|Reviews of Recent Publications|
Chandler on the Scoreboard
There are many myths surrounding A. Bertram Chandler's SF: Chandler made a slow start, he never did well in readers' polls, his SF was pure entertainment, his Rimworld stories were an instant hit, he began writing later in life . . . he was a second rate writer. I am somewhat annoyed for having been seduced by the "slow start" myth myself in an earlier article1, so I have decided to do a little research and give a de-mythologised outline of Chandler's career.
Chandler was born in 1912 in Aldershot, England. He began his career at sea in 1928, aged sixteen, and spent eight years with the Sun Shipping Company before joining the Shore Savill Line. Here he worked his way up to Chief Officer. Thus he had about fifteen years' shipboard experience by the time John W. Campbell met him and asked him to try writing for Astounding. His first story was published in May 1944, and is an amusing (if slight) tale of Venusian spacecraft being mistaken for German U-boats by the Allies and being attacked accordingly. The survivor's flee to Venus where their understandably annoyed leader intones the title's words, "This Means War". Chandler was 32 when he sold this story . . . Terry Dowling was older when he made his first sale, and Arthur C. Clarke was only months off 30 when his first SF was published. Is this "late" in life? Hardly.
The period 1938 to 1946, often referred to as the Golden Age of science fiction, marks the transition of the genre from facile adventure to rather more carefully thought out speculation. Like many of the authors of that time, Chandler brought his own specialist knowledge to SF, and was very popular as a late Golden Age writer. Very popular? The mythology does not support that idea, so bring on the facts. Chandler's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th stories in Astounding came 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st respectively in readers' polls. Moreover, out of his first 20 SF stories in magazines that ran polls, half polled 1st, 2nd or 3rd. Say what you will, this is popularity.
So what were some of his best? His well known "Giant Killer" (Astounding, 10/45) polled 2nd. "Special Knowledge" (Astounding, 2/46) and "Position Line" (New Worlds, #4 1949) both polled first, and both involve the imaginative use of contemporary maritime skills in new environments - in the former, the distant future and in the latter, on Mars. The readers of the time gave heavy weight to technical skill and imagination when voting, and Chandler provided just that.
The 1950's saw nearly 60% of his total short story output, and his average peaked at one sale per fortnight for a couple of years. With such volume one can hardly expect them all to be profound, and the themes did range from serious moral issues to bad puns. "Boomerang" (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, 8/47) is one of the earliest stories to warn of the danger of accidental nuclear war (and the setting was a race between Melbourne and Sydney to land a rocket on the moon!). "Next in Line" (Science Fantasy, SPR 52) is humorously told, yet is a quite chilling allegory on the inability of society to adjust to new technology. "Gateway" (Cosmos, 9/53) is an insight into how brutally pragmatic seamen can be when the safety of their ship is in question. "Familiar Pattern" (Astounding, 1/60) draws parallels between the first contact between aliens and humans (in Bass Strait!) and European colonisation of the Pacific Islands - the readers voted it second. Chandler did have a serious face, even if it wore a grin.
His sense of humour may have lulled less perceptive readers into making facile judgements on his SF - and to be fair, stories written around awful puns such as "Fall of Knight" (Fantastic Universe, 6/58), hardly encourage readers to take him seriously. His inventiveness continued to be popular with readers: Were-aliens ("Frontier of the Dark" : Astounding, 9/52, voted 2nd); missing the last judgement due to being in orbit ("Late": Science Fantasy, 4/55, 4 reprints); motivating soldiers who are the products of artificial wombs ("Motivation": Nebula, 4/58, voted 2nd); the idea that only civilised creatures would hold something captive ("The Cage": Authentic SF, 6/57, 10 reprints).
"To Run The Rim" (Astounding, 1/59) was the first Rimworlds story, yet it polled an unpromising 4th. Chandler liked the setting, however, as it was a galactic parallel with the Pacific Rim, which he was plying with his own ship after basing himself in Sydney in the mid-50's. Similarly, his Commodore Grimes character parallels himself. Another five Rimworlds stories appeared before his first novel, The Rim of Space (Avalon, 1961). Over the next decade his output of novels rose as high as four per year, and although not all these had Rimworlds settings, it is the Rimworlds books that have had the most reprints and translations - eight in the case of The Rim of Space. This is undeniably a measure of success, yet success of a different type to that which Chandler had had in the 40's and 50's. He was now building up an audience for Rimworlds characters and settings, which was rather different to the sort of audience that votes for "leading edge" SF. Is this bad? Even Asimov admits that he writes in the style of his greatest successes, rather than trying to stay at the bleeding edge.
