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Bring me the head of John Carter!

By Dave Freer

Ah. Good Morning. Please close and lock the doors. I’m watching you, Kate. Do not try and slide out while pretending to close the doors. You’re too astute for your own good.

I have decided to spring a surprise exam on you.

A while back Bill Swears made a comment on facebook about a friend (an agent IIRC) who hadn’t known who John Carter was. And then a few weeks back I was picking through the ignorance  exemplified by the like of Atwood and Winterson about sf .  It brought to mind my sending a proposal to a big name agent (one of the ones that I blame for the current state of the industry), and him writing back to say that I should mention the book is similar to various movies and TV serials, instead of comparing it to other genre books.

The implication was that they (and perhaps he) would recognize movies, but hadn’t actually read the books. Which, given the serious shortage of talking squids in space in sf, is a conclusion you could reach about literary ‘giants’ and critics too. There is, of course, generic sf, which often owes more to TV or Starwars than to the three laws of robotics, just as there are a lot of  generic Tolkien clones. But to assume that is all of it, is to ignore more than a century of development of the genre. One of the arguments raised for ignoring this history  is that writers who don’t have this background will come up with something different. It is possible. It is possible that those who ignore other forms of history will avoid those mistakes too.  But I have certainly seen more (too many) TV/movie inspired ‘broken telephone’ garbled tropes in the last 20 years, than I have seen original ideas. It’s resulted in agents and acquiring editors thinking they’re ‘new’ — which has inevitably led to them not working well. I get the feeling that books which sold upward of half a million copies (a dream today) in our genre are largely forgotten, but not by the readers.  If I was an editor, or an author, these are the books from the years of merit (which saw what people wanted to read) I would look at to work out what–at least then–what appealed to readers.

So I put a little quiz of pre-1980 sf together. It’s intended to be easy… if you are real sf reader.  5 marks a question. 3 for the answer, 1.5 for knowing either the book or the author, or a full 2 marks for both. And seeing as I am not really collecting marks, you don’t have to bother to Google them first. It’s just for interest and maybe nostalgia.

1) Who are Professor Von Hardwigg and Professor Lidenbrock
2)What are Eloi dinner for?
3) Where do Eddorians come from?
4) Who is Dejah Thoris?
5) Who or what is ‘Tweel’?
6) Which female sf writer, setting her stories in the American Southwest, and always using female lead protagonists, was very successful and nominated for a Hugo in 1959, long before Joanna Russ got around to complaining about discrimination against female sf writers?
7) What/who was Martak Sarno and the Dust?
8) What is an Offog?
9) Where is The Leewit?
10) Where is Liebowitz Abbey?
11) Name two sf books with Kraken (just to please Margaret Atwood) – but neither in space.
12)What is a ‘pfifltriggi’?
13)Light is the left ….?
14)In what book do the protagonists explore an alien place on a different world, where the sensory input from a matter-transmitted duplicate is experienced by the sensorially deprived original?
15) What is the Werewolf Principle? – for a bonus point, which state is it set in?
16) What kind of Rat was Jim DiGriz?
17) St Vidicon of What?
18)What was Dr Wendell Urth afraid of?
19) Mount LookItThat is where? And what is so special about it?
20) Watch out for stobor… and what are they?

OK the answers are below, if you need them. If you scored more than 75% you’re a a true sf fan.
If you scored more than 95% you’re a scary person :-). I like you.
If you scored 101% is your name Blue Tyson?
If you scored less than 65% you should not be agenting or editing sf. Go home to Modern Literary Fiction.

1)The same person, different translations of ‘The journey to the Center of the Earth’, by Jules Verne.
2)Morlocks, The Time Machine, HG Wells
3) Lundmark’s nebula – the second galaxy, Triplanetary. Doc E.E. Smith
4) John Carter’s love in A princess of Mars and later books, Edgar Rice Burroughs
5)A birdlike Martian native – A Martian Odyssey, Stanley G Weinbaum
6) Zenna Henderson – the Pilgrimage, the People, No Different Flesh
7) The Llralan Commander of the fleet which uses the ‘dust’ to put the people of earth into coma-like sleep. – Sleeping planet, William Burkett.
8)Official dog. Allamagoosa, Eric Frank Russell
9) On board the Venture 7333, James H Schmitz, Witches of Karres
10) Utah. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M Miller.
11) The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham; Blue Planet, Jack Vance.
12) One of three Martian species (Seroni, hrossa, and pfifltriggi – must be worst alien sp. name in sf – or at least in the running) tapir headed frog-bodied,  in Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis.
13) The left hand of Darkness – Ursula LeGuin.
14) Not Avatar! Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys – 1960
15) An android, able to be a skin-changer, taking in alien personas – The Werewolf Principle, Clifford Simak. And Wisconsin, of course!
16) The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison
17) Cathode!  Christopher Stasheff – Gets his first appearance in the Warlock in spite of Himself IIRC.
18) All forms of transportation. The Singing Bell, Isaac Asimov
19) On We Made It – it is a high plateaux of habitable land above the too hot to live lowlands – Larry Niven A Gift from Earth (and mentioned in various Niven tales of known space )
20) Every planet has stobor …all different. Robert A. Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky.

