Bring me the head of John Carter!

By Dave Freer, from Oct 2011 – how many of you were here for the first round?

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.


  1. The idea of avoiding reading other works in the field to keep from being influenced by them and so be able to create truly original works is just absurd. (And, I think, the basis of Orson Scott Card’s short story “Unaccompanied Sonata”.)

    In the first place, you can’t escape influences unless, like Card’s protagonist, you are confined to a house in the middle of the woods and never have contact with anyone.To live in today’s world is to be exposed (as you point out) garbled versions of old ideas.

    More importantly, though, just because you’re not aware that someone else has had the same idea doesn’t mean that the idea is original (or good). I read a lot of short fiction from new authors, both pre- and post publication, and so often my first response is that Robert Sheckley or Fredrik Brown or George Alec Effinger wrote a story with that exact same “twist” back in 1960 or so.

    And often the authors get offended that I pointed it out.

    “Well, I never read that!” they say.

    And, yeah, it shows. Because if you had read the classics you’d understand that it’s not ideas that make for a good story, but character and setting and pacing.

  2. I’ve decided that my mind is stuffed full with the memory of too many books which, together with old age induced failures, explains why I’m apparently not a “true sf fan”. Having given this a full 5 seconds deep consideration I’ve concluded that you need a scoring system that doesn’t require one to have read more than one translation of Jules Verne or to remember the name of Captain Pausert’s ship – remembering that he first met The Leewit on Porlumma should be good enough – and in particular doesn’t require a memory that works much better than mine now does.

    My alternative scoring system is based on reading the answers and awards ½ point for having heard of the book’s title, ½ point for having heard of the author’s name, 3 points for having read the book and a bonus 1 point for owning one or more copies or having re-read it, or both. This gives a possible score of 106 (allowing for extra titles/authors in Q6 and Q11, and giving only 1 point per book read for Q6). This system should still expel the right people to the deserts of modern literary fiction and it satisfies its main aim of confirming my true fan status. It is possible that this marking scheme was influenced by the fact that I’ve read all save one of the books and re-read more than half of them but this is the kind of thing that should be rewarded.

    1. I like this system. It takes into account the various points I met in going through this list where I thought things like, “I know who he means, I read the books, and I can’t remember her name.” I even still have Zenna Henderson on my shelves.

    2. I fail badly using both scoring systems. Can I just try to catch up on them for extra credit, instead of having to read literary stuff?

  3. I love you guys. Another truly wonderful post. Hard to find good stuff nowadays. This quiz allows me to cherrypick some old favorites for summer rereading.
    It’s amazing how many new offerings get tossed into the ‘never read’ pile after just a few paragraphs of virtue signaling in the opening chapters.

  4. 1. Do not recall reading this. I already knew that I am very poorly read on the genre.
    2. Morlocks.
    3. Most of the intelligent life of the two galaxies the Lensmen fight over come from spores predisposed to develop into sexual organisms. The Eddorians and Arisians are distinctly older. Arisians were native, and originally sexual. Eddorians reproduced asexually, by splitting, and are native to a world in another dimension and universe. They are by and large the descendants of the evilest and most immortal of their kind, who did not manage to kill each other off in their last war. They have the memories of the ancestors who fought in that war.
    4. Princess of the twin cities of Helium, later consort to John Carter, a fighting man from Virginia.
    5. I had to look this up on wikipedia. I’d heard about a martian named Tweel, I think it a discussion on T vs. P about the level of evidence that I was or was not a martian named Tweel. I didn’t get that this was a reference, took it as inspiration, and later got into trouble over it, which is why I looked it up.
    6. Women write science fiction? (In all seriousness, I don’t know who this is.)
    7. Dunno.
    8. Dunno.
    9. A young child from the planet of Karres.
    10. Vague idea of what story this is from, but might not have ever read it.
    11. Only thing coming to mind is 20,000 Leagues.
    12. Dunno.
    13. Dunno.
    14. Dunno.
    15. Dunno.
    16. Stainless Steel.
    17. Vague idea of what story this is from, but might not have ever read it.
    18. Dunno.
    19. Dunno.
    20. Dunno.

    Seeing the key, I recognized a little more.

    I already knew I had no interest in agenting, and that I was too poorly read to be editing any genre.

    1. #6. Zenna Henderson, one of my go-to authors when I’m looking for some comfort reading.

      Truly a pity she didn’t get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime.

      1. She made money in her lifetime. Crisp green recognition. Loads of short stories.

        Also there was a TV movie adaptation starring Kim Darby and William Shatner. “The People”, I think.

  5. Bah. 26.5 Had to subtract 5 points for being totally wrong on one.

    BTW, Eddore originally came from outside our universe. Doggone illegal aliens.

  6. 24%. I guess I’m not a real SF reader. It’s probably a good thing that agenting or editing SF were never high on my list of ambitions.

  7. I recognized most but couldn’t instantly blurt out all the details. Except Ursula K. Leguin, I read her stuff a long time ago and it didn’t leave a mark. But Stansheff? That I remember. And Schmitz.

    And by the way, Dave, where’s my Berserker and Bolo references?

    21: What type of gun has an output measured in megatons per second?
    22: What infinitely powerful alien war machine got defeated by mold?

  8. I reccgnized many of them, but have problems remembering all the details to things I read 60 or more years ago. Henderson, e.g.

    The Four were from Planet what?

    In how many different decades did the longest-writing SF author publish?

    Being asked to compare your book to TV shows or motion pictures is truly an amazing display of ignorance. Mind you, I have done the compare thing once, namely my Mistress of the Waves is Weber’s Safehold as designed by competent perhaps evil people; perhaps these agents’ lips get tired before they read the three sentence blurb.

    Eddorians, of course, are from Eddore. I am a bit surprised to read that Arisians originally had sexual reproduction. Given their treatment of the dangerous sex, had they done the Kzin one better and exterminated their females once they were replaced with machines?

    As a minor aside, with respect to sales, you might ask Weber or Nuttall how tehy are doing.

    1. That bit about the sexual reproduction is IIRC.

      I think it is in the last book, when they are talking about why Boskone liked Ploor, Helmuth’s people, and were interested in the Amazon/Dwarf species. I’m not sure which edition I have, and checking is a bit more dust than I want to deal with at the moment.

  9. I thought I was fairly well-versed in classic sci-fi. I knew I had blind spots (for example, I’ve never seem one of E. E. Smith’s books in the wild) but thought I mostly had a pretty good handle on pre-70s science fiction.

    I was wrong.
    Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
    Of the 20 listed, I’ve only read 12. (Ok, not reading Left Hand in Darkness was a deliberate choice. Other than that, I’d mostly not even heard of them.)

  10. Wow. Humbling. And I do consider myself a real SF reader. (I got 2 and 4, with partial credit on 10 and 19.) And I can remember voraciously reading everything I could find in the mid-80’s by the authors of 17-20.

    I recognized the fact that I still haven’t read any of the Lensmen or Bolo books as a serious gap in my early sci-fi education. And my coverage of Verne, Wells, and Burroughs is spotty.

    But for now, I’m off to reread Tunnel in the Sky — which I’m sure I must have read thirty years ago. The wonderful thing about forgetting is I get to enjoy it again.

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