“There’s a beast upon my shoulder, and a fiend upon my back…”

“I’ve always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning.”

That’s what Lucius Shepard told an interviewer in 2001, seventeen years after publishing “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” a much-praised (but too-little-known) fantasy story starring one of the best fictional dragons of all time. As it turned out, my first Christmas gift of the season came from someone who knew I’d love this new hardcover volume, which collects all six of Shepard’s hard-to-find “Dragon Griaule” stories for the first time.

Griaule the dragon is 6,000 feet long, 750 feet high, awake, seething, but magically immobilized. Over the course of centuries, communities spring up on and around him, ecosystems flourish in the shadows of his wings, and his very presence casts a pall over fretful locals who’ve repeatedly failed to kill him—until a young artist named Meric Cattenay convinces the town fathers to pay him to spend half a century slathering the ancient dragon in beautiful but highly toxic paint.

“I don’t believe Griaule will be able to perceive the menace in a process as subtle as art,” Cattenay argues, a line that earned a laugh from my students (and from me) when I taught this story in 2009, but “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” quickly grows far beyond its amusing premise to become an eerie cautionary tale about creativity and the human costs of artistic obsession.

Subterranean Press has given The Dragon Griaule a pretty standard fantasy cover, but don’t be fooled; this isn’t Wyverns of Wonder, Book XXVII, but something cleverer, richer, and far more strange. Reviewers like to claim that a good fantasy or science-fiction book “transcends its genre,” but that’s a dreadful backhanded compliment, and Shepard deserves better than to be compared to the worst. He writes wry, fresh fantasy that uses old tropes to say things few other fantasy writers have bothered to say. Ambivalent about the genre, he tempers wonder with nagging doubt, knowing how hard it is to get others to open their minds. As Meric Cattenay’s admonishes the bitter, dragon-dwarfed townsmen: “It astounds me that you can live next to a miracle, a source of mystery, and treat him as if he were an oddly shaped rock.”

“Wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in the best-selling show…”

“In Washington, summer is a horror beyond the telling of it,” wrote Philip K. Dick in his 1968 “Self Portrait,” echoing the more effable sentiments of sweat-soaked D.C. residents this week. Dick is so associated with California—he spent nearly his entire life there—that few science-fiction readers, and almost no Washingtonians, remember that in the late 1930s, the budding author and his mother lived in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, or that Dick’s three years here echo in his work.

Dick’s novel Puttering About in a Small Land, written in 1957 but published posthumously in 1985, views several D.C. landmarks through the gauzy lens of personal mythology. Despite his prolificity and unabashed weirdness, Dick craved mainstream success, and he grounds an early sequence in Puttering About, a realistic tale of infidelity and doomed postwar dreams, in actual Washington places: Rock Creek Park, Massachusetts Avenue, and the Tidal Basin, which a character imbues with her own anxieties:

To her the Tidal Basin and the trees had a mysterious quality; they kept the countryside here in the center of the city, as if it could not be completely suppressed. Actually she was afraid of the Tidal Basin; it was part of the lines and pools of water that had cut into the ground by the coast, the canals and rivers and streams; Rock Creek itself, and of course the Potomac. When she came near the Potomac she believed she had been removed completely away from the present; she did not accept the fact that the Potomac existed in the modern world.

In keeping with Dick’s real life, the action in Puttering About soon switches to California, but Washington remains a place of origin and a repository for obsessive memory. In the 1966 novel Now Wait for Last Year, Dick returns to Cleveland Park—naturally, by way of Mars.

Like most Dick novels, Now Wait defies easy summary, but suffice it to say that it features pharmaceutically induced time travel, a dictator who battles aliens across alternate dimensions, and ancient gazillionaire Virgil Ackerman, president of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which turns alien amoebas into spaceship control spheres. With the help of antiquarians and preposterous wealth, Ackerman pioneers the creation of Martian “babylands,” hyperpersonal theme parks that recreate fondly remembered places in a patron’s life.

Amusingly, Virgil Ackerman rebuilds Philip K. Dick’s childhood in Washington, D.C., circa 1935:

Wash-35 consisted of a painstakingly elaborate reconstruction of the specific limited universe of childhood which Virgil had known, constantly refined and improved in matters of authenticity by his antique procurer—Kathy Sweetscent—without really ever being in a genuine sense changed: it had coagulated, cleaved to the dead past…at least as far as the rest of the clan were concerned. But to Virgil it of course sprouted life. There, he blossomed. He restored his flagging biochemical energy and then returned to the present, to the shared, current world which he eminently understood and manipulated but of which he did not psychologically feel himself a native.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that I live in a latter-day version of Wash-35:

The omphalos of Wash-35, a five-story brick apartment building where Virgil had lived as a boy, contained a truly modern apartment of their year 2055 with every detail of convenience which Virgil could obtain during these war years.