29 Comments
  1. I thought it was the air pressure that was the killer elsewhere on “We Made It”.

    October 31, 2011
    • Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too, once I read the answer.

      November 1, 2011
    • described as a searing black calm, hot enough to melt lead.

      November 1, 2011
  2. I’ve still got over a hundred paperback and hardcovers on my shelves that made it through many military moves. Add to that the ebooks.

    And all I got was: 47

    Despite reading the Peralandra books (and of course forgetting the alien’s name, or where it came from)
    Despite being familiar with some of Budrys’ stories (inc. having a copy of Budrys’ Inferno for years )
    Despite all the ace doubles I’ve filched from my moms library
    Despite being heavily immersed in old Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, etc.
    I also forgot the home of the Eddorians from the Lensman books (bought about 5 of them when republished in the 80’s)
    Most of the stuff I missed, though, I never read.

    P.S LOVED Stasheff growing up, read bloody near everything, and the semi-prequel that elaborated how the order got started was a hoot.

    October 31, 2011
    • Well that’s more or less 15 points without trying – and the point is you HAD read them.

      November 1, 2011
  3. Lin W #

    Dave, thank you for the trip down memory lane! A book that mentions both the C.S.Lewis Space Trilogy *and* Zenna Henderson! WOOT! I think I missed 3 or 4 — more reading! Poor me! (bwahahahahahahaha) What a day brightener in terms of being an SF fan — and what an awful feeling in terms of “these people were the gate keepers???” And yes, I do mean *were*!!! We’ve got the keys to the internet now – who needs the gate keepers when the gate is sitting out by it’s lonesome and not even on the most heavily traveled road?

    October 31, 2011
    • 🙂 The point is all these books were great successes… and none were movies.

      November 1, 2011
  4. I never encountered seven. I could never get into sixteen. The names stomped me on first because I read that when I was young enough that I read English names the way I read alien names “length plus beginning and ending letter.” Never sounding them out.
    I’ve been thinking about this too, though, and maybe I’ll riff on it on Wednesday. Kris Rusch told us to take all our old stories and indie publish them “I don’t care if you think they’re cr*p. They might be cr*p by the current establishment’s thought, but we simply don’t know what people want to read now. We don’t know what will sell. Put it all out. let the public tel you what it wants.”
    I was thinking this morning, in the shower (negatively charged ions!) that one way to tell would be to read the bestseller lists from the gold age. Yes, a lot of it was painfully unpolished (I don’t think the public cares about polished, but I do) but what characteristics did plot and characters have that people might want? Okay, or maybe it’s just an excuse to re-read Simak (among others.)

    October 31, 2011
    • 7 – Sleeping Planet – one of those ‘he only wrote ONE’ – if you ever see it, Sarah, you’ll LOVE it. Yes, it’s curious how the authors and the publishing/writing establishment just aren’t getting it. It’s not about “educating” or “literary value” or political correctness any more (and it actually never was) – but look at the World Fantasy nominees for this year… yes, they might be all of the above… but are they really what readers actually want? Not by the declining sales figures, no – and that despite having the butter boat of effort and attention emptied on them. Yet Harry Potter does well…

      November 1, 2011
  5. Dave,
    And lest you think this is an SF malady, when I tried to sell the Musketeer mysteries, which are told in four voices, but the first chapter is D’Artagnan, I got a rejection telling me writing a three musketeers’ mystery series from D’Artagnan’s POV was like writing Sherlock Holmes from the POV of his maid. So apparently not only had the “gatekeeper” and likely lit major NEVER read Dumas and didn’t know that the main character IS D’Artagnan, but it (well, don’t know it it’s he or she) had no ability to google. Also, didn’t read past first page on proposal or chapters. Also got any number of rejections asking me about Porthos being a pirate before. Which, btw, is a DISNEY movie and makes no sense in the context of the original OR the times. Yes, these were the people in charge. Which is how the field has got to where it is… They were NOT readers, they weren’t “of us”, so HOW could they know? This is also how we got “readers only want one book a year per author” (Say what. I’d take Pratchetts every day, if he could just download them from neural cortex.) “or it devalues the book” and other such nonsense.
    All explained now.

