It's hard for a science fiction writer to go anywhere
without being asked, at least once, "Where do you get your
crazy ideas?" The number of facetious and/or contemptuous
answers, at least that I'm aware of, is nearing the thousand
mark, and yet it seems to do nothing to discourage the endless
recitation of the question.
Guy Lillian gently suggested that I answer
them here once and for all. I agreed, and suggested he print
400 million copies of the fanzine so he can mail one to every
English-speaking fan and then I'll never have to answer it again.
I'm keeping my end of the bargain. Now
it's up to Guy.
THE SOUL EATER
I hate college. Always have, always will.
But after we got married and I started making a living freelancing,
Carol suggested that since I only needed something like 12 hours
for my degree I go back and get it. (That was more than 40 years
ago. I still need 6 hours, so you can tell how much a degree
means to me.)
Anyway, I enrolled in an English course
at night school. One week we were studying Moby Dick, and I'd
been so busy delivering stories and articles that I didn't have
a chance to read the required pages. But our professor was madly
in love with the book (as I am, these days) and I knew if I got
her talking she'd forget all about asking questions or making
assignments. So I suggested, perhaps five minutes into the class,
that Melville had begged the question, and the book would have
been more interesting if we'd seen what happened to Ahab if,
after a quarter century of megalomania, he'd actually killed
the white while. What would he have done with the rest of his
life, now that his only goal had been achieved?
The ruse worked. She and I argued it for
two hours, and she never did ask me about the section I hadn't
But when I got home I started thinking
about it, and eventually I decided that Melville had indeed missed
a more interesting story, so I wrote The Soul Eater,
about a hunter who is obsessed with killing a creature that lives
in space and feeds on cosmic dust.
It was Carol who pointed out while I was
writing it that it may have used Moby Dick as a jumping-off
point, but by the end it owed at least as much to the legend
of the Flying Dutchman. And it was Dick Geis who concluded that
it was "the damnedest love story" he'd ever read.
BIRTHRIGHT: THE BOOK OF MAN
This book was directly inspired, in an
ass-backwards way, by a movie called Alice's Restaurant.
Had to be the most incredibly boring film we'd seen in years,
and after half an hour of this drivel, I muttered, probably more
to myself than to Carol, "Why am I wasting my time with
this turkey when I could be home doing something interesting,
like writing the history of the human race from now until its
And Carol whispered back, "So let's
go home and get to work."
We walked out of the theater in the middle
of the movie, and that night I plotted Birthright: The
Book of Man, which not only sold here and in a few other
countries, but created the future in which I've set perhaps 25
novels and more than a dozen stories.
Which just goes to show that you take your
inspiration where you can get it.
I spent a couple of years during my starving-writer
days writing a weekly article on the supernatural. I don't believe
in it, of course, but by the time I was done I knew an awful
lot about it.
One night Carol and I had one of our few
major fights (we've had maybe three in 45 years). I stormed out
of the room thinking she was the most evil woman in the Universe
-- and suddenly I had my plot. I went right back in, kissed her,
and thanked her for giving me a novel.
What happens to a world populated exclusively
by covens and Satanists who give sanctuary to a man whose deeds
are far more heinous than Hitler's? What happens to people who
give lip service to Evil when confronted by Evil Incarnate, a
man who tortures and slaughters because the alternative to torturing
and slaughtering never has and never will occur to him?
And just to make it interesting, I had
the planetary government hire an assassin to take him off their
hands before he kills every living thing on the whole planet.
If the assassin can actually get to him, past his layers and
layers of defense, it poses another problem: who is the more
evil -- a man who kills passionately, from compulsion...or a
man who kills coldly and emotionlessly, from calculation?
I get a lot of my ideas from books, plays
and screenplays where I feel the author has missed a better story
than he told.
Like The Elephant Man, for example.
Play (brilliant) or movie (a cut above mediocre), take your choice.