Dick misremembered how many floors his childhood omphalos had, but it’s still there, around the corner from me, the only apartment building on a leafy, house-lined street.

Several blocks away lay Connecticut Avenue, and, along it, stores which Virgil remembered. Here was Gammage’s, a shop at which Virgil had bought Tip Top comics and penny candy. Next to it Eric made out the familiar shape of People’s Drugstore; the old man during his childhood had bought a cigarette lighter here once and chemicals for his Gilbert Number Five glass-blowing and chemistry set.

Dick recalls doing most of those same things in his “Self-Portrait.” The drug store has gotten a facade-lift and a new name, but it’s right where Dick left it, and kids still pop in there after school to buy junk food. Dick would like the place; the scanners talk to you.

(I’ve yet to find an elderly neighbor who remembers “Gammage’s.”)

“What’s the Uptown Theater showing this week?” Harv Ackerman murmured as their ship coasted along Connecticut Avenue so that Virgil could review these treasured sights. He peered.

It was Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angels, which all of them had seen at least twice. Harv groaned.

The Uptown has shown the various Blade Runner re-releases and director’s cuts. Prometheus is playing there now.

The ship taxied from Connecticut Avenue onto McComb Street and soon was parking before 3039 with its black wrought-iron fence and tiny lawn. When the hatch slid back, however, Eric smelled—not the city air of a long-gone Terran capital—but the bitterly thin and cold atmosphere of Mars…

On a late June afternoon, the atmosphere at 3039 Macomb Street NW is anything but cold and thin, but the year could be 1935, or 2012, or 2055.

Uphill, west on Macomb, looms another Philip K. Dick landmark. After a miserable stint at an experimental school in Maryland, young Phil spent second through fourth grades here in Cleveland Park at John Eaton Elementary.

Despite a homely concrete wedge that joins Eaton’s two older buildings, kids from the 1930s would recognize the place immediately. In Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Lawrence Sutin summarizes Dick’s time here:

Phil attended the John Eaton School from 1936 to 1938, for grades two through four. He was absent often, a pattern condoned by Dorothy [his mother]. His report cards reflect good academic work on the whole, with one of his lowest marks, a C, coming in written composition. But a comment by his fourth-grade teacher was admirably prophetic: “Shows interest and ability in story telling.”

Perhaps Dick’s Eaton years were more formative yet. The playground, more spacious now than it was 75 years ago, may have been the site of Philip K. Dick’s first epiphany, as recounted in a 1981 interview:

I really think—I’ve thought about this—and it goes back to an incident when I was in the third grade, where I was tormenting a beetle. It was taking refuge in an empty snail shell. He’d come out of the snail shell and I’d mash at him with a rock, and he’d run back into the snail shell. I’d just wait ’til he’d come out.

And he came out, and all of a sudden I realized—it was total satori, just infinite, that this beetle was like I was. There was an understanding. He wanted to live just like I was, and I was hurting him. For a moment—it was like Siddhartha does, like was that dead jackal in the ditch—I was that beetle. Immediately I was different. I was never the same again. I was totally aware of what I was doing. I was just transformed—my essence was changed.

I find it unnerving to live for years in a neighborhood of attorneys, technocrats, students, and barhoppers, only to detect, suddenly and at every turn, the slight, childish footsteps of the most bizarre science-fiction writer of the 20th century.

Weirder, though, was this.

I noticed those bibliophilic elves over the doors of Eaton Elementary yesterday, when I went to take a snapshot of the school. For 17 years, I’ve walked past Eaton, visited the school with friends’ kids, and voted in local elections there, but somehow I’ve never spotted these elves, the sort of whimsical adornment everyone knows I actively look for.

Friends assure me that the elves have always been there. Have they? Wouldn’t I have seen them?

When you find your neighborhood in a Philip K. Dick character’s Martian recreation of Philip K. Dick’s childhood, you start to think that someone may be messing with you, that maybe you’re the baffled beetle in someone’s dawning epiphany. “My god, that is eerie. Really freaks me,” Dick wrote in 1970, after his friend Bhob Stewart found himself, purely by chance, at 3039 Macomb. “The ghost of a little boy who is now a middle-aged SF author must still be playing there.” If so, I haven’t seen him, but a whispering elf tells me this: there’s no guarantee that I won’t.