    October 31, 2011
    • Ack! I’m aghast at the idiot who didn’t know about D’artangnan! Doesn’t that just about sum up the current status quo? I hope for a ‘do not use this starving editor’ list of the future, you know who they are! And for people who don’t read, one book a year is hard work…

      November 1, 2011
  6. Wow, I’d forgotten half those books! Now I’m going to have to hunt down the other kraken stories I can almost remember.

    October 31, 2011
  7. Kate Paulk #

    Dave, you wound me! Just because my faulty memory means my response to entirely too many of these was “damn it, I KNOW that! Stupid drug-addled memory” or words to that effect.

    Besides, Dejah Thoris would get rather upset if I brought you John Carter’s head. Either one.

    October 31, 2011
    • So would Tars Tarkas and Carthoris. Wouldn’t want either one after me.

      November 1, 2011
    • Point is, you recognize them, Kate. And surely she’s dead… (looks around)

      November 1, 2011
  8. 1. Don’t remember; 2. morlocks (The Time Traveler); 3. Eddor? (Lensmen); 4. Princess of Helium, daughter of Mors Kajak, wife of John Carter the Warlord of Mars, mother of Carthoris, mother-in-law of Thuvia (which book’s plot would you like me to recite? 🙂 ; 5. no idea; 6. no idea; 7. no idea; 8. no idea; 9. wherever she wants to be, but probably with the Captain; 10. no idea; 11. no idea; 12. no idea; 13. no idea; 14. Don’t remember, but it’s not Avatar; 15. no idea; 16. Stainless Steel (except when he’s masquerading as the alien paradigm of feminine pulchritude 😉 17. Don’t remember, but I finished St. Vid’s Hymn for Stasheff. 😉 18. no idea; 19. Don’t remember; 20. Don’t remember.

    So that’s 3 correct, 3 forgot-the-details, and 4 sounds-familiars. Darn, guess I’m not qualified to be an SF editor.

    November 1, 2011
    • Point is that you HAD read them Deann — which means you wouldn’t be ambushed by old-recycled as new. You’d Love 7 BTW.

      November 1, 2011
      • So many books, so little time (or money).

        November 1, 2011
  9. 'nother Mike #

    Quibble on 3, sir? Don’t I recollect that they brought their planet from another dimension and chose this continuum because the two galaxies had interpenetrated, so there would soon be plenty of planets for them to rule? So while they parked their planet in Lundmark’s, they were actually interlopers (as foreseen by the Arisians,, of course…)

    November 1, 2011
  10. Hmm. As you know so much about Eddorians, here is an extra five marks and an assignment on ‘what the Arisians did on their Holidays, for next week :-).

    November 1, 2011
  11. I’m deeply embarrassed. I own, and have read multiple times, a surprising number of the books you asked questions about, but couldn’t answer the questions anyway. I knew it was Niven, and a known space book but would have had to reread at least one of his books to name the planet, though I think Louis Wu had memories of a waterfall falling from Lookithat. I own three Zenna Henderson’s but had no idea that she was a Hugo award nominee, and to on. I didn’t try to grad myself, since I’m such an obvious failure.

    At least I knew that DiGriz was the Stainless Steel Rat. And, I discovered this morning that Harry Harrison is parked right next to Zenna Henderson in my basement library. I also discovered that Make Room, Make Room, Bill, The Galactic Hero and The Stainless Steel Rat is Born were the only remaining Harrisons, so several of his books disappeared in The Box That Was Stolen, during our last move.

    November 1, 2011
    • My early morning grammar just sucks. Sorry.