They both got me interested in reading about John Merrick, the
Elephant Man, and I finally came across his autobiography --
and found something so unusual, so aberrant, that they left it
out of both the movie and the play.
It seems that the carnival owner, the man
who knew full well that Merrick was a sensitive and artistic
soul but treated him like an animal for more than a decade, came
by the hospital where Merrick had found sanctuary. He was dead
broke, and asked Merrick to come on tour with him until he could
put together a grubstake. Sir Frederick Treves and all the other
hospital staff assured Merrick he didn't have to go -- and yet
Merrick did go back on exhibition, touring the freak shows of
Europe all summer before returning to the hospital to die.
Now, that's the story that should
have been told. The more I thought about it, the more I kept
wondering: what hidden virtues were in that man to make Merrick
willingly humiliate and endanger himself when he could have refused?
Finally, I decided the only way I could
figure it out was to write the story, and since I'm a science
fiction writer, I created Thaddeus Flint and Sideshow
-- and when I was finished, the grudging affinity between Merrick
and the carny owner finally made sense to me.
It seems to have made sense to a lot of
other people as well. My editor, Sheila Gilbert, asked me to
turn it into a series, and while I was doing so, Signet published
Sideshow in October of 1982. It went through four quick printings
and got universally favorable reviews.
EROS AT ZENITH
EROS AT NADIR
One day in the early 1980s Carol and I
decided to take a vacation up to the Lake Tahoe area. In preparation
for it, I picked up a copy of Nevada Magazine in the
hope of finding an ad for a nice resort. As I was thumbing through
the pages, my attention was caught by a photo of a lovely naked
lady, which on average is just about the very best way to catch
It turned out to be an ad for a limited-edition
silver statue of a lady, leaning against a brass headboard. The
plaque at the base of the statue said that this was Julia Bulette,
who rose from the ranks of the working girls to become the madam
of the biggest whorehouse in Virginia City, Nevada. She donated
large amounts of money -- not bribes and payoffs, since
prostitution was legal -- to the local police and firemen, and
when a cholera epidemic broke out she turned the whorehouse into
a free hospital. It wasn't until after a customer stabbed her
to death that the local ladies decided she wasn't good enough
to be buried in the local cemetery, so they planted her in Boot
Hill, with only the brass headboard of her bed as a tombstone.
How could anyone read that and not want
to write a book about it? So I proposed it to Sheila Gilbert,
my editor at Signet, and she said she wasn't empowered to buy
a mainstream or Western novel about a whorehouse, but she could
buy a science fiction novel about one.
So I started working out stories to tell
about an orbiting brothel called the Velvet Comet, and at some
point Carol suggested that by that point in the far future we
should be all through with sexism and the Comet had better appeal
to both sexes. Furthermore, the cost of flying there
from halfway across the galaxy would be prohibitive, so it made
sense to make it the most luxurious location in existence, and
make is a complete experience: not just a brothel with
the most beautiful and best-trained prostitutes of both sexes
(and a few aliens thrown in), but a two-mile-long shopping mall
which would be the future equivalent of Rodeo Drive, a dozen
five-star restaurants, and a lavish casino. No one would come
to the Comet just for a roll in the hay.
I came up with four stories (the fourth
after it is bankrupt and in drydock), and so I wouldn't feel
I was telling the same thing over and over, I set each one about
fifty years farther up the road, so the only continuing "character"
was the Comet itself.
The Branch came about because I had a broken
chair when I lived in Libertyville, Illinois. I took it in to
get it repaired, and was confronted by a shawl-wearing Orthodox
Jew who got furious at me for some reason -- maybe I was gnawing
on a ham sandwich at the time; I honestly can't remember. At
any rate, he started pointing out how all the non-pious Jews,
of which I was a prime example, would suffer when the true Messiah
I was trying my best to be pleasant, since
he was the only antique furniture repairman I could find in the
phone book, so I suggested that things were looking up for him,
since he was in excellent health and there was doubtless a very
good chance that he'd live to see the Messiah and would he please
give me a receipt for the chair? His eyes widened, his pupils
dilated, and he explained to me that while he planned to live
a long and happy life, he much preferred to be dead before the
Messiah came, for -- and he quoted chapter and verse to me --
the Messiah of the Old Testament was not a prince of peace, but
would come with sword and the fire to destroy civilization before
building his new kingdom in Jerusalem.