“But the answers you seek will never be found at home…”

The ghost of Robert E. Howard sleeps fitfully at best. His better stories have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press, but fans still struggle to champion his worth. You know Howard, if you know Howard, from crummy movies about his characters—Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane—even if you’re unaware of the brawny shadow he casts across decades of sword-and-sorcery. Both co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons cited him as an outsized influence, but his prominence as a fantasy writer overshadows the speed with which he also cranked out horror yarns, cowboy tales, historical fiction, and boxing stories from the bedroom of his parents’ Texas home.

Before committing suicide in 1936 at the age of 30, Howard published more in twelve years than most of us will in a lifetime, earning his rep as one of the great writers of the pulp era—but Howard wasn’t just a famously frantic storyteller. He was also, as his gravestone points out, a poet. Until recently, few readers knew how madly poetic he was.

At nearly 800 pages, The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, published in 2009, is a monument to its author’s strange and boyish mind. Several of Howard’s 700-odd poems first appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, either as standalone pieces or as epigraphs to stories; many were never published at all. Gathered in one tome (without the bibliographies compiled on a separate website), they’re an almost overwhelming blast from Howard’s mental universe, a cacophonic orgy of Romans, Babylonians, Vikings, cowboys, Crusaders, Mongols, Zulus, cavemen, and voodoo queens—figures who’ve long since been forced from the realm of respectable verse.

Can the collected works of any other poet boast a 60-page section on Wizardry and Satanism? Ah, but here it is, nestled amid sections covering Heroic Verse, War Poems, Horror Poems, Exoticism and Nature, Personal Poems, Historical Poems, Dialect and Doggerel, and Prose Poems. I’d already known some of Howard’s most effective ballads, especially “The King and the Oak” and “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” but it’s enlightening to see the good stuff in context. This comprehensive volume proves how many words even the most manic writer has to fling around before breaking free of his influences and pouncing on bright, fleeting lines of his own.

As befit his youth, Howard was an imitative poet, wedding his own stark worldview to the rhythms of Tennyson, Noyes, Chesterton, and others. His imitation of Robert Service and William Blake is particularly obvious, but his better poems show that they taught him how to write deeply creepy verse. “Zukala’s Jest,” for example, sounds less like the invention of a Texan autodidact and more like an ancient chant heard by a traveler who barely escaped with his life. “Memories of Alfred,” about a Saxon who battles the Danes, ends with a line cribbed from Tennyson: “and friend slew friend, not knowing whom he smote.” In Idylls of the King, this line marks the chaos of Arthur’s final battle and the failure of the Arthurian dream, but Tennyson follows it with a sunrise. Howard admits no hope; fratricide is its own poetic end.

Howard’s lack of military service didn’t stop him from writing about modern war, and the resulting poems are an unsatisfying mishmash of Kipling and Siegfried Sassoon—but then, sometimes, a startling phrase presents itself. In the beguiling “White Thunder,” a Cornishman fighting in Flanders during World War I recalls a faraway land where “the clashing crags re-echoed / like a planetary war.” Outside of pop songs, I can’t recall any poets who’ve used sci-fi similes to describe earthly experiences. Howard makes it work; it rightly describes what he saw in his mind.

I’ve been browsing Collected Poetry for more than a year, and my notes are full of pointers to curious bits like these: nice double meanings in lines like “[a]s clouds blow over the mead,” chilling little images, notable exercises in form, parodies of Longfellow, or bizarre poems that almost work but for a few clunky lines, like a lyric that notes (as God knows I never thought to) the absence of Arcadian centaurs on the Creole lawns of New Orleans. Howard, I think, didn’t strive for maturity, but said his piece in the bleak, angry fury of youth. Even when his diction is derivative, he raises his own voice to a roar to drown out the poets he read. His “Song of the Naked Lands” could never be mistaken for Edna St. Vincent Millay:

You raped the grapes of their purple soul
For your wine-cups brimming high;
We stooped to the dregs of the muddy hole
That was bitter with alkalai.

That verse isn’t perfect, but it’s perfectly Howardian. No other poet would snarl while rehearsing one of his favorite themes, the Thomas Cole royal collapsapalooza:

You lolled by fountain and golden hall
Until that frenzied morn
When we burst the gates and breached the wall
And cut you down like corn.

Weirdly, a few pages away, Howard lays aside his weapons and shines in repose. “A Negro Girl,” a short lyric about African echoes in Harlem, might appear in literary anthologies if someone else’s name were attached to it.

