the River Thames by rowing-boat with a dog and Oxford eccentrics as drawn by an American in awe of comedy moustaches. I think that’s part of the book’s problem for me: it’s dependent on American readers finding quaint English eccentricity funny. Adding farce to the terrifying implications of being able to travel in time, and trying to squeeze jeopardy out of that, is tonally jarring. It’s a self-indulgent homage to Three Men in a Boat, but I didn’t think that was funny either.
If I’ve dissed your favourite book, I’m sorry. We all have different tastes, and I’ve tried to be fair, or at least rational. That’s the lot for 2016: I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year, all round.
By the time you read this, I hope to be in Hawai’i (actually Kauai). This is a major splashout holiday, for a particular reason. It’s halfway across the planet from my home, but it’s also halfway between where my siblings live, and the Christmas holiday is conveniently close to a significant birthday that they will be celebrating (they’re twins), so the clan is gathering.
We will be flying light, and I shall be severely restricted for my reading, as I loathe and abhor ebooks and refuse to use them now except for work when I have no choice. I shall take two fat novels for the flights, and intend to collect more when I’m in the US. I am also taking some slim volumes for reading on the beach as I rest from snorkelling practice, or while listening to the munching of dinosaurs behind me in the forest. I understand that Kauai was where Jurassic Park was filmed, so naturally I expect to see or hear dinosaurs. Hopefully just the herbivorous ones.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies
No, I haven’t read them yet. Yes, I know. Yes, my husband was immersed so deeply in them he forgot to watch Have I Got News For You. Yes, I hope so. I like Mantel’s non-fiction writing, especially when she blasts prejudices into molecular fragments, so I’m looking forward to these. But, when I finish Wolf Hall, will I be able to wait for a fortnight before beginning Bring Up the Bodies on the return flight?
Aliens, ed. Jim Al-Khalili
My favourite physicist broadcaster interviews loads of scientists about what alien lifeforms might look like and how they might function, depending on the speciality research area of each interviewee. Since my father is also a scientist (retired), but has no truck with science fiction, this will produce some interesting conversations.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia
This has been waiting to be read for far too long, I’m going to DO IT. I loved St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, so I’m going to dive into the full novel-length version of her peculiar world.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
I’ll be on an island. I’ll need advice. I’ve also never read this, except for a dreadful abridged children’s edition at primary school that made no sense.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry
I’ve ordered this from the lovely John Sandoe Books in Chelsea, because they slid a catalogue into my bag when I was buying Christmas presents and I was seduced. I’m hoping for poetical subversion, and sarcastic lines to read aloud to annoy people
If you have any suggestions for books I should be looking for in Hawaai’ian bookshops, do let me know.
The next two weeks on this site will offer two humdinger posts, and normal reviewing services will resume in early January. Joyeux Noel, Prettige Kerstdagen, Prettige Feestdagen and Bonne Année!
The science fiction novel that moved my reading tastes from adolescent dragon wonder to feminist space opera was Sassinak (1990), by the then immensely prolific Anne McCaffrey and the fairly unknown Elizabeth Moon. I had been a teenage McCaffrey completist, but once I’d read Sassinak – an engrossing space opera about planet pirates, orphan enslavement, naval training, in-ship subversion and space heroics with the totally magnificent Commander Sassinak (her only name) – I put the Dragons of Pern into a box and moved off into space with Elizabeth Moon. It wasn’t just the fresh (to me) new subject, setting and attitude. Moon is simply a far better author than Anne McCaffrey, and I was ready for the change.
Sassinak is one of the three Planet Pirates novels, planetary romances in what the ISFDB and ESF call McCaffrey’s Ireta series (ie the name of the planet), the others being Death of Sleep (1990) by McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, and Generation Warriors (1991) by McCaffrey and Moon. They were planned to overlap with McCaffrey’s earlier novels Dinosaur Planet (1978) and Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984). The latter are among the weakest of McCaffrey’s novels, and the time gap between their publication, at a crucial plot point cliff-hanger, shows how distracted McCaffrey was at this time, juggling the development of her Dragons of Pern novels into back-story spin-offs, and writing the first of the Crystal Singer series.
