“You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled. You are free to hold and express your esthetic opinions of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes. You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish–there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon, and death in the jungles of Venus–but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.”
“Why make so much of it?” MacKinnon protested contemptuously. “You talk as if I had committed a murder–I simply punched a man in the nose for offending me outrageously.”
“I agree with your esthetic judgment of that individual,” the judge continued calmly, “and am personally rather gratified that you took a punch at him–but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. You are a dangerous individual, David MacKinnon, a danger to all of us, for we can not predict what damage you may do next. From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you as mad as the March Hare.”
“You refuse treatment–therefore we withdraw our society from you, we cast you out, we divorce you. To Coventry with you.” He turned to the bailiff. “Take him away.”
From Coventry, by Robert A. Heinlein
The other two looked curiously at me as they left. Once the door was closed behind them I said, “You can’t stop me either, you know.”
“I know that. Mr. Malone, there are no tourists on Anarchaos.”
“There’s me. I’m a tourist.”
“No. Customs at Valhalla reported you carrying a surprising assortment of weapons, for which you had no believable explanation.”
He waited for me to say something, but I had nothing to say. I sat there, and looked at him, and waited.
He grimaced and half turned away, and then turned back to glare at me again; I was beginning to anger him. People get angry at what they don’t understand; they always have.
“You can’t beat these people, Malone. You’re on their ground, playing by their rules.”
“No rules,” I said. “There aren’t any rules here.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“No. This is my first time off Earth.”
“You won’t tell me what it is? Unofficially, I give you my word not to use whatever you tell me.”
“I have nothing to tell you. I’m a tourist.”
He made a quick gesture; anger, bafflement, defeat. “Go on, then,” he said. “Kill yourself.”
“See you later,” I said, as I started for the door.
“No, you won’t,” he said after me. “You’ll never make it back.”
From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark
Sometime in 1961, the editors of a shortlived but influential science fiction fanzine called Xero received from Donald Westlake what can only be described as a polemic.
In this brief pungent tirade, entitled Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You, and in a follow-up he wrote in response to the deluge of outraged, offended, and often just plain curious letters it provoked, Westlake definitively cut his ties to the genre, openly mocking many of its most influential figures at that time, such as John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl, and saying in so many words that science fiction had little to offer an aspiring wordsmith in terms of money or creative expression.
It is still a painful thing to read–painful because it was patently unfair and hurtful to many of his fellow professionals–and because it was devastatingly (if one-sidedly) accurate in its assessment. Westlake had said in print what most of his peers only said in private. The old guard had to be pushed to one side. Things needed to change (and eventually did). But he wouldn’t be the one to change them–he was outta there. That’s what you call making an exit–Westlake had not only left the space ship–he’d blown it up.
Along with his work in the crime genre (and in the ‘sleaze’ genre, which he was not at all eager to take credit for), Westlake had been writing science fiction throughout the 1950’s, often under the sobriquet ‘Curt Clark’ (a rather pointed pun); mainly short stories submitted to an ever-dwindling number of magazines, as the genre (at least in its written form) declined in popularity, due to the the tastes of its primary audience of adolescent boys and young men shifting elsewhere–and as television and cheap paperbacks made the pulps increasingly irrelevant.
But Westlake was part of the generation that had made the ‘Golden Age’ possible–he’d spent much of his youth devouring science fiction stories–as well as mysteries. It’s actually pretty rare to find a science fiction reader and/or author who hasn’t read Edgar Allan Poe and A. Conan Doyle (ancestors to both forms), and the later ‘hardboiled’ school also had a powerful influence. Writers in one genre would often cross over to the other–for one thing, it was damned hard to make a decent living if you only wrote one kind of story.
For another, there were things you could say with science fiction that you couldn’t with mysteries–and vice versa. And often, the two forms were blended with great imagination and creativity–I’d say Isaac Asimov’s two best novels as novels were The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun–set on a future earth, featuring a team of unlikely detectives–the agoraphobe Lige Baley and the robot R. Daneel Olivaw. Asimov was, of course, a noted expert on Sherlock Holmes–and just about any other subject you can name–but this cross-pollination between the two genres had never raised the slightest eyebrow in either circle–the circles, in fact, heavily overlapped.