Of course, Howard strikes some awful notes. Collected Poetry includes much juvenilia, doggerel, and diction I’d never defend. In “The Song of the Last Briton,” Howard dubs Saxon longships “millipedes of doom,” and he habitually strides into awful rhymes: prophet/Tophet, strident/trident, lizard/wizard, strange-and-hoary/Purgatory. Some off-rhymes hint at his own accent—”dour” and “moor”—while others reveal the limits of his travels and education. “Lithe,” for example, doesn’t rhyme with “myth.” Perhaps Howard never heard the word spoken, and only read it in books.

Splayed as they are across hundreds of pages, Howard’s flaws are obvious, but dwelling on his clunkers holds him to a standard we’d scarcely meet ourselves. How many high-school graduates, or even educated genre authors, can write a proper ballad or sonnet and conjure hundreds of literary references and historical allusions from sulfurous mental fog? How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

Howard holds no place in the history of American poetry. Some entries in Collected Poetry show that he was aware of free verse, but he continued to compose formal, narrative poems for readers whose tastes were undeterred by the literary trends of the day. In keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, much of Howard’s work is derivative, but his worst is no worse than many of the Georgian poets who were his overseas predecessors, and he’s certainly more persistent in his own weird vision than the authors of the wan, formless sighs I skim in Poetry magazine every month. And when Howard is good, he’s a big, brawny blast.

Collected Poetry, which is already out of print, is far more Howard than most people need—I didn’t, and can’t, read every poem in the book—but teachers and parents fretting over “reluctant readers” should explore the shorter Selected Poems, available in print-on-demand. Howard’s works are case studies in form and tone, and they fling open the gates to discussions about medieval lands, ancient empires, violence, decadence, and the decline of civilizations. They’re also grand, lurid proof that poetry sometimes has hair on its chest.

“Howard is manic-depressive, courageous, and self-destructively human,” Steve Eng writes in his 1984 essay “Barbarian Bard,” reprinted as the introduction to Collected Poetry. “At his best, he carries the reader forward like a trussed captive, astride a black horse with crimson hooves, headlong off that final cliff toward the sharp rocks of Death below.” Eng’s epitaph suggests what Robert E. Howard ought to become: the poet laureate of restless boys, whose lives these days lack poetry, but who, as Howard comprehended, crave it more than most.

“Ten hundred books could I write you about her…”

I don’t know much about fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin, but this New York Times review of the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones intrigued me—not because I need more pseudo-mediaevalia in my life, but because all the bed-hopping in the TV series drove the Times critic to unsheathe one remarkably blunt assumption:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Via Facebook, a friend of mine chimed in: “Admittedly, with all its rather graphic sex and violence and other nastiness, I’d guess GoT has a lower female readership percentage than, say, The Lord of the Rings.” He’s right to be wary of contrary generalizations. Male and female SF/fantasy fans don’t have identical tastes, and some authors’ readerships likely skew either more male or more female.

That said, the Times television critic is wielding yesterday’s oxidized ignorance. Women have long driven the expansion of the SF/fantasy universe: Starting from small but not insignificant numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, women were already one-third of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction readers by 1965 and are nearly 40 percent today.

As of three years ago, women were 43 percent of the Sci Fi Channel audience.

As of two years ago, women were 40 percent of Comic-Con attendees.

A comment on this this 2008 post about SF fandom suggests that around 50 percent of serious fans are women:

While I have no empirical data on science fiction readers in general, I can claim a bit of expertise, derived from inter alia having chaired the World Science Fiction Convention, on the narrower subject of SF “fandom”, the hard core who attend conventions, publish zines, etc. Among that group, women are as numerous as men, and a sex-specific SF vs. fantasy split is just barely discernible.

While we’re at it: 40 percent of U.S. gamers are women, too.

And although I can’t find good statistics to support the rumors, I hear women also drive cars, do math, and vote.

Regular readers know (I hope) that Quid Plura? isn’t a venue for snarking at easy targets—but shouldn’t a newspaper critic know where the culture’s at these days? Has no one at the Times read these books? The print edition of the Sunday New York Times has a circulation of 1.4 million copies (and dropping). George R.R. Martin has sold more than 2.2 million fantasy novels. Which of them, really, is increasingly mainstream, and which is increasingly “niche”?

* * *

There’s another weird swipe in this review: “The show has been elaborately made to the point that producers turned to a professional at something called the Language Creation Society.” Yes, “something called” the Language Creation Society—I like that deniable hint of disdain for a worldwide organization of scholars who study constructed languages.

The reviewer concludes:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

Bloggers gleefully flay the New York Times for its politics, or the phrasematronic predictability of its columnists, or because the paper juxtaposes dire warnings about poverty with adverts for indoor lap pools. For me, the issue is sadder and more simple: With this review, the Times continues the trend of general-interest publications talking down to some hypothetical idiot and sneering at the intellectuals they assume aren’t among their readership. (Similarly, the Washington Post recently spent as many articles mocking one elderly National Humanities Medal recipient than it did covering all of this year’s honorees combined.)