These five novels take place on Ireta, a purportedly uninhabited planet that has been chosen for Federated Sentient Planet exploration by a group of mixed ‘lightweight’ (ie regular) humans and Heavyworlders. These are humans who have adapted genetically to their strong-gravitied home planet, and who labour under a resentful and politicised sense of inferiority to the ‘lightweights’. When the Heavyworlders discover the carnivorous habits of the native animals, who appear to have been seeded there aeons earlier from Earth dinosaurs, their dissident members urge the others to embrace this chance to eat fresh meat, a taboo practice now on the ‘lightweight’ human worlds. This puts the ‘lightweights’ in serious danger, not just from the theoretical possibility of the explorers being eaten, but from the rippling implications for fragile interplanetary politics. Sassinak brings her Fleet cruiser through this system in covert pursuit of pirates, and the plot thickens.
The injection of 1980s value systems – vegetarianism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights – is not particularly subtle, but the complex action works, and the novels’ function in McCaffrey and Moon’s proliferating FSP universe contributes necessary groundwork for what Moon would later do with her two Vatta’s War and Serrano Legacy series. In short, I rate the Planet Pirates series because of what Moon would go on to do with its rich background, not for what it offers the reader on its own merits.
After Dinosaur Planet Survivors came out, McCaffrey developed different series by writing with collaborators, effectively setting up her own franchises. After the Planet Pirates, she co-wrote the Doona books with Nye (which I have not read, being put off by Death of Sleep), and the much more successful ‘Brains and Brawn’ series. This developed the feminist cyborg space-ship concept from her The Ship Who Sang of the 1960s, writing with several collaborators, almost all women (though she did co-write one of these novels with S M Sterling, a bloke). Collaboration became an important mark of McCaffrey’s brand, demonstrating her creative generosity, and her eagerness to launch new worlds and new ideas with new writers.
I asked Elizabeth Moon how her collaboration with McCaffrey came about.
Moon: My introduction to the project was my then-publisher, Jim Baen, calling me up and asking if I would consider doing a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey. I knew McCaffrey’s work and liked it, so my immediate reaction was “YES!” I did not know anything about the details during that phone call, nor which of Anne’s worlds it was, or anything else.
Later I found out that I had been asked for Sassinak because of my military background and my known appreciation of Anne’s work. I never did know who mentioned my name first; Anne herself, Jim Baen, or the series’ packager, Bill Fawcett, but clearly Anne made the final choices. Right then, several senior authors in the field were starting to do collaborations with newer writers; Anne eventually worked with quite a few.
When Anne decided to try accepting collaborators into her worlds, she worked with Bill Fawcett, whom she already knew as a fan, editor, and packager well known in the field. Collaborations were becoming popular, and different kinds of collaborations existed and continued to exist for some time. Some were between ‘equals’ (writers of equal or near-equal publishing history and status) and some, like Anne’s, were between a senior writer and a very junior one, someone with only a few books out and who would benefit from the publicity of working with a bestselling writer.
So when I was offered the chance to collaborate with Anne, the three-book package was handed out to three junior writers: Bill Fawcett’s wife Jody Lynn Nye, another writer who dropped out of the project and whose name I unfortunately don’t recall, and me. Jody’s book was the ‘prequel’: Lunzie’s life before the Dinosaur Planet books, in Death of Sleep. Mine was another semi-prequel, covering Sassinak’s early life and intersecting the second Dinosaur Planet book when Fleet arrived. The other writer was supposed to write Generation Warriors, which carried on both Sassinak’s and Lunzie’s stories into the future. These contracts were then handed to each of us, and the books were to be written simultaneously, due at the same time. I had not met any of the other people involved.