And suddenly, instead of mollifying him,
I began questioning him in earnest, and that night I began writing
The Branch, the story of the true Jewish Messiah, who
shows up about half a century from now.
HAZARDS (in progress)
Lucifer Jones was born one evening back
in the late 1970s. I was trading videotapes with a number of
other people -- stores hadn't started renting them yet, and this
was the only way to increase your collection at anything above
a snail's pace -- and one of my correspondents asked for a copy
of She, with Ursula Andress, which happened to be playing
on Cincinnati television.
I looked in my Maltin Guide and
found that She ran 117 minutes. Now, this was back in
the dear dead days when everyone knew that Beta was the better
format, and it just so happened that the longest Beta tape in
existence at the time was two hours. So I realized that I couldn't
just put the tape on and record the movie, commercials and all,
because the tape wasn't long enough. Therefore, like a good correspondent/trader,
I sat down, controls in hand, to record the movie (which I had
never seen before) and edit out the commercials as they showed
About fifteen minutes into the film Carol
entered the video room, absolutely certain from my peals of wild
laughter that I was watching a Marx Brothers festival that I
had neglected to tell her about. Wrong. I was simply watching
one of the more inept films ever made.
And after it was over, I got to thinking:
if they could be that funny by accident, what if somebody took
those same tried-and-true pulp themes and tried to be funny on
So I went to my typewriter -- this was
back in the pre-computer days -- and wrote down the most oft-abused
African stories that one was likely to find in old pulp magazines
and B movies: the elephants' graveyard, Tarzan, lost races, mummies,
white goddesses, slave-trading, what-have-you. When I got up
to twelve, I figured I had enough for a book...but I needed a
Enter Lucifer Jones.
Africa today isn't so much a dark and mysterious
continent as it is an impoverished and hungry one, so I decided
to set the book back in the 1920s, when things were wilder and
most of the romantic legends of the pulps and B movies hadn't
been thoroughly disproved.
Who was the most likely kind of character
to roam to all points of Africa's compass? A missionary.
What was funny about a missionary? Nothing.
So Lucifer became a con man who presented himself as a missionary.
(As he is fond of explaining it, his religion is "a little
something me and God whipped up betwixt ourselves of a Sunday
Now, the stories themselves were easy enough
to plot: just take a traditional pulp tale and stand it on its
ear. (The titles should give you a notion: "The Best Little
Tabernacle in Nairobi", "The Insidious Oriental Dentist",
"The Clubfoot of Notre Dame", "The Island of Annoyed
Souls", and so on.) But anyone could do that: I decided
to add a little texture by having Lucifer narrate the books in
the first person, and to make his language a cross between the
almost-poetry of Trader Horn and the fractured English
of Pogo Possum, and in truth I think there is even more
humor embedded in the language than in the plots.
So far Lucifer has made it through Africa
(Adventures, 1985), Asia (Exploits, 1992),
Europe (Encounters, 1993), and after an eleven-year
hiatus is currently working his way across South America (when
there are enough stories to collect as a book, it'll be Hazards;
Intrigues will take him to the South Pacific and Australia,
just in time for World War II.)
If I could write only one thing for the
rest of my life, it'd be Lucifer Jones stories.
In his finest novella, Space Chantey,
Ray Lafferty wrote the following:
"Will there be a mythology of the
future, they used to ask, after all has become science? Will
high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code?"
It made me realize that I wanted to spend
at least a part of my career creating myths of the future, peopled
with larger-than-life characters possessed of colorful names
and pasts - but I was stuck for a plot for the first one.