Reader-starved newspapers don’t get that they’re alienating people with brains, people who pursue intellectual interests without regard for social approbation—in other words, people who actually read.

* * *

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz, who’s read Martin’s books, cheekily asks: Why would men want to watch this?

“It’s the only the thing that never gets old.”

The conversations one overhears around the cathedral are enlightening. An eavesdropper soon learns that there are answers to seemingly impossible questions, including this one: “Why is that gargoyle smiling?”


“Lizards must perish, as sure as they’re born;
Children who love them are fated to mourn.
Yet lizards live on when their season is flown:
Scales fall away; the remainder is stone,
And wings, like green legends, burst forth and unfold.
The beasts they become covet altars of gold;
They roost on cathedrals, unnoticed and gray,
Watching the centuries die in a day.
Well may you wonder, ‘But what happens next?’
This question leaves even the wisest perplexed.
The wyrd of these wyrms is a subtle decree,
But here’s what a wyvern once whispered to me:
When Time bids these buttresses buckle and break,
Scattering rubble and ruin in their wake,
Things wearing wings will awake and take flight.
On towering temples a few will alight;
Some will watch kobolds construct them a shrine;
Some will stalk longships, their prows to entwine;
Some will grind gryphons to dust in their claws;
One may remember a child, and pause.
So listen, for wings carry comforting truth:
Honor the monsters that creep through your youth,
And never make light of a reptile’s pride;
A lizard, though small, is a dragon inside.”

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tag.)

“Trumpets, towers, tenements, wide oceans full of tears…”

And so the exhausted medievalist flees to Ocean City, Maryland, intent on finding time to become reacquainted with The Hobbit for next Wednesday’s class. (He first read the book here—bought it on the boardwalk—more than 25 years ago.) But after golfing among Vikings and honoring the deathless gods of the dragon temple, what seaside novelty can entertain the Tolkien-minded teacher?

Weary, he rests at the edge of the wintry surf.

What’s that? You say you’ve found something lightly amusing and relevant to my lesson plan? Lead on, O friend of friends!

I say, what rises beyond this eldritch wood? Such a wonder can hardly be the work of man.

Zoom in, O magical steed!

Aye, nothing says “magic elf sanctuary” like storks. But surely, O lavender-maned tour guide, the name of this place is mere coincidence?

I see. So why, O hooféd Vergil ‘mongst the bayside shades, would a hobbit need a parking space?

It’s like a driveway to the Shire! Those round-top doors make me want to go there, and back again!

But wait—what’s that funny smell around back?

Run, fat hobbitses! It’s a cookbook! It’s a cookbook!

“What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl…”

Wide-eyed freshmen straining to seem a little older, straight-on rain hitting sideways bikes—when I hike to American University to use the library, I’m struck by how autumns on campuses all feel the same, how the mood falls and rises according to rhythms that no one can sense only two blocks away. Science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., AU class of 1959, certainly felt it; in November 1957, after nine months at American, Tiptree wrote to a friend:

The first semester is like an arctic trip; in the warm weather you sign up for the long plunge into the dark tunnel of winter, and you sail North with the weeks; the trek across the campus growing colder, the inside of the night bus hotter; darkness coming earlier, and finally closing in to the tough struggle of the exams, an inhuman time—and suddenly the lights and confusion, the camp of Christmas . . . And then the voyage home out of the darkness, back up the tunnel to the great blaze of Spring ahead….

“James Tiptree” was, of course, Alice Sheldon, who returned to college at 41 after serving in the Army and working for the CIA. According to Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, AU’s campus oddballs found Sheldon awfully compelling. In a letter to her mentor, Sheldon half-jokingly rued her status as a weirdness magnet: “It’s plain, now no more than ever, will I meet the normal sunshine people of this world.”

Flash forward a few years to find Alice Sheldon, graduate student, working toward a Ph.D in experimental psychology at GWU and teaching classes in statistics and psych at her alma mater. In a letter to a friend, she recalled making the mistake of estimating her hourly earnings, thus inspiring her own formulation of the adjunct’s lament:

Stupid kids come up and say I’ve been here three years and you’re the first faculty member that ever TALKED to me—and bang goes three hours. Or bright kids, and you find they went to some progressive so-called school and can’t read or write an English sentence, and want to. And piss goes ten hours. And they aren’t getting the material so you revamp your whole series. And you give real exams, essay exams, and READ them. Yeah. $.75 with your fucking Ph.D.