In the last fifteen years of his life Chandler wrote a mixture of Rimworlds SF and Australian historical SF - and combined both in The Anarch Lords (Daw, 1981). In this period he won the Australian fans' Ditmar Award four times out of a record fourteen fiction nominations, won Japan's Seiun Sho Award, was guest of honour at the Chicago World SF Convention and even won an Australian Literature Board Fellowship. He did not receive any Nebula or Hugo nominations, but then these are given for the sort of SF that Chandler was winning readers' polls with in the first decade of his career - before the Hugos or Nebulas began. Even then, such later short SF as "The Bitter Pill" (Vision of Tomorrow, 6/70) was probably good enough for such awards, yet when it was published the fashion was for New Wave styles, as typified by Ellison and Farmer. If Chandler had chosen to write more of such SF, who knows?
Chandler retired from full time seafaring in 1974, with two thirds of his 40 novels and 90% of his 201 short stories already published, and he died in 1984. He was successful as an all-rounder: his SF did well in many polls and was often reprinted, he wrote with innovation and humour, established a large fan following, and sold a body of SF that many full-time authors would envy. So was Chandler second rate? Let me conclude by asking if Riley or Clifton were first rate? Who and Who? Just a couple of early Hugo winners.
FROM SEA TO SHINING STAR
A. Bertram Chandler
Cover and Illustrations by Nick Stathopoulos
(Dreamstone, $70.00, 264pp, hc, November 1990)
Reviewed by Dave Luckett
Good; But Good Enough?
Dreamstone's first book is a good, relaxed read. If you have read much of A. Bertram Chandler's writing you will know what to expect, because this collection is all in the same vein. The writing is comfortable, like an old leather chair, a little sardonic and mildly inventive. Perhaps one of the delights of this book is that it is fair to average quality Golden Age writing.
This collection of stories is a reminder that Chandler was one of the lesser stars of the Golden Age of the 1950's. Of the reprinted stories, the earliest appeared in Weird Tales in 1947, and a good many of the rest appeared in the best of the magazines of the 1950's. The emphasis is on telling a story as entertainingly as possible; sometimes there is also a moral point of some kind, but generally that is secondary to pleasing the reader with the art of putting together a good story. At times you can almost see Chandler entertaining himself with constructing the stories (perhaps most clearly in the four "The Log" stories towards the beginning of the collection), but at other times his art is less visible (as in, perhaps, "The Hairy Parents").
The stories fall into two sections, as the title suggests. The first third or so of the collection, "From Sea . . .", contains stories set mainly on this planet, while the second two thirds, ". . . To Shining Star", are space-faring stories. A great many of the stories are really, however, seafaring ones with all the lore of the sea and Chandler's experience in the merchant marine finding expression. Some stories deal directly with the experience of travelling at sea or in space, others tell stories about the people who travel, either on their journeys or once they arrive. I enjoyed the stories in the "From Sea . . ." section more, as they told me a lot about the sea, and in them Chandler seemed just a little more at home than in the later stories, in which many of the ideas are more speculative.
One of the problems with the speculation in many of the later stories is that they are now so obviously dated. There are a couple of stories which involve the first landing on the moon, and they are, by the standards of the reality of 1969, lacking in foresight. This may be because Chandler's view of space travel was that of a seaman, whereas space has been colonised by the aviation industry, and so it has been the test pilots, and not old sea-hardened ship's captains, who have created the culture of space. In these stories there is also the reminder that the view of what people could do and how they related to technological developments was different when Chandler wrote these stories. Here the actions of people are still shaped by earlier ideas where technical innovation was still individual, rather than part of a large web of communications and highly automated and standardised machinery. The relaxed and independent nature of many of the crews in Chandler's ships and space ships also speaks of Chandler's own basically easy going attitude, something which does not appear to have survived into the new era science fiction characterised in the 1970's by Larry Niven, and more recently by the Cyberpunks.
One of the physical features of this book which I initially thought unnecessary was the little piece of tape which you can use to keep your place in the pages. Instead it has turned out to be very useful, because this is not a book that can be read in one sitting. All the stories have the same voice, the same general sense of comfortableness and many repeated themes, so this collection is best digested a little at a time. Pick it up, read a story or two, and then put it aside for tomorrow or a few days hence, when you may feel ready to read a little more of Chandler's prose. You can either work your way through the collection methodically, from beginning to end, or you can use the contents page to pick and choose.