      November 1, 2011
      • You think that sucks, you should have seen me on Vicodin. :p

        November 1, 2011
  12. Neil Frandsen #

    Ah, due to the glory that was the Claresholm Public Library, I read _all_ the Edgar Rice Burroughs books in hard cover! Even went out, after dark and looked at Mars, wondering if the 4-armed warriors really were riding their steeds up there! Offog was met in the magazine version = probably encouraged a punnishment of the English Language tendency. Astounding/Analog, + The Good Doctor Azimov, got me reading far and wide, thru books from aeronautix to Zebras….
    Now I am able to use 3 WinXP machines to cruise the ‘Net, to play Hearts, and to type this Note, on different Screens…
    How reality is chasing the Imagic-a-nation of the Writers, eh?

    November 1, 2011
  13. Done before reading your answers:

    1) Who are Professor Von Hardwigg and Professor Lidenbrock
    On googling. Okay, I’d read the book but didn’t remember the names.
    2)What are Eloi dinner for?
    Got this one.
    3) Where do Eddorians come from?
    Read this series a long time ago, the term was familiar but I still missed it.
    4) Who is Dejah Thoris?
    Easy
    5) Who or what is ‘Tweel’?
    Another one I’d read but didn’t remember the name offhand.
    6) Which female sf writer, setting her stories in the American Southwest, and always using female lead protagonists, was very successful and nominated for a Hugo in 1959, long before Joanna Russ got around to complaining about discrimination against female sf writers?
    This one I drew a complete blank on but Google is your friend. Interesting.
    7) What/who was Martak Sarno and the Dust?
    Ooh. Not even Google helped me here.
    8) What is an Offog?
    Easy one.
    9) Where is The Leewit?
    Where she is, or where she is from? And original short of the expanded novel?
    10) Where is Liebowitz Abbey?
    I’m afraid I never finished this one. Keep meaning to get back to it.
    11) Name two sf books with Kraken (just to please Margaret Atwood) – but neither in space.
    Not one I can do offhand.
    12)What is a ‘pfifltriggi’?
    I’ve read other books of his but not this one.
    13)Light is the left ….?
    Another one I haven’t read I’m afraid.
    14)In what book do the protagonists explore an alien place on a different world, where the sensory input from a matter-transmitted duplicate is experienced by the sensorially deprived original?
    It took me longer to parse that sentence than to come up with the answer once I did.
    15) What is the Werewolf Principle? – for a bonus point, which state is it set in?
    Didn’t know this one at all.
    16) What kind of Rat was Jim DiGriz?
    Easy
    17) St Vidicon of What?
    Didn’t know this one.
    18)What was Dr Wendell Urth afraid of?
    I’ve been more hit or miss on reading this author’s stuff. This was a miss.
    19) Mount LookItThat is where? And what is so special about it?
    Got that one.
    20) Watch out for stobor… and what are they?
    And got that one.

    Eh, 8 out of 20 where I knew the answers. 11 out of 20 where I’d at least read the stories where the answers are given. I guess that’s a fail.

    November 2, 2011
  14. Oh, and I think “Call me Joe” could also work for #14 although Rogue World is what came to mind.

    November 2, 2011
  15. Xander Opal #

    I got a couple right, but when I sifted through the answers, I realized I’d read a few more than that, and recognized 90% of the books/authors.

    There are few new concepts, most of the time a ‘new’ idea is only obscure. The approach, now! The approach is what makes a story unique and interesting. I recall recently reading a book about an artificial world, where landmasses consisting of examples of different worlds were separated by ocean. The interesting thing is that I’m both describing Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Dave Freer’s Dragon’s Ring. The different approaches to the concept, though, are quite fascinating and very good reads.

    It is unfortunate that the gatekeepers of fiction know so little about what they pass or block. This is an issue at most levels and places where SF is offered, but focused on the publishing and distribution industries. For years, I’d thought James Doohan had only written the one SF book–because I could never find the sequels on the shelves of bookstores. I’d rather enjoyed Timothy Zahn’s Dragon and Thief, but only found it because it was mis-shelved in the general SF area and not the YA where it ‘belonged,’ and so thought that series had died as well. Large bookstores know so little about their target customers and their product that this happens all too frequently, on top of the horror that is the book placement process.

    November 2, 2011
  16. Susan Shepherd #

    Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve only read 6 of these books (though I knew who Dejah Thoris was through cultural osmosis). I consider myself a fan, but I’ve only been alive a couple decades, which unfortunately means that I have to track down a lot of these books in ones or twos as I hear about them. Thank you for the recommended reading.

    January 26, 2012

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