Then Carol saw a movie on television one
night, a Sergio Leone film called Duck, You Sucker!
(which is titled A Fistful of Dynamite these days),
promptly rented it, sped ahead to a speech she wanted me to hear,
and made me sit down and listen to it. James Coburn, playing
a disillusioned IRA explosives expert who has been betrayed by
those he trusted most and is now
fighting as a mercenary in Mexico, gives
a short speech about how once he believed in God and country
and freedom and justice and nobility...and now all he believes
in is the dynamite.
"Now go write the book," said
I did, and more than 20 years later it's
still in print.
STALKING THE UNICORN
In America, where the works of J. R. R.
Tolkien have spawned literally hundreds of usually-dreadful imitations,
the term "elf-and-unicorn trilogy" has become a pejorative
among my fellow writers.
And, since I am a contrary kind of guy,
when I finally sat down to write a fantasy novel after more than
a dozen science fiction novels, I decided to write a book that
featured both an elf and a unicorn, but had nothing to do with
Tolkien or with anything else that was currently being written
in the fantasy field.
I decided to set my fantasy in New York
City, which is as bizarre as any mythical kingdom I've ever read
about. My knight-errant is a private detective from "our"
Manhattan, and his quest involves a stolen unicorn.
Since I didn't think the reader would willingly
suspend his disbelief for any great length of time, the entire
story takes place in the course of one evening, between nightfall
and sunrise -- and since fantasies tend to celebrate what is
best and worst in us, I chose to have my story take place on
New Year's Eve, perhaps the finest night of the year for celebration.
There is a great deal of humor and charm
in Stalking the Unicorn, perhaps too much, because for
some critics and readers it obscured the fact that, despite all
the invention and surprises, this is a pretty bleak world that
my detective has entered, certainly different and probably more
interesting than his own world, but just as riddled with the
effects of human frailty. The honorable people in this book are,
alas, no more effective than the honorable people in Mallory's
world; and while the dishonorable people may be charming and
witty and engaging, that does not make them any the less dishonorable.
When Mallory finally confronts his ultimate opponent, a demon
known as the Grundy, he is also confronting the only explanation
that I have for why our world is the way it is.
The book had a couple of printings, and
Mallory has come back half a dozen times at shorter lengths.
One of these days I'll put him in another novel.
Historical sidenote: This is the only title
I've ever changed at editorial request. My original title was
Yes, We Have No Nirvanas. My editor, Beth Meacham, convinced
me that no one under the age of 40 would understand the reference,
and I'm sure she was right -- but I still prefer the original.
THE DARK LADY
We were invited to the wedding of Dick
Smith and Leah Zeldes up in Michigan. I don't remember my function
-- it wasn't Best Man and it wasn't just a member of the audience;
I participated in some very minor way -- and I needed a tux,
and this took place before I owned one.
So the wedding party got my measurements
and thoughtfully rented one for me -- even the shoes.
As we were getting dressed for the wedding
in our hotel room, I realized that while they got the tux right,
they'd messed up the shoes. I wear a 13, and these were about
a 10. And they hurt like hell. I kept trying to find a way to
stand or walk comfortably in them, and I couldn't, and I guess
I started muttering and bitching, and finally Carol said, "Stop
growling at me. I'm not the Dark Lady."
I'd never heard of the Dark Lady before,
and I found the term so evocative that I forgot all about my
shoes and started writing notes on a hotel scratchpad so I wouldn't
forget about it. Turns out it was from Shakespeare -- count on
Carol never to use a mundane reference -- and by the time I got
home I had the book pretty much mapped out.
In 1984, in a security vault deep beneath
the British Museum of Natural History, I was permitted to inspect
the record tusks of the greatest mammal ever to walk the Earth,
an animal known only as the Kilimanjaro Elephant.
