Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday's "Forgotten" Books: BENCHMARKS: GALAXY BOOKSHELF by Algis Budrys (Southern Illinois University Press, 1985)

Here's the shortlist from the 1986 Nonfiction Hugo Award ballot, the "Science Fiction Achievement Award" voted on by the membership of the World SF Conventions:

Benchmarks: Galaxy Bookshelf, Algis Budrys
An Edge In My Voice, Harlan Ellison
Faces Of Fear, Douglas Winter
The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol.1, Perry & Tony Chapdelaine & Geroge Hay (editors)
The Pale Shadow Of Science, Brian Aldiss
Science Made Stupid, Tom Weller

A pretty good year, to say the least, though all of them might qualify as Forgotten, today, even the collection of Ellison essays (largely from Future Life magazine, the companion to the also-folded Starlog) or Winter's interviews with major horror writers, or the probably least-deserving, widest-in-appeal winner of the award, the Weller science-textbook parody.

Benchmarks was a collection of the book-review columns Algis Burdys had written for Galaxy magazine from 1965-1971, for much of the period when Galaxy could make a reasonable claim to have returned to its early-1950s status as the best sf magazine available (particularly if we consider The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and New Worlds as both going beyond sf for their remit in those years, as they did, and multiply Hugo-winning Galaxy companion If as being pitched just a bit younger, more adventure-oriented, and as a landing spot for work not Quite up to editor Frederik Pohl's standards for Galaxy; 1969 successor Ejler Jakobsson was a little less likely to make that distinction between the stablemate magazines, though he did keep the notion that If was more open to borderline fantasy). Budrys took Damon Knight and James Blish's critical articles, particularly Knight's as collected in In Search of Wonder, as his model for his columns, and as Frederik Pohl recalls in his introduction to the book, he wrote them in such a way as to help the reader understand the books under discussion's places in the development of the art of sf, and in the larger world of literature and human approach that when sloppily applied could be dismissed as pompous (Paul Di Filippo has particularly taken delight in doing so on occaion), and Budrys was willing to mock himself for this potential pitfall (he noted that he took this approach in part because he'd failed to note that Knight had done something similar when creating chapters for his collection out of his reviews, more often than in the original reviews themselves), but AB would rarely get lazy (more frequently toward the end of his run at Galaxy and his later run at F&SF as the burden of the respective columns began to weigh upon him). His column reviewing Harry Warner's history of 1940s sf fandom, All Our Yesterdays, and then going on to speculate on how the flashier, more shallow aspects of sf had filtered out to the larger culture, as represented in part by Budrys's experiences on the periphery of the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was his own favorite among these essays, and with's an often brilliantly allusive account of how much our baser desires can trump not only our better judgment but also our necessary empathy. (I took a college course not long after this book was issued, in which we were asked by the instructor to bring in an example of essay we particularly admired, that we found provocative, for the class to read and discuss...the instructor was a freelance writer, who, after reading this column, started to say to me, "I didn't think science fiction writers cared about..." and trailed off, abashed, as she realized that, well, of course they cared about just that sort of thing.)

Budrys's reviews of Harry Kemelman's The Cook and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, A. J. Langguth's Jesus Christs and other idiosyncratic items are as valuable as his takes on Avram Davidson, Dangerous Visions, and the New Worlds school (he could never endorse their perpective on the world, nor fail to appreciate their attempts to expand and enrich the idiom of sf, which was his own project as well). As a former protege of John W. Campbell, he understood his towering influence, even as his interaction with the ex-Futurians (Pohl, Knight, Blish, Judith Merril, the already late C. M. Kornbluth, Richard Wilson, Donald Wollheim, and all) had also been formative in their expansion of what Campbell had done, and rejection of some of what Campbell strove for, through their influential work in the field. He also was of the first self-consious generation of college-graduate sf writers, along with Michael Shaara, Walter Tevis, Robert Sheckley, Philip Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison, among others, many of whom it will be noted made even more of a mark outside sf, or at least outside prose sf, and his consideration of this fact, and its consequences for the field, and reflections in the work of those who followed, were often telling.

Sadly, Benchmarks has been out of print for years, and its announced companion, collecting the F&SF columns which ran in the latter '70s and into the 1980s, has never appeared. However, an e-book of Benchmarks is available in the UK from Orion.

For a fine crop of other "forgotten" books (only one this time egregiously Not forgotten), please see Patti Abbott's blog...and thanks to Barry Malzberg, whose kind unposted comment nudged me into looking at the latenight first draft I had up here and cleaning it up where absolutely necessary...(he also noted that the post-assassination essay struck him as a better assessment of the zeitgeist of '68 than Norman Mailer's famous essays from that year, and so impressed was he that he wrote a fan letter immediately after reading the essay in its original Galaxy appearance; years later, Budrys told Barry that his letter was the only one he'd received about the essay, essentially the only feedback he'd gotten from the audience).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, etc.: Passions of My Youth

Two "forgotten" books:

Alex McNeil: Total Television (Penguin; 4th Edition, 1996)
Len Lyons: 101 Best Jazz Albums (Morrow; 1980)