When I’m on the AU campus, I can’t imagine Sheldon there. For one thing, there’s no trace of either her real name or her pseudonym on the AU Web site; the school doesn’t claim her as one of its own. Maybe the circumstances of her death, a murder-suicide pact with her bedridden husband, made her alma mater disown her—or maybe they simply forgot. If any of Sheldon’s worshipful oddballs from the class of ’59 pause to recall her at Friday’s reunion, will any of them know she was also an acclaimed science-fiction author? That an award is named for her alter ego? Will anyone remember her at all?

In Sheldon’s sardonic 1973 story “The Women Men Don’t See,” a government librarian from D.C. tries to explain to her male traveling companion that women’s rights are insecure, so clever women must scramble to survive. “We live by ones and twos,” Ruth Parsons says, “in the chinks of your world machine.” When the clueless Don Fenton likens her comments to the manifesto of a guerrilla movement, Ruth counters with a more pathetic metaphor: “Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City?”

And Washington too. In a city that’s hopelessly, willfully normal, where even the artists are sleeping by ten, the Sheldon-Tiptrees pass unseen, less like opossums than aliens—not the dome-faced, squid-fingered monsters that float through Sheldon’s story, but lonely, troubled, rain-drenched blurs.

“It’s uncanny,” Sheldon wrote, “they come to me—the one just out of shock therapy, the one in love with an older woman, the one who drove a taxi for five years and only goes out at night, with big dark eyes.” Fifty years later, they seek out each other in library niches or clear across dimly lit classrooms, the oddballs, aliens, and opossums, astounded when somebody sees them.

“Got your number from a friend of mine who lives in your hometown…”

Life was funny, growing up around characters but not inside a story. I’m not complaining; it was simply true that stories happened in New York or in California, on the shores of Earthsea or the plains of Krull, but never in central New Jersey. We didn’t have major radio or TV stations, so the news showed us Brooklyn and the movies showed us suburban Chicago, and I think we knew the wider world better than our own. Later, expat filmmakers flirted with caricature or danced around the edges of the odd, and sometimes a novelist knew the state well, but most wrote New Jerseys that didn’t ring true.

I mean, I didn’t find it strange that we rode sleds into traffic, that my friends stole software from Finland, that our principal hijacked a bus so fourth-graders could see Ronald Reagan, that escaped mental patients slept on our lawn, that we buried our dead in coffins stuffed with beer cans, that the girl next door walked a rabbit on a leash, that my uncle kept sheep in his suburban backyard (and wrapped the old ewe’s legs in duct tape to keep her from falling over)—but I knew these lives weren’t fit for proper fiction.

Then along came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the story of a Dominican-American misfit who’s too obsessed with science fiction and fantasy to realize he’s living in a magical-realist novel. Readers love the geeky obsessions of Oscar de León, and Junot Díaz’s take on Dominican history is vital to his story, but I was drawn to the book by something else: Díaz went to Rutgers and Kean, and Oscar Wao is very Central Jersey.

At first I thought he’d whiffed it. Díaz names New Brunswick streets but barely shows or describes them. He mentions Amboy Cinemas, but the adventure of seeing movies there is a tale he doesn’t tell. He knows the late-’80s “nerd circuit” at Woodbridge Center (comic shop, gaming shop, Waldenbooks), but he won’t stop to linger and make the place real.

Then a landmark looms from the pages:

What he did was this: drank a third bottle of Cisco and then walked unsteadily down to the New Brunswick train station. With its crumbling facade and a long curve of track that shoots high over the Raritan. Even in the middle of the night, doesn’t take much to get into the station or to walk out onto the tracks, which is exactly what he did. Stumbled out toward the river, toward Route 18. New Brunswick falling away beneath him until he was seventy-seven feet in the air. Seventy-seven feet precisely. From what he would later recall, he stood on that bridge for a good long time. Watching the streaking lights of the traffic below. Reviewing his miserable life. Wishing he’d been born in a different body. Regretting all the books he would never write. Maybe trying to get himself to reconsider. And then the 4:12 express to Washington blew in the distance. By then he was barely able to stand. Closed his eyes (or maybe he didn’t) and when he opened them there was something straight out of Ursula Le Guin standing by his side…

I’ve been to the top of that train bridge—not for the same reason as Oscar, but compelled, as he was, by something other than reason. How did no one notice a teenage, microscopic me scaling a scrubby slope along a highway? For years I was sure I was all on my own—but then I learned that in the 1930s, the cops caught my grandfather trying to cut an hour off his commute by using that same viaduct as his personal footbridge. That was a very Junot Díaz discovery: places run in families.