Everything about this animal, from his
life to his death, is shrouded in mystery and legend. His ivory
was almost twenty percent heavier than the second-largest recorded
set of tusks; he was a monster even among his own kind. No white
man ever saw him. If any black man saw him during his lifetime,
the fact is not recorded. Historians think, but do not know,
that he died in 1898; they think, but do not know, that he died
on the southeastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro; they think,
but do not know, that he was killed by a runaway slave. And that
is the sum total of their knowledge of this awesome creature.
The moment I first read about the ivory
in the early 1980s I knew there was a story to be told -- many
stories, in fact; as many stories as there were people whose
lives had been touched by the pursuit of the ivory. I became
obsessed by it, and finally outlined a mainstream novel.
Then my agent, Eleanor Wood, always more
level-headed than I, reminded me who and where my audience was,
and suggested that I follow the tusks not just until they were
locked away by the museum in 1937, but out into space over the
next few millennia.
So I did. And got a Nebula nomination here
and a Clarke nomination in England.
I knew after I'd been to Kenya and had
previous read a ton of books about it that I wanted to write
a novel about its history -- which in my case meant an allegorical
science fiction novel. But the history I wanted to cover took
place from about 1890 to the present, and the obvious choice
was a "generations" book. I hate obvious choices, and
besides, the early history was all made by whites and the more
recent history was all made by blacks, and since whites and blacks
don't intermarry in Kenya, I couldn't tell a generations novel
even if I wanted to.
So I put off writing it. Then, on my next
trip to Kenya, a 20-year-old white Kenyan girl that Carol and
I were dining with offered the opinion that Kenya, pleasant as
it was, was probably a much nicer place to visit just before
her birth, when Britain still controlled it and government services
were much more efficient and the poverty was, if not less widespread,
at least less visible.
Perry Mason, our 52-year-old private guide,
who was also at the table, said that no, she was mistaken. He
had been in Kenya since 1952, having come there to fight the
Mau Mau and stayed on to become a white hunter and then a safari
guide, and in his opinion Kenya was probably at its best in the
1940s, the so-called Golden Age of East African hunting, before
all the racial conflict began.
The next night, while visiting with Ian
Hardy, an 80-year-old retired hunter who lived up in the Aberdares
Mountains, the subject came up again. He had arrived in 1935,
and thought Kenya must have been just about perfect a decade
earlier, before the great herds were decimated and the farmers
began fencing off the land and the hired help started getting
notions of independence and equality.
But Karen Blixen had left Kenya in 1931,
mourning the passing of her beloved country, which she felt must
have been pristine and beautiful just before she arrived in 1912.
And, of course, F. C. Selous, Teddy Roosevelt's
white hunter, left Kenya in 1910 because they had already ruined
a once-perfect country.
Later in the trip, I spoke to a couple
of black Africans, one a student and one a minor political office-holder.
Both were sure that Kenya, although it certainly had its problems,
was well on the road to becoming a Utopia.
And finally I had my fictional structure
-- the vision of a receding or forthcoming Golden Age that in
truth never was and never will be.
There are not many authors that I'm addicted
to, but one of them is Robert Ludlum. I love his intricate plots,
and his unique brand of fictional paranoia. In a typical Ludlum
book, by the halfway mark everyone is trying to kill the hero
-- the bad guys, the good guys, his friends, his enemies, his
lover, his family, the government, everyone...and the second
half of the book is a race to find out why before they
can pull it off.
I decided that I wanted to try to bring
that particular form of paranoia to science fiction and see how
it worked. I was looking for a crossover audience, so my future
of 2065 reads a lot more like 1990 with a few bells and whistles
added, so as not to scare that hoped-for readership away. I like
to think I pulled it off. I do know that halfway through the
book only one person in the entire world isn't out to
kill the hero (and pretty soon everyone's out to kill her too).
One day I was being interviewed by some
fanzine editor, and he was asking me who the most lethal character
I ever created was -- Jericho (from Walpurgis III) or
perhaps the Angel (from Santiago)?