I don’t think this is true any longer, sadly–though Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory still quotes Sherlock Holmes as readily as Mr. Spock. With few genre magazines to write for, most present-day genre writers have gone down Westlake’s path of specialization, just to survive. The worlds of mystery and science fiction are no longer so easy to travel between, though science fiction and fantasy remain closely linked.
But even back then, most writers who crossed back and forth between the genres were known for one of them–if they were known at all. In his polemic, Westlake referred to Jack Vance as a fellow escapee from science fiction, because he was writing mysteries at that point in time, but that was a misjudgment on Westlake’s part–Vance continued to write mostly science fiction, and is mostly remembered for that. Nobody will ever remember Isaac Asimov as a mystery novelist, or even as a nonfiction writer, in spite of his staggeringly voluminous output of nonfiction.
Nobody will remember Donald E. Westlake (under any name) as a science fiction writer, though truth be told, he found ways to contribute to that field well after he left it. You don’t have to limit yourself, but to a certain extent, you do have to choose–or else posterity will choose for you, decide which stories defined you. Westlake had made his choice–but why did he have to make it so loudly?
The answer many have come up with, with which I partly concur, is that he was intentionally severing his ties to that genre–as long as Campbell and Pohl and all the other lions he’d bearded in their dens were influential, he’d have a much harder time getting any science fiction published after this (according to Lawrence Block, Pohl never forgot or forgave what Westlake said about him). Without the option of getting published in science fiction magazines, and knowing most book publishers in that field paid next to nothing, he could concentrate on writing mysteries. But couldn’t he just quietly stop writing science fiction? Or just write it here and there, as a useful sideline, the way Jack Vance wrote mysteries?
For all Westlake’s avowed contempt, science fiction still held a fascination for him–the unlimited possibilities of the genre have attracted many eminent ‘mainstream’ authors like George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, and Margaret Atwood, after all–but he was wasting valuable time and energy cranking out stories that had to be crafted to appeal to editors whose tastes and ideological eccentricities he increasingly deplored, and it was creating a sort of professional identity crisis. He had to focus his efforts on the mystery field, figure out what he could do there, build a reputation.
He’d be dealing with many tiresome formulaic constraints in that area as well (and would later write about them in terms only slightly less impolitic than the Xero polemic)–but overall, he’d be more free to express himself, and better able to support his growing family. It wouldn’t have been necessary for most writers dealing with this kind of inner conflict to have expressed themselves this way, but it was necessary for him. His agent was aghast that he’d intentionally shut himself off from a whole market, but then again, this was the same agent that later told him not to write a comic crime novel that turned into his first genuine hit.
So this is all prologue, of course–and this will be a two-parter, of course–the first time I’ve ever begun writing a review knowing that I wouldn’t finish it in one installment. But here is where we spy my point, looming in the distance, like a futuristic city on a barbarian plain–in that manifesto he sent to Xero, Westlake wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t sour grapes–that he was having no trouble getting published elsewhere.
He said he’d sold three novels to Random House, and was working on a fourth–only two of which had been published so far–he didn’t name them, but clearly he’s referring to The Mercenaries and Killing Time. The third would be 361, which was published in 1962; the one he’s working on would be Killy. Besides these hardcover mysteries for Random House, there was a completed novel aimed at the paperback market, then being considered by Dell–The Hunter? The lack of a literary biography for Westlake can be irksome at times.
He also mentioned that in a desk drawer he had over twenty-thousand words of a science fiction novel that he thought was good, that would run to over forty-five thousand words if finished, but he would never finish it, because he had nowhere to sell it. He specifically ruled out Ace as a publisher because they didn’t publish books that long–either he was exaggerating, or something changed at Ace, because that’s who did eventually publish it, in 1967–I’m guessing Frederick Pohl didn’t read it. But no doubt, that novel was Anarchaos. Finish it he did, and it’s damned good. But is it a science fiction novel? We’ll talk about that next time.
