Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

A few years ago, all the good science fiction stories having already been picked over several times, somebody got the bright idea of reshuffling them and dealing them out again to the public arranged as "idea" anthologies. That is, collections of stories all taking a single theme, like robots or mutations or time travel, and trampling it to death. This having been done to each of the themes in turn, the anthologists now sit nervously on the pile of bodies, gazing dementedly at the retreating public and wondering what to do next to attract their attention.

I have a suggestion. Someone, probably either Sprague de Camp or Vincent Clarke, suggested a long time ago that what science fiction needs is a series character who would do for science fiction what Sherlock Holmes did for the detective story. You see, the trouble with science fiction as far as the general public is concerned is that it requires mental effort. Start off a story with "The sun was setting slowly behind the mesa as a lanky stranger rode up to the Bar 20 ranch" and the reader knows exactly when and where he is. In fact he knows pretty well just what's going to happen—he's just like a child with a favourite story he likes to hear again and again. This is predigested literature. But science fiction is different. Not only does the reader have to learn the names, appearances and characteristics of the protagonists of the story (who may as an additional hazard include aliens with unpronounceable names—and the people to whom much of current science fiction is evidently directed cannot read without saying the words to themselves) but he has to work out where the story is set within a radius of several million light years and when within a range of several thousand heavy ones. When he's got all that clear in his mind he has to familiarise himself with the social set-up, economics, fashions, customs, politics and linguistic peculiarities of the environment in which the author has put them. Then he can start finding out what the technology is and struggle through whatever gobbledygook the author has invented to explain it. Having accomplished all this, the carefree reader plunges into the story—all ten pages of it. As if this wasn't enough, some stories are deliberately obscure. I read about five sf magazines a week and although nobody likes science fiction more than I do (except Forry Ackerman, of course) I must admit I find it hard going to fight my way into yet another story starting off with two pages of italics. And don't forget, I'm a fan. I'm looking jaded but still hopeful, for something the general public doesn't even know exists.

Well, what's the answer. When I was talking to Bradbury in Los Angeles (ahem), good ol' Ray (so who's name-dropping? For all you know he goes around telling everyone he met me!) suggested that all that was needed for the public to take sf to their hearts was for them to become as well acquainted with its conventions as they are with those of the Western. That might be possible as far as Bradbury's stories are concerned—the most important thing about any Bradbury story is Bradbury—but there are all the other authors to think of. There are as many science fiction frames of reference as there are authors: in fact more, because Heinlein is I think the only one who has worked out a consistent future history to place his stories in.

No, it looks as if the reader will always have to learn a new environment for each story. But can't we help him out some other way? Which brings me back to that series character idea. Why not a whole group of series characters, a sort of science fiction stock repertory company? I don't mean that they'd be supposed to be the same people in every story —that would be impossible with the time range to be covered—but though they'd have different names they'd be recognisably the same characters with the same physical appearances and attributes, just as every hotel manager in Hollywood films is Franklin Pangborn. In fact Hollywood has already shown us the way by putting a Brooklyn cook in every spaceship. The reader would only have to learn off these characters once and he'd be able to get a running start at every other story and absorb great gobs of extra sociology without turning a hair. For the basic cast I suggest:

Hero
Normal. Age 30, introvert, technician, lonely, drinks Scotch, overworked, likes jazz and some classics and Gershwin, has doubts about The System but is basically 100 per cent American. May be recognised by monosyllabic name, like Mark or John. (Authors get paid by the word, not the letter.)

Hero, Mark II
With hole in head. More mature, hardbitten, private detective or journalist, cynical but astringently sentimental in last paragraph. Has hole in head with metal plate which makes him either telepathic or immune to deadly alien radiation. In short, same as Mark I, but older and a little tin on top.

Aliens, cuddly—
Nice.

Aliens, slimy—
Nasty.

Scientist, Mad
Found in older stories, but now retired . . . except in stories which are intentionally humorous.

General/Security Officer
Stupid. Hidebound.

Scientist, psychopathological—
New and improved model of
mad scientist. Either has dangerous invention which , he stupidly wants to release to the world or is stupidly preventing hero from developing his.

Heroine, single
Tall, dark, poised, sophisticated. Journalist or secretary. Stows away in spaceships. Always hates hero to start with.

Heroine, married
Small, blonde, pregnant.

And so on. I suggest that as a start all the editors get together and announce they'll refuse to accept any stories that don't use these characters and only these. I venture the opinion that few authors will notice any hardship.

from Nebula No. 25, October 1957

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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