Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

Did it ever occur to you how wantonly destructive some science fiction authors are? I'm not thinking of people like Edmond Hamilton, who used to be nicknamed "World-wrecker Ed" because he used up planets the way some authors use up cigarettes or Micky Spillane blondes, but the ordinary pulp-type authors who like to finish their stories with the hero and heroine clinging to each other amid the ruins of every other element in the plot. The earliest example of this kind of thing I can think of is Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, but there have been all too many lesser instances since. The mad scientist blown up with his laboratory, the man-eating orchid incinerated with the conservatory, the djinn bottle dropped back into the sea, the Secret Formula put in the fire, the strange machine battered to fragments and generally everything reverting to how it was when the story started, except that the author is a few pounds richer.

Well, I can see one reason for this, which is that a nice big bang is an easy way of ending a story. Probably the author, with the wild optimism of his profession (Motto: "After Youd!"), has his eyes on the film rights of his story and realises that a big bang not only looks well in technicolour but wakens up the patrons in time for them to buy ice cream. Thus endearing him to the cinema industry, which nowadays has to fall back on such frozen assets; it is in the Lyons' den with its back to the Walls, as you might say. But I wonder if even this is psychologically sound. I'm sure the reaction of my subconscious to the destruction of Captain Nemo's wonderful palace, with all its treasures and inventions, was that after all that waste things were going to be tough all over and I'd better save my money.

But I think there's more to it than that. I suspect the authors like blowing things up because they don't really approve of science and imagination. For one thing they're so obviously smug about what's happening, right from the start. Most of them belong to what I think of as the "hadibut" school of writing. They keep downing tools and breathing plaintive remarks in your face starting with "Had I but . . . " You can see rightaway that whatever the invention or discovery is, the author is determined that no good shall come of it. Suppose the scientist invents, say, a new can opener. He's hardly started twiddling the rheostats before he's making with the hadibuts. "Had I but known what I do now, I'd never have done what I did." And his fiancée isn't any better, with that confounded feminine intuition of hers: "It is evil, John, evil!" Even the little dog backs away, growling, so that the audience can nod sagely to itself and do their impression of Hilda Baker to each other. Worst of all is the kindly old father with his wise old "There - are - secrets - into -which - Man - is - not - meant -to - pry" routine.

Well, after all this you can pretty well write the rest of the story yourself. The scientist, too drunk with power to heed the warnings of his fiancée, father, dog or the little boys in the front row of the stalls, keeps feeding the super-scientific can opener with bigger and bigger cans until one terrible night it is struck by lightning and runs amok. It starts opening everything, including people. The police are called in, followed in breathless succession by the F.B.I., the Federal Guard and the U.S. Marines, but the machine catches all the shells and bullets in mid air and neatly extracts the contents before they can explode. Finally, the Air Force, on advice from the scientist, drops a hydrogen bomb, which has as you know a dinky little ordinary atomic bomb inside, and that's that. Silhouetted against the mushroom cloud the hero clutches the heroine with one hand and burns the blueprints with the other and after a few further philosophic remarks, the picture fades out in a final clinch and a lingering odour of hadibut. The audience is supposed to feel relieved and a little pleased with itself for having seen the danger quicker than that smart-alick scientist, but speaking personally, I'd rather have seen the bomb land on the hero, heroine, wise old father and dog. I preferred the can opener.

The "Youd" mentioned up there is of course old-time fan Sam Youd, better known nowadays as John (Death of Grass) Christopher. I hear that he's just made another big sale (Caves) to the movie industry, so big in fact that he's been forced to take the Coward's way out from income tax; like Noel, he can no longer afford to stay in England. I suppose this means another regular missing from the weekly gatherings of the London Circle of writers and fans, though for a happier reason. These weekly meetings used to take place in a pub called The White Horse, featured in the popular Arthur Clarke series of stories as The White Hart, but some while ago they followed their popular landlord to The Globe in Hatton Gardens. There, every Thursday night, people professionally or amateurly interested in science fiction meet informally to talk, as they've been doing so for many, many years. Newcomers are always welcome, but occasionally it has happened that they have gone away disgruntled because nobody spoke to them. The trouble was of course, that this is just an ordinary pub and there's no way for the London Circle members to tell science fiction readers from ordinary thirsty citizens.

from Nebula No. 40, May 1959

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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