In his article for Xero, Westlake was dismissive of everything else he’d written in the field–and as a lifelong science fiction fan, having read much of his SF output (you can guess my generation by my refusal to use the hated ‘SciFi’), I am forced to concur. It’s not bad, in the main, it’s just–average. Written to the market, which is what he was complaining about having to do–he sourly described how he’d written one character as a none-too-subtle caricature of John W. Campbell, and Campbell (never known for his sense of humor) had then insisted that character be turned into the hero of the piece.
He didn’t know how to be himself in that genre, and while part of the problem was the genre itself, another part, as Avram Davidson suggested in his response to Westlake’s polemic, was that Westlake was a mystery writer who had just wandered into science fiction by mistake.
In his response to the responses, Westlake didn’t take offense to that at all–he thought it was a fair point. He also said he’d given up Perry Mason for science fiction when he was fourteen years old. He wasn’t in it just for the money (nobody with any sense ever went into print SF for money). When he decided to be a full-time professional writer, his intention had been to write primarily science fiction, with mystery and crime fiction being the sideline. This had been an affair of the heart, and it was ending badly, as they so often do.
I think the deeper problem was that he was a novelist who’d started out writing short stories. His early shorts in the mystery genre aren’t that impressive either, and well he knew it. But his early novels in that genre are remarkably good. Westlake realized more and more as he went on that he needed room to run, to explore an idea, create a world, build his characters. It was easier for him to do this in the mystery genre, which was publishing a lot more novels, and paying a lot more for them. Westlake also wanted to write more about people than about ideas–science fiction tends to put ideas over people, though some authors in that genre have managed to do justice to both–very few were doing this at the start of the 1960’s–many more would be by the end of that decade.
He said the kind of book he’d like to write would be about somebody who (let’s say) suddenly found out he had the power to teleport, and instead of feeling empowered by this, would be frightened and confused; have a hard time figuring out how to make it work for him (he wrote a version of that book much later, only it was about a burglar who accidentally became invisible). Emphasize the personal over the fantastical. Inner space over outer space.
But science fiction was most often about being special, unique, above the common herd–small wonder the likes of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would latch onto the conventions of the genre like parasites, use it as a springboard for their puerile empowerment fantasies, not to mention their self-seeking philosophical/religious meanderings. Today’s equivalent would be Orson Scott Card, or whoever writes those ‘Divergent’ books. The Hunger Games is science fiction, even if it’s not marketed as such (because it wouldn’t sell a tenth as well if it was). Telepaths, mutants, secret organizations out to save and/or remake the world, cognoscenti of one kind or other–Westlake referred contemptuously to these types of characters as ‘Psupermen.’
It’s a valid component of the genre–basically that’s a big part of what Frank Herbert’s Dune is–but without anything deeper behind it, it becomes very tiresome and limiting and juvenile (often literally). Writing to the market–and getting swallowed up by it. Herbert wouldn’t have written nearly so many Dune books if his wife hadn’t become seriously ill. And his heirs will never stop publishing more of them, until the vital original ideas of the first are buried under a dungheap of mediocrity and work-for-hire.
(Sidebar: Donald Westlake is not the only person who ever waxed polemical on the subject of science fiction. There’s a reason this is the genre Harlan Ellison is known for.)
So. Let me point out one curious omission from Westlake’s two-part rant on the deficiencies of science fiction–Robert A. Heinlein. Westlake refers to Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and really all the most significant players at the time–all the people who had real influence and power in the field, the grand masters, the established elite (the wild and wacky up-and-comers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg are spared his withering gaze–and indeed, they were a big part of the next wave, that would at least partly invalidate Westlake’s critiques).
But not The Dean. Quite possibly the most influential and enduringly popular SF author of all. How can you write anything about science fiction in this period without mentioning Heinlein? Well, that could be respect–maybe Heinlein meant a bit more to Westlake than the others. Maybe he didn’t want to smash that particular idol.
But for all his remarkable achievements, doesn’t Heinlein embody the failings of science fiction as literature that so aggravated Westlake better than anyone else ever did? His cardboard characterizations, his tendency to pontificate, his unfathomable narcissism (all his heroes are folksy idealized self-images–as bad as Campbell in this regard, if not worse). And let us not forget his racism, which somehow got worse when he tried to address it, as in Farnham’s Freehold.