It’s not a bad bridge to have climbed at least once. Glance down, and you will get dizzy; a train flies past and blows you to the edge, and you wince through a hideous gust. But when calm settles in and the tracks are all clear, there are weird sights to see up there, stories to spot, if you just know the right way to look.

(Photo © Gerald Oliveto. Used with permission.)

“Oh man, look at those cavemen go…”

Where books get stacked rarely makes a statement, but at Wonder Book, the shelves above and around the bathroom door are stuffed and piled with pulps: Astounding, Galaxy, and countless others, most of them from the 1950s, some of them hiding their half-shredded kin from the ’30s and ’40s. The expensive stuff is aisles away, bagged and secure behind glass, so these are the five-dollar specials, what remains after anthologists spent half a century picking their carcasses clean.

Like many people, I’ve read the best stories culled from these magazines, and I’m familiar with the history of the pulps and their off-kilter editors. When I popped up to Wonder Book, I’d planned only to find some props for Wednesday’s class so my students could see the garish covers, thumb through yellowed pages, and understand how tangible the genre used to be.

But a funny thing happened after I got home: I actually read these magazines and saw how much of the history of science fiction happened between the fiction—in reviews, editorials, letters, and ads. Vivid and downright beguiling, the pulp scene was as alive and interactive as anything on the Internet today.

Here’s L. Sprague de Camp on The Martian Chronicles. This review ran in the February 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, but de Camp sounds for all the world like a smart, impious book-blogger:

Bradbury is an able young writer who will be better yet when he escapes from the influence of Hemingway and Saroyan—or their imitators. From Hemingway he takes the habit of stringing together many short simple sentences and the Providential or impersonal viewpoint, all characters described purely in terms of external action. All right for Hemingway’s Neanderthaloid characters with no minds to explore, but of limited use in a fiction of ideas.

From Saroyan—or perhaps Steinbeck?—he takes a syrupy sentimentality. He writes “mood” stories, of the sort called “human,” populated by “little people” named Mom and Dad and Elma and Grandma. They come from American small towns and build others just like them on Mars. They’re the kind we all know and call “nice—but dull.”

The Web, inscrutable and vast, generates experts who can lecture us, sometimes legitimately, on almost any subject. So behold our monkey ancestors whooping it up around the monolith in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1952:

This is in reply to the query you received concerning how Gödel determined the truth of his “undecidable propositions,” as they are called, in view of the fact that they were unprovable. The question is a good one and is certainly deserving of a reply. When I wrote the article on metamathematics I was much tempted to include a discussion of this very point, but considerations of space limitations ruled otherwise. I shall attempt here to give a partial answer…

Farther afield, hearken to the familiar call of the autodidact in a florid—but to me, totally charming—letter from the April 1946 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries:

If you’ll take those limpid orbs off the waste paper basket a moment, I should like to add my voice to the squawks, howls and cauterwauling that beset you.

I was really pleased to find “Phra The Phoenician” so readable. It was a trifle wordy and a bit history-bookish, but beautifully woven together. I’ll bet you a used doughnut that Arnold could quote Shakespeare in reams!

The other story “Heaven Only Knows” was either a filler or an afterthought. “Heaven Only Knows” how it came to be written . . .


But I did enjoy the mag. as usual. And here’s one fan, Ed., who doesn’t try to hide the covers from the gentry. If people will be allergic to red and yellow, that’s their tough luck. Me, I’m an individualist.

And then we have the June 1952 issue of Other Worlds. In “An Open Letter to Paul Fairman,” editor Raymond A. Palmer bickers with the editor of IF magazine over Palmer’s publication (years earlier, in Amazing Stories magazine) of stories by Richard Shaver, who claimed to have been abducted by an evil subterranean civilization during his stint as a hobo. “Are we plagued by a monstrous detrimental overlordship possessed of titanic science to which we cannot but succumb?” muses Palmer in a five-page, Usenet-class pissing match involving circulation figures, business ethics, and fictional depictions of sex. (Einstein and Jesse James get name-checked, too.)

In an equally rambling five-page editorial, Palmer masks excuses with whimsy and third-person mythologizing:

As a matter of fact, all our friends have been expecting us to do “things.” Never mind what—they expect something “extra” from Ray Palmer. Something maybe nuttier than ever done before; something novel; something which smashes a taboo; something that will cause near homicide…But it almost seemed like one of the characters out of a former “novelty,” the dero, have been trying to prevent him from getting into high gear. Pretty rotten trick, to paralyze a guy so he can’t make his readers happy! Well, one thing after another, and all sorts of troubles—printer trouble, money trouble, health trouble, accident trouble, and so on. Palmer thinks slow. He sits in a coal bin and cogitates. And he comes out looking as if he’d been sitting in a coal bin! But eventually he comes out with an idea. Trouble is, we moved to the country and we burn wood now. No coal bin. No ideas. Carbon is the basis of life; therefore carbon is the basis of ideas—no carbon, no ideas.