Alex McNeil's Total Television was one of the two major guides to US television programming offered by the large commercial publishers in the 1980s and '90s...the other is The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, put together by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. The Brooks/Marsh is better for specific dates for regularly-scheduled programming, but rather foolishly completely ignores PBS and other public-broadcasting programming, even while trying to include as much commercial syndication programming as possible (and in later editions, cable shows). The McNeil, while often providing shorter entries and certainly less cast information per most series (it'a nearly a toss-up, however, on soap operas), not only includes the public broadcasting series but also does its best to cover other "dayparts" and the national programming made available in them. It's also better-written and slightly less bumptious. The name of the PBS dramatic anthology series Visions evaded my attempts at recalling it for years before I came across its entry here...and it's a real pity that while the competitor has continued to roll out, it's been more than a decade since McNeil's book has been updated.

Len Lyon's 101 was a book I was already arguing with as soon as I picked it up, as part of the my introductory quartet for the Quality Paperback Club (rip, I believe). Lyons, a jazz critic of some reknown but not quite as widely-hailed as, say, Nat Hentoff or Leonard Feather, did not shy awawy from expressing his opinions, as befits putting together a Best-Of guide, but also seemed to be arguing with himself to remarkable degree, including fusion albums despite not seeming to respect fusion all that much (particularly when he got to his Chuck Mangione selection), and seeming to resent the need to include anything at all by the Brubeck Quarter or, to a lesser extent, the Modern Jazz Quartet, when more space could be devoted to the Miles Davis catalog. (He doesn't rank the albums, but Kind of Blue is clearly given pride of place...along with the Gil Evans Orchestra album Porgy and Bess and Bitches Brew, among others.) Given that he also wishes to highlight the Jazz at Massey Hall concert album (often dubbed the "greatest jazz concert ever" with only a moderate amount of stretching, given the performance by the much-plagued quintet of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell) and other milestones from people ranging from Scott Joplin to Return to Forever, with unsurprising major bowing to the Ellington Orchestra, it's a wonder he doesn't step on himself even more in his attempts to be both comprehensive and true to his own taste (and also to try, as best he could, to restrict himself to only those LPs, in this 1980 book, still in print, or back in print). The book introduced me to Toahiko Akiyoshi and Betty Carter, and that might be enough to allow me to forgive the lack of respct for Messrs. Brubeck and Lewis.


Fairport Convention: Fairport Convention (Polydor 1968)
The Zombies: Zombie Heaven (Big Beat; recorded 1964-69)

So, I was a young jazz fan, and classical and blues and folk fan, keeping my ears open while going through my folks' rather diverse set of records and what I could find at the libraries I frequented, only occasionally going so far as to buy a cheap record (first single: the Brownsville Station's intentionally goofy, proto-pop-punk "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"/"Barefootin'"; first album might just've been the Pickwick Beach Boys anthology, like most Pickwick's cheaply assembled and pressed on barely-stiffened garbage bags, Surfer Girl--other candidates included cutouts of the Count Basie Orchestra's Chairman of the Board and an Audio-Fidelity recording of a no-name orchestra's reading of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Ravel orchestration of course, with a couple of short pieces by Mussourgsky appended without citation [the mark of an attentive label!]).

But I was most passionate about the jazz...even when finally returning to rock by the end of the 1970s, after mostly just hearing what everyone heard in an ambient way, I was drawn both to rawness of the punkish edge and to what I saw as the best employment of jazz influences (along with the vocal harmonies and minor keys of folk-rock). The Byrds satisfied in nearly every way, not least in the jazzy improvisation of much of the Fifth Dimension album ("Eight Miles High," "I See You," and all); the Animals, driven initially by Alan Price's piano and organ work, could thrillingly dig in; and then there were these two slightly geekish bands from Britain, one dead before its time (and having it's biggest hit two years after dissolving), the other producing one of its best albums before losing half the band in the first set of tragedies to befall it, and continuing in some form even today...though it never recovered enough from the loss of Richard Thompson to his brilliant duo/solo career.

More than with any of their subsequent albums, jazz informs the playing on Fairport Convention, even when covering Dylan ("Jack of Diamonds") or evoking him and the San Francisco scene (the brilliant "Don't Worry Ma, It's Only Witchcraft"); covering two Joni Mitchell songs (before she released her own versions, apparently) did nothing to discourage that, as well as showcasing the vocals of the underrated Judy Dyble (Sandy Denny, the doomed vocalist of the next iteration of Fairport, is often rated much more kindly...but she has a rather different approach, Denny's voice more a Spanish guitar to Dyble's autoharp, one of the instruments Dyble plays here).