True, he was able to sell just about anything he wrote (he legendarily sold the very first story he ever submitted for publication–as Isaac Asimov once reminded aspiring writers discouraged by rejection notices, “He was Bob Heinlein. You are only you.”). He was not, like Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury, spending more time writing other things besides science fiction–and he was just about to become more popular than ever, following the publication of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, each appealing strongly to opposite ends of the political spectrum, as they still do today. Maybe Westlake thought mentioning him would weaken his argument that SF was not a commercially viable field for writers, that even the established masters were abandoning. But somehow, I just don’t think that’s it. He could have just said Heinlein was the exception that proved the rule. So what else could it be?
One of Westlake’s earliest published stories saw print in Universe, in 1954 (so written not long after he turned twenty, right around the time he was in the Air Force)–entitled Or Give Me Death, it’s a prime example of how often science fiction veered over into pure fantasy, even in the heyday of the ‘hard’ stuff.
Westlake made fun of this kind of story in his polemic, saying that Ray Bradbury and all the ‘little Bradburys’ (Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) were writing ‘bad bigtime fantasy for television and Playboy’–for The Twilight Zone audience he means–and I’d bet good money he gave himself a swift savage psychic kick in the pants when it came out later how horribly ill Beaumont was. With a bit of fleshing out, this story of Westlake’s could easily have served as the basis for a Twilight Zone script. Except it’s much too conservative for Rod Serling’s tastes.
The story is about a doctor coming into a newspaper editor’s office with a whopper of a tall tale to tell–Patrick Henry, perhaps the most famous ‘Founding Father’ of the U.S. who never became President and was not Benjamin Franklin, had come to him for treatment–still alive, in the 1950’s. He explained his survival as the result of somebody up there having a twisted sense of humor, taking his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech literally. As long as there is liberty, there is no death for Patrick Henry.
But when the doctor met him, he’d been getting sicker and sicker, because liberty is being eroded–by things like Social Security. Nothing wrong with government insurance, but it shouldn’t be mandatory. Any time the state imposes something on the individual, Patrick Henry dies a little more. Personal freedom is being chipped away, a piece at a time, by liberal do-gooders, who Henry perceives as “Tories” (yeah, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?).
The doctor finishes his ripping yarn by saying that Patrick Henry just died. Which means liberty itself is dead. The editor says this is nonsense, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, and he’ll publish any damn story he wants–and right on cue, in come the men in suits to shut him down, end of story.
Basically it’s a long involved joke with a not very subtle twist ending–you can recognize the outlines of Westlake’s later comic stylings in it–there was never a time when he couldn’t write kvetchy. Patrick Henry says stuff like “I can back up my statements with diseases.” It’s surprisingly well-written–but as a story, it stinks. It’s all one idea, and not a very original one at that–a lot of people were saying this back then. Ayn Rand was getting famous doing this same shtik, only taking it seriously. Of course, Ayn Rand ended up on Social Security and Medicare, which allowed her some measure of dignity and independence in her declining years, but why ruin a good argument with facts?
Now we should bear in mind, reading Westlake’s early science fiction and mystery, that he was intentionally writing to the market–reading what genre magazines were publishing, and aping the conventions he saw–so part of this is him identifying a streak of libertarianism in science fiction, and appealing to it–he thought the editor would buy it, and he was right.
But I think it’s also true that Westlake had a streak of libertarianism–if not downright anarchy–in his nature. He reflexively resented and feared all forms of authority, particularly the kind that can arrest and interrogate you, as had happened to him a short time before he wrote this story. His heroes are rebels against the established order in one way or another–sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident, sometimes by nature (like Parker)–but they are never well-oiled cogs in a machine. They resist–they get out of step–they go their own way. Or if they don’t, things turn out very badly for them.
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Says the guy who managed to avoid having a job with a boss for most of his adult life. But of course, that’s what made him angriest about science fiction–that it couldn’t support him–so many of its practitioners had to take day jobs. Frederick Pohl worked in advertising–he and Cyril Kornbluth turned that experience into The Space Merchants. I’ve got a copy somewhere. Fact is, Pohl distrusted authority as well. It’s something that unites many who wrote science fiction–but in most cases, I wouldn’t call it a dislike of authority in general–rather a desire to be in authority–to reshape the world in their own idealized self-images–or, if you’re going the dystopian route, to imagine your own worst-case scenario, and give it flesh. Oh Brave New World!