I don't remember my answer, but I know
he started me thinking about who the most dangerous person in
a fully-populated galaxy might be, and what skills might he possess?
Would he be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or master his weapons
like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name? Or would he be as brilliant
as one of A. E. van Vogt's mutants or supermen?
And the more I considered it, the more
I kept thinking: wouldn't it be interesting if the most dangerous,
lethal character in the galaxy wasn't a warrior or an assassin
or a genius, but a very frightened little 6-year-old girl?
So I wrote the story.
And by the time I finished Soothsayer,
I knew that I'd never be able to draw anyone more dangerous and
deadly than little Penelope Bailey, whose greatest desire was
to be anyone else.
THE WIDOWMAKER REBORN
THE WIDOWMAKER UNLEASHED
A GATHERING OF WIDOWMAKERS
One night I was in the conference room
at the late lamented GEnie -- there will never again be networks
or conference rooms half as good -- and people were discussing
clones, and stories about clones, and it occurred to me that
I was tired of clones coming off the table (or out of the vat,
or wherever newborn clones come from) and functioning as if they'd
had a lifetime of experience and knowledge.
So the framing device for the first three
Widowmaker books was that the Widowmaker, a top-notch bounty
hunter with scores of kills to his credit, able to defend himself
better than anyone alive at the time, comes down with a disfiguring,
debilitating and eventually fatal disease. And shortly before
it can kill him, he has himself frozen in a cryonics lab/chamber
until such time as they discover a cure for his disease.
But inflation eats away at his principle,
and after a century he's out of money and it looks like they're
going to have to wake him and toss him out -- but then someone
hears that he's still alive and offers enough money to keep him
frozen for a few more years if they'll clone him and send the
clone out to clean up a very hazardous situation.
They no longer have to grow them up from
embryos and babies -- who the hell wants to read about the Widowmaker
wetting his diaper and learning to eat solid foods? -- so the
clone is created as a 22-year-old man with the Widowmaker's physical
gifts, and after a month's intensive training he is as skilled
on offense or defense as the original...but he's not
a 22-year-old man. In terms of emotional maturity and experience,
he's a 2-month-old child in a 22-year-old man's body, and as
such he doesn't fare too well. He falls in love with the first
woman he meets, he believes everything everyone tells him, and
so on...and in the end it proves his undoing.
Well, I couldn't tell the same story twice,
so for the second book I decided that cloning had progressed
to the point where they could imprint all of the original's memories
and experiences on his clone. This clone is the Widowmaker,
cold, crafty, competent, and cunning, possessed of the original's
memories -- but the original has been in cold storage for 106
years, and those memories are a century out of date. Imagine
an Abe Lincoln or a Doc Holliday trying to function in 2006.
For the third book, they developed a cure
for the original, who is an old man and wants nothing more than
to be left alone and tend to his gardening. But the two clones
made hundreds of enemies, enemies the original has never seen
and doesn't recognize, and they all want him dead.
Years later, I thought of another story.
I think everyone assumes that if you could actually meet your
clone you'd get along just fine with him. But when I got to thinking
about it, I had to admit that I never saw siblings that didn't
fight, regardless of their underlying love for each other --
and when you're a trio of the most dangerous killers in the galaxy...
A MIRACLE OF RARE DESIGN
I find the story of Sir Richard Burton
-- the Victorian explorer, not the Elizabethian ex-husband (sorry
about that) -- fascinating. Here was a man who threw himself
into his travels, totally assimilating the exotic cultures he
visited. He was the first Christian to participate in Islamic
services in Mecca, he lived with the Maasai and the Kikuyu, he
and John Henning Speke had a race to discover the source of the
Nile, he translated The Arabian Nights and a number
of erotic Arabian works, he learned the languages and customs
of every group of people he visited, and wherever he went he
always lived like a native.