While the Zombies also did nearly everything you could ask of them, and had a odd name to boot. Private (or, in the UK, public) school kids who never made any pretense of any sort of deprivation, not that they rubbed it in either, the quintet grew up in public with impressive choral chops and another brilliant keyboardist in Rod Argent, and in the three years and change that they recorded only had three big international hits, one of them released against their better (and correct) judgment ("Tell Her No" is one of their weakest recordings). That they packed it in before they were barely in their twenties is reflected in certain qualities of many of their lyrics, some from the perspective of the wounded adolescent ("She's Not There"), others still youngish but given over to bonhomie ("Friends of Mine"). They might have overreached in trying to cover Aretha Franklin (though "Soulville" is game) or Little Richard ("Rip It Up" also fun to hear), but when in their wheelhouse, as with "Remember You" or "This Will Be Our Year" or their recording of "Summertime"...devastating. "Beechwood Park" and "Smokey Day" are two of the most beautiful rock songs yet recorded, "I'll Call You Mine" and "She's Coming Home" among the most exuberant. And they can be damned funny, as well, as when they repurposed "Just Out of Reach" for a commercial for the film Bunny Lake is Missing, entitled in this version "Come on Time" (for the film), among others. "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" deserve every sale they've made over the decades...a real pity that the band Argent, and such other later projects as the quasi-reunion tours, haven't ever able to touch the work they did in the mid-'60s.


I've just started watching/listening to's offer of the tv adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, but so far, so good...(more about youthful passion than a youthful passion of mine, of course). And I like the utterly unforgotten, brand new Community, NBC's sitcom with a fine cast and some solid promise.

As always, check Patti Abbott's blog for more "Forgotten Books" for this week.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Friday's "Forgotten" Book: THE CRAFT OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Reginald Bretnor (Harper & Row, 1976)

From the Contento index:

The Craft of Science Fiction ed. Reginald Bretnor (Harper & Row 0-06-010461-9, 1976, 313pp, hc)
ix · Foreword · Reginald Bretnor · fw
3 · SF: The Challenge to the Writer · Reginald Bretnor · ar *
22 · Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come · Poul Anderson · ar *
37 · Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies · Hal Clement · ar *
54 · Rubber Sciences · Norman Spinrad · ar *
73 · Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps · Alan E. Nourse · ar *
89 · Future Writers in a Future World · Theodore Sturgeon · ar *
104 · The Construction of Believable Societies · Jerry Pournelle · ar *
121 · Men on Other Planets · Frank Herbert · ar *
136 · Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences · Katherine MacLean · ar *
161 · Heroes, Heroines, Villains: The Characters in Science Fiction · James Gunn · ar *
178 · The Words in Science Fiction · Larry Niven · ar *
195 · Short Stories and Novelettes · Jack Williamson · ar *
216 · The Science Fiction Novel · John Brunner · ar *
236 · With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image · Harlan Ellison · ar *
292 · The Science Fiction Professional · Frederik Pohl · ar *
313 · Index · Misc. Material · ix

Reginald Bretnor, who often signed his fiction "R. Bretnor" (and his pun stories as "Grendel Briarton"), was by the latter '70s writing decreasingly tolerable fiction, his sustained "Papa Schimmelhorn" series in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction having gone from charming and inventive in the magazine's earliest years to misogynist twaddle, but was nonetheless putting together interesting and valuable compendia of essays, something he'd begun doing a quarter-century before. Since I'm finally getting around to William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, I was reminded of Harlan Ellison's essay in this volume, which like the Goldman goes against the director-worshipping trend and notes that screenwriters have an obligation to give various sorts of image and acting directions, much as stage plays might, to do the job right. Looking at the contents above again, I'm reminded of how many of the best people for the job Bretnor was able to enlist, though of course Jerry Pournelle on Believable Societies has its own sort of amusing irony to it (JP was a post-Korean War Communist who became a quasi-libertarian-of-sorts who has been willing to argue for the virtues of Benito Mussolini, in fiction and otherwise, and has written some of the least believable sf I've attempted, though his collaborations with Larry Niven have averaged a bit better)(he's not a young man, and at last report, he was ailing, so I hope he's feeling better, as well...he's had a pretty various career as a columnist, including as pop-science columnist at Galaxy magazine, at which he's usually been more enjoyable than as a fictioneer).

The paucity of women's contributions to the book, which has of late arisen as a particularly gnawed-over problem with several anthologies, wasn't completely un-notable in 1976, when at least Ursula Le Guin or Joanna Russ might've been invited to contribute (and for all I know, they were), or Pamela Sargent, who was all but making speculation about cloning her personal territory with a series of fairly near-future, well-worked-out stories (Kate Wilhelm horned in soon after with her award-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang [1977])--and Wilhelm has, like Le Guin and Russ, certainly been heard from since in serious nonfiction. But to have an essay from Katherine MacLean is a gift, as she was too long absent from the sf field, after a string of impressive stories in the early '50s (she was, among other things, distracted by a clangorous therapeutic regime that became a religion, which also took much of the attention of several other writers in the field in the early-mid 1950s). The Pohl essay was particularly valuable at that time, and in essence if not quite as much in detail is still (as a historical document of the Life of The Typical SF Writer in 1975, all but unrivalled); the Clement particularly and most of the others have not even lost so much in the details.

Barnes and Noble published a paperback edition with a notably ugly cover in 1977, and if you can look past that, this is still a fine book to have, in either edition.

Please see Patti Abbott's blog, for a roundup of the Forgotten Books of the last several weeks.