Heinlein was a prime example of this, but also a confusing one. He had been very liberal in his early days as a writer–but after his second wife died, he married a third and final wife (now that does sound familiar), and it’s generally believed that she pulled him well to the right in his thinking (though not with regards to sexual morality, one area in which Heinlein would never conform to anyone’s expectations). Only a few years after Westlake’s Patrick Henry story came out, Heinlein founded a small Patrick Henry League–and called on Americans who felt as he did to found more chapters across the country. This was in response to groups pushing for nuclear disarmament, which Heinlein vehemently opposed. So again, taking “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” a mite too literally.
Westlake would have known all about this–what was his reaction? What did he think of Heinlein? There’s no way in hell he hadn’t read most or all of Heinlein’s work, discussed it with peers, debated Heinlein’s controversial views. His politics, such as they were, were also a mix of liberal and conservative and libertarian ideas–but he was a lot warier of trying to pontificate about them. He understood the pitfalls, I think, far better than Heinlein did. Politics can become a trap for a writer–he ends up trying to make people fit the ideas, instead of the other way around. Actually, that’s a trap for all of us. And we keep blundering back into it, left and right.
I have the cover for an edition of Heinlein’s story Coventry up top because I think Westlake used it as the model for Anarchaos. And I think that’s why he didn’t mention Heinlein–he freely confessed in his polemic that he’d written to the specific tastes of editors like Campbell and Pohl, but had stoutly defended himself from the charge of copying them, or their styles.
But in this case, he’d written part of a novel, the nucleus of which was somebody else’s novel (novella, really), and that, I believe, is why he refrained from attacking The Dean–not so much out of respect, because a polemic is not respectful–but out of a sense of decency–and discretion. He was taking a far more successful writer’s ideas and turning them inside-out and upside-down, without so much as a by-your-leave–and acknowledging his source would have been risky. You never know what will make a fellow writer sue you for plagiarism. Of course, this means he probably did still think on some level he was going to finish and publish that book.
Coventry is part of the Revolt in 2100 collection of stories, which fits into Heinlein’s Future History continuity, but it stands very well by itself. It was originally published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, in 1940–Heinlein’s liberal period–then expanded and republished in book form in 1953–early in his conservative period, and not long before Westlake published that Patrick Henry story. Wikipedia has an admirable short synopsis here. If you like, you can read the entire story as a PDF. I got my copy of Revolt in 2100 off a table full of used books on 231st St. in The Bronx, just a few years back.
In the introduction to my edition, Henry Kuttner calls Heinlein a ‘romantic idealist’, says that what makes Heinlein a great writer is his understanding of people, and the fact that they are pretty much the same wherever (or whenever) you go. He says you can’t be a good writer without this quality–but Westlake was saying in his polemic that science fiction writers, even the good ones, frequently did not show this quality enough. Their characters were not that well drawn, and were treated more or less as incidental to the story–one thing he particularly hated was the way the protagonist in a story like Coventry (which of course he did not specifically mention) would end up not making much difference to the outcome.
Heinlein and Asimov in particular liked to write stories about social trends, which the main characters would be witness to, but not seriously impact in any way. I assume they’d defend this by saying this is how history really works–the individual, with the exception of a few Great Men of Vision (Valentine Smith, Hari Seldon) can’t make much impact on history–true enough, but Westlake would say that he or she can still make an impact on his or her own personal story, which is what the writer should be most concerned with.
Tolstoy writes about people caught up in the turmoils of history, making no great individual impact on it, but he still writes as if every decision they make has profound and eternal consequences, because it’s all our actions combined that make history–not just the great men. And because each human being is of consequence–each of us is a universe unto itself–an identity in the making–or unmaking. And this is something science fiction too often ignored, with its stock characters, and its grand tableaus.
Coventry is aspiring to be more than this, and not quite succeeding. Its protagonist is in a process of self-discovery, but a rather shallow and not terribly moving one. He has a lesson to learn about his proper place in society–he starts out as a not-so-rugged individualist, who doesn’t understand that everything he values is the result of the collective efforts of many who came before–the kind of guy who’d read Ayn Rand and take it seriously–and ends up contemplating joining the secret police patrolling Coventry, to make sure things don’t get too out of hand there.