Until we found out how to make charcoal!

Elsewhere, Palmer ponders the moral implications of universal military training. (“What has that got to do with science fiction?” he demands. “Nothing! Not a darn thing. Except it’s going to happen in the future. And since when can’t a science fiction editor, writer, or reader even breathe a political word?”)

And here, in the middle of that Other Worlds editorial, is Palmer’s statement on the relationship between editor, writer, and reader:

We’re knocking the walls out! No longer is OW put out in an office in Evanston, the second floor of our company ranchero, a printing plant in Sandusky. It is put out in an arena; an arena bigger than Soldier Field, bigger than Wisconsin, or Illinois, or Ohio. It’s put out right into your own amphitheatre! Every one of you readers is right in the convention hall where you can carry or smash any motion the editor makes. What this means is very simple; we’re going to give you readers a lot bigger voice in OW. We’re coming down out of the editor’s seat and getting right in the middle of things. This editorial, and the Letters section, will become a two-way television set…

The chatty, opinionated prose that ranges from informal to crazed; quirky and passionate readers engaged not only with the editor and writers but also with each other; sober debate broken by hectoring and grand rhetorical flourishes; marginal tweeting about back-issue availability; banner ads for products malevolent and benign—all of these things served as a scaffolding for the Internet to raise a larger and more efficient version of that proto-geek community.

But in 50 years, people will still flip through musty copies of Astounding and understand the pleasure that readers once got from them, while my old Commodore disks will be ciphers to anyone who doesn’t tinker with antiques, and the BBS culture I grew up with will survive only in archived fragments, and even those, like our blogs, can be killed with a click.

The geeky past has a future; I wonder if our geeky present does? We inherited from the pulps a supremely participatory subculture of writing, reading, bickering, joking, scolding, lecturing, and learning, but the world may not remember how all of this felt; you can’t shelve intangibles next to the loo.

“Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!”

When you teach Chaucer or 19th-century medievalism, no one clamors for a preview of the syllabus, but when you tell people you’ll pulling together a course on modern fantasy and science fiction, everyone has opinions, questions, recommendations, stories, and gripes—and everyone wants to see the reading list.

So here it is. From the start, I tried to avoid creating one of those “sources and analogues” courses where Poe ballads and old French werewolf yarns implicitly apologize for the presumed deficiencies of modern fantasy. (It’s a valid approach, but spending so much time studying where something comes from leaves little time to study the thing itself.) We’ll talk about Lucian of Samosata, Thomas More, and Mary Shelley, and we’ll give H.G. Wells his due, but we don’t need to disinter their corpses for caryatids; let’s see if recent works can stand on their own. If they can’t, their collapse will at least raise an impressive dust cloud from afar.

This list balances several competing goals: sketching the histories of both genres to 1990; showing their ideological ranges by intermingling fan favorites with academic darlings; assigning works not for their coolness quotient or erstwhile popularity but for their ability to prompt discussion; and selfishly finding slots for a favorite or two of my own.

Plenty of worthy authors, books, and short stories didn’t make the cut—it’s impossible to be comprehensive in thirteen weeks—and this course was, I think, harder to prepare than any of the medieval-lit courses I’ve taught. I’m not used to being so spoiled for choice.

Isaac Asimov, “Nightfall”
Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”
Robert A. Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll”
Tom Godwin, “The Cold Equations”
Lester del Rey, “Helen O’Loy”
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
Samuel Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah”
Ray Bradbury, “Way in the Middle of the Air”
Frederik Pohl, “The Day After the Day the Martians Came”
James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”
William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”
Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Joanna Russ, “The Clichés From Outer Space”
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Liebowitz
Henry Melton, “Catacomb”
* * *
Ludwig Tieck, “The Elves”
William Morris, “The Folk of the Mountain Door”
Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
James Branch Cabell, “The Thin Queen of Elfhame”
Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
Robert E. Howard, “The King and the Oak”
Robert E. Howard, “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming”
Jack Vance, “The Loom of Darkness”
Fritz Leiber, “The Bazaar of the Bizarre”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Terry Bisson, “Bears Discover Fire”
Ursula Le Guin, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”
Lucius Shepard, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule”
Gary Gygax, “The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D Games”
Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”
Italo Calvino, “The Distance of the Moon”