And each time he came back to England,
he was less and less comfortable as a Victorian gentleman. He'd
seen too much of the world, experienced too much, ever to be
happy in his "own" milieu again. He wound up as the
governor of an almost-unpopulated Caribbean island, translating
works than no one else wanted to read.
And since I found his story fascinating,
I decided to science-fictionalize it and put my own twist on
it. My "Burton" is a man who undergoes cosmetic surgery
to _become_ each of the races he is studying. Each time
he is changed back he is less and less human in his outlook and
interests, until at the end there is nothing human left at all,
just a unique creature that appropriates the most fascinating
features of each race he has temporarily joined.
A HUNGER IN THE SOUL
I think I saw or read one too many heroic
epics about Henry Stanley, intrepid journalist, finding Dr. David
Livingstone in the dark heart of Africa, and I finally lost my
patience with this drivel.
Stanley, Spencer Tracy's saint-like film
portrayal notwithstanding, was not a nice man. He was a glory
hound who wantonly wasted more black lives than just about any
hunter or explorer in African history, and his two major missions
were both unnecessary.
David Livingstone wasn't lost. He was an
explorer and cartographer who knew exactly where he was, and
since he was also a doctor and a tireless campaigner against
slavery, he preferred to stay where could do the most good. (Stanley
may have found him, but Stanley couldn't convince him to come
back to civilization.)
Then, having found a man who wasn't lost,
Stanley went on another mission that cost hundreds of more black
lives, this time to rescue Emir Pasha, a man who didn't want
to be rescued. Since no movie or literary popularization had
ever felt compelled to make even the slightest genuflection toward
the truth, I decided to tell the true story, thinly disguised
as science fiction, in A Hunger in the Soul.
I had always wanted to write a book about
a bar that was frequented by interesting people. Strange, perhaps,
since I don't drink, but whenever I read the tales of Sprague
de Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's Gavagan's Bar, or Larry Niven's
Draco Tavern, or Craig Rice's Joe the Angel's City Hall Bar,
or Ross Spencer's Wallace's, whenever I saw Rick's Cafe Americaine
in film or the Gold Monkey on television (back in the bygone
days when I actually watched television), it made me want to
write about the kind of bar I'd like to hang out in.
And one day I finally decided it was time.
So I populated it with bigger-than-life characters like Catastrophe
Baker and the Reverend Billy Karma and Silicone Carny and the
Cyborg de Milo and Hurricane Smith (and his insectoid bride)
and a bunch of others. Each of them would tell heroic stories
about themselves or some other equally colorful characters, with
obvious embellishments, and there'd be a lot of fun poked at
science fiction, from adventures such as "The Ship Who Purred"
to such observations (this one graciously loaned to me by the
late George Alec Effinger) as "Any sufficiently advanced
technology is indistinguishable from doubletalk".
But along with all that I needed a unifying
theme that made it more than a bunch of humorous tall tales and
parodies held together because of the location. So I divided
it into three sections. Part 1 is Legend, in which these heroes
swap their difficult-to-believe stories at The Outpost while
a war is getting closer and closer; Part 2 is Fact, in which
they have to go out and fight the enemy, and most of them do
not begin to fare as well as the stories in Part 1 would lead
you to anticipate; and Part 3 is History, in which the war is
over and the survivors gather again at the Outpost to exchange
the tales of their adventures in Part 2, embellishing and editing
like crazy, and since they are the survivors, you realize that
of course their accounts will eventually be accepted as history.
The point of the book is not only that history is written by
the winners, as we all know; but also that the best history is
written by the best embellishers and storytellers, and that colorful
history, whether true or false, always forces out uncolorful
history, whether true or false.
This is not my most important science fiction
novel. It is not my best. It was not my best-received. But it
is far and away my favorite science fiction novel. Except for
Lucifer Jones (who isn't really science fiction), I never had
as much fun writing anything in my life.