He isn’t even allowed to be the hero of his own story. Nothing he does makes any difference to the outcome–the only thing that’s changed at the end is his perspective–he’s now willing to be an organization man, a cog in a machine–and how do you think the romantic idealist that was Donald Westlake (and even more so, Richard Stark) felt about that? It’s a fascinating story, and a deeply unsatisfying one. I personally approve of its message–that individuals need to learn the value of social conventions, even when rebelling against them–but to me, it shows the limitations of Heinlein’s approach to storytelling. People go to him for ideas–not for people. His characters are more interesting than John W. Campbell’s ‘Psupermen’, but that’s not saying much.
King Lear was once described as “A magnificent soul trapped in a puerile intellect”–I’d argue Heinlein was the obverse of this. So much intelligence, so little understanding. That’s why ultimately, I turned away from him, looking for deeper expressions of the ideas and stories he helped pioneer, and finding them–in Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Octavia Butler, many others. Science Fiction can and does create vital three-dimensional characters whose personal choices matter, even as they struggle in the context of a much larger picture they can only incrementally change, for better or worse. But maybe I read more crime fiction now, because like Westlake, I’m looking for a smaller story–in which the outlines of the greater stories can still be perceived.
In Anarchaos, somehow those two worlds–science fiction and crime fiction–come together more perfectly than anywhere else. And only Donald Westlake could have done that. And I’ll talk about how he did it in Part 2. After writing almost 5,000 words of a book review and barely even mentioning the book. Let us all collectively roll our eyes, and I’ll see you next week.
17 responses to “Review: Anarchaos”
John Campbell’s assertion that science fiction and mystery were incompatible famously led to Asimov writing “Caves of Steel,” which proved to be the granddaddy of the sub-genre. There are other examples, of course, including “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “The Automatic Detective,” and “Gun With Occasional Music” — though each of those is in its own way a pastiche dressed up in science fiction trappings. Anarchaos seems as genuinely interested in exploring its science fiction ideas as it is in relaying its mystery (perhaps more so), but I’ll save that discussion for next week.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is great science fiction–you couldn’t write that as a mystery set in the present day, without science fiction trappings, and tell the same story. And that’s the rule of thumb–you can blend science fiction with any other genre–western, sword&sorcery, war story, romance, swashbuckler, thriller, and obviously horror–but if you’re not saying something you couldn’t say if you wrote it as a straight western, s&s, war story, romance, swashbuckler, thriller or horror, it’s not really science fiction. You’re just trading in six guns for ray guns, and there’s no point (honestly, I feel this way about Star Wars most of the time, so maybe the point is making an obscene amount of money).
Here’s the question I have to wrestle with next time–is Anarchaos a crime fiction story in a science fiction setting, or a science fiction story with a crime fiction ethos? I have to believe Westlake finished the book and got it published because he realized he couldn’t just take this story and rewrite it as straight noir set in some corrupt city somewhere. He didn’t need most of the trappings–no time travel, no aliens, no robots, no ‘Psupermen’, no astounding technology other than the ability to travel between planets– which he barely bothers to justify–he’d hate my making this comparison, but it’s a bit like Godard’s Lemmy Caution traveling through interstellar space in his Ford Galaxy. I slept through most of that movie, btw. Still better than Made in USA.
He needed an alien world, to create an alien culture–but one that would shed light on aspects of our culture. And his aliens are all humans. Xenobiology held little interest for him. He only wanted to write about humans–the name of a much later novel he wrote, that definitely has a science fiction feel to it, but it’s still mainly about the people (sometimes to its detriment–I think he should have written it mainly from the POV of the demon, taking a page from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters).
Smoke, to my way of thinking, is a much more successful book, because it’s more focused–he took the idea of somebody given a classic science fiction superpower that can be traced back to H.G. Wells, and he goes in a completely different direction with it. And again, it’s hard to say–is this a ‘comic caper’ with a science fiction gimmick, or science fiction with a comic caper ethos?