Despite its many fine attributes, this collection is not going to redefine the boundaries of science fiction, become a land mark collection or set new standards in book publication. Chandler was never a great writer, so that while this might be an enjoyable collection, it will not be remembered in a few years time. Perhaps its greatest value is in collecting together some of Chandler's less remembered work, but of course, the fact that these stories have not been reprinted before suggests the level of memorability. There is probably not a story in this collection which many people would want to read more than a couple of times.
The production of the book itself is more than acceptable, in fact it is quite a handsome piece of work. Nick Stathopoulos has provided an excellent dust jacket and a series of black and white interior paintings which add measurably to the interest of this book, but I must say that I was a little disappointed by the standard of the printing, which leaves the dust-jacket seeming a little flat and a couple of the interior paintings less than perfectly reproduced. One feature I found positively annoying was a series of full pages titled "Grimespeak", which contain nothing more than a sentence or two from a Chandler work; they might seem significant to somebody, but to me they appear to be nothing more than a device for filling in the occasional non-facing page which would have been better off left blank.
Overall this is a fine collection of the lesser works of A. Bertram Chandler which will provide readers with a great deal of light entertainment. It is well produced, but I cannot help but wonder if the care which has been put into publishing it has really been worth the effort. Might not a cheaper paperback have done more to make these works accessible to a wider general readership than a highly priced hardcover? Or have the publishers used Chandler's lesser works to provide content for an ambitious publishing project?
Thus, From Sea to Shining Star. Being ancient and loathsome now, I last read Chandler's short fiction in the pulps of long ago. I was twelve or thirteen; the magazines were years old then, some dating from the fifties. I remember I enjoyed those stories. Not as much, perhaps, as those of Mack Reynolds, H. Beam Piper or L. Sprague de Camp, but quite a lot. And then for decades I didn't read any Chandler at all, not until now. As I picked the book up, I vaguely remembered Grimes himself, the Rim, "Spooky" Deane's rapid way with a neat gin, the various threats to the Adder, and the best thing of all: that this was real science fiction. And now . . . Well, have a look at this:
". . . it's a rare woman who can get astronautical technicalities correct. Even spacewomen - pursers and catering officers and such. The Galactic Geographic, as you know, prints a large number of first-hand accounts of this, that and the other - and any contributed by the fair sex have to be very carefully edited."
- from "Seeing Eye"
Okay, sure, this is said by one character to another, and it may not reflect the author's view. Nevertheless, we are being told that in Chandler's far future, the only place for women in space is as "pursers and catering officers and such".
But that isn't all. That quote is a device intended to explain why one character doesn't know details that he should, so as to allow the author to introduce a chunk of exposition. It passed without challenge for the sexism; but even in 1960 it was clumsy. Alas, alas, most of the stories are clumsy. He doesn't show you, he tells you:
"Apart from these discomforts she was not a happy ship. Her people, from the master down, were too dedicated. . . . Grimes was allowed into a conversation only when it was assumed that he would make some contribution to the success of the expedition - and this was not often." - from "The Last Hunt"
He uses stapledons (see last issue), like Bingham in "The Pied Potter". His viewpoint characters observe the unobservable:
"He shook hands with me, affecting not to notice my slight aversion to physical contact." - from "Man Alone".
Even his technical details produce real problems - try working out the real velocity at which the murderer Benson and his victim Hughes would separate from their ship, propelled by a single pistol shot, in "Finishing Touch" - a story that doesn't work in a number of different senses. He puts funny hats on his characters, like Mr. Deane's outstretched pinky. And his prose has an indefinable clunkiness about it. It just doesn't flow as I remember it doing. (This, mark you, is quite separate from the odd jarring notes introduced by the use of the technology of the 1940's and 50's in Chandler's starships. For example, messages are written on slips of paper and sent by pneumatic tube; spacemen navigate by sextant.)
Oh dear, oh dear, the lost innocence of childhood. But is it fair to criticise the old neighbourhood because you moved away and got older? It nurtured you, saw your first steps, was friendly and, once, familiar. Even though you see it as it is, don't you still feel an affection for it?
And I must admit to deep affection for pulp-style, old fashioned space opera like this. Its assurance and optimism comforts me; I can take only so much Turner. Dreamstone have done it proud, too, in a handsome hardcover edition that will become a required purchase for anyone who feels the same. Nick Stathopoulos' illustrations deserve more informed comment than mine. For what it's worth, I think he is superb with light and what might be called technology, less certain with the human figure (though his portrait of Baroness d'Estang, facing page 235, is lovely).
All in all, it's a shame that clichés are so often true. Because it is a sad fact that you can never go home.
Originally appeared in Eidolon 4, March 1991.
Copyright © 1991 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the various authors.