Friday, April 22, 2011
FFB: HELL'S CARTOGRAPHERS edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss (Harper & Row/Wiedenfield & Nicholson 1975)
Among their collaborative projects in the 1970s, along with most notably the Best SF annual published by Berkley, Briton Brian Aldiss and US world-traveler Harry Harrison co-edited and -published the critical and literary-historical journal SF Horizons, an engaging and contentious magazine that was reprinted in boards by the late '70s so that I could find it at one or another Hawaiian library, and would make it's own even more obscure Friday Book...but among the offshoots of that effort was this anthology of autobiographical and procedural essays by six important writers in the sf field, including the editors themselves. And these essays, in their turn, were at least the seeds of Damon Knight's group memoir The Futurians and Frederik Pohl's personal The Way the Future Was, if not also of the longer or collected memoirs since published by Aldiss and Robert Silverberg.
Writers are rarely averse to producing autobiography at some length or in some format, but this was, I think, the first selection of autobiographical essays by sf writers to be published, at very least by large commercial publishing houses. I'd seen Alfred Bester's first, "My Affair with Science Fiction," for it appeared first in Harrison's anthology, otherwise given to first-publication of fiction, Nova 4 (1974), sadly the last of that fine series, and the paperback edition of which, from Manor Books of all people (and they did an unusually elegant job with it), was the first book I ever gave my father as a birthday gift, to his surprise. Bester, in his usual breezy style, takes us on a quick trip through his early writing experiences (his first published short story is repurposed at submission to win a contest at Thrilling Wonder Stories that Robert Heinlein was considering entering with his first published short story, "Lifeline," till Heinlein noted that selling the same story to Astounding Science Fiction, if he could, would make slightly more money than the contest prize; as Bester elsewhere recalls saying to Heinlein much later, "I won that contest and you made ten dollars more than I did."), how he came along with TWS editor Mort Weisinger when he moved over to DC Comics and worked with other writers on all but Batman "and Rabinowitz" scenarios for a few years, before breaking into radio-drama and nonfiction writing, particularly for Holiday magazine, all the while continuing to publish increasingly sophisticated and adventurous sf and fantasy (and how John Campbell's embrace of Scientology helped chase Bester away from his magazine). Harrison followed a similar path, though he started professionally in comics, and sold his first short story to Damon Knight at Worlds Beyond in 1951; oddly enough, Knight also started professionally as much a visual artist and illustrator as he did writer, with his first professional publication being a cartoon in Amazing Stories in 1940 (among his more notable illustration jobs was for Weird Tales's reprint of Lovecraft's "Herbert West, Reanimator" in the March, 1942 issue, the same one that features Robert Bloch's "Hell on Earth," noted here recently; the HPL story had first appeared in the little magazine Home Brew).
I had read Knight's and Pohl's books previously, so their essays were interesting mostly for the small counterpoints to the longer texts, but hadn't read too much autobiography at that point from the youngest contributor to the book, Robert Silverberg, nor from the only non-Yank contributor, Brian Aldiss, and so Silverberg's journeyman passage through the men's sweat magazines and similar markets rather than comics nor primarily the pulps (though Silverberg would contribute to many of the last of the pulps as that format of magazine faded with the passing of the 1950s, and their children the digest-sized fiction magazines flourished) is a counterpoint, as was Aldiss's early experience of American fiction magazines (in the post-war era, often dumped on the British equivalents of five and dime stores after serving as ballast in cargo ships, and comparable to the influence of American records on the young musicians in Britain of the '50s and '60s) and his career as someone just a bit to the side of the Angry Young Men but like them willing to explore every sort of literature if it looked at all interesting or fruitful, while particularly devoting himself to developing his work in sf...the title of this book echoes that of once Angry Young Man Kingsley Amis's collection of lectures recast as essays, New Maps of Hell, one of the important works of criticism about sf to arise at the turn of the 1960s, along with such collections of critical pieces as Knight's In Search of Wonder and James Blish's The Issue at Hand (and Blish would probably be in this book, but was in the process of dying from cancer and the effects of cancer surgery while it was being prepared; Aldiss notes that Michael Moorcock begged off, as the only requested contributor to do so out of what Aldiss considers excessive modesty...though perhaps insufficiently-cooled anger by the mid-'70s over what had happened to Moorcock's baby New Worlds magazine might also have played a part).
So, a key book in the history as well as about the history of the science fiction field, and good fun as well as touching and startling at times, and consistently illuminating.
For more of today's "forgotten" books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.