Communication was a problem. Remember, this was in the late 1980s; the books came out in 1990 and 1991. I believe (would have to call Jody or Bill to ask) that they were on GEnie, and Anne was also on GEnie [a pre-internet text service]. They could communicate by email. I had no internet (accessing GEnie meant an expensive long distance call on our landline and then a very slow dial-up connection – couldn’t afford it.) We did not get a local internet provider until 1995 (still slow dial-up, but at least not with long-distance charges. Reliable cellphone service in this area didn’t arrive until 1998-99 when they built a tower close enough. I lived over 1000 miles from Bill and Jody in the Chicago area, in a small town in Texas. I’m not sure where the third writer lived but have a vague idea it was somewhere in the northeast. Anne of course was in Ireland, accessible only by snail-mail or phone (but the phone to Ireland was even more out of my reach than the phone to Chicago.) So almost all the communication was on paper, with a few phone calls between us. The questions and rough manuscripts went from us to Anne; she was certainly one layer in the editing process as well as the writing process.
The third writer dropped out late enough in the process that neither Jody nor I could have finished the book for its original due date, and Jody had another contract she was in the middle of. So I was offered it, and started from scratch with the original notes Anne had provided. By then Anne was deep in other projects, and I had met her, so it was easier to communicate and – since she’d liked my work with Sassinak – she gave me a lot of freedom to develop some things on my own. The book required multiple point-of-view characters, and thus was a wonderful ‘stretch’ to what I understood so far.
So I wasn’t writing in daily contact with any of the others. Jody’s book and mine were separated by all of the first, and most of the second, Dinosaur Planet book – we had no real reason to compare what we were doing. Where my assignment overlapped the end of Dinosaur Planet Survivors, I just used the Lunzie as Anne had written her in that book.
It was different for Generation Warriors – and the delay in that one worked to my advantage, because I had Jody’s book, all complete, and could use all the things she had contributed to Lunzie’s history and character, to inform the Lunzie of Generation Warriors. It would’ve been very difficult to write the third without the first two already in hand. Perhaps that’s why the other writer dropped out.
Despite the difficulties inherent in communicating long-distance without internet, I found working with Anne to be a great experience. I could ask her about anything that was giving me trouble – characterization, how to make a certain kind of transition, for more background on one of her characters, and so on. She was incredibly generous with her time and attention; she never made me feel like a nuisance. And it was a master class – her answers were brief, pointed, crystal clear. (Years later, I could still ask her about problems I was having with my newer stuff, and she was just as willing to help.) She was also generous in sharing her ‘sandbox’ – letting her co-authors introduce things, including characters. I met her at the launch event for Sassinak, and after that we became friends.
The most striking example of how Moon, Nye and McCaffrey developed the same character in different ways was in the use of the Theks, floating pyramidal sentient beings of silicate origin, with enormous telepathic power, the most impressive in the Federated Sentient Planets universe. On their first appearance, in Dinosaur Planet, McCaffrey treats them with reverence and irreverence at the same time: ‘it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word’. Thus there were tonal choices for developing these lifeforms, and Moon and Nye made different choices. The importance of the Theks in this universe means that their characterisation underpins the tone of the novels. By allowing divergence in their treatment, collaborative writing made the Planet Pirates novels even less likely to work together as a sequence.
Moon developed the Theks by giving them meaningful cooperative relationships with humans, showing how mutual respect breeds collaboration (much like her own relationship with McCaffrey). Her, or their, most effective elaboration of the Thek in Sassinak was to give it a sessile life stage, inert and anchored in a tank, but fully integrated with all ship systems, and a potentially crucial part of enhanced lightspeed flight modes due to Thek mathematical abilities. This sessile larval form – more like a giant coral fan than a slug – is an inspired solution to the problem of how to get Theks integrated enough into human society and into Fleet as serving officers, without floating pyramids engulfing the ships. When humans learn enough about Theks to be able to identify individuals, that signals the beginning of a healthy working relationship. In Sassinak, the sense of wonder is multiplied by Moon’s marvellous enhancement of McCaffrey’s original idea.
My thanks to Elizabeth Moon for her cooperation with this interview, and for checking the facts. The opinions expressed are my own.
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Sassinak (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye, Death of Sleep (1990)
Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon, Generation Warriors (1991)