LARA CROFT: THE AMULET OF
I wrote this because I owed a book to del
Rey from an old contract, and this is the one they wanted. To
this day I have never played any of the Lara Croft games or been
able to sit through a Lara Croft movie all the way to the end
without falling asleep despite Angelina Jolie's 40-inch bustline
and tight t-shirts.
Del Rey had the game-book franchise; someone
else had the movie-book franchise. They told me that the current
game ended with Lara, who was kind of a female Indiana Jones
(only prettier) buried in the rubble beneath the temple at Edfu,
and the next game, which would come out shortly after the novel,
would begin ten months later with Lara showing up alone and disillusioned
in Paris. My job was to get her from the temple to Paris in the
most exciting way.
Well, I've been to Edfu, and indeed I've
been all the hell over Africa (and Paris as well), so I made
it a mystical quest book -- she's after an amulet with supernatural
powers, and, in true Robert Ludlum style, everyone wants her
dead. The guys who want the amulet think she has it and keep
trying to kill her; the guys who don't want the amulet to ever
be found think she's on the track of it and keep trying to kill
her; the creatures produced by the amulet don't want her to learn
When all is said and done, the book is actually a Resnick travelogue.
If she sleeps in a hotel or lodge or tented camp and no one tries
to kill her, Carol and I stayed in that hostelry and enjoyed
it; if they put a snake in her bed or threw a knife through the
window, I'm gently suggesting that you not stay there
on your next safari or trip to Paris or the Seychelles. Ditto
with the restaurants: if she enjoys her meal, this is a Resnick-approved
restaurant; if someone tries to poison her or shoot her, I am
suggesting that when you're in that vicinity you give that particular
restaurant a pass.
Hardly classic work, but it was a lot of
LADY WITH AN ALIEN
Watson-Guptill is a high-class outfit that
publishes coffee-table art books and the like. Recently they
realized that their readership was aging, so they decided to
start a line of young adult novels, each about the creation of
a famous painting, to interest the next generation in art.
My agent, Eleanor Wood, heard about it,
and sent them a copy of The Dark Lady, which had recently
won France's biggest prize -- but more to the point, it's narrated
by an alien art critic who is dubbed "Leonardo" by
his human co-workers because they can't pronounce his name.
A couple of weeks later we heard from Watson-Guptill:
they wanted a YA science fiction book about any of Leonardo Da
I had no idea what to write about, so I
began looking through the Leonardo's paintings on the internet,
and suddenly a science fiction story fell right in my lap. Leonardo
created a famous painting titled "Lady With an Ermine"...but
Leo's ermine didn't look like any ermine I've ever seen. So I
wrote Lady With an Alien, which was well-enough received
that I promptly signed for three more YA art novels. Added bonus:
I got a great cover artist for free.
One of the things I've noticed is that
our greatest military men, men like Douglas MacArthur (I'm talking
of skills, not personalities) and George Patton (ditto) and Tommy
Franks (who actually seems like a very nice guy), do not make
history by toeing the company line or thinking in standard patterns.
So when it came time to write a military
book (Starship: Mutiny) I decided to make my protagonist
a thinker rather than a standard hero type. In fact, I think
maybe four shots are fired in the whole damned book, only one
by him, and that one at a target which to this day he cannot
identify. I also think the press is the greatest enemy our military
has had for the past half-century, and I saw no reason to assume
it'll get any better three millennia up the road. My protagonist
is bright enough to use the media to his advantage whenever he
can, but in the end it bites him in the ass, which is only to
For the second book, I came up with a real
conundrum when reading some of Kendell Foster Crossen's old mystery
stories that he wrote under the pseudonym of "M. E. Chaber",
to the effect that even half a century ago the average price
a jewel thief could get from a fence for stolen merchandise was
about five percent of market value. Which gave me an interesting
once you become a pirate, how do you support a starship and crew
on five percent of market value for your plunder? Clearly you
don't - so what do you do? Once I answered that, the
book practically wrote itself.