One thing that makes me a bit sad–I was right to say the worlds of science fiction and mystery are not as closely linked as they once were. Over 24 hours after I’d published this piece, nobody had clicked on any of the links. Now in some cases, maybe that’s because they (like you) already knew a lot about science fiction. But in most cases, I suspect it’s because they’re mystery readers, and science fiction just isn’t their bag. There used to be a lot more cross-pollination between those two forms.
Let us say, from a purely monetary POV–no doubt at all Westlake made the right choice. You can make a ton of money doing science fiction–but not the real stuff. Not the stuff that matters. Science Fiction is what you write because you have no other alternative to say what you want to say. With few exceptions (this book being one of them), Westlake had alternatives, and took them.
Third reason – I read Anarchaos a LONG time ago and don’t really remember much about it. Amend that to say I don’t remember anything about it….
So not really in a position to comment
Well hey, you don’t need to remember anything about it to comment on Part 1 of this review, because I barely said anything about it–my most spoiler-free review EVER! Though this will not be the case with Part 2.
Do you, in fact, read a lot of mystery and science fiction?
I read a lot of SF while growing up. I still read SF, fantasy, horror, but not much anymore.
The main reason for that is I think that SF stylistically is less virtuoso than mystery. I grew tired of epic fantasy, space operas, vampire horror because the prose itself was very dull, while I’m seeking diversity and subtleness. I’m past that stage where I only pay attention to plot and world building. I better read plotless novel brilliantly written, than the most complicated plot-wise space opera written too simply style-wise.
I find mystery can offer more good stylists than fantastika, and also I began to seek literature about surrounding world. I haven’t stopped believe in something out of our reach, I just wanted more about the now and here.
Interesting how that pattern still holds true–SF still tends to attract a younger readership, but many desert it for mystery (or something else) as they grow older. I’ve never done an SF blog,but of course back when I was reading SF all the time, nobody was doing any blogs at all. No internet. Not a lot of SF writers predicting anything like the internet, either. Funny, that.
It’s true that you find more poetry, more lyricism, more distinct styles, among mystery writers. But Harlan Ellison (who also wrote mysteries) would be one example of a writer strongly identified with SF who has a very distinct and powerful prose style–stronger than most writers identified with mystery. But you’d be hard pressed to name a single major idea in science fiction that he pioneered, though the ones he borrowed he used so well that Hollywood was perpetually plagiarizing him. All in all, you’d have to say Harlan is style over substance, though there is substance there.
Philip K. Dick wrote almost nothing but science fiction, and his reputation seems to grow with every passing year. I think he was ten times the writer Kurt Vonnegut ever was, but it must be said that you have to be willing to put up with a whole lot of imperfect unfinished-feeling books–what you get in return is a bottomless well of ideas, and a truly unique storytelling sensibility.
Ray Bradbury wrote perhaps the most exquisitely haunting prose of any 20th Century American writer–and I realize that’s saying a lot, but he really was that good–at the prose part–at imagery. He never gave much of a damn about getting the science right, and some of his interviews late in life indicate a rather childish intellect–he wanted lower taxes and Mars expeditions–how’s that work?
I truly admire James Tiptree Jr. but he (actually she) is a true enigma. Started writing late in life, under a pseudonym that really did conceal her identity from almost everyone, on purpose. Once he was revealed to be a she, something was lost–she produced some really good work as Alice Sheldon, but it didn’t have quite the same feel to it. You can read all her best stuff in a day. But that would be one interesting day. You might take some time to recover from that day.
Octavia Butler was incredibly great–and incredibly one-note. And why do I keep falling in love with writers who don’t like dogs? At least Shirley Jackson (who wrote genre sometimes) loved them. You read her yet? GREAT writer. Tragedy she and Butler died so young.
So it’s rare you find the complete package in science fiction–style and brains and consistency. You do find that in Donald Westlake, but he only pulled it off in the SF genre that one time. Unless you count Smoke, and I don’t have to worry about that one for quite a long while.
I’d rather read the best science fiction than most mystery fiction, and I’d rather read the very best mystery writers than most SF. The two forms offer distinct pleasures, but at their best, both are about the individual and society, which is why so many writers have done well in both genres. Today, I think both are aimed at narrower tastes. It’s hard for me to believe both haven’t seen their best days already, but I could be wrong.
