Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Few Words about Elmore Leonard

   Many moons ago, Dean Koontz published a book called How to Write Best-Selling Fiction.  At the end of that book, Koontz included a chapter discussing writers any aspiring novelist was advised to study.  There were a lot of prominent names in that chapter, and some names that were not yet nearly as prominent as they became later; one of them was Elmore Leonard.
   At that time, Leonard was not yet a best-seller, but it was clear that he had all the makings.  In his comments on Leonard, Koontz said (if memory serves) that one day some smart publisher would lay a large stack of dollars on Leonard and ask him to deliver the ultimate novel about city street types, and Leonard would deliver because there was nobody better at that kind of book.
   I hadn't yet read Leonard then, and didn't know the name, but I recognized some of his western titles (Hombre, Valdez Is Coming, "3:10 to Yuma").  Not long after that, Avon Books gave a push to the paperback release of Leonard's City Primeval; I picked up a copy and read a few chapters.  A few chapters was enough to get hooked, and Leonard went on the buy-this-guy-on-sight list, and with good reason.
   There's a story, can't recall where I saw it, about Leonard's time as an advertising copywriter; he'd listen to customers -- in this case people who actually drove the pickup truck being advertised -- and a customer made a comment Leonard wanted to use in the ads, but they wouldn't let him: "You don't wear that sonofabitch out -- you get tired of looking at it and you go buy a new one."  Leonard had an ear for good dialogue right from the start, and he excelled at creating it.  Leonard's ear for dialogue is unsurpassed, and his people -- good guys and bad guys alike -- are so bloody interesting that you have to hang around to see what they do next.  In the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino there's a line that sums up quite a few of Elmore Leonard's characters: "Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have fucked with?  That's me."  That's also a hefty number of Leonard's people, hero and villain, male and female alike.  And unlike so many fictional heroes and villains who seem to have more than a touch of comic book about them, Leonard's people -- from the leads down to the two-line walk-ons -- feel like the kind of people you'd find sitting on the next bar stool.  They feel like people you see every day on the street and you never really notice them unless you cross them somehow.  And Jeez, are they fun to watch.
   If you've not read his novels yet, chances are you've caught some of the films, among them Jackie Brown (from the novel Rum Punch), Get Shorty, Mr Majestyk, Out of Sight, and Hombre.  Good as those movies are, the books are better, fast and lean and often funny and scary at the same time, and never dull, and Leonard brought this off with amazing regularity over a career that spanned nearly 60 years.
   When John D. MacDonald's work began to appear in hardcover, there were several quotes that appeared regularly on the dust jackets.  One was from Gerald Walker, saying that MacDonald "knows everything dangerous that there is to know about people."  Another was from Kurt Vonngut, who said that "To diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."  Both quotes could, I think, be fairly applied to the work of Elmore Leonard as well.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

After Re-Reading Some Stories by Robert Silverberg...