I must confess, I can’t get much interested in most contemporary mystery or SF. Nearly all my genre fiction reading these days (not including non-genre classics everybody should read before they die) ranges from the 20’s through the 70’s. Except for Westlake, who I read all the way through. Maybe it’s just easier for me to pick out the best writers when there’s some distance between me and them, chronologically speaking. But the undeniable fact is, it takes time to know who’ll stand the test of time.
Neglect not Connie Willis, whose time travel novels represent some of the best work ever produced in the genre. They’re meticulously researched, with tones that vary from grim realism (well, time travel aside) to screwball comedy. Her masterpiece, “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” is a dizzying love letter to P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome. That said, she doesn’t really traffic in science fiction ideas the way Dick did (Three Stigmata broke my brain), but rather she uses a particular science fiction trope (time travel) to examine specific time periods in modern-day (or future-day) context. I greatly admired Spider Robinson as a kid, but his latter-day stuff struck me as somewhat smug and self-satisfied (or maybe it was me who changed). Still, his novel Mindkiller is (as I recall) a first-rate thriller, a compelling mystery, and an insightful (and somewhat prescient) meditation on how we feed our pleasure centers with technology.
It’s been a while since I’ve read any Connie Willis, but I’ll take that recommendation to heart.
If speaking of really good writers who wrote a lot of science fiction, one could also mention Robert Sheckley, Kate Wilhelm, Stanislaw Lem, and (though he can get a bit ponderous in his longer works) Olaf Stapledon–his short novels like Sirius and Odd John are small masterpieces, that examine the very nature and value of higher consciousness, enhanced intelligence.
Damon Knight wrote some fascinating short stories (ever read Backward O Time?), and of course there’s Richard Matheson, who wrote across genres quite often–is My Name is Legend science fiction or horror? Stir of Echoes is a murder mystery, an SF-flavored look at ESP, and a ghost story, all in one. I don’t think Westlake meant to denigrate Matheson’s ability in that polemic–he just felt like Matheson had abandoned SF for the more profitable field of TV and film, and of course most of his work for Hollywood wasn’t SF (though The Incredible Shrinking Man certainly was, and Westlake would have admired that story about hanging onto one’s identity against all odds).
All these writers proved you can have style, create fully fleshed out characters, AND convey complex exciting ideas in a science fiction story.
And so did Westlake, but again–just once. On his own terms.
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I remember letting you know one time that I’d located a Westlake sf story. You’d already read it, but there was one you were still looking for. I can’t recall which, though, and I can’t locate our correspondence. I’ve just acquired another one, entitled Many Years Ago, so I’m letting you know in case it’s the one. But you probably already have it!
Keep up the excellent blogging!
I don’t recall saying I was looking for an SF story, but can’t say I remember a story by that title, either. (Must have been many years ago). I don’t think I have it. But with the exception of Anarchaos, I don’t find most of his SF terribly memorable. Interesting mainly from the standpoint of charting his development as a writer. I mean, he put The Risk Profession in three different anthologies, only one of which was devoted to SF. I have to assume he thought that was one of his most outstanding efforts. Then again, writers don’t always know what their best work is.
The one I had before was about a kid with super-powers. There was a bank robbery, hence a slight overlap with the crime fiction, and it was humorous, but not much sign of the greatness to come. I’ll read this one tonight and get back to you if it’s of interest.
That’s Call Him Nemesis. The Scorpion Fights Crime! It’s got a tinge of comic caper to it, maybe a hint of Jimmy the Kid, but it’s pretty slight stuff. And he knew it. Amazing how he would keep coming back to certain ideas, until he’d figured out how to make them bear fruit.
A brainfart of deafening volume: I didn’t acquire a Westlake story, but, in my carelessness (and because it was only a quid) one by somebody called… Donald Stark. Well, you can see how I made the mistake.
Hey, for all I know that’s yet another pseudonym (reserved for comic noir?), but probably not.
There’s a pretty authoritative bibliography over at the Official Westlake Blog.
Though given his rate of production in the 50’s and 60’s, unlikely there will ever be 100% certainty regarding how many short stories he wrote and published.