   For a long time science fiction and fantasy lived in the short forms.  These days, novels get the press and the attention, but for quite a few years, sf & fantasy were creatures of the pulp magazines, and most of the prominent writers came out of the magazines.  Out of the short forms.  Many of the writers we regard as the giants in sf began their careers in the short fiction markets.  Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester, C. M. Kornbluth, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Fredric Brown, Philip K. Dick....
   And Robert Silverberg.  After too much time away from his work, I had occasion to revisit some of the short work reissued by Subterranean Press and Open Road.  I hadn't read some of these in nearly twenty years -- they hold up wonderfully, and a number of the stories I revisited are even better than I remembered.
   Silverberg got his start in the 1950s, writing for the pulps, and by his own admission a lot of the earliest work wasn't particularly memorable; but with stories like "Warm Man" and "Road to Nightfall" and others, that began to change, and soon he was a writer to watch.  Silverberg was extraordinarily prolific, producing novels and short stories at an unbelievable pace -- that would mean nothing if the stories were simply forgettable hack work, but consider some of the novels and stories that he published in the 60s and 70s: Thorns, Dying Inside, Downward to the Earth, Up the Line, Hawksbill Station, To Live Again, The Second Trip, The Book of Skulls, "To See the Invisible Man," "Flies," "Schwartz Between the Galaxies," "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame," "Passengers," The Masks of Time, A Time of Changes, Nightwings, "To the Dark Star," "Sundance," "Good News from the Vatican," "Born with the Dead," Tower of Glass, and so many more.  If you're familiar with the sf of the period, you know those titles.
   Silverberg produced some of the darkest gems in all of science fiction.  In "Passengers," the earth has been invaded by aliens; silent and invisible they float among us and for their amusement they ride their helpless human hosts, taking them over and controlling their actions until they weary of them and release them and move on to others.  In "Flies," Silverberg's entry in Harlan Ellison's landmark anthology Dangeorus Visions, an astronaut returns to earth; the victim of a fatal accident in space, he has been revived and reconstructed by aliens who send him back changed, a cold observer with an intense interest in pain.  The Book of Skulls presents four students seeking a cult in the desert southwest, a cult that may hold the secret to immortality -- but only groups of four may begin the path, and immortality is granted to only one; the other three will not survive.  Dying Inside gives us David Selig, whose only real connection to others is his ability to read minds, and his ability is quickly fading.
   Silverberg's output wasn't limited to fiction; he wrote non-fiction as well, including The Realm of Prester John, The Mound Builders, Lost Cities and Vanished Civilizations, and If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem.  NonStop Press has recently published his book of essays Reflections and Refractions and the autobiographical Other Spaces, Other Times.
   For an example of Silverberg at the top of his form, check out the recent ebook edition of Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas and read "Born with the Dead."  It's set in a world in which the dead can be restored to life to walk the world again, keeping to their own society of the revived and remaining aloof from the living; the protagonist has lost his wife -- she has been revived and he will not accept that she is no longer a part of his life, and he begins to intrude into the deads' society, a society that will not suffer intrusion.  "Born with the Dead" was the centerpiece of the special Robert Silverberg issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1974.  It's one of his strongest stories, and once you've read it, you'll want more.
   One nice thing about ebooks is that "more" is easy to come by.  Subterranean Press is in the process of issuing Silverberg's collected short fiction, both in print and in ebook, and the ebook editions of these volumes are very modestly priced.  Most of Silverberg's novels are available as ebooks as well.  Silverberg's body of work, spanning nearly six decades (his most recent book, Tales of Majipoor, was published in May), is one of the most impressive in modern science fiction.
   For a nice appreciation of Silverberg, check out Barry Malzberg's chapter on him in Breakfast in the Ruins (a book well worth the time of any aficionado of sf); in that chapter, Malzberg says that Silverberg's work was proof that you could " ...write science fiction, yes, rigorous, well-plotted, logically extrapolative science fiction but bring to it the full range of modern literary technique....You really could do this stuff to the highest level of literary intent and it would be better science fiction precisely because of that."  Spot on.
   In speaking of Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish wrote that Sturgeon was the finest conscious artist that science fiction ever produced.  If there are other contenders for that title, Robert Silverberg is one of them.  If you haven't read him, pick up the recent ebook edition of Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas, or the Subterranean Press volumes of his collected short fiction, or Dying Inside, or The Book of Skulls, or Downward to the Earth, and enjoy the fruits of one of the great careers in science fiction.

Ebook volumes so far of Silverberg's collected short stories

Sailing to Byzantium: Six Novellas

And in old business:

Earlier posts in this blog noted that Gerald Kersh reissues would be coming from Faber Finds.  Sergeant Nelson of the Guards is available for pre-order in Amazon's US Kindle store, and the short story collections The Best of Gerald Kersh and The Horrible Dummy & Other Stories were listed for pre-order just this morning (Aug 4).  Don't miss 'em.  And don't miss the Kersh titles from Valancourt Books -- Fowlers End, and Nightshade & Damnations.

A number of John D. MacDonald titles that weren't in the initial flood of non-TravisMcGee-series titles this past June will be released as ebooks in January; among them are Cape Fear (aka The Executioners), A Flash of Green, The Neon Jungle, Condominium, and The Last One Left.  There are still a number of MacDonald's books that haven't been ebooked, but at this rate it looks like there's a good chance that all of JDM's titles may be available as ebooks by the end of 2014.

And a brief commercial:  my new short story "Wasps" is in the Amazon Kindle store.  Find it at